How France became the target of Azerbaijan’s smear campaign

What do the absence of French observers at Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, a group denouncing “French colonialism” and an online campaign targeting the 2024 Paris Olympics have in common? They are three facets of a new offensive strategy adopted by Azerbaijani diplomacy towards France. FRANCE 24 investigated this shift with the Forbidden Stories consortium and other media outlets as part of “The Baku Connection” project.

Azerbaijan’s February 7 presidential election, which handed President Ilham Aliyev an unsurprising and unopposed victory with 92% of the vote and a fifth term in office, provided the backdrop for the latest illustration of deteriorating Franco-Azerbaijani relations.

For the first time in at least a decade, there were no French elected representatives or independent observers on the team of international observers monitoring the vote. As Aliyev tightens his grip on power and the country’s electoral system, there were fewer West European nationals on the international monitoring team. But a few German, Austrian, Spanish and Italian nationals did make it on the observer mission.

Abzas media’s fearless journalists ended up in jail for delving into stories that challenged Azerbaijan’s regime.

Following their arrest, 15 media, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, joined forces to carry on their investigations. © Forbidden Stories

Escalating tensions

The absence of a French presence on the observer team is the result of a disaccord between France and Azerbaijan. French parliamentarians who have visited the former Soviet republic in the past as election observers no longer want to hear about it. “When you have a president who systematically gets elected with over 80% of the vote, I wouldn’t call that free and fair elections,” said Claude Kern, senator from France’s eastern Bas-Rhin region, who was part of the French delegation for the 2018 presidential election.

Even the Association of Friends of Azerbaijan at the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, has experienced an exodus of almost all its members in recent months.

Azerbaijan also appears to have closed the door on the few independent French nationals wishing to observe the presidential election on the ground. This was the case with journalist Jean-Michel Brun, who contributes to the websites, “Musulmans de France” and “Gazette du Caucase”, two portals with a very pro-Azerbaijani slant.

His candidacy was rejected by Azerbaijani authorities, without explanation, a few days before the election. “Relations with Azerbaijan are so rotten at the moment that they may have decided not to invite any French people,” said Brun. When contacted by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, Azerbaijani authorities did not respond to the reasons for the absence of French observers.

The election observer issue is part of a wider context of escalating bilateral tensions. The month of December was marked by a particularly sharp deterioration: a Frenchman was arrested in Baku and accused of espionage, Azerbaijan then expelled two French diplomats, Paris promptly responded, declaring two Azerbaijani embassy officials persona non grata. The diplomatic tit-for-tat was accompanied by acerbic statements from both sides.

For French nationals in Azerbaijan, the message was clear. “French authorities made us understand that we had to be careful because we could be expelled overnight,” confided a Frenchman living in Azerbaijan who did not wish to be named. Despite the strained ties between Paris and Baku, the Frenchman said he was quite satisfied with living conditions in Azerbaijan. When contacted, the French embassy in Azerbaijan did not respond to FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.

The rapid and overt diplomatic deterioration between Azerbaijan and France is a new low, according to experts. “It’s the first time we see this kind of development against a European country, a Western country,” said Altay Goyushov, a political scientist at the Baku Research Institute, an independent Azerbaijani research center. “This is a completely new development, when a French citizen is arrested on spying charges, it’s never happened before,” he noted, adding that Azerbaijani authorities have mostly used “these kind of tactics” against the domestic opposition and the media in the past.

A song against Macron

Historically, it hasn’t always been this way. France, like other European countries, has long been the target of what has come to be called “caviar diplomacy”. It’s a term employed by experts and journalists for over a decade to describe oil-rich Azerbaijan’s particularly lavish and distinctive lobbying strategy, which includes costly official trips for foreign politicians and influencers, and providing expensive gifts and funds for projects such as the renovation of churches. The payback, documented in several news reports, includes soft-power wins for Azerbaijan by securing its influence in Europe’s political and media worlds.

