Azerbaijan presented to U.S. concept of post-war South Caucasus
Assistant to the President of Azerbaijan, Head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department of the Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan Hikmat Hajiyev took part in an online seminar held by the Washington-based Atlantic Council, during which he answered questions from participants of the event, including such American diplomats as head of the Atlantic Council John Herbst and former U.S. ambassadors to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar, Robert Sekuta and Matthew Bryza, as well as representatives of the Armenian diaspora.
The questions were devoted to the entire spectrum of the past and future of Azerbaijan's relations with Armenia, Russia and the United States, and Hikmet Hajiyev's answers ultimately formed an integral program of the Azerbaijani authorities' vision of the situation in the South Caucasus and the tasks of its development towards stable peace and prosperity in the region.
During his speech, the Azerbaijani politician constantly emphasized that the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia is finally over, there is no way back to the conflict between two states. The end of the Karabakh war and the de-occupation of Azerbaijani territories created excellent conditions for normal regional cooperation and integration. At the same time, he noted that there are lots of challenges and problems which require the help and support of partners both in the region and beyond.
Speaking about how the Second Karabakh war became possible, the head of the foreign policy department of the Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan drew the attention of American interlocutors that in 2018, when Nikol Pashinyan's team came to power in Armenia, Azerbaijan demonstrated a constructive approach and strategic patience, creating the necessary conditions so that under the new leadership in Yerevan, the parties could move towards a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, instead, there were political provocations from the Armenian side.
In particular, Hikmat Hajiyev recalled that when visiting the occupied territories of Azerbaijan in the summer of 2019, Nikol Pashinyan said that "is Armenia, and that's it." Later, Defense Minister David Tonoyan, while on a visit to the United States, proclaimed an updated aggressive concept of the Armenian army - "a new war for new territories", which was immediately followed by the July 2020 provocation against the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan, and this was done it was just a couple of months before the launch of the European part of the Southern Gas Corridor project in the immediate vicinity of the pipeline route on the territory of Azerbaijan.
Against the background of the open stagnation of the peace process, it became clear that Armenia was purposefully engaged in escalating the conflict. When on September 27, 2020, Armenian troops fired at civilians in the border and front-line Azerbaijani villages and cities, Azerbaijan decided that it can no longer be tolerated. "And then we said - we've had enough!" Hajiyev said, explaining that the Azerbaijani troops on that day launched an operation to force Armenia to peace and return the Armenian authorities to the negotiating table, so that the safety of Azerbaijani citizens was ensured, and the UN Security Council resolutions on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict were finally fulfilled.
It is important that Azerbaijan was aimed precisely at fulfilling these tasks to end the conflict and return peace to the region. Therefore, the Azerbaijani politician pointed out, from the very beginning of the Second Karabakh War, Baku stressed that it is ready to stop fighting as soon as Armenia provides a schedule for the withdrawal of troops from the occupied territories in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions. The war lasted 44 days only because Yerevan refused to withdraw its occupation forces from Azerbaijan. The fighting was stopped when Baku achieved its strategic goals.
As a result, the war ended with the signing of a trilateral Statement by the President of Russia, the President of Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia. Answering the question about Azerbaijan's views on the presence of Russian peacekeepers on its lands, the head of the foreign policy department of the presidential administration of the Republic of Azerbaijan drew the attention of American diplomats that Baku has an open and constant dialogue with Moscow. According to him, the Russian peacekeepers fulfill their job in a professional manner. The peacekeeping contingent is currently receiving infrastructural and logistic support from the Azerbaijani side.
Hikmat Hajiyev stressed that now, when the war is gone forever, the countries of the region shouldn't remain hostages of the past, "they need to change scenarios and look to the future." Armenia needs to understand now what benefits it has gained from the return of peace to the South Caucasus, including land access to the Russian market through Azerbaijan and its transformation from a regional deadlock into a cargo transit country. "Think about the future! What have you achieved in 30 years of conflict? Nothing. The cost of the occupation was extremely high. But now we have a real opportunity for peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan," he said, addressing the authorities and people of Armenia.
The politician also noted that Azerbaijan never had plans for any ethnic cleansing in its territories. During the military operation to force Armenia to peace in 2020, the Azerbaijani army did everything to avoid losses among the civilian population of Karabakh. Armenians, who are citizens of Azerbaijan, are returning to their homes in Azerbaijan, but of course, they are obliged to respect the laws and territorial integrity of their country. "We respect the Armenian community of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and their rights as citizens of our country in accordance with the Constitution of Azerbaijan," the official representative of Azerbaijan said.
