Karabakh: The big debate
Commonspace.eu today publishes the 8th in a series of twenty interviews with key personalities from Nagorno-Karabakh. The interviews give a vivid, even if sombre picture, of the attitude of Armenians and Azerbaijanis from Karabakh whose lives have been deeply affected by the conflict, and whose destiny will be at the heart of any future conflict settlement. Those interviewed sometimes use harsh language. Their opinion is almost inevitably controversial, as are sometimes their biographical notes. However it is through listening to these opinions that a path through the labyrinth that is the Karabakh conflict can be found. A full editorial policy of commonspace.eu is available at the About Us section. The next interview in the series will be with Sergey Ghazaryan, Deputy Chairman of Nagorno Karabakh Republic National Assembly Foreign Affairs Standing Committee.
Interview with Kerim Kerimli
Kerim Kerimli was born in 1963. He graduated from the physics-mathematics oriented boarding school Number 2 in Shusha city. Then he attended journalism and film director courses in 1981-83. He got his major in engineering at the Kirovograd State Technical University in Ukraine. He started his employment career in Shusha and in 1988-90 he worked as chief engineer at the material-technical supply base in Shusha district. He started his journalist work in 1990 as a correspondent of the “Garabagh” newspaper for the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Province of Azerbaijan and border regions with Armenia and then was also appointed director of “Shusha” printing house in 1991 and worked there until the invasion of Shusha on May 8, 1992 by Armenian military forces. From 1992 to 1994 Kerim occupied the position of deputy head of the Executive Power of Shusha city and head of Youth and Sport department in Shusha. In 1994-2000 he was head of department on information, publicity and social problems at the “Garabagh” newspaper and chief editor of “Ganjlik” magazine and “P.S. Ganjlik” newspaper at the Ministry of Youth and Sport of the Republic of Azerbaijan and head of humanitarian department at “Adalat” newspaper. In 2000-2002 he worked as chief editor of “Shusha” newspaper and since then has worked as head of department at “Adalat” newspaper and chief editor of “Ganjlik” newspaper. Kerim Kerimli is a pacifist and has worked as a conflictologist in many peace-building and conflict transformation initiatives by the Azerbaijan National Committee of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, International Alert, Democracy Monitor, Society for Humanitarian Research, HAYAT organization and etc. He is author of several books about the Karabakh conflict and Khojaly massacre. He is holder of several international awards for his journalism work in extreme situations.
Biographical notes are provided by the interviewees themselves.
Can you summarize your overall position on the Karabakh conflict and the conflict resolution process:
Each conflict has certain reasons and pretexts for its start. The main reason that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict started was the groundless territorial claim by Armenia against Azerbaijan, and the plans by Russia to keep Azerbaijan on a leash - this conflict is not only a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As an IDP deported from Nagorno-Karabakh, it doesn't matter to me how the conflict is resolved, the main thing for me is to be able to go back to my homeland.
In the long term do you want to see Nagorno-Karabakh as (a) an independent state, (b) as part of Armenia, (c) as part of Azerbaijan, (d) none of the above but in an as of yet undefined status. Comment on your choice:
(c). Options (a) and (b) are unacceptable - there can be no discussion about these. Regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh we can think about methods for the autonomous management of the region. Nagorno-Karabakh can become a self-governing region with its own elections and a free economic zone, and eventually become a member of the European Union. When I make these suggestions for Nagorno-Karabakh I'm thinking about the whole of the community there - Azerbaijani and Armenian. As for leaving the final status for a later stage, there are some nuances which the international community does not take into consideration when it proposes this. It doesn't understand the underlying motivations for the sides agreeing to let the final status be decided in say another 20 years. On the Azerbaijani side the people hope that in another 20 years they will be more powerful and able to prevent Nagorno-Karabakh from becoming an independent state, whilst the Armenians think that in the long term the injuries and wounds of the war will disappear and Nagorno-Karabakh will easily be able to get its independence. So this solution gives groundless hopes to the people. I would say that it is a cheating of the nations, of the Armenian and Azerbaijani people. As a fifth option, I would say that the best solution is a step-by-step process to resolve the conflict, which takes into consideration the wishes of the different parties. Another important factor which is missing in the region - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh - is democratization, there is no democracy in any of them. Since democracy is lacking here, the people in the region cannot express themselves publicly and directly. Conjecture is impacting everything negatively. If there is not democracy the only way to resolve the conflict will be military means, and of course this is not the wish of all ordinary people but mostly the politicians.