In the past, France held a special place for Baku’s political elites. France is a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, which also includes the US and Russia. Since the early 2000s, Paris has attempted to play a key role, within the Minsk Group, to try to find a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

France was therefore considered an important European power in Baku, one worth wooing and trying to keep on side. For Azerbaijan, this is particularly important since Baku has long believed the Armenian community in France to be very influential in French power circles, a position echoed by several pro-Azerbaijan figures interviewed by FRANCE 24 and the Forbidden Stories consortium.

The September 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, which resulted in Azerbaijan reclaiming a third of the disputed enclave, marked the beginning of the bilateral break. Two years later, in an interview with France 2 TV station, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France “will never abandon the Armenians”.

The French president’s avowal was viewed as a diplomatic slap by Baku. “It was very frustrating for Ilham Aliyev, who wants to be able to impose his demands on a weak Armenia, which is not the case if Yerevan thinks it can count on French support,” noted Goyushov.

This French support began to take shape after French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna’s October 2023 visit to Armenia when she announced that “France has given its agreement to the conclusion of future contracts with Armenia which will enable the delivery of military equipment to Armenia so that it can ensure its defence”. The announcement sparked disapproval from Aliyev, who accused France of “preparing the ground [for] new wars”.

Azerbaijan then began a diplomatic shift that increasingly resembled a 180-degree turn.

The tone was first set by a song performed on public television and soberly titled, “Emmanuel”. Broadcast a week after Macron’s France 2 interview, the lyrics featured criticisms levelled at the French president – accusing him of “betraying his promises”, for instance – while children punctuated each verse, singing “Emmanuel” in chorus.

It was a very public display of Azerbaijan’s new disaffection for France. Official accusations – such as the one frequently adopted by  Elchin Amirbayov, the Azerbaijani president’s special representative for the normalisation of relations with Armenia, accusing France of “undermining the peace efforts” with Armenia – represent just the tip of the iceberg of Baku’s new diplomatic turn. The submerged component includes a number of initiatives aimed at denigrating France.

Outrage over ‘French colonialism’ by the Azerbaijani state

In November 2023, a video highly critical of the organisation of the 2024 Paris Olympics emerged, sparking a media stir in France. According to VIGINUM, the French government agency for the defence against foreign digital interference, it was an influence campaign linked to “an actor close to Azerbaijan”.

In its technical report, seen by FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories, VIGINUM concluded that the operation, amplified by fake sites and accounts on social media, is “likely to harm the fundamental interests of the nation”.

On another, parallel track, Azerbaijan is promoting the claims of a new structure called the “Baku Initiative Group”. Its members, independence fighters from French overseas territories and regions such as French Guiana, Martinique, New Caledonia and Guadeloupe, have been denouncing France’s “colonisation” and “neocolonialism”, and have been calling for “decolonisation”.

Watch moreThe Baku Connection in Azerbaijan: ‘They won’t stop our investigations by arresting us’

“At the last Non-Aligned Movement conference [chaired by Azerbaijan] in July 2023 in Baku, we wanted to take stock of the situation in the territories still under French domination, and decided to form the Baku Initiative Group,” explained Jean-Jacob Bicep, president of the People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe, a far-left political party in the French overseas region. “The aim is to make the world aware of France’s colonial policy,” added another representative who asked to remain anonymous.

These pro-independence activists have already been able to make their case against what they call “French colonialism” before the UN on two occasions: first at a conference in September at the UN’s New York headquarters, then at its Geneva office in December. Both events were organised by the Baku Initiative Group.

What does this have to do with Azerbaijan? It’s not just a coincidence that Azerbaijan held the rotating presidency of the Non-Aligned Group at just the right time. The executive director of these “anti-French colonialism” gatherings is Azerbaijani Abbas Abbassov, who has long worked for Azerbaijan’s State Oil Fund. 

In addition, a July 2023 roundtable in Baku titled, “Towards the Complete Elimination of Colonialism” was organised by the AIR Center, one of Azerbaijan’s leading think tanks, whose chairman, Farid Shafiyev, is Azerbaijan’s former ambassador to the Czech Republic.

The Baku roundtable ended with an agreement on the establishment of “the Baku Initiative Group against French colonialism”, according to an AIR Center statement. When contacted, the think tank did not respond to questions from FRANCE 24 and Forbidden Stories.

