BY KELLY CHAIB DE MARES
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Once the hostilities ended, many Azerbaijani refugees were so excited about the possibility of returning to their homeland that some of them risked their lives visiting the liberated territories; without considering that 30 years of military occupation not only destroyed the region but turned it into a minefield. According to a preliminary forensic analysis, the Military Prosecutor’s Office estimates that $819 billion U.S. dollars worth of material damage has been caused by Armenia, including harm to infrastructure, ecology and natural resources.
It has been one year since Azerbaijan won the second war on Nagorno Karabakh, and is a momentous occasion for Azerbaijanis to celebrate. Moreover, it is an opportunity to examine the progress made on the reconstruction over the liberated territories, under the scrutiny of the tripartite statement that ended after 44 days of military effort; and evaluate the role that the international community is taking to support Baku’s colossal challenge of restoring the region gradually.
The document signed on November 10, 2020, by Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the brokered Russia, ceased the fire and instigated the initial postconflict steps; however, it did not address all necessary matters for the full resolution of the conflict, and other issues were not detailed in-depth. That is why tension has arisen between the parties in the process of restoring the region.
In President Ilham Aliyev’s words, the statement is, in fact, an Armenian capitulation. Indeed, Yerevan recognised that Azerbaijan military forces retook more than 300 settlements and withdrew their troops from the remaining three occupied regions: Aghdam, Kalbajar and Lachin. Although the statement does not explicitly mention Nagorno Karabakh, the Armenians’ loss of Hadrut district and the town of Shusha, may spell the end of the Autonomous Republic within the borders that were drawn in the former Soviet-era; as Thomas De Waal explained in his article published by Carnegie Europe in February.
Formally, the region is now called simply ‘Karabakh’, as explained in an interview for Azeri Observer by Orkhan Baghirov, Leading Advisor for AIR Center (Baku-based think-tank for international relations analysis). The legal entity is divided up between different Azerbaijani districts. Since Russian troops are guaranteeing security, and some military Armenians remain there, the population and the authorities of Azerbaijan have zero tolerance for separatist symbols. Such were the cases that became a trend on social networks in September. First, the population celebrated the Azerbaijani Military Forces, stopping a bus with the flag of the territory, self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. Then public opinion was very upset with the documentation indicating that Iranian trucks were heading to “Stepanakert” (legally Khankandi in Azerbaijan), the de facto capital of “Artsakh”.
Signing the statement, in addition to the military victory, Azerbaijan has ensured political backup. The two neighbouring regional powers, Russia and Turkey, monitor the cease-fire as a guarantee to the fulfilment of the commitments made, and provide security for both Azerbaijanis and Armenians. On the ground are 1,960 Russian peacekeeping troops along the contact line in Karabakh and the Lachin Corridor. A Peacemaking Center was also created; according to the Russian newspaper, Izvestiya; the Center is located in Azerbaijani territory, in the village of Marzili, Aghdam region, only several tens of kilometres from Khankendi, Shusha and the Lachin corridor, and is operated by an equal number of troops from both countries, with surveillance drones, each side with its own equipment.
With the hostilities ended, Azerbaijan immediately started sovereignty acts over the recovered territories. Besides several presidential and essential actors visits, Shusha was declared the country’s cultural capital and hosted the Kharibulbul music festival. Further, the Azerbaijani government continues retaliating against people who visit the Karabakh region without authorisation from the Azerbaijani migration authorities. As stated by President Aliyev, “no foreign citizen can enter that area without our permission. No international organisation except for the Red Cross can go there”. The effective policy resulted in the absence, for the first time in the history of independent Armenia that the country’s executive leadership did not visit Khankendi on the symbolic “Stepanakert’s Independence Day” on September 2.
The parties proceeded to “exchange prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons, and dead bodies” (article 8 of the statement). According to Dr Javid Veliyev, head of foreign policy analysis from AIR Center, in its report published by Anadolu Agency last June, “Azerbaijan returned the bodies of over 1,600 Armenian soldiers and repatriated 70 prisoners of war”. However, Baku keeps a significant number of Armenian soldiers detained who were captured after the Nov.10 statement, considering them as saboteurs of the cease-fire who have to appear before the local justice, while the Armenian side claims their prisoner of war status.
Although it wasn’t mentioned in the trilateral statement, the Azerbaijani government has prioritised mine action with the support of the U.N. and other international stakeholders. This is because mines and unexploded ordinances constitute a significant impediment to the rehabilitation of these areas. Moreover, a safe environment is needed to return internally displaced persons, the final goal of the whole process. So far, 160 Azerbaijanis have been killed or injured by mines, including two journalists and a government official in Kalbajar.
