Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister since 2003, previously served as ambassador to Italy and as a senior member of Azerbaijan’s diplomatic missions to Washington and the United Nations. He did doctoral work at Brown University and is fluent in English. The interview took place in a formal conference room at the Foreign Ministry. The building, which is located in downtown Baku, was in the midst of a major renovation, including the erection of a fountain highlighted by a large globe in the plaza out front. Mammadyarov, a key player in the long-running negotiations over Nagorno Karabakh, received his guest in a double- breasted pinstriped suit, looking every inch the polished career diplomat he is.
Jon Sawyer: The international community has been attempting to resolve the Nagorno Karabakh dispute for a long time. You have been involved in the process for much of that time yourself. Did you imagine this would take so long, and can you comment on missed opportunities along the way?
Elmar Mammadyarov: When the hot conflict started here, during the time of war, I was working at our mission at the United Nations. Everyone was focusing then on the Balkans. We raised this issue – we said there was an ethnic cleansing here too, and suffering of people – but the big countries then were only involved with the Balkans.
Never mind that in 1993 the UN Security Council adopted four resolutions, which clearly indicated the position of the international community with regard to the conflict. The resolutions gave clear support for the principle of territorial integrity, that the Armenian army should immediately withdraw, and that IDPs [internally displaced persons] should be allowed to return to their homes with dignity.
That was the staged proposal at the time. The chairman of the Minsk Group then was an Italian diplomat – he was not actually a diplomat, rather a member of parliament. He proposed the initial steps. Unfortunately this deal was never implemented.
The conflict had started, its first phases beginning in 1988. Then came the war and then in 1994 a cease-fire, and after that negotiations. We came close to an agreement several times. In 1997 there was a serious attempt, a proposal that was presented to the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]. All countries except Armenia recognized the principles put forth in that proposal.
jS: In your view what is the current state of negotiations?
EM: Now, negotiations are going along. We can’t agree on these basic principles. In reality, mostly what we’re discussing now is the same we’ve discussed all along, with some different iteration. The only thing we have agreed on is that we should discuss the final status of Karabakh in the later stages. The first-stage negotiations have focused on preparing the way, by reaching agreement on the preliminary steps that must be taken:
1. That Armenians will withdraw all of their troops from all of the territories beyond the administrative borders of Nagorno Karabakh;
2. That international peacekeepers will be deployed to NK;
3. That reconstruction and rehabilitation of the territories will begin;
4. That displaced persons will be allowed to return in dignity to their homes
– including to NK and in particular to Shusha;
5. That normalization of life has begun.
And after normalization has taken place, and people feel that they are living without threats, without fears, then we will move to the final stage of negotiations, about the permanent status of Karabakh. Of course we consider it a part of Azerbaijan; Armenians have a different position. So OK, this is the question. But in reality this will be a very good ending, a way of bringing peace and stability in the region.
Unfortunately, the latest I have heard myself, in Paris, from my Armenian colleague, has created a lot of doubts, as to how serious the Armenians are in regard to real peace, how serious the Armenians are in regards to making a deal to resolve this conflict.
jS: What is the sticking point in negotiations?
EM: This is illogical, what I heard. We’re talking about the return of the IDPs. They agreed to the IDPs returning to areas beyond [the territorial limits of] Nagorno Karabakh; they also agreed to the return of the IDPs to NK itself. They agreed to the goal of forming an inter-communal existence. But then in Paris they said we object to the return of IPDs to NK. I said that is very illogical – not only from the point of view of negotiation tactics but as well as from the point of view of the logic of human beings. When we talk about rehabilitation you say yes, you agree on rehabilitation of the property of displaced persons. But who is going to do this rehabilitation? You’re going to invite the Swedes, or the Finns, to do this rehabilitation? A step-by-step approach to the rehabilitation of the territory should include the recognition that the people who used to live there are permitted to return to their homes; they should be involved themselves in the rehabilitation of the infrastructure, starting with the roads, their homes, the water supply. To do otherwise is contradictory to international law: You cannot disregard the right of people to return to their homes.
