Azerbaijan-Armenia reconciliation possible if apology offered for

NEW YORK CITY: Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia have escalated sharply in recent months, as each side accuses the other of carrying out cross-border attacks in their long-running dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The two ex-Soviet republics have fought two wars, in the early 1990s and again in 2020, for control of the region, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but largely populated by ethnic Armenians.

Despite mediation efforts by the EU, US and Russia and a unanimous call by the UN Security Council in August to resolve their dispute, Baku and Yerevan have been unable to reach a lasting peace settlement.

Now Yerevan has accused Baku of deliberately blocking food and aid supplies to Armenian-populated towns in Nagorno-Karabakh via the Lachin corridor, the sole road linking Armenia to the region.

Armenian authorities and international aid groups have warned that the humanitarian situation for the roughly 120,000 Armenians living there is deteriorating, with shortages of food and medicine.

In a wide-ranging interview with Arab News, Hikmet Hajiyev, adviser to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and the head of the foreign policy affairs department of the presidential administration responded to the allegations.

Hajiyev also described what it would take to secure peace and move on from the atrocities of the past. A good way to start, he said, would be for Armenia to apologize.

Q: The UN Security Council recently discussed the situation in the Lachin corridor, where council members heard that Azerbaijan is blocking the only road that connects Armenia to the 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, cutting off food, medicine and other essentials, causing a deteriorating humanitarian situation.

A: These are unsubstantiated and ungrounded allegations against Azerbaijan. There is no strangulation or blockade of the Armenian residents of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

What Azerbaijan is suggesting is to have multiple roads. And one of the important roads is the Aghdam-Khankendi road. It is much more efficient and has more logistical capabilities to reach out to the Karabakh region because Azerbaijan has completely rebuilt it.

Currently, the Lachin-Khankendi road is operational and functional. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is conducting convoys along this road.

But what we are saying is, let’s open the Aghdam-Khankendi road. It will ensure integration, so Azerbaijan will have direct access to Khankendi and direct contact with Karabakh Armenians who in turn will also have a chance to use Azerbaijan’s major road system to reach other parts of Azerbaijan.

But, unfortunately, the warlords at the helm of the current subordinated Armenian puppet regime in those territories of Azerbaijan are using the humanitarian situation for their own benefit, to prolong their survival as a separatist entity that will not accept Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, and for the benefit of propaganda, disinformation and misinformation of the international community. This has always been their raison d’etre.

We invited them to have a dialogue. But they say no to dialogue. (This is a) destructive attitude. They also say no to food staples or whatever comes from Azerbaijan. This is racism. Because of the origin of the food product, they said they won’t accept it.

Azerbaijani forces reclaimed Fuzuli in 2020, three decades after they lost control of the town to Armenia, finding homes left in ruins and overgrown with foliage. (AN Photo/Ephrem Kossaify)

Q: The ICRC says it has not been able to bring assistance to the population for several weeks and has called on your administration to allow it to resume operations. It has said that under international humanitarian law, all sides must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for citizens in need. What is your response to ICRC’s call?

A: We have very close cooperation and engagement with the ICRC. They are operating in Azerbaijan.

(The) ICRC also knows this very well, because we are in regular contact, that on Aug. 5 there was a gentleman’s agreement whereby the ICRC would be welcome to use the Aghdam-Khankendi road for its humanitarian convoys.

And in the next 24 hours (from Aug. 31, the day of the interview) we will also ensure the full opening of the Lachin-Khankendi road, but Azerbaijan’s customs and border security and border control regime must be respected.

Unfortunately, since the signing of the Trilateral Statement (of the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia) in 2021, the Armenian side was misusing the Lachin road for shipment of military ammunition, personnel and landmines into Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region.

So Azerbaijan was forced to establish the Lachin checkpoint on its border with Armenia. Azerbaijan cannot afford to have yet another grey zone on its sovereign territory.

But my question is: Why is the illegal Armenian regime resisting the opening of this second road? By all means they are still manipulating the international community’s view.

The road is civilization. The road is culture. Saying no to a road has an element of racism to it. It’s a destructive policy. But the time of occupation is past.

Armenian lorries carrying humanitarian aid for the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region stranded not far away from an Azerbaijani checkpoint set up at the entry of the Lachin corridor, Karabakh’s only land link with Armenia. (AFP)

Q: In August, the former International Criminal Court prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, published a report describing the blockade of the Lachin corridor as genocide. 

“There are no crematories, there are no machete attacks. Starvation is the invisible genocide weapon,” Ocampo said, warning that “without dramatic change, the group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks.” What is your reaction to that report? 

A: First of all, the personality, the honesty of this individual who claims to speak on behalf of justice, is questionable. There are a lot of facts in the international media about him engaging in wrongdoings. But that is not my business.

Second, I do regret that a person who claims to be a lawyer could misuse and abuse the concept of genocide as if he didn’t know what it means. 

Third, he’s biased. Why does he not talk about the genocide and war crimes on a state level committed by the Republic of Armenia against Azerbaijan?

Eight cities of Azerbaijan have been completely destroyed, along with the civilian population. Where is that fact in the Ocampo report? 

Where was Ocampo when in 1992, before Srebrenica, the whole population of Khojaly, Azerbaijan, was massacred by Armenians? 

Who has conducted a genocide against whom? That’s the big question. It is a question that should be answered with regard to one million Azerbaijanis, who have been ethnically cleansed from their land, and who have been living as IDPs and refugees for 30 years.

