Several months into the Russian-brokered ceasefire that has halted fighting between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, the battle to define the narrative of the conflict has moved from the battlefields of the disputed territory to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This month, Baku and Yerevan have filed duelling suits at the ECHR, accusing each other of human rights violations during their three-decade conflict, and especially during last year’s 44-day war.
The ECHR lawsuits are just the latest chapter of a continually evolving post-conflict relationship between the two countries, in which Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev has emerged triumphant and Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has been left fighting for his political life. The scene in Moscow on January 11th, when Russian president Vladimir Putin welcomed Aliyev and Pashinyan for their first face-to-face meeting since last year’s hostilities, underscored the diverging fortunes of the two men.
Aliyev, riding the political high of his country’s greatest military triumph since its independence from the former Soviet Union, spoke of a bright future amidst talk of a transportation deal connecting mainland Azerbaijan with the enclave of Nakhchivan. Pashinyan, under political assault domestically since the defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh, struck a very different tone, stressing issues surrounding prisoners of war that remain to be resolved.
Whereas Pashinyan has clung on to his premiership mostly thanks to the weakness of his opponents, Aliyev’s military success has cemented his control over a country he has led since 2003. As Azerbaijani social media has trumpeted over the past two months, Baku now controls essentially the whole of Azerbaijan for the first time. The question now facing the government is how, or even if, the sudden end of Armenian occupation will change the country’s opaque and authoritarian internal politics.
Does Baku have alternatives to autocracy?
For decades, the spectre of renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (known to its ethnically Armenian population as Artsakh) has served as an effective cudgel for the Aliyev regime to silence domestic dissident, even as oil and gas wealth flowed into the pockets of well-connected elites who in turn featured in international corruption scandals like Azerbaijani Laundromat.
Now, Aliyev’s government faces serious challenges in “winning the peace” after a war even its most ardent critics supported. Those critics, including investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and human rights lawyer Rasul Jafarov, joined the overwhelming groundswell of public support for the military campaign, recognizing the occupation of Azerbaijani territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as a precondition to any real reform in Baku.
With those territories having been re-taken, successfully re-integration will mean reversing three decades of virulently nationalist official rhetoric demonizing Armenians. Convincing tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians to accept Azerbaijani rule will also require a level of respect for basic freedoms and rights that has not been seen in Azerbaijan since Soviet rule began a century earlier.
Sadly, if Aliyev’s willingness to tackle Azerbaijan’s corruption issues offers any indication of his openness to change, meaningful reform is likely a long way away. According to Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, Azerbaijan ranks 126th out of 180 countries. At the same time, Azerbaijan is one of the world’s worst performers in terms of press freedom, ranking 168th in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. The vicious cycle of graft and repression in Azerbaijan means journalists and civil society actors militating for transparency are met with the full punitive force of the state.
Track record on corruption offers little hope
Even that, however, has not stopped journalists like Khadija Ismayilova, whose international profile has made her a bête noire for Aliyev. Early last year, the same ECHR in which Azerbaijan is now suing Armenia delivered an embarrassing judgement against Baku, when it ruled Azerbaijan had violated the journalist’s rights in order to “silence and punish Ismayilova for her journalistic activities.” All while facing prison sentences and criminal proceedings, Ismayilova and other journalists have exposed systematic corruption at the highest levels of Azerbaijan’s ruling elite, including among the Aliyev family but also the country’s top officials.
In 2017, for example, Ismayilova and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) uncovered more than a million dollars in payments linked one of Azerbaijan’s highest-ranking law enforcement officials, then-deputy chief of the Anti-Corruption General Directorate Ali Nagiyev. The OCCRP’s reporting found Ali Nagiyev’s sons, Ilgar and Ilham, involved in major real estate transactions in the Czech Republic, most notably a $1.25 million transfer from a company known to be part of the Azerbaijani Laundromat network.
Per the OCCRP, Ali, Ilgar, and Ilham Nagiyev, as well as Ali Nagiyev’s brother Vali, also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments made to bank accounts in the Czech Republic, ostensibly for “computers.” The investigation found the family’s companies, including AME Holding, invested millions of dollars in Czech resorts and real estate projects during Azerbaijan’s oil boom in the early 2010s, buying an entire city block in the historic spa town of Marianske Lazne. Work on those projects was reportedly suspended following the 2014 oil crash.
Far from facing scrutiny for his alleged role in a corruption scheme, Nagiyev has instead been promoted, becoming head of Azerbaijan’s State Security Service in June 2019. The position makes now Colonel-General Aliyev a key figure in the tense negotiations with Armenia over the status of the countries’ border and the implementation of the November peace agreement. For her efforts, Ismayilova’s freedom from prison remains conditional, and she continues to face a travel ban.
The OCCRP uncovered a plethora of examples showing how €2.5 billion were funnelled abroad with the help of European banks. In the years since, Aliyev’s government has continued to spend lavishly on mega-projects, even as basic public services failed to meet the country’s health and educational needs. Military victory in Nagorno-Karabakh means Aliyev and his top officials might be able to ignore questions over corruption and public spending over the weeks and months to come, but as nationalist fervour gradually wears off, Azerbaijan’s rulers will need to contend with the fact they no longer have a useful Armenian threat to distract attention from their own actions.