What is your biggest objection/concern to Nagorno-Karabakh being independent or part of Armenia or under some as of yet undetermined status that is not part of Azerbaijan:
The main aim of the IDP community is to return to our homelands, and if Nagorno-Karabakh becomes an independent state we won't be able to go back - our rights in this situation are unclear. As for Nagorno-Karabakh becoming part of Armenia, again there would be no room for us, we would not be able to go back to our homeland. Leaving the status to a later stage is also an unclear situation for us - regarding whether we will be able to go back to our homeland or not - because, according to the Paris Documents and Madrid Principles, it is only after guaranteeing the interim status of Nagorno-Karabakh that IDPs may return there. So for us these three options can be crossed off the list, because if our main goal is to go back to our homeland and this cannot be guaranteed by these options, we cannot be in favor of them. The only option therefore is to keep Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and then we can think about how to return. We didn't leave by choice, we were forcibly removed from our homes by the joint military forces of Armenia and Russia, under guns and cannons in the night - so that is why we have the right to return. Also, if we talk about the coexistence of the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Nagorno-Karabakh there must of course be security guarantees for a peaceful life, and I can't see any such guarantees in these options so they must be crossed out.
Were you directly involved in the armed hostilities between 1989-94? If yes in what capacity?
I would like to make a small correction to your question, as the conflict actually started in February 1988. The protests movements started in 1988, as well as the mass dismissals of Azerbaijani officials from their positions, which were precursors to the conflict. As for my personal participation, at that time I was a regional correspondent for 'Karabakh' newspaper which was based in Baku but covered the news of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions between the border with Armenia. Until Shusha city was attacked and invaded by Armenians, I was the only person reacting to the events of unrest and arriving at the scenes first. I was the first photo-journalist writing about the bombings, the destruction of the buildings and the killing of the people by Armenian and Russian military forces, separatists and criminal groups. Many bridges were also destroyed by Armenian forces, and Azeri journalists targeted and killed. On the 26th February, when the Khojaly massacre of civilians happened, the next morning I was the first photo-journalist to arrive and document the results. Also on the 28Th January 1992, when helicopters carrying civilians were shot down by Armenians over Khankendi, us journalists were the first to arrive at the crash site and we tried to collect the pieces of the bodies - from the surrounding trees, from the walls and other places. So in some sense and to some extent I took part in defending my people and my mother land, but since I was very busy with reporting events, I didn't have time to kill Armenian-Russian soldiers.
How do you evaluate the work of the OSCE Minsk Process?
Up until now this is the most difficult question for me. Frankly speaking the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities should be thankful to the OSCE Minsk Group for living under such relatively peaceful conditions. So of course they deserve our respect for changing the format from war to peace talks. But unfortunately they also deserve quite strong hatred from us because after these 18-19 years they haven't borne any fruits or reached any achievements. Simultaneously therefore I respect them and hate them.
Do you have a publicly expressed position on the Madrid Principles?
We have discussed the Madrid Principles on several occasions, and as principles in general we support the document. Only six paragraphs of the document have been made public, and as far as I know according to my sources, there are actually 11-17 paragraphs and clauses. So we don't know the full content of the Principles. The one clause in the partially public document, which I am interested in, about the return of IDPs to their homeland, concerns me because it is only taken into consideration after all the other clauses. Apart from this point - the late return of IDPs to their homeland - I am satisfied with the other issues.
Do you think that it is important/appropriate that the de facto authorities of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic be part of the peace process facilitated by the Minsk Group? If yes should they be there instead of the Armenian Government?