Denouncing the ‘Macron Dictatorship’

The group of French nationals who have attended the Baku Initiative Group meetings includes well-known figures in the pro-Azerbaijani camp, such as journalist Yannick Urrien. “It was Hikmet Hajiyev who asked me to come to a conference of the group in Baku in October 2023,” explained Urrien.

Hikmet Hajiyev is a well-known figure in Azerbaijan power circles: he is the foreign policy advisor to Azerbaijan’s president and a close associate of President Aliyev. “He is the mastermind behind the smear campaigns against other countries, including France,” explained Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE) and a former advisor to Azerbaijan for around six years.

Aliyev himself used a speech at a decolonisation conference in Baku in November to deliver a scathing broadside against France. In his address, the Azerbaijani president referred to France more than 20 times, accusing Paris of “inflicting conflict” in the Caucasus and committing “most of the bloody crimes in the colonial history of humanity”.

Some of the French participants in Baku’s decolonisation conferences deny being instrumentalised or prefer to ignore the issue. “It’s none of my business. We seize every opportunity to achieve our goal, and all France has to do is settle its own problems with Azerbaijan,” said Bicep, the leader of the far-left People’s Union for the Liberation of Guadeloupe.

Another participant, who asked to remain anonymous, admits that the creation of the Baku Initiative Group came at the best possible time for Azerbaijan, which “doesn’t really have any chemistry with France at the moment”. It’s probably a way of asking the French government “to put its own house in order before criticising what others are doing [in Nagorno-Karabakh]”, he added.

Azerbaijan has also proved to be creative in increasing the resonance of these pro-independence demands on social media. On Twitter, they are relayed by anonymous Azerbaijanis and influential personalities, such as AIR Center director Farid Shafiyev.

Since October, the Azerbaijani parliament has even hosted a support group for the people of Corsica, the French Mediterranean island which has had a tumultuous relationship with mainland France since it became French in the 18th century. A communiqué published in early February by the people of Corsica support group set up by Azerbaijan’s parliament denounced “the Macron Dictatorship”. ().

In December, Azerbaijan was accused of sending journalists “known for their proximity to Azerbaijani intelligence services” to cover French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu’s trip to New Caledonia, a French archipelago in the Pacific. Their mission was to write articles “with an anti-France angle”, said radio station Europe 1, which broke the story.

A leaf from the Russian playbook

The creation of the Baku Initiative Group and the media hype surrounding the issue of anti-colonialism are “a monumental mistake”, according to Dupuy. The former advisor to Azerbaijan asserted that this strategy has “no chance” of moving France one iota on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, while scuttling relations between the two countries. It’s an opinion he says he shares with his contacts in Azerbaijan.

But it’s not surprising that Baku is resorting to this kind of tactic, explained Goyushov of the Baku Research Institute. With its internet disinformation operations and anti-West rhetoric harking back to the colonial era, Azerbaijan is taking a leaf out of the Kremlin playbook for winning friends and gaining influence in Africa.

“You have to take into account one thing: Azerbaijan was a part of the Soviet Union,” said Goyushov. Aliyev’s father, Heydar Aliyev, who was Azerbaijan’s president for a decade before his son took over the office, was a former KGB official – like Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Of course they are still almost the same,” added the political scientist. “They are copying each other in many ways. Their rhetoric against the West uses the same methods against their opponents, employs the same tactics on social media.”

But Goyushov doesn’t expect the Azerbaijani offensive to succeed. Firstly, because Azerbaijan does not have the same resources as Russia to deploy large-scale operations, such as Russia’s Doppelgänger disinformation campaign, which has been spreading false information in several European countries since 2022.

Secondly, Azerbaijan “is much more economically dependent on Western countries than Russia”, noted Goyushov. Aliyev, he believes, does not have the luxury of getting permanently upset with a power like France.

“It’s quite similar to what happened in 2013 with Germany,” explained Goyushov. Back then, Germany criticised the infringements of religious freedom in Azerbaijan, a country with a Muslim majority. In the lead-up to a presidential election in Azerbaijan, “there were numerous attacks on Germany for about two years”, noted Goyushov.

