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Interview: Caucasus Expert On The Armenian-Azerbaijani 'Suicide Pact'

Thomas de Waal: New War In Karabakh Is Unlikelyi
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July 01, 2013
RFE/RL Armenian Service correspondent Sargis Harutyunyan spoke with author Thomas de Waal, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to mark the 10th-anniversary edition of his book "The Black Garden: Armenia And Azerbaijan Through Peace And War." He talked about how the conflict over the ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan has changed over the last decade.
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Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently launched a revised 10th-anniversary edition of his book "The Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War." It's widely considered the best work in English on the conflict around the ethnic-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. To mark the new edition, RFE/RL Azerbaijan Service correspondent Rovshan Gambarov spoke with de Waal about how the situation has changed over the last decade.

RFE/RL: How has the situation regarding Karabakh changed over the last decade?

De Waal: The main thing hasn't changed -- which is the situation of basically post-1994, no war/no peace, as we call it. There is no active fighting, but also no resolution of the conflict. That hasn't changed. A peace still looks further off than ever. People are beginning to talk about the possibility of conflict, which I also discuss in the book.

So, unfortunately, it's entered the phase of just being even more difficult. But the main thing that has changed is the kind of rise of [an] Azerbaijan that has oil and gas power. Azerbaijan is obviously much more powerful than it was when I first researched the book in 2000, 13 years ago. It's a much richer and stronger state, has a bigger presence in the world.

But the paradox is it has got nothing, nothing with regard to Karabakh. It has not recovered any territory; no refugees have gone home. So this has been zero success for Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue.

RFE/RL: And how about for Armenia?

De Waal: Armenia is also a little more stable, maybe, than it was. But obviously, Armenia, the economy is obviously not as good as Azerbaijan's. Better than it was 13 years ago. But I think Armenia has changed the least.

Karabakh itself has changed quite a lot. Everything has been rebuilt and it's very hard to see ruins in Karabakh in the main Armenian settlements, roads, infrastructure. So Karabakh has also changed and also I think -- and this is a worrying aspect -- I think a new reality in Karabakh, it's much harder to see where the former NKO, the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, ends and the [ethnic Armenian] occupied regions [outside of Karabakh] begin. This was much more obvious a few years ago. And this is obviously worrying -- as time goes by, the distinction between Karabakh and the seven regions around it is beginning to blur.
Soldiers train at a military camp in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2012.
Soldiers train at a military camp in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2012.

RFE/RL: Azerbaijan is investing heavily in its military. In fact, its military budget is greater than Armenia's entire state budget. But some people in Armenia argue that a lot of that money is lost to corruption. Does Azerbaijan's military spending worry you?

De Waal: Even if a large proportion, even if half of the money spent on the Azerbaijani military is being stolen or put into someone's pocket, that's still a large amount of money that Azerbaijan is spending on the military. I guess the problem of Azerbaijan is that the Armenians still have two advantages on the military side. They have the terrain; they have the landscape they are defending, which is mountainous, which is always easier to defend than to attack. And they can also buy weapons from Russia at reduced prices; Azerbaijan is also buying weapons from Russia, as you know, but at full price.

So I think the result of this military buildup is that if there were to be some new fighting, I fear that even in a few days the destruction that could be done, on both sides, would be greater than the entire three years of war that we saw in the 1990s. That was very much a low-technology war, and I fear that if there is even a week of war, the cost of the destruction would be absolutely enormous this time.

RFE/RL: And a war would be quite different now as well in the sense that the whole region has changed, wouldn't you agree?

De Waal: Yes, is the short answer. We are talking about two very big armies. We are talking about a much more sensitive region, with Iran to the south, the North Caucasus to the north, Turkey to the west. And we are also talking about the Caspian oil and gas pipelines. Georgia is also a neighbor. Some of the Armenian hawks talk about attacking Azerbaijani oil and gas infrastructure. All of this means this would not be a conflict which would just be about Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Karabakh. It would be a conflict which would involve a wider region. And maybe this, in a sense, is a good thing, because it means there is an interest in the neighborhood in stopping this happening.

RFE/RL: Ever since the conflict, Azerbaijan has pursued a policy that Armenia describes as a "blockade." Essentially, closed borders between the countries. Has this policy been effective?

De Waal: Yes and no. Obviously, it focuses the mind, so to say, of Armenia. You know, it means that they cannot forget this issue. And clearly, it doesn't help the Armenian economy. Although it also benefits a small group of people. In the Armenian economy you can have monopolies over imports and exports.

But I think the big problem really is that there is just no trust between the two sides. I think there is still quite a good agreement possible. I think the Basic Principles [also known as the Madrid Principles, a document agreed to in 2007 and revised in 2009] is still a good foundation for an agreement. I think the two sides could do a deal.

But there is very, very little trust between them. They don't really want to work together. And so I describe the conflict as a "suicide pact." Both sides hurting themselves. Everyone is suffering.

RFE/RL: Tensions between the two countries always seem to be running high. Earlier this year in Azerbaijan, there was an intense campaign of protests and book burnings and media smears aimed at a writer who was writing sympathetically about Armenia. Do you think there is any possibility for reconciliation between these two nations?

De Waal: I always believe there is possibility for reconciliation between these two nations. For the new edition of the book, I spent some time in a village called Khodjurni on the territory of Georgia that has a mixed Armenian and Azerbaijani population. This shows that, outside the conflict zone, anything is possible if you take away these political messages. I definitely believe reconciliation is possible. But, as you say, there was this very unpleasant campaign against Akram Aylisli, a respected Azerbaijani writer who was talking about peace and reconciliation. So that obviously sends a bad message.

Let's wait and see whether this is just a phase in Azerbaijan, if this has to do with Azerbaijani politics, or whether this is a longer-term problem. Because if it is a longer-term problem, then I fear we are in for a very, very long process here. We could be having this conversation in another 10 years or 20 years.

RFE/RL: Writing about Karabakh, with such high emotions around the issue, seems like a really thankless task. Do you expect to come in for a lot of criticism?

De Waal: I think there will be criticism. And I think that is normal, because basically I'm trying to write a kind of third narrative which is not the official Armenian or official Azerbaijani narrative. So, naturally, because I am doing that, I will get criticized. That is normal. I expect that. But I hope that I still have many friends, many professional colleagues in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. And I also have letters of support that people write to me -- so that is also good. People say that "we like what you write, it is helpful." And obviously if I didn't have that support, I wouldn't be happy. So that's, I guess, the good news for me.

RFE/RL: You said you plan to come and present your new edition in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Do you think you will find many people in these countries who will listen to your "third narrative"?

De Waal: There are quite a lot of people who are interested. As I always say, I think everyone has different ideas inside their head. The same person you talk to who expresses aggression toward Armenians or Azerbaijanis later in the conversation starts to remember his Armenian friends or Azerbaijani friends and neighbors. It is not as though everyone has one view. People have different views inside their heads. It is like the weather. If the weather outside is one way, then you feel maybe anti-Armenian or anti-Azerbaijani. But one day the sun will come out and people may feel a bit different.

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