The benefits of the Armenian population of Azerbaijan from the end of the Karabakh war are obvious: it is much more profitable for those living in Nagorno-Karabakh to sell their goods within Azerbaijan than to transport them to Armenia by a seven-hour road along the Lachin serpentine. "It is always better to trade than to fight," the aide to the President of Azerbaijan emphasized.
Also, Hikmat Hajiyev answered questions about those post-war themes pedaled by Yerevan. First of all, he made it clear that the issue of the "status" of Nagorno-Karabakh is no longer discussed by Azerbaijan. "As for the issue of status, let's be frank, concentration on this aspect will be counterproductive and create unnecessary expectations in the local Armenian community, which will play into the hands of radicals. Therefore, we better focus on confidence-building measures," the Azerbaijani politician suggested.
On the subject of war prisoners, it's about non-fulfillment of obligations by Armenia, not by Azerbaijan. 62 Armenian soldiers taken under control in December are not prisoners of war and are not subject to extradition. "These are citizens of Armenia, professional military, they were deployed in the Shirak region. They invaded the territory of Azerbaijan after the signing of the trilateral declaration on November 10, set up positions near Shusha and even captured a couple of villages, drove up artillery and tried to create fortifications. They killed Azerbaijani civilians who were engaged in the installation of a mobile communication system in the region. Both under the laws of Azerbaijan and under international law, these people cannot be considered as prisoners of war," he said.
Nevertheless, Baku is engaged in a dialogue on this issue, but expects positive reciprocal steps from Yerevan. "Since the first Karabakh war, we have about 4 thousand missing persons. Probably, most of them are no longer alive and are buried in mass graves. But we still ask Armenia to give us maps of these burials. So we are also waiting for a constructive approach from the Armenian side," Hikmet Hajiyev explained.
The third topic was the fate of the OSCE Minsk Group. "Unfortunately, the authority of the OSCE Minsk Group in Azerbaijan is not very high for known reasons, and this is understandable because for 30 years this organization was unable to promote the peace process and ensure the de-occupation of Azerbaijani territories. This is not only about the position of our government, this is a widespread opinion in Azerbaijani society," the presidential aide noted, saying that Baku expects the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs to adapt to the new realities in the region, since the old work scenarios are no longer applicable. This adaptation can be expressed in strengthening confidence-building measures between Armenia and Azerbaijan through various projects.
Questions about Azerbaijan's approaches to U.S. cooperation with the countries of the South Caucasus were also inevitable. Hikmat Hajiyev noted that the United States could contribute to the development of regional cooperation and confidence-building between Armenia and Azerbaijan not only in the format of the OSCE Minsk Group, but also directly, as well as take part in the reconstruction, demining and rehabilitation of the region. U.S. companies, especially those that have experience in building "smart cities", can participate in the revival of the liberated regions of Azerbaijan.
The role of Washington in reducing revanchism in the Armenian society and increasing understanding by Armenia and the Armenian diaspora of the changes that have taken place is very important as well. Everyone must adapt to the new geopolitical realities in the region: the occupation of Azerbaijani territories is over, new prospects for regional cooperation have emerged. So far, the aide to the President of Azerbaijan emphasized that the Armenian diaspora is part of the problem, not part of its solution, since its representatives in the West enjoy a rich life and push people in Armenia to a confrontation with their neighbors, propagandize revanchism, which is completely counterproductive.
He also dispelled speculation that the border between Armenia and Turkey would remain closed, recalling that during his visit to Baku, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke about the prospects for cooperation with Yerevan. The very regional platform of "3+3" (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Turkey, Iran) presupposes the opening of the border - however, today Armenia needs to stop being a hostage of its own interpretations of the past, abandon territorial claims against Turkey and Azerbaijan and become a responsible participant in regional economic processes.
Thus, the participants of the online seminar received comprehensive answers to questions on the post-war worldview of Azerbaijan both in terms of regional interaction and in terms of contacts with international partners. Baku presented a comprehensive development program, urging other geopolitical players to accept the changes, reconsider approaches to the South Caucasus and move towards its prosperity in conditions of peace and stability.