But here we are. I hope that the position which they have taken on these elements is simply dictated by their internal politics – but in reality I think we need to continue negotiations from the point of view of what I call educating the Armenians, that they will come to understand what needs to be done. For us it’s very important. I’m always trying to understand and recognize what kind of strategy they have in mind. If they have a strategy to annex Nagorno Karabakh I do not believe it is a serious strategy. It is a suicidal strategy because we will never be able to agree to that.
jS: How do you mean, “suicidal”?
EM:We have based our policy on the norms and principles of international law: with regard to support of territorial integrity, with regard to respect for the rights of indigenous people, with regard to respect for national minorities. What I can feel is that on the part of Armenia it’s only tactics. But tactics do not come to an agreement. It’s an attempt to postpone, to win time. Yet winning time I do not believe is truly in the national interest of Armenia.
In terms of the latest developments in the country, in the region, and in the world, the Armenians sometimes totally miscalculate what we see as the true ongoing processes in the world. From our point of view what we see is ‘Look, the conflict with Armenia is a very sensitive issue, very sensitive for Armenians and for us. This is the major problem for us – I can say it is the only problem, today, in terms of our policy priorities.’
But in reality we have to be more realistic. We have to say that this is one of the regional conflicts that we can see, of which throughout the world there are a hundred of them. But meanwhile there is also energy security, and the pipeline that has just recently been inaugurated and is already starting to operate. And the hope is that that will be followed by the gas pipeline, followed by the railway construction. These are real projects, which definitely – like it or not – will change the whole geopolitical reality in the region. And one should recognize this.
You see, it’s a question of time. I personally do not believe that time is working in favor of Armenia in this matter. Because, policy-wise, I cannot say they have any strategy.
jS: The Armenians look to Kosovo, to East Timor – territories that either have won international recognition or appear headed that way. They cite the support for this perspective from leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
EM: You can imagine, in the case of East Timor that Indonesia was always there. In my work at the United Nations, I followed closely the work of the committee on decolonization. The resolution on this to Indonesia was to keep their hands off. Then Indonesia made the decision itself to give up on East Timor. And by the way I cannot exclude the possibility that in 50 years someone will say let’s give it up, we don’t need this territory, because of developments in the overall situation. But in reality that should be done appropriately and in accordance with the law.
The time of the Wild, Wild West, when the Colt revolvers or machine guns or Kalashnikovs made the law, is gone. The people in Yerevan sometimes are thinking outdated thoughts, from maybe 50 years ago, like this is Yalta again. They’re thinking that at the moment they have military strength, the machine guns, and that therefore they can draw the borders as they wish. I do not believe that is any longer the sole factor in international relations. I do not believe that this is a seriously considered element.
The second point, which is the more dangerous development, is what is happening in Azerbaijan itself. What I call the impact of BTC [the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline connecting Azerbaijan’s fuel resources to Turkey and on to Europe] is very important for public opinion in Azerbaijan. We are starting to change – the Azeri people, psychologically, are starting to change – what I might call our Vietnam syndrome. We are finding out – the nation and our people – that we are not a failed state.
We can establish a well-organized, well-developed political system, a well- organized economic system – and this is very, very strongly followed by my president – which is based on European values. One of the priorities of our foreign policy is to consider deeper cooperation with the European and Euro-Atlantic structures; to pursue further possible integration. We’re trying to be careful with our wording, not to get ahead of ourselves. We understand that the first question is to us, that we have to reform our political and economic system and then prepare our people for the further, full, integration into these structures. This is a very important element in our vision, our strategy, how we see our country in the next generations, the next decades. And we’re doing this.
I believe for example that democracy in Azerbaijan is at least not less than in other countries of the former Soviet Union, and even in some cases more well- established. Let’s talk about opposition parties. They are much stronger in Azerbaijan than in Armenia or even in Georgia, even if Georgia is the love baby of so many Americans. I don’t know of any opposition group in Georgia that is as serious or in as strong a position as those here, nor in Armenia either. If such parties exist I haven’t heard of them.