At the AIR Center webinar “Second Karabakh War and Landmines”, held in April, Ghulam Isaczai, former U.N. Resident Coordinator, remembered the U.N. important role in creating ANAMA in 1999, and the unconditional support ever since. Right after the cease-fire, an assessment mission by UNDP and the U.N. Mine Action Service was undertaken to the new conflict-affected district; as a result, the mission made some recommendations to address the contamination of mines and unexploded ordinances effectively. Besides, UNICEF, UNDP, UNMAS are working with the government to improve and increase awareness of mine risk and education to the broader population. To support these activities, the U.N. System “released over $1 million to ANAMA to train, equip and deploy emergency response teams to clear mines and unexploded ordnances”, Mr Isaczai highlighted.
Considering that successful mine clearance also depends on the availability of and access to information and data, the international community has advocated before Armenian authorities to cooperate in sharing maps of mine-infected areas. Despite Yerevan’s lack of cooperation on this issue, according to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement on the occasion of 300 days since the tripartite statement, “more than 46,486 mines and unexploded ordnances cleared from over 15.510 ha”.
The tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan, caused by these two critical issues, the Armenian claim on the release of prisoners and the Azerbaijani demand to get the maps of the minefields, was partially alleviated with the deal brokered by Georgia and the United States. As was announced by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 12, Baku released 15 Armenian detainees, while Armenia provided maps of 97,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the Aghdam region. However, it should be noted that Baku has more detainees in its possession and that it still requires maps of other territories, such as Kalbajar.
The delimitation of borders was another matter the parties decided to resolve, aside from the statement. In several articles, Joshua Kucera, the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, explains that a border between the countries was never formally demarcated given that Yerevan took military control over the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, with the liberation of the territories, more than 500 km of borderline has emerged. In the absence of any official border agreement, the best reference data comes from the Soviet era, when the disputed territories were inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijanis and were administered by the Azerbaijan SSR; thus, Baku is in an advantageous position.
Tension arose because the boundaries delimitation between the soviet republics were unproblematically tangled with infrastructures like roads, irrigation canals, gold mines, or grazing land; as Evangeline McGlynn, a PhD candidate in Geography focused on the Caucasus, pointed out in EurasiaNet. Additionally, Armenia has strategically sensitive areas, as the roads from Tbilisi to Yerevan and Yerevan to the south pass through it. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan continues its military advance liberating its border territories. Such is the pressure that Armenia has proposed that Russian peacekeepers guard the entire Armenia-Azerbaijan border.
To begin with the restoration of the territories, the parties undertook to open communication and transportation routes. In this way, both countries will strengthen their prosperity and the position of the entire South Caucasus, broadening ties with European and Eurasian countries. Notably, Azerbaijan’s flag carrier Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) began using Armenian air space for its domestic Baku-Nakhchivan-Baku flight on October 6. Furthermore, opening the Armenian airspace will reduce Azerbaijan’s dependence on Iran, with whom tensions have risen, after the disclosure of Tehran’s activities in Karabakh during the occupation, as well as Iran’s complaints about the relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel.
Specifically, the tripartite statement envisages the restoration of two critical corridors. For Baku, the Zangezur corridor is crucial, which will connect, through high ways and rail lines, Nakhchivan with mainland Azerbaijan across territories of Armenia’s Syunik region. The railway will end Nakhchivan’s isolation, link Turkey to Russia through Azerbaijan, and reduce Baku’s reliance on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) rail line. To materialise this corridor, Baku should first develop the national communication network; in this sense, the 100 km Horadiz-Agband Railway is under construction.
Other railways and highways are also under construction; Orkhan Baghirov briefly mentions the main ones. On railways: Barda-Agdam, Horadiz-Fuzuli and Fizuli-Shusha; the last mentioned is significant, as Shusha is expected to become one of the leading tourism and cultural centres in Karabakh. Regarding highways, Azerbaijan started the construction of the roads leading to Sugovushan and Talysh villages of the Tartar region even when the hostilities were going on. And the symbolic Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway called “Road to Victory”, as was the route taken by the soldiers to set the military victory with the liberation of Shusha.
The rise of the civil aviation infrastructure in the liberated lands also came as part of the state-run programs rolled out post-war. Shortly after the end of hostilities, Azerbaijan began to rebuild the Fuzuli International Airport that will serve as a “gate to Karabakh”, in President, Ilham Aliyev’s words. On September 5, AZAL operated the first flight, Baku-Fuzuli-Baku with journalists, travel bloggers, and representatives of various other organisations. Simultaneously, Baku-based Silk Way Airlines conducted the first cargo transportation. Twelve Turkish companies are working with Azerbaijani companies to reach the full-swing operation of the airfield in early 2022. In addition, two airports are currently being built in the Zangilan and Lachin districts.
Azerbaijan has gone beyond restoring transportation routes. Orkhan Baghirov explains that Baku is implementing a plan for the area’s socio-economic development within the “Great Return” program with an initial budget of USD 1.3 billion for 2021. Furthermore, to implement an efficient and centralised reconstruction process, the government established the Coordination Headquarters and Interdepartmental Centre, with 17 working groups that address all state issues, from legal affairs to relations with international organisations and NGOs.
