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Azerbaijan: A Country Committed To Regaining Nagorno-Karabakh

  • Jolyon Naegele

Baku, Azerbaijan, 19 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After years of ethnic killings, war, destruction, military occupation, mass migration and intransigence at the negotiating table, Azerbaijan remains committed to regaining its lost territories -- the former Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region and six surrounding districts.

Just over ten years ago, on February 20, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of mainly ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh called for the transfer of authority over the region from Azerbaijan to Armenia. One week later, ethnic Armenian residents of the Azerbaijani seaside town of Sumgait were subjected to three days (Feb 27-29, 1988) of mass killings and beatings that left 32 people dead, according to Azerbaijani authorities, though far more dead according to ethnic Armenian survivors. That act -- allegedly fomented by the Azerbaijani KGB as retribution for Stepanakert's move to take Karabakh out of Azerbaijan -- touched off more ethnic killings in Armenia and Azerbaijan, leading to a massive flight of refugees in both directions.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated after the August 1991 failed coup attempt, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence, noting that it had only been incorporated into Azerbaijan in Soviet times. The break-away region then fought a three-year war that in the end left some 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory occupied by the ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh Army. The Azerbaijani military defeat led to the fall of Azerbaijan's democratically elected president, Abulfaz Elchibey, and the co-opting of the parliament and government by former Soviet politburo member Heidar Aliyev.

Negotiations on resolving the conflict, co-chaired by the U.S., Russia and France, are at present stalled and unlikely to proceed until a greater degree of political legitimacy has been established in the region. That legitimacy will come, ostensibly, through the March 30 presidential run-off elections in Armenia and the October presidential elections in Azerbaijan, when Aliyev is expected to win handily regardless of how free and democratic the polls are.

Last month, Aliyev fired his foreign minister, Hasan Hasanov, amid accusations of misappropriation of funds. Hasanov was known for his undiplomatic outbursts, such as when he told this reporter five years ago: "The Armenians are a nation of vampires, they suck our blood."

In contrast, Hasanovs newly appointed successor as foreign minister, Tofik Zulfugarov, is a young, polished, circumspect diplomat. In an interview with RFE/RL just days before he was appointed to replace Hasanov, Zulfugarov said Hasanov's departure was in no way linked to the foreign ministry's policy, which he says is under Aliyev's guidance. As a result, Zulfugarov says the personnel change will not influence in any way the process of resolving the Karabakh conflict.

"Azerbaijan supports the principles proposed at the Lisbon summit (in 1996) as a basis for resolving the conflict. The co-chairs proposed a step-by-step approach with the first stage calling for the liberation of parts of the occupied territories, the second stage calling for resolving problems concerning the Shusha district (in Karabakh) and Lachin district (in the corridor between Karabakh and Armenia) and recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh's status within Azerbaijan. I think any problem should be resolved gradually. The attempt to do it by mixing it all together and resolving everything simultaneously does not seem to me to be the best or shortest way to a resolution," Zulfugarov says. He adds that the Azerbaijani side does not exclude the possibility of a package solution, but he advocates a step-by-step approach as more realistic.

Zulfugarov, who until recently served as deputy foreign minister and headed the Azerbaijani delegation to the stalled OSCE-sponsored Minsk Group negotiations, says that for a deal to be struck, confidence has to be built up and emotions have to be put aside.

"In negotiations, very frequently, subjective and emotional or psychological aspects do not really play the main role, the main thing is resolving the problem. I can tell my negotiating partner that in comparison to the previous round he has done well or badly or very well, but that is not so important. The main thing is that the opportunity has been created for resolving the issue we have been empowered to negotiate. One must engage in the talks rationally, without emotion," Zulfugarov says. He also says that while "psychology influences various aspects of the negotiations, it is not the decisive factor."

Some observers in Baku say time is on Azerbaijan's side. They believe that increasing income from Western, Caspian oil-related investments will inevitably enable Azerbaijan to regain its lost military strength. At the same time, they say that Armenia, sorely lacking in foreign investment, could go broke supporting the continued military occupation of the large security zone around Nagorno-Karabakh. But the counter-argument to that scenario is that there is no serious will among Azeris to fight to regain the lost territories, while for Armenians Karabakh remains a vital cause.

Western diplomats in Baku say Azerbaijan is in no position to regain the lost territories militarily. And Azeri government officials argue in favor of a peaceful resolution. Nevertheless, some opposition politicians and activists hold out a military solution as a last resort.

The chairman of President Aliyev's Department for Social Policy, Ali Hasanov, says the leadership is convinced that reason will prevail. In his words, "we do not envision the prospect of war or a resolution of this issue by force."

"We do not think this process will take several more years. We are convinced that justice will prevail with a peaceful resolution," Hasanov says.