But then the anti-German attacks abruptly stopped. The reason, according to Goyushov, is that these smear campaigns serve mainly internal political purposes. “In an authoritarian regime, you sometimes need to find a common enemy that allows the country to unite around the leader,” he explained. Perhaps COP 29, the 2024 climate conference to be held in Azerbaijan in November, will be an opportunity for the authorities to redress the diplomatic balance with the West, and France in particular.

Eloïse Layan from Forbidden Stories contributed to this report.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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Israeli right-wing extremists intimidate Armenian protesters in Jerusalem

Israeli right-wing extremists have been harassing members of Jerusalem’s Armenian community protesting the razing of an important historic site. An Australian businessman purchased the area, called Cows’ Garden, back in 2021 to build a hotel there but there has been fierce opposition from the Armenian community. In recent weeks, the businessman has also participated in intimidating protesters.

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A car park in Jerusalem has become the centre of a heated debate over the past few months. The car park is part of a historic area known as the Cows’ Garden. Located in the city’s Armenian quarter, this site has cultural and historic significance to that community and includes a wall built during the Ottoman Empire.

However, back in 2021, Jerusalem’s Armenian Patriarchate – the religious authorities in the Armenian community – decided to sell the parking lot and several nearby buildings. They signed a 99-year lease with Australian businessman Danny Rubinstein (known as Danny “Rothman”), who owns the company Xana Garden.

He wants to demolish the site and build a luxury hotel. However, when news broke about the sale in October 2021, there was immediate outcry from Jerusalem’s Armenian community.

This is an image from Google Earth Pro showing the Cows’ Garden parking lot. © Observers

The Armenian Patriarchate granted a 99-year lease agreement to a private company called Xana Capital, according to a statement from SaveTheArQ, an Armenian collective that contests the legality of the sale. 

People opposed to the sale have been gathering in this parking lot, which is part of the Cows' Garden area, a site with significance for the Armenian community.
People opposed to the sale have been gathering in this parking lot, which is part of the Cows’ Garden area, a site with significance for the Armenian community. Observers

On October 26, 2023, the Armenian Patriarchate published a statement saying that they now considered the sale illegal, apparently backing out of the agreement they themselves signed and leaving the site in a state of legal flux.

‘There’s talk of construction, but what we’ve actually seen are attempts at intimidation’

Ever since the Patriarchate announced that they no longer considered the sale valid, there has been uncertainty about who actually owns the land. Our team contacted Jerusalem’s city government, but they said that they didn’t want to comment on the land and that it was a “private affair.”

We also reached out to the Patriarchate as well as Danny Rubinstein but neither of them wanted to speak about the contract either.

On November 6, Israeli settlers threatened protesters from the Armenian community opposed to construction on the historic site.
On November 6, Israeli settlers threatened protesters from the Armenian community opposed to construction on the historic site. Observers

However, the confusion around the site was immediately apparent. Just a few days after the Patriarchate’s announcement that they no longer viewed the sale as legal, demolition crews arrived on the site and began tearing up the parking lot, according to Setrag Balian, a member of SaveTheArQ.

There is talk about construction, but what we’ve actually seen are attempts at intimidation. They came with machines and armed settlers. We made a human chain and peacefully stopped the bulldozers. I was personally threatened by the director of the company [Rubinstein]. Since April, the settlers have banned a number of members of our community from parking in the lot. 

Bulldozers were brought in to demolish some of the lot.

Things became even more tense on November 6 when Rubinstein himself showed up alongside settlers armed with assault rifles. Skirmishes broke out between Armenian protesters and the armed men.

Arrival of Israeli settlers who faced off with Armenian protesters.

Many said that these armed men are radical activists from the Israeli far-right. Thanks to the online facial recognition software PimEyes, it’s possible to identify Saadia Hershkop, an American citizen known to have links to settler movements in the West Bank. On Instagram, Hershkop promotes organised trips to colonies in Hebron in the West Bank and poses for photos with weapons.