Dr Fariz Ismailzade, Executive Vice-Rector at ADA University and member of the Educational, Cultural Heritage, and Science Working Group, clarified to Azeri Observer magazine that each group produced a comprehensive document to develop the correspondent area in the liberated territories. Therefore, even though the focus is on creating infrastructure, all the state agencies are already working:
- ameliorative measures and cultivation of mainly perennial crops were carried out; actions to develop livestock, as primary herds and bee families have been located;
- the Ministry of Culture completed an inventory of 1376 historical and cultural monuments, all of them wholly demolished or vandalised;
- a series of iconic cultural buildings and historical monuments were restored in Shusha;
- an assessment of the pollution caused by Armenian metals companies to the transboundary Okhchuchay river was executed;
- initiatives “to offer tours to Aghdam for former residents” and “the preparation of two tourist routes: one to Aghdam and another to Fuzuli directed to Azerbaijani and foreign tourists” are planned by the Tourism Agency;
- potential highlights for future travellers were published by the magazine “Experience Azerbaijan”.
Taking the only advantage of rehabilitating the totally destroyed territories from scratch, Azerbaijan has taken the initiative to build the new infrastructure in order to meet modern standards with the most advanced technology. Remarkably, the area is being constructed under “smart village” and “smart city” concepts. The goal is transforming the region into a “Green Energy” zone with hydro, solar, and wind supplying all its electricity; “Kalbajar and Lachin regions have excellent wind energy potential, while Zangilan and Jabrayil regions have more solar energy potential”, Orkhan Baghirov explained. Accordingly, the Government of Azerbaijan has secured a prospective energy deal with British oil producer B.P. to establish a solar energy production facility.
Faced with such ambitious plans, “Azerbaijan is welcoming international support. In this first stage, the assistance mainly comes from subcontractors implementing governmental projects, and foreign investment is expected in the future. Meanwhile, the implementation of cooperation projects is being negotiated with Multilateral Organisations and Development Agencies”, Dr Ismailzade said. In this regard, President Aliyev had invited the countries that supported the military and political effort during the second war on Nagorno Karabakh to participate in the region’s restoration.
Considering the tremendous support from Ankara throughout the military occupation and then during the hostilities, the closest cooperation in the recovery process is with Turkish companies. Besides contracts to implement Azerbaijani projects in infrastructure, mining, and energy sectors, Turkish firms plan to build an Art School in Shusha, open a branch of Ziraat Bank in Shusha, and create a joint high technologies park. Other countries are also working in partnership with Azerbaijani officials and firms to restore the post-war Karabakh region.
The Italian company, Ansaldo Energia is supplying equipment to the power substations in Aghdam, Fizuli, Gubadli and Kalbajar districts. British companies are involved in mine clearance, urban planning and infrastructure development projects in Fizuli, and designing a master plan for the reconstruction of Shusha; in addition, Anglo Asian Mining is expanding its activities in the liberated territories. Furthermore, Hungary assists in demining operations, and Exim Bank opened a credit line for Hungarian firms willing to participate in the restoration process. To integrate a vast ranch of international partners, Caspian Event Organisers held in October, “Rebuild Karabakh 2021”, an exhibition of the experience, innovative solutions and investment proposals of companies from different countries, willing to contribute to Karabakh’s restoration, serving as a communication platform for dialogue with governmental agencies.
Meanwhile, the first “smart village” project is being implemented in the Agali village of Zangilan and is expected to be completed by early 2022. Baku integrated the companies’ products and solutions from Turkey, Israel, Italy, and China to improve the quality, safety, and efficiency of services in urban and rural areas, supply homes with renewable energy sources and promote technologically advanced agricultural practices. For example, China’s Huawei will introduce its AirPON solution; specialists from Turkey will build an ultra-modern renewable energy facility, Archimedes system, while an Israeli company will connect a buffalo farm to an analysis software programme, to apply the best solutions for feeding, cattle health, and milking activities. As a result, Aghali will have more than 200 houses, schools, kindergartens, outpatient clinics, e-government centres, a hydroelectric power plant, and will produce high-quality “made in Azerbaijan” Karabakh dairy products.
To summarise, the balance presented by Azerbaijan in the first year of restoring the liberated territories is very positive. Having won the second war on Karabakh, Baku is in an advantageous position to resolve the tensions in implementing the tripartite declaration. Moreover, with the international community’s support, both the Azerbaijani people and governmental entities are committed to the rapid rehabilitation of the infrastructure in the region. Currently, the world is waiting impatiently for the possibility of visiting these ancestral lands. But more important is the expectation regarding the compliance opportunity of the agreement in its article 7, “Internally displaced persons and refugees shall return to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”.