‘Azerbaijan not forcing anyone to leave:’ Azeri envoy talks


Ten days after Azerbaijan’s 24-hour offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, a prospective peace agreement promises to resolve a three-decades-long conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

According to Baku, Armenia had occupied the Nagorno-Karabakh region and deployed military forces there even after a 2020 ceasefire, which Azerbaijan perceived as a threat to its security. Now, however, tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians have reportedly fled Nagorno-Karabakh, citing concerns of potential ethnic cleansing, despite Baku’s assertions that they will be treated as equal citizens.

On September 26, senior advisers to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met in Brussels to prepare for a potential meeting between the leaders in Spain on October 5.

Ahead of those talks, in exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Israel, Mukhtar Mammadov, discussed how Baku views the situation.

The Post reached out to local Armenian representatives as well, but did not receive a response by press time. This interview has been modified only for length and clarity.

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh region arrive by truck in the border village of Kornidzor, Armenia, September 26, 2023 (credit: REUTERS/IRAKLI GEDENIDZE)

Can you describe the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh from your perspective? 

Ambassador Mammadov: We first need to understand how the situation got to this point and if there was an alternative – and we think there was.

After the [second Nagorno-Karabakh] war in 2020, Azerbaijan, for the second time, was the first to initiate a peace process, despite all the atrocities committed by Armenia against our people.

In the meantime, we were calling on the international community to discuss the situation’s fragility and the need for the international community to support this peace process and ensure that Armenia understood the value of it. We were optimistic, but there were problems on the ground.

What kinds of problems?

The Armenians were smuggling weapons, placing land mines, and creating hysteria around what they called “a blockade of the Lachin road.” But almost every day, the ICRC  (International Committee of the Red Cross) was crossing, and people were crossing. [The Armenians], however, were using it for military purposes. And when we established a checkpoint – which every country has on their borders, Israel has checkpoints – they started this campaign against Azerbaijan, because they wanted to use the road for military purposes.

One of the severe triggers [of the recent escalation] was the land mines. Over 300 land mines exploded in Azerbaijani territory, and over 60 civilians, military and police were killed. Others were wounded, mostly on their hands or feet.

On 19 September, in the early morning, several mines exploded where people were crossing, and civilians and police died or were wounded.

As a result of our counter-terror operation, we discovered how much ammunition, weapons, tanks and explosives were stored in Karabakh, in houses, farms and civilian facilities.

The operation was less than 24 hours. Its purpose was to ensure that the 10,000 foreign troops on Azerbaijan soil, whom we hadn’t invited there, would leave. No country would accept a single uninvited foreign soldier. They were Armenian soldiers who stayed in the area after 2020, or that had been smuggled in since. Now, they are leaving. We opened the corridor for them to go back to Armenia. We have not persecuted them. Those who leave their arms are fine; they can return wherever they came from.

Azerbaijan now has complete control of the enclave after more than three decades. What will the policy be for the people living there now?

Starting the process of reintegration is necessary. We invited Armenian representatives to Baku to begin the process, but unfortunately, that invitation was declined.

Azerbaijan has always been a diverse country. We have many nationalities: Jewish, Russian, Georgia, Kurds and others, and they all have rights under the constitution. Ten ethnic groups learn their language at school. It was declared by the president last week that we see Armenians [who live in Karabkah] as our citizens.

There are lots of videos of people fleeing. Will they be able to leave their homes if they choose to? If not, what happens to the property?

The thing is, those you call fleeing, more of them are soldiers or military groups that have nothing to do with the region. We are open to talking to those Karabakh residents who have lived there forever and are not outsiders. They don’t have IDs and documents; Azerbaijan is not forcing anyone to leave its territory; we declared anyone who wants to stay is free to do so, and we won’t prosecute.

At the same time, video footage shows police and military helping injured and older adults. We have nothing against these people; they are leaving due to three decades of propaganda [against Azerbaijan].

Some people were born after the conflict and have not interacted with Azerbaijanis. The elders, many of them, speak the Azerbaijani language. But the youngsters were raised under this propaganda that we are evil. A lot has to be done to change it, and this is one of our focuses.

We lost 30,000 people in the 1990s [during the first war between the two countries] and 3,000 in the recent [2020] war. People have pain and sorrow. We understand the value of moving on to the next stage. It won’t be easy, but we have to start.

An Azerbaijani service member and a Russian peacekeeper stand guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Shusha (Shushi) in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, November 13, 2020. (credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)

How do you see what just happened in comparison to the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem? 

We don’t compare; every conflict, process, and war has different contexts. I would refrain from comparing. We never compare our conflict with Armenia with any dispute in the Middle East. We look at how various conflicts are solved and what initiatives were taken that could be relevant for us.

On the other hand, we had seen that before 19 September, the government of Armenia and Armenian representatives compared what was happening to them and the Holocaust. Azerbaijan was far from the Holocaust [in Europe], but we were one of the safe havens for European Jews. We saved the lives of several thousands of Jews. The Holocaust was one of the greatest tragedies of humankind. Many Jews still have pain and links to it and do not see it right to use this comparison on social media.

We have looked at Israel for its multiculturalism. Like Azerbaijan, Israel has built an environment where [citizens can celebrate] Ramadan, Passover and Easter simultaneously, and people can express their faith freely. As the first Azerbaijan ambassador to Israel, it has been important for me to learn a lot about this society and see what my country can learn.

One of the last sticking points of a peace agreement is the Zangezur Corridor. Can you explain?

This is a corridor connecting mainland Azerbaijan to its exclave of Naxcivan. The 2020 cease-fire agreement included a commitment to open transportation and communication lines. There have been several meetings with Armenia and Russia; so far, they have refused.

We don’t have territorial claims. We only ask for access to a railway and access to this strip [of land] to go to Naxcivan, because Azerbaijanis have been for 30 years unable to cross that strip, so they had to fly or take buses through Iranian territory. So, we asked them to open that corridor. Also, it would be commercially helpful for the Armenian side.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I want to stress that we don’t have any issues with civilians on the ground. We are sending humanitarian assistance, not for show, but because we see them as our citizens. As for ethnic cleansing, Azerbaijanis faced ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, when more than a million people were forced from their homes. We would never do it to any country or nation. The acts on the ground are the opposite of ethnic cleansing. The [Armenians] are free to stay.

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