“We want to put an end to the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh by peaceful means…but at the same time, our patience also has limits.”
Ilham Aliyev is president of Azerbaijan and commander-in-chief of an army that for 16 years has been on the brink of war.
The southern Caucasus country has been locked in conflict with Armenia since the region of Nagorno Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1993.
Aliyev’s country is also of significant strategic interest to Europe as it sits on an estimated five trillion cubic metres of natural gas.
But its economic and democratic prospects depend on a resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh dispute.
Is there a peaceful way out of this “frozen conflict” nearly 16 years after a ceasefire was declared?
euronews went to the Azerbaijani capital Baku, to ask President Aliyev.
euronews: President Aliyev welcome to euronews and thank you for welcoming us here. Nagorno Karabakh, first of all. How do you evaluate the chances of a peaceful resolution to the conflict?
Aliyev: We have hopes about that because the process which has continued for many years must lead to a peaceful resolution. But of course it will depend on the willingness of Armenia to comply to international law norms, to withdraw the troops from the international recognized territories of Azerbaijan, and then peace will be established.
euronews : So you’re rather optimistic, if I understand correctly.
Aliyev: I can tell you that the proposals of the mediators are based on restoration of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, (they) are based on the withdrawal of Armenian troops from all the occupied territories, beyond the administrative borders of Nagorno Karabakh, the return of internally displaced Azerbaijanis (IDPs) to that land and opening of all communications.
euronews: You’ve been quoted as saying that if the Armenian side does not withdraw its troops from the seven occupied territories of Azerbaijan and return this land, then Azerbaijan would take those provinces back through a military offensive. Do you maintain this position?
Aliyev: This is a fundamental right of Azerbaijan, as I mentioned before, given to us by international organizations, including the United Nations. We can not afford the conflict to be in such a frozen situation for another 15 years.
euronews: It has already been frozen for 16 years…
Aliyev: Of course, so there should be an end to that. We want to put an end to that by peaceful means, and we are working on that, but at the same time, our patience also has limits. I hope that what has been agreed basically before and what we are planning to agree during 2010 will put an end to conflict and peace will come to the Caucusus.
euronews: Nagorno Karabakh’s final status. Is there room for any concessions in this respect?
Aliyev: Azerbaijan will never agree to independence of Nagorno Karabakh, or to any kind of mechanisms or procedures which will eventually lead to secession. Interim status for Nagorno Karabakh can be one of the solutions. We live together. Armenians live here, Azerbaijanis lived in Armenia, so there was no problem in the past. So reconciliation must happen and after that, people, of course, will communicate and we will see what could be the final status of Nagorno Karabakh.
euronews: Even though it’s premature to anticipate a deal between Turkey and Armenia, how do you perceive the impact of the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation on the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict? Is it an opportunity or a threat?
Aliyev: We are concerned that if that happens regardless of any progress on Nagorno Karabakh, Nagorno Karabakh’s prospects for a peaceful settlement will be very weak. And what then? To our minds, it will lead only to more difficulties in the region. Therefore, I think that now it’s maybe a unique opportunity, when we have already the Turkish-Armenian process in progress, and at the same time we came to the final stage of the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, to combine the energy of those two processes so that no country in the region could consider itself abandoned, could consider that its national interests are ignored. Because if that happens, then tensions are unavoidable.
euronews: Your country established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, before being forcably incorporated into the Soviet Union. What do you think about those who say you run your country like a post-Soviet dictatorship?
Aliyev: These kinds of expressions, they are insulting to us. Sometimes we become the subject for very unjustified and very biased critical attacks, in the international media, in so-called international human rights groups. These attempts to present Azerbaijan as undemocratic are absolutely unacceptable. We understand that as Azerbaijan’s importance is growing, the attemps to influence Azerbaijan are growing from various parts of the world.
euronews: What about those who say that the opposition in Azerbaijan doesn’t stand a fair chance, and that a lot of your opponents have been silenced?
Aliyev: Well, it’s up to the people to decide. If opposition in Azerbaijan is weak, it’s not our fault. And I can tell you now why opposition is now in a very disastrous situation: the people of Azerbaijan are living better and better. During the crisis year of 2009, our economy grew 9.3%, industry 8.6%, inflation 1.5%. Hard currency reserves are 20.4 billion dollars. In these circumstances, what can the opposition deliver? Only criticise? Well, they’re doing it on a daily basis, we do not object.
euronews: But in March 2009, there was a referendum, and there has been a change in the constitution, which abolished presidential term limits. Do you want to remain in office indefinitely?
Aliyev: Well, that was not made for any kind of personal reasons. This practice exists in many countries.
euronews: Not in democratic ones…
Aliyev: Well, it depends. If you have a king, which is a nominal head of state, and a prime minister who can be elected five times, it’s not that different to from what we have here. If you look at the European countries you will see.
euronews: You don’t consider yourself as a king, do you?
Aliyev: No, no. I consider myself as the head of the executive branch, which is, in the cases of your countries, the prime minister, who can be elected many times. So why people should be deprived from this right? If they have a choice, if they have a chance to choose.
Aliyev: …. they can choose whomever they want. And the democratic process in Azerbaijan is very active. We do not interfere in the internal issues of your countries, though there are a lot of things which we can not like, we can oppose, and we can consider to be ridiculous. But we never tell that.
euronews: For instance?
Aliyev: That’s because we never tell that. We behave in a very delicate manner. Internal issues of a country, its traditions, its history, its political system, its attitude to its national leaders must be left for the people of that country to decide.
euronews: Of course, but Azerbaijan is a member (of the Council of Europe)
Aliyev: If somebody wants to use this factor (*) in order to achieve something, we will not allow it!
*He’s speaking about what he names the “so-called democratic factor,” meaning big world powers that, in order to take advantage of small countries’ resources, use the democratic criteria to “destabilize” that small country.