So in reality, I think that is what we see, this is how we’re thinking about the future. And besides that, the government is doing a pretty good job. One of the major tasks, portfolios, of President [Ilham] Aliyev, something he promised in his inaugural speech, was that at the end of 2007 there should not be even one single tent camp left in Azerbaijan [for persons displaced by the Nagorno Karabakh war]. The population is saying that this is what they want and so we are creating that housing for them. And when they do return to NK they will simply take their belongings and move back.
jS: Is President Aliyev’s commitment that every one of the displaced persons will be in some kind of permanent structure, and out of the current camps?
EM: One of the three tranches from the oil fund of Azerbaijan is dedicated to creating better living conditions for the internally displaced. They will be dispersed around the country.
jS: So in your view the international criticism is unfair, and the allegation that your government has purposefully kept the displaced persons isolated, much like the Palestinians in Lebanon or Jordan, as visible reminders of the war’s unfinished business?
EM: In reality it’s a social and humanitarian problem, for sure. Can you imagine, almost 20 percent of our territory was taken. As foreign minister I am very often faced with IDPs, in particular, saying that I should create situation where they can return. And for sure, this has informed our statements in international organizations; it is part of our speeches, to assure the IDPs that we remain committed to their return. But in reality, in terms of the economic development of our state, this can be a dangerous situation. People, psychologically, have overcome the situation of the 1990’s. Their position is now more challenging, particularly with regard to pressing the government and its leadership to take stronger steps to regain our territory.
jS: That is one of the reasons the Minsk Co-Chairs released the framework principles, to get people of the region to understand that concessions are required on both sides. Has it helped?
EM:I was asked this question by our journalists. I said I don’t feel any problem with releasing the details [of the Minsk framework principles]. I think it was made in a timely way – and never mind the nervous reactions from the Armenian side, which obliged us to make statements in return from the Foreign Ministry here. In reality the ongoing discussion in the community is a positive development. I feel myself that our position is very just, that we are standing on international law.
We’re making all our efforts in regard to secure the return of our territories – in the first place the seven Azeri regions [outside Nagorno Karabakh] now occupied by Armenia.
jS: On the Armenian side they insist that the Minsk principles envision Armenia retaining interim control of Kelbajar and the Lachin corridor, the most sensitive of the seven occupied territories.
EM: They’re mixing up the two elements [of the framework principles]. We say it’s illogical that you try to keep these territories as hostages for a final settlement. They say it’s because of security and we say if you have security concerns tell us and we’ll address them, together with the international community. But you cannot take these territories as a hostage; to do so sounds like blackmail. Second, we have been standing on the concept of peace, to create conditions in which we can talk to each other. It will be difficult but to do so we cannot build a wall between the two countries. The most important element of the framework principles is for the two countries to start talking with each other. Unfortunately the Armenian government is considering the case of Nagorno Karabakh as a done deal – that they won the war and therefore they should retain the territory.
I read carefully the statements by the [Minsk] Co-Chairs to the OSCE permanent council. It’s very clear. They talk of special modalities for Kelbajar and Lachin, meaning special modalities for the peacekeepers there, because the Armenians have raised security concerns in those regions and we say OK, we’ll address them. We even proposed more. They always talk about the necessity of a corridor, with unimpeded access. We say OK, that’s a serious issue. We say OK, let’s do the road, from Soviet times, one that would connect Azerbaijan through Nagorno Karabakh and on through Armenia, Nakhchivan and on to Turkey. That’s an existing road; we just need to invest a small amount of money. It would be excellent PR. We could call it “the road of peace.” It would give us access to our territory in Nakhchivan and Armenians would get access to Nagorno Karabakh and to Turkey. We see it as win-win-win. They say it’s not serious.
I say consider what’s happened in Bosnia. The coming of the UN there was met with a lot of suspicion, skepticism, but it’s now better. The party of war should transform to the party of peace.
jS: In that same spirit, why not agree to Nagorno Karabakh’s call for direct talks with them?
EM: I don’t feel any problem with this. I said OK, let’s agree on the seven territories, on the peacekeepers, and then we’ll talk -- with our people, our subjects. It’s a simple question we would put to them: What do you want? Is it political development, economic development, your own flag? Sit down and start negotiating. It’s no big problem.