Expert Samir Poladov speaks at Mine Action Agency virtual news conference
On April 7, 2021, Azerbaijan’s National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) held a virtual news conference among international experts in protection against minelaying, with Samir Poladov as the main speaker, according to the agency’s website http://anama.gov.az/news/225.
The participants examined the ways of shielding the world’s countries from mine planting and mine attacks, answering the journalists’ queries about the relevant international regulations and other cases related to long-range missile systems.
Replying to the question about Armenia’s Iskander, Samir Poladov pointed out that the global community had taken a great interest in the ANAMA report. As he put it, “On behalf of Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan and Supreme Commander of the country’s Armed Forces, the agency is in charge of mine and unexploded ordnance clearance. Since December 2020, ANAMA has been involved in demining in the city of Shusha. The crew has so far discovered and removed 686 unexploded bombs from the 234-thousand-square meter territory (23.4 hectares). At the same time, the agency’s specialists have examined 183 houses and courtyards, as well as 11 multi-storey buildings”.
Apart from this, Mr. Poladov drew the audience’s attention to a March 15 cleanup operation which saw the discovery of the remains of two exploded rockets in Shusha. Having checked the missile’s 9M723 identification number, the organization conducted an additional investigation and concluded that the debris belonged to an Iskander-M missile. In addition, a missile crater was found in the city of Shusha. As the expert said, “The media have already unveiled the exact location of both missiles. The mentioned rocket (NATO Reporting name: SS-26 Stone), which has a maximum range of 400 km, a 920-mm diameter and a 7.2 m-length, carries a warhead of up to 480 kg and has an initial launch weight of 3800 kg. With the demining process underway, we will keep you updated on the new developments. Thank you for your attention and questions”.
The next ANAMA conference is scheduled for May. The exact dates will be announced in advance within a week.
For reference. Samir Poladov is Deputy Chairman of the Board of Azerbaijan’s National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA).
Why 'Khojaly is a genocide'?
The United Nations General Assembly affirmed the crime of genocide describing it as “a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings.” Thus, it proves that Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group. The most widely studied and catastrophic examples are, however, historically close: the Nazi Holocaust against the Jew, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and tribal warfare in Rwanda. Nevertheless, these massacres and genocides have not turned the bloody pages of the history, and the world faces in modern era too - writes Mazahir Afandiyev, Member of the Milli Majlis of the Republic of Azerbaijan
Not so far, but in February 1992, the whole Azerbaijan watched in horror as their TV screens showed the aftermath of a brutal killing: dead children, raped women, mutilated bodies of elderly people, frozen corpses scattered across the ground. This shocking footage was taken at the site of the Khojaly massacre – the worst war crime in the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. As a result of genocide act, about 6,000 inhabitants, of the town, 613 Azerbaijani civilians, including over 200 women, 83 children, 70 elderly, and 150 missing, 487 wounded, and 1,270 civilians were taken hostage.
The massacre took place on a date when Azerbaijani civilians, attempting to evacuate the town of Khojaly after coming under attack, were gunned down by Armenian troops as they fled towards the safety of Azerbaijani lines. This brutal attack was not simply an accident of battle. It was part of Armenia's deliberate policy of terror: killing civilians would intimidate others into fleeing the region, allowing Armenia's army to occupy Nagorno-Karabakh and other regions of Azerbaijan. This was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple.
The Khojaly massacre is currently recognized and commemorated by parliamentary acts adopted in ten countries and in twenty-one states of the United States of America after great efforts and international campaigns organized by the Republic of Azerbaijan. The “Justice for Khojaly” International Awareness Campaign was one of them, launched on 8 May 2008, at the initiative of Leyla Aliyeva, General Coordinator of the Islamic Conference Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation. To date, more than 120,000 people and 115 organizations have joined this campaign, which functions successfully in dozens of countries. Social networks, exhibitions, rallies, contests, conferences, seminars and similar activities are other effective tools promoting its goals.
According to the International Humanitarian law, UN Convention and various treaties the genocidal acts and actors themselves being punishable as international crimes, other punishable conduct includes conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempts to commit genocide and complicity in genocide (Art. III of UN Genocide Convention). Nevertheless, despite the fact that Republic of Azerbaijan reaffirmed resolutions of the UN Security Council in regard to establish peace and justice in the Nagorno-Karabakh region internationally recognized areas of Azerbaijan, the “Khojaly” has not earned a fair assessment by the international community either, or the genocide actors participated in “Khojaly” stays unpunished.
The scale of Khojaly and the genocide actors – Armenians were mentioned and written on the well-known newspapers, journals, and books in various times. Nevertheless, the one of the important books was the “My Brother’s Road” written by Marker Melkonian. This book written by an Armenian and also dedicated the life of a “hero”, Monte Melkonian, Armenian militant clearly proves that the assault on the town was a strategic goal, adding "but it had also been an act of revenge.” The most painful moment is the “hero” call in the book to a person who actively participated in the massacre that night.