The image at the right was taken on November 6 in the Cows' Garden area in Jerusalem. The image on the left shows Saadia Herkshop posing with the Israeli Minister for Defense Ben-Gvir.
The image at the right was taken on November 6 in the Cows’ Garden area in Jerusalem. The image on the left shows Saadia Herkshop posing with the Israeli Minister for Defense Ben-Gvir. Observers

According to the Qatari newspaper The New Arab, Saada Hershkop is known to have links to a man named Eden Natan-Zada. On August 4, 2005, Natan-Zada killed four Israeli citizens as a sign of protest against the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Israeli law enforcement reportedly put out a warrant for Hershkop’s arrest in connection with the crime.

This video shows Saadia Hershkop (at left) and Danny Rubinstein (at right, in white), the owner of Xana Capital.
This video shows Saadia Hershkop (at left) and Danny Rubinstein (at right, in white), the owner of Xana Capital. Observers

An increase in attacks on the Armenian community

It’s not just the conflict around the Cows’ Garden. Some members of the Armenian community are reporting a rise in insecurity all round. Liana Margaryan, a member of the Armenian community who lives in Jerusalem, said the community began to feel intimidation after the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020. During the war, Azerbaijan reinforced its ties with Israel:

These attacks are carried out by Jewish extremists […] Most often, these are psychological attacks and threats. However, it has all become more intense since the conflict in the Cows’ Garden […] they even attacked an Armenian restaurant.

Setrag Balian says that the Israeli government holds some responsibility for the rise in the violence towards Jerusalem’s Armenian community.

Since 2022, when Binyamin Netanyahu’s government took office, including ministers from the far right, there has been an increase in attacks against Christians. This includes everything from spitting to harassment to assault. Since the current government took office, extremists have the feeling they can act in complete impunity. 

The people who live in the Jewish quarter have been our neighbours for the past 40 years and we haven’t had any problems with them. 

Of course, it’s common that people who don’t like to see churches or crosses spit at us or shout insults… but it was nothing big, we felt like those were isolated incidents. But recently, we’ve felt directly targeted. 

Despite the intimidations, members of the Armenian community say that they will continue to fight against the construction of the hotel with sit-ins and protests.

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The history and latest developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia | Explained

The Armenian flag hangs from a lamp post as Azeri police patrol a road leading into the city of Stepanakert, retaken last week, during an Azeri government organized media trip, in Azerbaijan’s controlled region of Nagorno-Karabakh, on October 2, 2023.
| Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: On September 20, Azerbaijan claimed full control over the contentious Nagorno-Karabakh region after local forces, mostly Armenians, agreed to be disarmed and disbanded. Hundreds of local Armenians fled the area overnight, fearing ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan.

The disputed region, called Artsakh in Armenian, has been a major ethnic conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. While it is home to a majority population of ethnic Armenians and an Azeri minority, it is internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan.

What is the history of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh?

Nagorno-Karabakh is located within the international borders of Azerbaijan. It is in the South Caucasus region between eastern Europe and western Asia, spanning the southern part of the Caucasus mountains that roughly includes modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

The conflict between Azeris and Armenians goes back to almost a century, when the Ottomans attacked the South Caucasus during World War I with the help of the Azeris. They targeted ethnic Armenians during this attack, and the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia descended into a full-blown war in 1920. This war especially affected the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, as the region had been incorporated into the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Azerbaijan and Armenia became part of the Soviet Republic soon after, and Nagorno-Karabakh was made an autonomous Oblast (administrative region) in Azerbaijan’s territory, while its population was majorly Armenian. In the final days of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh’s majority Armenian-Christian population held a referendum to break away from the Shia-majority Azerbaijan.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries, and Armenian rebels declared Nagorno-Karabakh an independent territory (although not recognised internationally). By 1993, most of Nagorno-Karabakh was under Armenian control. The war between the two parties lasted till 1994 and killed around 30,000 people.