Why is Ocampo silent with regard to the cultural heritage of Azerbaijan, including Azerbaijan’s mosques that have been completely destroyed by Armenia?

Margarita Khanaghyan, 81 walks past an APC of the Russian peacekeeping force in the town of Lachin on November 26, 2020, after six weeks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. (AFP/File Photo)

Q: But it is not just Ocampo. There are also other specialized institutions that have already claimed that a genocide is underway in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Again, the ICJ has ordered Azerbaijan to “take all necessary measures to prevent the incitement and promotion of racial hatred and discrimination, including by its officials and public institutions targeted at persons of Armenian national or ethnic origin.”

A: Under the International Convention on the Complete Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Azerbaijan has also put a very serious plan against the Republic of Armenia at the ICJ. In Armenia, the word Azerbaijani or Turk is used as an insult.

That says a lot about the mainstream thinking in Armenian society. I can provide you with many other examples of ethnic hatred and Azerbaijan-phobia. But the facts on the ground speak for themselves. Armenia has destroyed all elements of Azerbaijan’s cultural, religious and even human heritage in the territories under its occupation.  

Therefore, I do regret that some international media outlets are falling into the trap of Armenia’s political propaganda.

Why are Armenians resistant to taking wheat flour from Azerbaijan? You are asking me a question about ethnic hatred. What is that then? Wheat flour doesn’t have an ethnicity. It’s a food staple that everyone can use. But why are they refusing it?

Q: Moving to peace talks. UN Security Council members remain united in their support for a negotiated solution for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The war has ended. A statement was signed. Armenians have said Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan. What remains to be done to achieve peace?

A: Azerbaijan really wants to sign a peace treaty and turn the page on the chapter of confrontation and atrocities in this region. We would like to live in peace. But the ball is in the court of the Republic of Armenia. The sooner they understand this reality, the better it will be for everyone.

Armenia’s dirty propaganda against Azerbaijan has derailed us from the path of peace treaty negotiations, on a platform provided by Washington DC, which we very much appreciate. We had achieved very important progress. Almost 70 percent of the document had been cleared. In a sense, we agreed.

Signing the peace treaty will completely change the landscape of the region of the South Caucasus. But you have the prime minister of Armenia on one hand recognizing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity while on the other hand he still keeps Armenian armed forces in our territory. He still finances the illegal subordinate regime on our territory.

Armenian police officers detain a protestor during a rally against the country’s agreement to end fighting with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in Yerevan on November 12, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Q: Do you think the current confrontation between Russia and some Western countries over Ukraine is impacting the peace prospects between Azerbaijan and Armenia?

A: Unfortunately, we do see elements of the geopolitical rivalry play out in the region of the South Caucasus, and our message also to big powers is: Don’t export your internal political agenda to our region.

What we are also seeing is Armenia becoming, unfortunately, another Syria in our region, as it’s divided among big powers according to their own geopolitical interests.

One mission over there is the EU mission. We have been told it is a civilian, short-term mission. But it has become a long-term one. It has military personnel.

Everybody who wants to contribute to peace and security in the region instead of diplomatic adventurism and propaganda, should engage seriously in supporting Armenian-Azerbaijan peace treaty talks.

Q: Is there a reliable international partner, or a mechanism that would be more efficient than others?

A: There are various platforms. We have no preference for one over the other. Our approach is that anybody who is willing to contribute to real peace on the ground, they are most welcome.

On one side, we have a Brussels process facilitated by (European Council) President Charles Michel. This is very much appreciated. Important elements of the peace treaty talks on a normalization council between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been generated from that platform.

And then we appreciate the US government, and particularly Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s personal engagement on peace treaty discussions. They have done a lot.

We also cannot deny the role of Russia. They are also contributing because they are part of the region and have historical relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani forces retook during the 2020 conflict the town of Shusha from the ethnic Armenians who had seized it in 1992 for the Armenian-backed breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. (AN Photo/Ephrem Kossaify)

Q: Do you honestly believe there is still room for a reconciliation process to take place? People in Baku have told Arab News that in the past, Armenians and Azerbaijanis used to be brothers and sisters, living side by side. Will this happen again?

A: It could happen again, but really, it’s always difficult to make a prediction about this in the future. Reconciliation really is one of the most difficult parts of every post-conflict situation. In Azerbaijan, hundreds of thousands of families have lost their loved ones and are refugees and IDPs.

Imagine people are returning to their homes to see them in complete ruins. That’s not easy. And they are searching for answers. There is no answer because no one from the Armenian side has had enough courage to dare say: “(Please) excuse us. Our apologies for all our wrongdoings.”

There was not a single case in Armenia brought against the individuals who have conducted notorious actions against Azerbaijan. Bringing justice to people could also send a positive signal.

Yes, I do think that reconciliation is possible, but of course it will take time. A lot depends on the Armenian side.

I have also carefully studied all schoolbooks and textbooks in the Republic of Armenia. Everything is a hate, hate and hate against their neighbors, and the exclusive superiority of Armenians.

This racist sort of thinking is still dominant in the mindset of Armenian literature, Armenian media and so on.

Q: The Armenian prime minister has said the same thing. That peace is a call that has to come from Azerbaijani people who should demand it from their government.

A: I will ask the prime minister of Armenia, is he ready to say, on behalf of the Armenian people and Armenian government, “(Please) excuse me?” I think that this could change a lot.

Why is Armenia refusing to provide information about the mass graves of 4,000 Azerbaijanis? Who will compensate for the 30 years that have been taken from the lives of a million Azerbaijanis who grew up in refugee tents?


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