Ilham Aliyev to France 24: We are ready to start working on the future peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev granted an exclusive interview to FRANCE 24 from the capital Baku. Aliyev said Azerbaijan was ready to "work on a future peace agreement" with Armenia, but warned that any move by Yerevan to reclaim territory lost in last year's war would be met with a fierce response by his country.
- Thank you very much Mr. President for being our guest on France 24.
- Thank you for this opportunity to be able to talk to the French audience.
- Mr. President we are exactly a year after the start of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia which your country won after 44 days. Last week at the United Nations, for the first time since the end of the fighting, the Foreign Ministers of both countries Azerbaijan and Armenia met. Does this mean that dialogue is restarting between both sides and that there’s hope for peace?
- I want to hope that this is exactly the case because Azerbaijan already on several occasions publicly expressed its readiness to establish dialogue with Armenia. Not only establish dialogue but actually to start working on the future peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The war is over. The conflict has been resolved. So we need to engage in new activity in the region in order to make the region more predictable stable and safe. And the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of both countries is a good indicator of these endeavors. I hope that it will not be the only one meeting but it will be beginning of a new process, a process of normalization of relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia and a process that can give you a dimension to a broad cooperation in the region of the South Caucasus.
- Right. Have you reached out to the leadership of Armenia, to the Prime Minister to try to restart a dialogue and go towards peace?
- Since the war ended last November, we had only one opportunity to meet each other. That was during the trilateral meeting organized by President of Russia Vladimir Putin in Moscow this January. The aim of the meeting was to plan the postwar developments. We didn’t have any other chance to see each other probably because of pandemic, probably because of some other reasons. But Azerbaijan has never, even during the war, during the occupation, never objected any kind of high-level contacts. On the contrary, we think that these communications may answer many questions which both sides may have. And also to be a starting point for a new development of the region. Our position is straightforward. We think that the conflict is resolved. There should be no return to the past. There should be no signs of revanchism in Armenia. We need to talk about future, we need to talk about peace and how to make our region more stable and safe.
- Are you ready to call Prime Minister Pashinyan to tell him that precisely?
- Probably not the way how you suggest. Usually as the contacts between the leaders of two countries were organized under the umbrella of the OSCE Minsk Group. It was them who proposed the agenda, it was them who organized the meeting. In my experience as President I have never had a telephone conversation with any leader Armenia. So probably it’s not a right way how to do it. But if Minsk Group co-chairs will suggest such a meeting, of course we will not be against it.
- Mr. President, in the speech marking the onset of the war you said and I’m quoting you: “If we see Armenian fascism rising again, if we see new threat, we will crush Armenian fascism again without any hesitation.” This doesn’t really sound like an olive branch, does it?
- You know that was the warding which reflects the situation in Armenia. With respect to our position about establishing peace in the region I made several public statements, probably if look in Internet, you will find them, particularly to start to work on delimitation and demarcation of the borders, to start preparing for comprehensive negotiations on peace agreement with Armenia – all these gestures of good will. And none of them by the way was responded adequately by Armenian leadership. They either ignore them or they were saying that they are not ready. But the source of my statement was that the tendency which we observe in Armenia, the tendency of revanchism among certain part of political establishment not only opposition but also government, public statements, and more important practical steps in order to sick revenge, attempts to militarize Armenia, attempts to get access to new modern weapons for one purpose to restart it again, therefore, my words may seem rude but the main purpose of those words were to warn Armenian leadership and Armenian political establishment that any sign of revanchism, any sign of threat to our people and our statehood and our territorial integrity will be responded. And they know how we respond. And the Second Karabakh War showed that they have no chance in front of us. We don’t want to start war, we don’t need it. We had never needed it during the years of negotiations. But now I think it’s time to warn them to give up the efforts of revanchism and to look to the future.
- There’s one issue. You considered that you’ve recovered all the territories, I mean you’ve made some statements in the past, for example, citing Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, as being historical territory. So you’ve won lands that you consider yours back last year but there are still some questions. Do you still have some territorial claims over territories that Armenia considers to be its territory.
- No, in my statements you will never find any sign of territorial claims. What I was talking about I was talking about historical truth. It's a historical fact that in 1920 the Soviet government decided, and did it actually, they separated the integral part of Azerbaijan - Zangezur - and adjusted it to Armenia. It was 1920, 101 years ago. I'm talking about our historical lands, I didn't mean that we have territorial claims you will never find in any of my speech words like that. But at the same time we as every other nation should know it's history and our new generation should know it's history, ancient history, and which territories we were living on and how to go back. And I'm sure that we will go back but we will go back, as I said many times, not on tanks, we will go back by cars, by trains, by foot. When the situation is normalized, when the peace agreement is achieved, why shouldn't we go back? It's our legitimate right. But answering your question, I want to draw the attention of our spectators that Armenia has territorial claims against Azerbaijan. They still claim that Nagorno-Karabakh, as they call it, does not belong to us. They still claim that either it belongs to Armenia or it's kind of an independent entity, but there's no Nagorno-Karabakh on the political and geographic map of Azerbaijan. This kind of entity does not exist. And therefore Armenia in the first place should withdraw any territorial claims against Azerbaijan, behave itself as a good neighbor and we will respond adequately.
- Are you ready to provide some autonomy to Karabakh? I mean Armenia has its claim but the Minsk Group you've called them, I mean the U.S. has always said the issue of Karabakh is still unresolved, you claim it is resolved, that it’s yours. But many countries moderating this conflict for years claim that's actually not the case.
