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Armenian President, Azerbaijani Diplomat Trade Words Over Karabakh

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (file photo)

MUNICH, Germany -- A minor kerfuffle broke out between Armenia’s president and an Azerbaijani diplomat during a panel discussion at a high-profile security conference in Germany on February 17 as the two men traded accusations over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The sharp words came during a Munich Security Conference event focusing on nations “in-between Russia and Europe” that featured Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip, EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn, and Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov.

When the panel moved to questions from the audience, a first secretary at the Azerbaijani Embassy in Berlin suggested to Sarkisian that Armenia could have played a role in regional energy and transport projects if not for the standoff over Nagorno-Karabakh.

“If there was no policy of ethnic cleansing of Armenia against Azerbaijan, then probably today, Armenia could have benefitted from those projects,” said the diplomat, Sadi Jafarov, invoking an accusation that Baku frequently levels at Yerevan.

The two neighbors have been locked in a conflict over the region for decades.

Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, declared independence from Azerbaijan during a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Three decades of diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the conflict have brought little progress.

Jafarov also denounced what he called the “occupation” of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia. As Jafarov packed both commentary and questions into his turn at the mic, the host of the panel -- Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy -- intervened in an effort to let Sarkisian reply.

“We don’t have time,” Bremmer said, though Jafarov managed to finish his question.

Sarkisian thanked Jafarov for the question before saying that Azerbaijani’s leadership needed to “sober up” and “give up on their unrealistic expectations” concerning Nagorno-Karabakh.

“You want to live freely. I assure you, the people of Karabakh want to live freely, too,” Sarkisian said. “They want to live in their historical land.”

He defended a 1991 referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh to secede from Azerbaijan as a “civilized” and legitimate expression of popular will, adding that no one can “break the will of the Armenian people.”

Yerevan and Baku frequently trade accusations of war crimes in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

During a speech at the UN General Assembly in September, Sarkisian accused Azerbaijan of committing"a number of war crimes" against civilians and "prisoners of war" in 2016.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev leveled the “ethnic cleansing” charge against Armenia during his visit to NATO headquarters in November.