In 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia entered a ceasefire brokered by Russia, but international borders for the countries were not demarcated. The Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the U.S., and France, was created by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in early 1990 to arrive at a peaceful resolution for Nagorno-Karabakh. None of the three suggested peace proposals could last.

The Madrid Principles of 2007, modified in 2009, proposed giving control of seven Karabakh districts to Azerbaijan, self-governance to the region, a corridor link with Armenia, an opportunity to the region’s inhabitants to express their will, return of refugees, and setting up of a peacekeeping operation. They weren’t accepted, even after another modification in 2011.

A four-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia broke out in 2016. The Minsk Group met again in 2017 in Geneva but failed to arrive at a resolution.

In 2020, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev launched an offensive to take Nagorno-Karabakh back, leading the country into a fierce war with Armenia that lasted six weeks and killed more than 2,000 people. The Azeri forces attacked Armenian defences and took back 40% of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan was backed by Turkey, and while Armenia’s ally Russia did little to support it, , it helped broker a ceasefire. Stepanakert, the region’s biggest city, remained within local control.

Despite the ceasefire, Azerbaijan did not give up attempts to capture Nagorno-Karabakh. In December 2022, it blockaded Lachin Corridor, the main road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the rest of the world, adding to the economic misery of the 1,20,000 people of the region. The road was blocked under the pretext of environmental concerns. “Prior to that blockade, around 90% of all consumed food was imported from Armenia. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh no longer receive 400 tonnes of essential goods daily,” Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ararat Mirzoyan said in a U.N. press release published on August 16, 2023.

Nagorno-Karabakh region

Nagorno-Karabakh region

Azerbaijan faced international criticism and promised to lift the blockade but added a checkpoint to contain the flow of goods. Russian peacekeepers deployed in the area were responsible for ensuring supplies to the region since 2020, but experts believe that the country’s war in Ukraine diverted its attention and resources from the area.

Latest developments

A fresh round of violence broke out in the area in September 2023 when Azerbaijan launched an attack against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting lasted one day, and a ceasefire was announced a day later.

In a statement, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and expressed “deep concern for the ethnic Armenian population” in the disputed region.

Why was Azerbaijan able to accomplish the accession now?

Experts believe Turkey has a big role to play in the latest developments in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijanis/Azeris are a Turkic ethnic group of mixed heritage and speak a language belonging to a branch of the Turkic family. Reuters reported that Turkey, however, denied any direct involvement in Azerbaijan’s offensive, although it is a political and military supporter of Azerbaijan.

“Turkey’s cooperation with Azerbaijan in military training and army modernisation has been underway for a long time. The Azerbaijani army’s success in the latest operation clearly shows the level they achieved,” a Turkish defence ministry official was quoted as saying.

Russia’s absence in the Caucasus is owing to its war in Ukraine. As retaliation to Russia’s lack of help over the last few years, Armenia on Tuesday voted to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) despite Russia’s warnings. Russian President Vladimir Putin can be arrested for war crimes if he enters countries that have signed and ratified the Rome Statute that created the ICC. Armenian officials, however, argued that the move has nothing to do with Russia.

Over 100,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, which is almost the entire population of the disputed region, have fled to neighbouring Armenia in the last ten days, World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. The exodus has triggered a massive humanitarian crisis.

(With inputs from agencies)

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Nagorno-Karabakh evacuations begin as Armenia warns of ‘ethnic cleansing’

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KORNIDZOR, Armenia — The first convoys of civilians have left Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia following an Azerbaijani military offensive amid growing warnings that a mass exodus could be on the cards.

On Sunday, humanitarian organizations and the Armenian government said that dozens of people had been evacuated after Azerbaijan agreed to open the Lachin Corridor that links the breakaway territory to the country. According to the Ministry of Health, the Red Cross escorted 23 ambulances carrying “seriously and very seriously wounded citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Meanwhile, other civilians say they had begged the Russian peacekeepers to take them across, after Karabakh Armenian leaders on Tuesday accepted a surrender agreement following just 24 hours of fierce fighting and shelling.

At a checkpoint near the village of Kornidzor, on the border with Azerbaijan, a steady stream of civilian cars is now crossing over — many laden down with bags or filled with loose bedding and other possessions.