- My advice to those countries who say it is not resolved to think about how they can provide a place on their own territory to settle Armenians and to create a second Armenian state on their own territory. Why should they think that there should be a second Armenian state on the territory of Azerbaijan without any legal political and historical grounds? When I say the conflict is resolved, that's my position and I defend this position and the reality on the ground has shown that this position is correct. Therefore, any kind of statements that the conflict is not resolved is not only inappropriate but very dangerous. If it's not resolved than those who say that they should say how it should be resolved. What they understand when they say things like “Nagorno-Karabakh”? In which boundaries, in which area, in what form? There's not even a hint to answer those questions. Therefore saying that the conflict is not resolved is counterproductive and dangerous. It means that there should be other maybe hostile actions in order to resolve it. And coming to your question about the autonomy, the Minsk Group co-chairs know very well the position of Azerbaijan during the 28 years of useless negotiations that we were ready to provide Armenians in Azerbaijan with a certain level of self-governance but Armenians always rejected it. They always said no, only independence. But now when the conflict is over they start to talk about autonomy, which today is not on our agenda. Armenians who live today in Karabakh, in the area which is now under the responsibility of Russian peacekeepers are citizens of Azerbaijan like any other representatives of the country.
- So they will not have any autonomy and it is now off the table?
- Exactly, this is off the table.
- I want to get to the position of France. I mean France has criticized your actions, even recently calling you to withdraw from some of Armenia’s lands. Do you consider France an honest broker?
- You know we've been actively working with France on this issue and on many other issues of our bilateral relations during all years of our independence. France always was considered a friendly country in Azerbaijan. We had implemented a lot of economic and trade projects, infrastructure projects and relations developed very successfully. And we hope that as an honest broker, as a co-chair of the Minsk group France will be committed to this responsibility. If France was not a co-chair of Minsk Group, of course any kind of relations between any countries are up to them and we know about the historical ties between France and Armenia. We know about very active Armenian community in France, which to a certain degree may influence decision-makers. But during the war, frankly speaking, France was not behaving as an honest broker. France took side of Armenia, openly accusing Azerbaijan and in its statements and actions demonstrating one-sided approach. That was, of course, a matter of concern, and we raised this concern, because, once again, I would like to say, any country can have preferences, friends, not friends. It's up to them, I have nothing to say. But if a country has a mandate from the OSCE to be a mediator, in this case the country should be neutral. I don't want to go back to what happened during the war and right after. We received positive signals from Paris about our future relations and we positively responded to these signals. There have been contacts on different levels including the contact recently between Foreign Ministers of both countries. Azerbaijan has always been open to the cooperation. France is one of the leading countries in the world and we want to have normal relations. I think after one year passes since the beginning of the war, I think now it’s the time to have a realistic approach to the region. What do we want to achieve? I'm sure France wants peace, stability and security in the region. As we want. As, hopefully, Armenia wants. We need to work on that, we need to concentrate on that and not go back to what we were doing one year ago. As far as we are concerned, we are not going to exploit these very unpleasant developments. We want to turn the page.
- We are reaching the end of the interview, I just have two more questions, Mr. President. Prisoners of war. Human Rights Watch has accused Azerbaijan of holding them and torturing them. What is your response and are you ready to exchange prisoners of war with Armenia as a sign of good will?
- We, of course, reject these accusations. All prisoners of war, which were taken as prisoners during the war, have been returned to Armenia. Armenian government can confirm that. We returned them even before they returned our prisoners of war. Those people whom some NGOs are referring to, are those people, who were sent by Armenian military command two weeks after the war ended, after the November declaration was signed. They were sent to our positions and they committed crime - they killed four Azerbaijani servicemen. They were disarmed and captured. Many of them have already been returned - those, who didn't participate in crimes. Those, who participated in crimes, have been sentenced by our justice.
- Armenia claims, that you hold prisoners of war, that you are not telling the truth.
- No, those who we withhold, according to classification, according to all international conventions, cannot be considered as prisoners of war. Prisoners of war are those people who have been detained during the war. On November 10th the war stopped, at the beginning of December we find at the territory, which we liberated, 62 members of Armenian sabotage group, who have been sent there on November 26th. 16 days after the war ended. They cannot be considered prisoners of war. And we returned many of them already as a sign of good will, but the rest of those people, who are serving the sentence here, they committed crime and they must be brought to justice. They have been brought to justice.
- Last question, Mr. President. The organization Reporters Without Borders have called on you to stop threats and violence against the man called Muhamman Mirzali, he's an Azerbaijani bloggers who's a refugee here in France. He has been badly stabbed in an attack here, on French soil, last March. The question is, according to Reporters Without Borders, you are sending people to silence those voices abroad.
- First of all, we stopped any communication with Reporters Without Borders NGO many years ago, something like 15 years ago because of their very biased position and very unjust approach to Azerbaijan. Therefore, their report means nothing to me and to Azerbaijani people. There are hundreds of people living in Europe, in France, who do not like how we handle things in Azerbaijan. They live in France and in other countries and nobody touches them. If something happens to a person who suffers in your country, it's up to justice of your country to investigate it. It's not a matter of NGO to accuse Azerbaijan of that.
- So you deny any responsibility in the attack?
- Absolutely. One hundred percent I deny. Without any proof, without investigation, without a clear evidence of who committed a crime, all kinds of accusations are absolutely groundless and biased.