President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has held a question-and-answer session with some 200 members of the press from around the world, gathered in the city of Shusha. It was recaptured from Armenia in 2020, during the Second Karabakh War. Since that conflict, a peace agreement has proved elusive, writes Political Editor Nick Powell from the Shusha Global Media Forum.
President Ilham Aliyev took questions from journalists for nearly three hours at the Shusha Global Media Forum,.
He described the forum as “a remarkable event for our country and for Karabakh”. Shusha, he added, is a symbol of Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War but also of peace; after it was liberated the war stopped.
Shusha has been officially declared by presidential decree the cultural capital of Azerbaijan. The government is restoring the city’s monuments after the Armenian occupation when Shusha’s traditional 17 mosques and 17 springs were destroyed. Five of the springs again have water.
Symbolically, the forum took place in a hotel newly built on the site where Armenian separatists planned to build the ‘parliament’ of their breakaway republic. But President Aliyev observed that the Armenian church remained untouched. He said Azerbaijan was not dealing in revenge and had left hostility on the battlefield.
Armenian revanchism remained, said the President. However, Azerbaijan’s army was much stronger than when it secured victory three years ago and the fact that Karabakh is Azerbaijan is acknowledged more and more often by the international community.
In contrast, there had been ambiguity from global actors during the decades of Armenian occupation, with the goal of freezing the conflict. President Aliyev recalled unsuccessfully asking for sanctions, “so we had to do it ourselves, we had to implement Security Council resolutions of the United Nations on the battlefield”.
Now, if international brokers said Azerbaijan must accept reality, he could reply “I agree!” Russia, the United States and the European Union are each trying to facilitate a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The President said his government was working in good faith on all three tracks, as he described the potential paths to peace, but so far without an end result.
“Armenia needs to make, I think, one of the final steps. They already made several steps after the war; I would not say that these were not steps which they made voluntarily” he said, adding that during the last two and a half years,”several episodes … clearly demonstrated to Armenia that if they do not recognise our territorial integrity, then we will not recognise their territorial integrity”.
So far Armenia has verbally acknowledged Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and that Karabakh is Azerbaijan but it is yet to take the crucial step of putting it in writing. If Armenia put its words on paper, perhaps at forthcoming talks in Moscow, President Aliyev said that there could be a peace treaty by the end of the year.
Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has taken a more belligerent view, stating that a fresh war with Azerbaijan remains probable without a peace treaty between the two countries. “So long as a peace treaty has not been signed and such a treaty has not been ratified by the parliaments of the two countries, of course, a war is very likely”, he said in an interview with Agence France Presse, published on the same day as President Aliyev was speaking in Shusha.
The President characterised the European Union’s efforts to broker peace, spearheaded by Council President Charles Michel, as a supplementary and supportive mechanism that had so far worked more or less successfully. Tensions had perhaps been decreased, enabling Azerbaijan and Armenia to understand each other better.
The Azerbaijani President and Armenian Prime Minister last met in Brussels on July 15, for what Charles Michel described as “frank, honest and substantive” exchanges. He highlighted that the leaders had once again fully reconfirmed their respect for the other country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, “based on the understanding that Armenia’s territory covers 29.800 km2 and Azerbaijan’s 86.600 km2”.
In Shusha, President Aliyev stressed the importance of bilateral negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, however helpful the efforts of international actors. He said there are proposals for “bridging language” to bring the two sides together on the issue of national minorities, giving the same recognition to Azerbaijanis in Armenia as Armenians in Azerbaijan.
The President reflected on how Armenians had lived for a long time in Azerbaijan, first coming to Karabakh in 1805. They had gone from arriving as guests to claiming Shusha as an Armenian city, although Azerbaijanis were in the majority before the occupation.
Shusha’s first returning residents, who fled when Armenia invaded, are being welcomed back but many areas of Karabakh still need to be cleared of Armenian landmines. Planting them is a war crime that still continues, as Armenia has not supplied accurate maps of the minefields. It was important that peace talks were informed more by realism than optimism, the President concluded.