AZERI OBSERVER EDITORIAL STAFF
THIS PAST MONTH HAS BEEN MARKED WITH YET ANOTHER ESCALATION OF THE NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT BETWEEN ARMENIA AND AZERBAIJAN – THE SEVEREST ONE SINCE THE EARLY 1990S. PROFESSOR, PHD IN PHILOSOPHY, AND FOUNDER OF IRSHAD CENTER ON ISLAMIC STUDIES, RAFIQ ALIYEV, IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW FOR AZERI OBSERVER EXPLAINS THE REASONS FOR THIS ESCALATION, THE THREATS THIS CONFLICT POSES TO THE WHOLE REGION, AND THE PROSPECTS OF ITS FINAL SOLUTION.
Question: What is the reason for the latest escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? Do you think that it was possible to prevent it?
Answer: We have been waiting for a peaceful resolution of this conflict for about 30 years. A couple of times we even were close to it. Two Armenian leaders – Karen Demirchyan and Levon Ter-Petrosyan – in different periods of time agreed to a ‘phased’ approach to the settlement. It would entail an Armenian withdrawal from five Azerbaijani regions, then two regions more, followed by a discussion of the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Armenian nationalist groups thwarted the process both times, and the problem continued. Of course, it was possible to prevent the escalation by solving this conflict long ago. The problem here is that many foreign countries have their own interests in the South Caucasus region. This region has a very favorable geographic and strategic location at the navel of potential transportation routes between Europe and Asia, as well as the south and the north. The unresolved status of this conflict allows the big powers to exert pressure on Yerevan and especially on Baku, because our country develops, pursues independent policy, sells oil and gas to Europe and other countries, etc. So, many countries are, to some extent, interested in the frozen conflict. With such an approach, an escalation would have happened one day.
Q.: Armenia presents this conflict, not as a bilateral one, but as a regional one, and assures the world that Turkey provides military support to Azerbaijan (a claim that both Azerbaijan and Turkey deny), trying to involve more countries in this war. What do you think about these kinds of statements?
A.: Turks are our brothers in blood and culture. However, we are a separate, independent country. We cannot allow neither Turkey, nor Russia or any other country to play the main role here. Each country should have its own place. If Turkey intervenes, our problem will multiply. For example, Russia will be very unhappy if any third country, and especially a NATO member, appears in the region, which could lead to retaliatory steps. I have always said, and I can repeat it now, that our three powerful neighbors – Russia, Iran and Turkey – have their own interests in the South Caucasus region. However, I don’t think that they will involve themselves in a big war on our territory. These countries were at enmity with each other for centuries, and the West never permitted their rapprochement, which could lead to a dangerous precedent for Europe. About 10 years ago, I published an article reading that someday a triangle alliance of these countries would be created, and it would force the US to leave the Middle East, which would remain under the influence of these three countries. And it finally happened – they formed an alliance in Syria, which has already played a positive role. The Western influence in the greater Middle East is minimal now. So, finally Turkey, Russia and Iran have an historical chance for a peaceful coexistence and beneficial cooperation, and I don’t think this will affect their relations because of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Q.: Do you think that peace negotiations can find a solution to this conflict?
A.: Absolutely. Peace negotiation and a phased approach to the solution is necessary, as proposed by the mediating OSCE Minsk Group. It was my point of view even back in 2003, when I headed the State Committee for Religious Affairs. Armenia will absolutely have to agree to this, and it is slowly happening. The seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh have been uninhabited for 30 years – no one lives there. My heart hurts when I see photos of these areas in absolute devastation.
Q.: Armenia often says the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has a religious foundation, and describes it as a conflict between the Muslim and the Christian worlds. How can you comment on this as an expert in religion?
A.: I understand why it happens in Armenia. It is a monoethnic country, with its own religion, which is practically inseparable from the state. (Ed. note: most Armenians are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church). The Armenian Church is involved in everything that happens in the country. In Azerbaijan, the situation is different. We share our religion with more than 50 countries and 100 ethnic groups, and do not mix religion with our state, army or the conflict. For us, religion is an individual matter of every person. It is true that Islamic countries and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, support us in the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, but it is just emotional support. There is no religious background to this conflict, and we do not want to have any religious component in our fight for Karabakh.
Q.: Armenia launched missile attacks on Azerbaijani civilian population far beyond the conflict zone. What goals do these actions pursue?
A.: Armenia wants to take the conflict out of Karabakh. In fact, now the war is in Azerbaijani territory, however, we don’t fight against Armenia; we fight against separatists, supported by Armenia. While attacking Ganja, Mingachevir, and other peaceful Azerbaijani cities, Armenia has tried to provoke Azerbaijan to launch missiles back in order to pull the CSTO into the conflict (Ed. note: The Collective Security Treaty Organization is an intergovernmental military alliance between Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). This is pure provocation and violates all international conventions. They want it to appear that it is not just a conflict within Azerbaijan, but instead an international one. However, I think that the CSTO will not interfere, even if an Azerbaijan missile accidentally crosses the Armenian border, as none of its members want to start a large-scale military operation against Azerbaijan.
Q.: Armenia has illegally changed many original Azerbaijani toponyms in the occupied territories. Why is the international community silent?
A.: The toponyms are not the prime concern during this war. They existed long before Armenians moved to Nagorno-Karabakh. Even the word Artsakh, which Armenians use instead of Nagorno-Karabakh, does not have an Armenian origin. It is a Turkic word, meaning ‘a strong man’. There has not been a single Armenian monument or tombstone found, with the Armenian alphabet in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian Church was considered a heretical sect by traditional Christianity standards, and since they could not respect these norms, they found themselves exiled and homeless, without their own land, so they wandered in Asia Minor since the 3rd century and could not settle anywhere. Armenians moved to Nagorno-Karabakh about 200 years ago. I remember in 1978, there was a big celebration on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the resettlement of Armenians to Nagorno-Karabakh, and even a large obelisk was erected to commemorate this event. The second resettlement happened in the 20th century, during the Stalin period.
Q.: Do you think that the OSCE Minsk Group could still be a legitimate mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, even after the open support to Armenia, by the president of one of its co-chairs (France)?
A.: I understand that President Macron has elections ahead, and he wants to secure the votes of the strong Armenian lobby and win a new presidential term. However, his statement means nothing. He will have to obey the agreed principles and work together with the other co-chairs – Russia and the United States. The Minsk Group has already worked out a ‘staged’ solution to the conflict, which should begin by the withdrawal of Armenian forces from five occupied regions, then two more regions, continuing with the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh status issue. There is no need to add or take anything off this plan. The current war is a result of the mistaken opinion of Armenian Prime Minister, Pashinyan, that this plan can be reversed. So, we are forced to ‘coerce’ Armenia to the agreed approach. This is our land, and we must get it back. If Armenia does not return it peacefully, war is the only option left.
The Azerbaijani army, under the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev, continues its triumphant march for the liberation of the occupied territories, writing victorious new pages in the history of the contemporary, military world. Every day new regions are added to the list of the liberated lands, bringing the historical date closer, of the complete liberation of Azerbaijan’s occupied territories.
Today, successful domestic and foreign policy conducted by President, the Commander-in-Chief, Ilham Aliyev, stands at the core of the accomplishments of the independent state of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, which is rapidly developing on the way to sovereignty and progress in the South Caucasus, is taking great strides in the full sense of the word.