Unfortunately the previous leadership of the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh were unusal people. In August 1998 I visited Nagorno-Karabakh and spent four days there and traveled throughout the territory, and I spent four days in Yerevan - this visit actually occurred six years, three months and twenty-two days after the invasion of Shusha. At that time we met with the then leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, and I asked him some questions about the Nagorno-Karabakh army. He told we whilst answering the questions, that he could not give me an exact figure of the number of soldiers in their army, since this was a military secret, but that he could tell me about the quality of their army. I will repeat his exact sentence (which he said in Russian): 'The defense forces of Nagorno-Karabakh can give a counter answer to any aggressor, including Russia and Turkey'. He was completely serious. What do you think? Can such a person making such a ridiculous claim be a normal person? And this person pretends to be the President of Nagorno-Karabakh!
The Armenians are always saying that there are three parties in the conflict. But if we are having a war with the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, what is the Armenian Republic in the conflict? And if we are having a war with the Armenian Republic, what is the role of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians in the conflict? To my personal observation and analysis Armenia just wants to annex Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan doesn't want to give it - so the war is going on between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There are also some other parties who are not visible, the Armenian diaspora and Russia for example and some military circles with the intentions to just sell weapons. France also encourages Armenia by recognizing their so called genocide. The US Senate passed an amendment which restricts financial aid to Azerbaijan, despite the fact that Azerbaijan is the victim and Armenia the aggressor. Russia has military bases in Armenia and is always encouraging them by donating huge amounts of munitions. So given these hidden influences, I don't think the direct inclusion of the de facto authorities in the negotiations would make a difference, and if it weren't for these hidden actors I wouldn't object to their inclusion.
I also met with the former Foreign Minister of Armenia when I visited Yerevan, and during the meeting I asked him why Armenia doesn't want live in peaceful coexistence with Azerbaijan and resolve the conflict by peaceful means, and why Armenia doesn't withdraw its groundless territorial claim against Azerbaijan. He said, in his capacity as a government official in charge of foreign affairs, 'that today for the first time Armenia gives up its territorial claims against Azerbaijan' - and this was subsequently published in many newspapers. He continued by saying however that despite this, Armenia would continue to support the decisions and position of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. So Armenia will never agree to any solution without the consent of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, which means that they will continue in their efforts to see Nagorno-Karabakh united with Armenia as this is the will of the community of Nagorno-Karabakh - but this does not include the Azerbaijani community which was also living there - so this is an one sided referendum, which is illegitimate.
Sometimes the possibility is mentioned that the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian control since 1994 should be returned to Azerbaijan as part of an interim peace agreement, leaving the issues of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh to a later date. Do you have an opinion on this issue?
Any step made out of good intentions must be appreciated. All together, our 14 districts and cities are under occupation now - seven outside and seven inside Nagorno-Karabakh. The seven outside only had all Azeri populations (with the exception of a couple of Armenian villages), but the majority of those within Nagorno-Karabakh (five of the seven) had mixed populations, albeit with Armenian majorities - according to a census in April 1989, 65% of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh were Armenian. So this is why the seven adjacent districts must be returned to Azerbaijan without any precondition. At the official peace negotiations the Armenians stress the importance of the seven adjacent regions as a buffer zone, but instead of keeping them as a buffer zone, I would suggest the existence of a demilitarized zone around Nagorno-Karabakh - this would work better. I would suggest the withdrawal of all Armenian and Azerbaijani troops from that so called buffer zone. So then there would be no fear of civilian deaths near the line of contact. The area would also need to be cleared of mines and communication channels opened - then peaceful coexistence would start. Only after this should the status be decided - once time has been allowed for the people to communicate, to exist together, build tolerance and understanding and overcome the stereotypes. After the risk of a new war has been reduced to zero, we can talk about an interim status - we cannot talk about status as long as there is a risk of a new war. It would only take a single pretext to start a new war.