Moreover, one Armenian leader, Serzh Sargsyan said: "Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us; they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that [stereotype]. And that’s what happened." His remark was published in an interview with U.K. journalist Thomas de Waal in a 2004 book about the conflict.
Once again, the massacre occurred in “Khojaly” by Armenians is an ethic clearance by facts based on the rules and regulations of international humanitarian law, UN Conventions, human rights perspectives on women and children’s rights, and the destroyed city of Khojaly. Thus, Azerbaijan will continue its struggle to remember the victims of Khojaly city for the sake of alive people who witnessed the night in Khojaly.
A recognition of the Khojaly massacre would not only be the fulfillment of rights of people who became victim in that bloody night, but also prevent the future genocides and massacres could happen against humanity. While being blind for this genocide, the world will allow future generations to lose hope for unity and dignity among nations.
Author - Mazahir Afandiyev, Member of the Milli Majlis of the Republic of Azerbaijan
The views expressed in this article are personal to the author and do not represent the opinions of EU Reporter.
For Azerbaijan, what comes after the military victory?
2020 will be remembered as a year of glorious victory in Azerbaijan. After nearly thirty years, the country liberated the territories that it lost to Armenia during the 1990s, known as Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan made seemingly light work of this impressive military victory. It took just 44 days for the country, with support from military ally Turkey, to bring an end to a conflict that some of the world’s most influential diplomatic powers had failed to effectively mediate for almost three decades.
This is clearly a source of great pride. After the victory, Azerbaijan put its military might on display through the streets of Baku. 3,000 military personnel and more than 100 pieces of military equipment paraded the streets of the capital city, witnessed by scores of Azerbaijanis, and overseen by Presidents Aliyev and Erdogan.
But the new year brings new challenges, and one big question – what comes after military victory?
The next stage for the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been neatly coined as the ‘three Rs’: re-construction, re-integration, and re-population. The slogan might sound simple, but the reality will be far from it. Victory in this arena will take much longer than 44 days, but Azerbaijan has started outlining a promising vision.
Following the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh, senior Azerbaijani figures accused the Armenian government of ‘urbicide’, shocked to see the level of destruction that had befallen their homes, cultural monuments, and even the natural environment. This is most visible in Aghdam, a majority Azerbaijani city nicknamed the Hiroshima of the Caucasus because Armenian forces methodically destroyed every single one of its buildings in the 1990s, except the mosque.
Although reconstruction from this position will not be easy, if Azerbaijan can harness the potential of the land, it will most certainly be worth it.
Nagorno-Karabakh has already been touted as the next hotspot for the Azerbaijani agricultural and manufacturing industries – but what is perhaps more interesting are the government’s proposals to drive tourists to the region.
Plans have begun for the construction of an airport in the re-captured Fizuli disctrict, work to develop a motorway between Fizuli and Shusha is underway, and the government intends to build several tourist centres throughout Nagorno-Karabakh.
The goal is to attract tourists from across Azerbaijan, and abroad, by shining a light on the many cultural sites of significance in the region, including Shusha, the Azykh cave and parts of the city of Hadrut.
Alongside existing sites, there are further plans to develop cultural life with literary festivals, museums, and concert venues.
Of course, in the long term, this has the potential to bring significant income to the region, but first, reconstruction requires funding. Already, the 2021 Azerbaijani state budget has allocated $1.3 billion for restoration and reconstruction work in the Karabakh region, but the government aims to draw international investment to bolster their funds.
It is hoped that regional partners, such as Turkey and Russia, will be enticed by the prospects of regional development.
A well-connected Nagorno-Karabakh can be used to form trade routes that could bring significant investments into the Caucasus region. Ironically, one of the countries that could benefit from this most is Armenia.
In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the potential for economic co-operation between the two countries seems unlikely, but in time it could go some way to assist with the realisation of the second ‘R’, re-integration.
Ethnic re-conciliation is one of the greatest challenges in any post conflict situation. The Azerbaijani authorities have committed to ensuring that Armenian citizens are protected in line with their constitutional rights and have promised to offer any Armenian’s who wish to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijani passports, and the rights that come along with them.
But this alone will not be enough to build the confidence that is needed for Azerbaijanis and Armenians to live in peace, side by side. Wounds are still fresh. Azerbaijanis know that building the trust that will enable re-integration will take time. But there is reason to be optimistic.
Officials and analysts often point to Azerbaijan’s proven track record of multicultural co-existence as promise for the prospects of re-integration. Recently, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Azerbaijan wrote in the Times of London about his experience taking up post in a Muslim majority country where the Jewish community is “thriving”.
What is likely to be a much easier task for the Azerbaijani authorities is the final ‘R’, repopulation.
Azerbaijan has amongst the highest number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the world. More than 600,000 Azerbaijanis were forced to leave their homes, either in Nagorno-Karabakh or in Armenia, after the first Karabakh War.
For almost all of them, the region remains home, and they are desperate to return home, but they rely on reconstruction before they can do so. That is precisely why the 3 Rs constitute a virtuous cycle that Azerbaijani leaders are setting in motion.
Azerbaijan stunned many with their military victory, and they intend to surprise the world again with their ability to deliver the conditions of lasting peace in the region.
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