Azeri Visit to Karabakh Sparks Row

War of words breaks out as public relations exercise by Baku representatives goes wrong.

Azeri Visit to Karabakh Sparks Row

War of words breaks out as public relations exercise by Baku representatives goes wrong.

Friday, 17 July, 2009

A visit by Azerbaijani officials and cultural leaders to the self-declared state of Nagorno-Karabakh was intended to build ties with its ethnic Armenian rulers, but degenerated into the usual verbal sparring within days.

However, analysts were wrong-footed by an unusually conciliatory statement from Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliev after the trip, in which he appeared sympathetic to some Armenian demands.

Nagorny Karabakh, ruled by Armenians but internationally considered part of Azerbaijan, has been a block to good relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan since Soviet times.

More than a million refugees fled out of both countries before and during the war, which started in 1991 and ended with a ceasefire three years later. Since then, there have been almost no ties between the two neighbouring nations, while Karabakh declared independence unilaterally.

Armenian forces control some 14 per cent of what Azerbaijan considers to be its territory, and exchanges of fire are frequent over the line of control.

The visit to Karabakh, which started on July 3 and was headed by the ambassadors to Moscow of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, was intended to help ease the tensions.

“I want to stress that neither Armenians nor Azeris are going to fly off into space. We must live together, and therefore we need to create contacts, joint ties, create mutual respect between each other,” Polad Bulbuloglu, the Azerbaijan ambassador, told reporters in Karabakh.

But, even before he left the region, he had succeeded in offending the locals by following the terminology used in Azerbaijan to describe Karabakh. He met Bako Sahakian, leader of the self-proclaimed state, but presented it as just a meeting with local civil society figures, outraging political commentator David Babian.

“It is unacceptable that non-constructive statements should be made after a visit, as was done by this Polad Bulbuloglu and his delegates. President Bako Sahakian from the start of the visit held onto the principal of equality of the two sides, stressing that no other format was acceptable, including the so-called possibility of holding talks between two communities,” the commentator said.

“Such meetings are ineffective, since they once more make people angry, instead of creating an atmosphere of trust, as the authors insist.”

The misunderstandings pursued the delegates, who also visited Yerevan and Baku, throughout their journey. On returning to the Azerbaijani capital, one delegate told a local news agency that the Armenian president had told them he understood that Aghdam – a region of Azerbaijan outside Nagorny Karabakh itself which is almost entirely controlled by Armenian forces – was not Armenian land, and that he respected Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

The comments were disowned by a spokesman for the president, and provoked outrage in Yerevan.

“This is an arrogant lie,” President Serzh Sargsian’s spokesman said. “But we are no longer surprised that the Azerbaijani delegates distorted the facts when they returned to Baku, since they always do. The lack of tolerance from Azerbaijani society is clear.”

Similar distrust was sparked in Baku, where the supposed peacemakers found themselves suspected of selling out the interests of their country. Any suggestion that Karabakh is not actually part of Azerbaijan meets fury in Baku, and Akif Nagi, head of the Organisation for the Liberation of Karabakh, suggested that by meeting Sahakian, the delegates were effectively recognising his rule.

“As a result of such meetings the fact of the Armenian seizure of Azerbaijan’s territory retreats into the background. By making a statement… about visiting Karabakh through Azerbaijan’s territory, they present this as if it’s heroism. But if you meet the head of a separatist, puppet regime, and basically recognise his legitimacy, then it is unimportant how you got there,” Nagi said.

He also expressed disquiet that the delegation had included Mikhail Shvidkoy, the head of the Russian Cultural Agency, and appeared to have been initiated in Moscow. “The visit of the so-called Azerbaijan intelligentsia to Karabakh contradicts the interests of Azerbaijan. This visit was conducted at the orders of Russia. Russia is just demonstrating that the Karabakh conflict is completely under its control and that it can make the two sides play by its rules any time it wants,” he said.

Under the circumstances, therefore, it was not surprising that few observers expected positive results from the trip. However, comments from President Aliev to Russian television after the visit suggested a change of heart in Baku, which has previously been uncompromising in its opposition to any recognition of Armenian rights to Azerbaijan’s territory.

“As for the status of Nagorny Karabakh, that is a question of the future. A resolution of its status is not one of the proposals accepted by us and under discussion at the moment,” Aliev told Russia’s RTR television.

“Of course, Azerbaijan will never agree to the independence of Nagorny Karabakh. I think Armenia understands this. Today we must resolve the results of the conflict and secure an end of the occupation. The security of all nationalities in Karabakh must be secured, after which communication must be restored. We understand that Nagorny Karabakh must have a special status, and we see it as being within Azerbaijan.”

Despite Aliev’s uncompromising refusal to countenance independence for the region, those were still remarkably conciliatory remarks by the standards Baku has set since 1991.

“Over the last month there has been a flurry of activity in the Karabakh negotiations: an intense round of diplomacy, the visit of the intellectuals to Karabakh and the first visit by Armenians to Baku in a long time, [and] a more positive tone from many of the political leaders,” said Tom de Waal, an analyst from the NGO Conciliation Resources and an expert in Karabakh’s history.

“President Aliev adopted a more moderate tone than I can remember in an interview on the Karabakh issue. I was struck by the way he said that ‘we understand the concerns of the people of Karabakh’ and that he said that the status of Karabakh is a ‘matter for the future’. Now of course this was an interview to Russian television. I think things will really change only when the presidents say this kind of thing to a domestic audience, but it is a very positive signal.”

Samira Ahmedbeili, Sara Khojoian and Anahit Danielian are IWPR contributors.

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