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Fears for Azeri-Armenian Citizen Diplomacy

"Everyone knows what we’ve been doing all these years," says Armenian activist involved in joint projects, who is now cited in Azerbaijani "spy" case.
  • Armenian civic activist Laura Baghdasaryan. (Photo: Saro Baghdasaryan)
    Armenian civic activist Laura Baghdasaryan. (Photo: Saro Baghdasaryan)

As the Azerbaijani authorities accuse a journalist involved in cross-border projects of spying for Armenia, NGOs in Yerevan are worried that painstaking efforts to work towards reconciliation through “citizen diplomacy” will be derailed.

Rauf Mirqadirov, an Azerbaijani journalist, was deported from Turkey and arrested on arrival in Baku on April 21. The Azerbaijani prosecution service claimed that Mirqadirov had been spying for Armenia since 2008. His lawyer says he regards the charge as absurd. (See Azerbaijani Journalist Accused of Spying for Armenia.)

Prosecutors say Mirqadirov passed secret information to Laura Baghdasaryan, who heads the Region Research Centre in Yerevan. Baghdasaryan’s organisation has, like a number of NGOs in both countries, been involved in cross-border projects intended to build connections between the two societies.

The idea behind this work, often called “track two diplomacy”, is to foster greater understanding and a more conciliatory approach despite the tensions between the Azerbaijani and Armenian governments, which are technically still at war over Nagorny Karabakh.

Baghdasaryan told IWPR of her shock at the allegations.

“I think everyone in Armenia and Azerbaijan knows what we’ve been doing all these years, since our activities have been open to everyone,” she said. “We have always tried to find ways to connect people in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It came as a complete surprise to me to hear my name cited in connection with grave allegations of treason.”

On April 26, Baghdasaryan and Leyla Yunus, a well-known human rights activist in Azerbaijan, issued a joint statement expressing concern at Mirqadirov’s arrest and calling for his release.

“We are two women – a rights activist and a journalist, both of us mothers – from Azerbaijan and Armenia,” they said. “We have worked together for ten years and stood shoulder to shoulder in the difficult task of creating and strengthening public dialogue between our nations, which have been in a state of war for 20 years.”

Two days later, Yunus and her husband Arif were stopped at Baku airport and taken back to the city to be questioned about the Mirqadirov case. (See Leading Rights Activist Questioned in Azerbaijan.)

This apparent widening of the net in the “espionage case” caused even greater alarm in Yerevan.

“These are people who defend the national and state interests of their country in every possible venue and on all possible platforms,” Larisa Alaverdyan, who heads an Armenian NGO called Against Legal Arbitrariness, told IWPR. “Their only crime is doing this in places where there are Armenians, as well. It is a blow to public diplomacy in our region.”

Sergei Minasyan, deputy director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, described what he thought lay behind the potent allegation of treason in Azerbaijan.

“It’s easier to accuse these people of being Armenian spies than to admit that they’re critics of the government who expose cases of corruption and human rights abuses,” he told IWPR.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have never signed a peace agreement since the Nagorny Karabakh war ended with a ceasefire in 1994. Fatal shootings occur frequently on the “line of contact” around Armenian-controlled Karabakh and across the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border.

Little progress has been made towards a formal settlement, in a long-running talks process mediated by the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which is chaired by France, Russia and the United States.

The Minsk Group has encouraged “track two diplomacy” as a means of easing tensions and exploring ways of moving beyond deadlock.

As Hrant Melik-Shahnazaryan, the editor of Armenian news site Times.am, explained, “The West and Russia have expended serious efforts over many years to create spaces where Azerbaijani and Armenian experts and NGOs could hold conversations.”

“Azerbaijan is basically blocking this as a possibility,” he told IWPR. “After driving the talks process into a dead end, now they are trying to stop any chance of discussion…. The only alternatives are a continuation of the current frozen conflict, or worse still, war.”

For Alaverdyan, a veteran rights activist, the new mood is especially worrying given that NGOs and journalists from Armenia and Azerbaijan were able to maintain contact even at the height of the Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s.

“I’ve been to Baku five times,” she said. “I went there with groups of people from Armenia…. I can’t imagine who would run such projects now.

“In Azerbaijan, they blame Armenians for all bad and annoying things. Of course that’s much simpler than trying to investigate what their own government is doing. I am truly sad about it…. At the end of the day, who doesn’t want to have good neighbours?”

Every year on May 15, close to the anniversary of the Karabakh ceasefire signing, the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan holds an annual conference attended by experts from across the region, including Azerbaijan.

This year, no one from Azerbaijan will attend.

“They have confirmed this,” Minasyan said. “We have worked with Mirqadirov, with the Yunuses and with many other Azerbaijanis.”

Gayane Mkrtchyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com.

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