But the first deputy chairman of former president Elchibey's Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, parliamentarian Ali Kerimov, offers a bleaker view. He says that four years into a truce, after "Azerbaijan lost some 20,000 dead in the war and lost 20 percent of its territory" with nearly one million refugees and displaced persons, Azeris now face a hardening of Armenia's line.

"Unfortunately, in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in the Armenian community very aggressive forces have become active lately -- of course we are distressed that in Armenia those forces have come to power whom the Armenians themselves call the 'party of war,'" Kerimov says. He is referring to Armenian acting president and presidential candidate Robert Kocharian. Until last year, Kocharian was President of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Kerimov says those now in power in Yerevan and Stepanakert are very strongly linked with what he terms "certain circles in Russia" which he says directly participated in what he terms the "genocide" of the Azeri population of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts. He says "these circles in Russia could resume military operations between Azeris and Armenians"

Kerimov, who is one of just seven opposition parliament members, says he believes there is a real danger of a resumption of war. He says the Azerbaijani government should do everything in its power to protect the country's remaining territory. But he is pessimistic about a resolution being reached any time soon.

"Unfortunately, the international community and international organizations have not found it necessary to point out who the aggressor is and who is being subjected to aggression", Kerimov says, reflecting a widely held view among Azeris that the international community favors the Armenian side in the conflict.

The chairman of the Musavat opposition party, Isa Gambar, a former speaker of parliament, warns that if the international community does not take a stronger stand against Armenia, including imposing sanctions to force Armenia to change its policy, the problem will fester.

"If the international community does not come to such a solution and a resolution to the conflict continues in this spirit, then sooner or later, the view will emerge that might makes right and the Azeri nation will decide that the only way to liberate the occupied territories is by force, and that is not in anyone's interest, neither Azerbaijan's, nor Armenia's, nor in principle, is it in the international community's interest, Gambar says.

Editor in chief Gunduz Tairli of the opposition daily Azadliq says a peaceful resolution is the only solution.

"We remain convinced that it is possible to find a common language with the Armenian side -- mutually beneficial compromises will have to be made. Azerbaijan should grant very high autonomous government to the Armenians while preserving their right to their own police, accompanied by all the attributes of a national, autonomous statehood" Tairli says He adds that the Armenians should make concessions and return the town of Shusha, which is in the heart of Karabakh and just 10 kilometers from its capital, and Lachin which straddles the road between Armenia and Karabakh.

Tairli says the Lachin corridor as well as all the borders between Armenians and Azerbaijanis and between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan could be put under the supervision of international forces. Currently, these territories are all occupied by Karabakh forces which are being financed and supplied by Armenia with Russian backing.

While Armenian and Karabakh leaders hold out the likely prospect of returning most occupied territories outside of Karabakh to Azerbaijan in exchange for security guarantees and the return of Azeri-occupied districts of Nagorno-Karabakh, they rule out ever handing back Shusha or Lachin.

A disabled veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Lt.-Colonel Shakin Tagiev, who was awarded the title "National Hero of Azerbaijan," says he fought hard for Azerbaijan, "liberating numerous towns," and would prefer not to have to fight another war.

"We will win this war in the end. Our authorities speak of a peaceful resolution and I agree with this peaceful road so that no more blood is spilled, so that no more of our people die, no more of our brothers, our fathers, die in this war. I hope we find a peaceful way so our families can return home, but if not we must fight and reclaim our land for the Azeri nation," the disabled war hero says. Yet he adds that he is not so sure there is a sufficient will among Azerbaijanis to fight again.

"That is a very difficult question. 1998 is not 1991 ... but it is desirable to reclaim our land because many boys died, many boys are now invalids. Those now in power do not look at this, and if they do not look after the families of those who were killed, who will fight? There is a 30 percent chance that the boys will snap to, to free the Azeri nation" Tagiev says, adding that the current government lacks the public's respect.

The deputy chairman of the opposition Azerbaijani Liberal Party, Zakir Mamedov, says the "Karabakh problem is not the problem of a single party or just of the leadership of Azerbaijan but rather of the entire nation." Mamedov also says a military solution remains a possibility.

"The process has shown that a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict is not possible. A very long time has passed and the Armenian side has ignored all resolutions and declarations, so we believe that a solution through some documents is nonsense," Mamedov says.

"Why should we be so sure that the Armenian military industrial complex is stronger than Azerbaijan's when the Armenians are not producing any weapons, when they have a smaller population than Azerbaijan? Azerbaijan has always tried to resolve matters peacefully has always made concessions...and has hoped that the international community would look kindly on this. Today I do not perceive Azerbaijan as being impotent," Mamedov says. He adds that "as soon as Azerbaijan stands firm on this issue, then if it is not resolved peacefully, Azerbaijan will be in a position to win back its land by force.