What is your opinion with regards to the role of Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States, the European Union or any other country or international organisation, or the international community in general, with regards to the Karabakh conflict and its settlement:
Comparison between conflicts is always problematic, no two conflicts are every exactly the same, but it can sometimes be useful. Lets look at the conflict in Tajikistan. Despite the fact that the post-Soviet conflict in Tajikistan was tribal not ethnic, when the international actors wanted to settle the conflict between the actors, we saw some positive moves and steps forward. The neighbors around Tajikistan - Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan - and also countries far away, such as the US, came to a common conclusion that it was time to put an end to the conflict. In our case, in my opinion, none of the international actors actually want to bring an end to the conflict and because of this, its being protracted. Generally speaking the people [Azerbaijani and Armenian] are ready for peace, but the governments and the external forces standing behind them are against peace. They actually must come to a common conclusion and then the war will stop. Russia is not interested in conflict resolution. In all international forums France just supports Armenia, it doesn't matter if Armenia is right or wrong. The US has been giving direct financial aid in hundreds of millions of dollars to Nagorno-Karabakh for the last 20 years, and claims it is for the civilians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Personally I support that goodwill, and I do consider it humanitarian aid. But, if this aid is intended for those suffering from the conflict, why don't they also give financial aid to those Azerbaijanis who were forcibly deported from Nagorno-Karabakh and became IDPs? Regarding Iran, on the 8th of May 1992 when the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents went to sign a peace agreement in Iran, the Armenians invaded Shusha at the exact same time. So how can we rely on the sincerity of Iran? Also all of the material from the destroyed houses and infrastructure in the occupied lands were jointly stolen by Iran and the Armenians, and Iran continues to give financial aid to Armenia. Turkey is always making kind statements, saying that they will always support Azerbaijan as brothers, but there is never any real action. So the initiatives from the international community just cause the protraction of the conflict, rather than getting it settled in a decent time-frame. I wish to see genuine efforts from the international community for the resolution of the conflict. If the international community's interests overlapped we would see a resolution of the conflict very soon.
How do you evaluate the role of informal, NGO-level contributions to the peace process? Do you believe that informal contacts have a useful role to play prior to or after a formal agreement?
I am a participant of the NGO-level contributions which seek to make a way to real peace. Over the years we haven't made a distinction between people based on their ethnicity, but by their personalities - that this is a good man and this is a bad man, not this is an Armenian and this an Azerbaijani. So we have established normal human relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In most cases I witnessed that Armenians and Azerbaijanis in these NGO-level interactions respect each other and seek to mutually understand each other. Mostly these people seek peaceful coexistence and understanding. But unfortunately we are very weak, we are a small group and the majority of people who wish to join us don't have the opportunity. Without exception, in both Armenian and Azerbaijani society, there is a lack of stimulus. The hardliners who want a new war are stronger than us - they have money, weapons, power and mafia support, who want to traffic weapons and narcotics. These powerful figures can discredit NGOs in the eyes of our society and the international community, and these figures are flourishing and operating with a full state of impunity. So the members of the international community which are pacifists and want to see peace in the region must support these minority groups which are working for peace - otherwise our wishes will be smothered in the cradle and the conflict will continue to be protracted. Really big efforts have to be made by the NGOs before a formal agreement, otherwise the peace will not be sustainable, and their work should of course continue after the final settlement.
Do you have a position on the desirability or not of free movement of Armenians and Azerbaijanis between their two countries before a final peace agreement?
Its possible and very important. In previous years there have been such mutual communications. I have been to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and many Armenians have come here. Even if these types of initiatives don't offer positive results, they don't produce negative results. I think this is a real chance and opportunity to overcome negative stereotypes about each other.
Do you think that Armenians and Azerbaijanis will ever be able to live together peacefully in Karabakh again in the future?
There is no alternative option. If there is please tell me?
What is your opinion on the issue of return of refugees/IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh?
There are some things which depend on us and others which don't. What doesn't depend on us are the political decisions which depend on the politicians - the signing of the peace agreement, demilitarization, guarantees for security, clearing the land of mines. We [the Azerbaijani IDP community] can actually go back to the lands without government support, but of course for the transition to be conducted in an orderly fashion, we desire that the government conducts the process. Some areas were already liberated when the line of contact moved. In the 22 villages in the Fizuli district which were liberated, the state renovated one room in each house, rebuilt the infrastructure, and each family was given transportation, livestock and 200 Manats, as well as zero-per-cent credit loans. So the people were able to rebuild and restore their lives there. Most of our community is ready to go back.
Read previous interviews in this series:
Benyamin Poghosyan gives an Armenian perspective on the outcome of the present hostilities, exploring four possible scenarios.