At the moment most of the army people on the line of control are Armenian. So we negotiate directly with both of them, through the Armenians. I personally favor that our people talk to the people of Nagorno Karabakh, when we’re talking about issues directly related to them. I have no problem with that.
jS: If there’s no problem, why is this seen as such an obstacle on the other side?
EM: It’s the sensitivity of it, the fact that every eighth person in Azerbaijan is an IDP. We live in a part of the world that is not colorful; it’s only black and white. There are no grays, no subtle shadings. It’s black or white, like it or not. That’s why we need more efforts here, to create more trust. I proposed as part of negotiations that we take 10 people to Shusha. Let’s see if they can find a common language. And probably they will find it easier than we imagine because they’ve known each other for years.
jS: But what about direct talks now, with the government of Nagorno Karabakh?
EM:From the legal point of view, the question is who does the talking. It can’t be the Foreign Minister because that would acknowledge Nagorno Karabakh as a separate, “foreign” entity. But we have a ministry of the interior and of culture, and perhaps they could serve that function. Definitely there is a role for internal conversations.
I pledge support for a special fund dedicated for NK. The whole budget from Yerevan for NK is $27 million. I propose to make it $100 million a year – our own millennium challenge grant.
jS: On the subject of confidence-building, there have been controversies recently over alleged arson against Azeri properties along the border and also accusations from the Armenian side that Azeris have destroyed ancient khatchkars, the stone crosses that are such a symbol of Armenian heritage. Have you considered the possibility of joint assessment teams to investigate these accusations, as a means of building trust among the peoples?
EM: Why shouldn’t we try that? I proposed it to the Council of Europe. Only I said, don’t do it just for the khatchkars alone. Go to Armenia, and to the occupied territories too, and address our claims as to ruined Muslim cemeteries and the photographs we have showing that they put cattle in our mosques. We have photographs of a monument created in Karabakh in 1968, to mark the 150th year since Azeris were removed from Iran to NK, under the protection of the Russian czar. This was a monument that was exploded. We also have photos showing Arabic names on a grave, and then the same stone with the cross and crescent taken off. We can give you hundreds of such facts. What I’m talking about is the strategy and concept of negotiations. As soon as you start yelling and screaming in cases like this it’s not a help. And so on about the allegations of arson, or of the destruction of cultural treasures, I’ve said let’s ask for international observers. But there’s no response from Armenia.
jS: In your view, what role have the Russians and the Americans played in attempts to resolve the Nagorno Karabakh conflict?
EM:Good question. One thing I can’t agree with is that when Russia says it doesn’t want to make pressure on any side as to conflict resolution; that it should engage only when both sides voluntarily agree and accept an agreement, to say that at that point Russia is ready to be the guarantor. To me that’s the wrong message, the wrong signal – particularly to the Armenians; because everyone knows that militarily, economically and politically they are very much dependent on Moscow. I would be happy if Russia said yes, we are ready to interfere. On the bilateral side the Russians recognize that occupation is occupation – and cannot be defended.
jS: But what about President Putin’s many references to Kosovo’s pending independence, as a precedent for the frozen conflicts of the former Soviet Union?
EM: Each conflict has its own roots. To some extent separatism has played a role in each of them. It’s the legacy of the Soviet Union. But in Kosovo they still have [many] Serbs there, whereas there’s not a single Azerbaijani still in NK. We have 30,000 Armenians still in Baku. As for the Kosovo model, I think we have to do our own work and do it ourselves. Again, it’s very important to understand, to recognize, what the Armenians’ strategy is. If there’s a strategy that they want to annex a part of Nagorno Karabakh, or NK itself, then that’s a very different situation.
Armenian Americans are also doing a lot. They still have a lot of leverage. I understand the difficulties of the internal politics of the United States. You’ve got a big and rich Armenian diaspora that can manipulate Congress. But on the other hand, having a deep knowledge about the financial situation in Armenia, the state itself and its budget, I can say they are moving slowly toward the status of a welfare state, living only from the grants and credits that come from foreign dollars.
jS: But Armenia itself is showing strong economic growth.
EM:Of course, on a per capita basis. They lost half their population. Per capita GDP [gross domestic product] goes up, of course – it’s a simple economic explanation. But again this is very interesting: What is the strategic economic development plan for the state of Armenia? Every country is finding its niche in the world economy, what area is most useful to develop. This is especially the case for small states. We recognize that energy is the main component in our budget. We recognize that sooner or later it will finish, that we need to pay attention to assure a more diverse economy and to prevent overheating of the economy. We’re talking agribusiness; we recognize the need for that. We have $50 million this year invested in that, $100 million planned for next year. We use agricultural equipment we bought from Japan. As a result we’ve gotten a boom in the agricultural sector plus a boom in transportation infrastructure. We’ve started developing transport lines north-south and east-west and we’ve almost finalized contract for the last 132 km to reconnect the rail line through Georgia to Turkey.
But as to these sorts of criteria for development, did you hear anything reasonable in Armenia? IT [Information Technology], they say. Excellent. Or a gas pipeline from Iraq through Armenia. That’s a $125 million project, which they’ve just sold to Gazprom. That is, they sold part of their national security. The decision to give this to Gazprom means that their treasury is empty. They can’t come up with $125 million even to build a pipeline that’s essential to their national security.
jS: What do you see as the implications of a possible U.S.-Iran conflict, for the south Caucasus in general and for Azerbaijan in particular?
EM: It would be the worst possible scenario. I hope they will not [go that route]. The signals we receive now are that all of the Big Six [the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and China] are interested in doing this by diplomatic means.
jS: Why do you call this the worst possible scenario?
EM: Because it’s our neighborhood. Because 40 percent of the Iranian population are ethnic Azeris. Because Iran is the only route by which we can make a land connection to Nakhchivan – otherwise it’s only via air or by way of Georgia and Turkey. We recognize the right of Iran to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program in full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
jS: You were stationed in Washington from 1998 to 2003, during the run-up to the U.S. invasion to Iraq. What lessons do you draw from events in Iraq?
EM: Of course you know you’re speaking to a foreign minister, and foreign ministers don’t like military solutions. But as I said earlier there are frustrations among the general public, here as in America, and it can happen that the demand for military action will grow very strong. The president has to follow public opinion.
jS:Is the current rapid build-up of military spending in Azerbaijan a reflection of those frustrations, and those demands?
EM: With regard to increased military spending, this is part of the Armenian propaganda. They have lots of opportunity, judging from the ill-prepared articles that have appeared in the Western press. They criticize us too much, which shows the influence of the Armenian diaspora. I spent six and a half years in Washington. I learned a lot about the Armenian diaspora.
The military budget of Azerbaijan is going to rise because of the rise in the whole budget. Defense takes about 10 percent of our whole budget, which is not much different than most NATO countries. Everything is going up. I hope the Foreign Ministry expenditures will go up, too. We’re starting to be a regional leader and we should behave as such. This is obvious. Can you imagine we’d increase the budget and keep military spending the same, especially given that we are in conflict with our neighbor and our territories are occupied? This is ridiculous.
jS: What about the promotion of democracy here in Azerbaijan? Do you resent the engagement by the United States and other outside groups, and the criticisms they often make?
EM: People more deeply involved than I see this as a legacy of the Soviet Union. It’s a question of generations. Definitely this will be done in an evolutionary way. With a new generation there will be better understanding of how to address these issues. Education is very important. I’m not so naïve as to say that we have achieved everything the European Union is asking of us. But it’s important not for the EU but for us – to use this standard of development of the state.
If it’s only criticism for the sake of criticism then I don’t accept it. If it’s constructive criticism – how to deal with police, services, elections process – all that is useful.
Is the help useful? Through the years, yes. The Council of Europe is doing a good job. We meet with them often, to finalize our action plans, on instituting the rule of law, democracy, and so on. It’s steadily developing. We’re inside the process. That’s what is most important, taking into consideration our history, culture, and religion.
What is good for the United States sometimes cannot work in Azerbaijan. We should take into consideration the realities on the ground, the level of democracy we have.