At the border, POLITICO spoke to Artur, a Karabakh Armenian who had been stranded by the 9-month-long effective blockade of the region. Awaiting news of his relatives after Azerbaijani forces launched their offensive, he received a call from his sister to say she had been evacuated with the Russian peacekeepers.

After an hour of waiting anxiously, he was reunited with 27-year-old Rima. Sitting in the back of an SUV, she cried as her two children — aged three and one — unwrapped bars of chocolate, a luxury they have done without amid severe shortages of food and other essentials. “We’ve arrived,” she said.

Marut Vanyan, a local blogger, said many others were planning to follow suit. “People right now say everyone is leaving. In Stepanakert, there is no second opinion, everyone is trying to find a few liters of petrol and be ready any time, any second, for when we are going,” Vanyan said, speaking after being able to charge his telephone at a Red Cross station in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto capital.

At a Red Cross emergency aid point, one elderly man asked the camera crews and journalists why they had only taken an interest once the situation reached crisis point. “Where were you when we were in Karabakh? You want to film? Here are my legs,” he said angrily, raising the ends of his trousers to reveal bandaged, bruised shins.

At a Red Cross emergency aid point, one elderly man asked the camera crews and journalists why they had only taken an interest once the situation reached crisis point | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Meanwhile, Armenia’s prime minister warned that, despite assurances from Russia, “the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh still face the danger of ethnic cleansing.”

“If the needs of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are not met [so that they are able to stay] in their homes, and effective mechanisms of protection against ethnic cleansing not put in place, then the likelihood is increasing that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see expulsion from their homeland as the only way out,” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan predicted.

At the same time, Pashinyan said Armenia would welcome its “brothers” from the exclave — inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but held by Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population since a war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

The prime minister’s stark warning comes just two days after Pashinyan said he “assumed” Russia had taken responsibility for the fate of the population, after Karabakh Armenian leaders accepted a Moscow-brokered surrender agreement following almost 24 hours of fierce fighting with Azerbaijani forces. The embattled prime minister, however, said he believed there was a genuine hope that locals would be able to continue living in Nagorno-Karabakh.

A steady stream of civilian cars is now crossing over — many laden down with bags or filled with loose bedding and other possessions | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Shortly after Pashinyan’s address, the official information center for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic issued a statement saying “the families of those left homeless as a result of recent military action and who expressed a desire to leave the republic will be transferred to Armenia accompanied by Russian peacekeepers.” Officials will provide information “about the relocation of other population groups in the near future,” according to the statement.

According to Azerbaijan’s foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, the government will “also respect the individual choices of residents.”

“It once again shows that allegations as if Azerbaijan blocked the roads for passage are not true,” Hajiyev told POLITICO. “They are enabled to use their private vehicles.”

Dozens of trucks carrying 150 tons of humanitarian aid, organized by the The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Russian Red Cross, gained rare access to the region via a road controlled by Azerbaijani troops on Saturday. Speaking to POLITICO, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, said the guarantee for humanitarian aid access “once again shows the good intentions and seriousness of the Azerbaijan government to meet the needs and requirements of Armenian residents and also to ensure a safe and decent reintegration process.”

“People right now say everyone is leaving. In Stepanakert, there is no second opinion, everyone is trying to find a few liters of petrol and be ready any time, any second, for when we are going” | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Azerbaijan has said the Karabakh Armenians can continue to live in the region if they lay down their weapons and accept being governed as part of the country.

However, in an interview with Reuters on Sunday, David Babayan, an adviser to the Karabakh Armenian leadership, said that “our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. 99.9% [would] prefer to leave our historic lands.”

Accusing the international community of abandoning the estimated 100,000 residents of the besieged territory, Babayan declared that “the fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilized world. Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins,” he said.

Pashinyan has accused citizens with close ties to the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership of fomenting unrest in the country, with protesters clashing with police in the capital of Yerevan as criticism of his handling of the crisis grows.

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Aid shipments and evacuations as Azerbaijan reasserts control over breakaway province

More badly needed humanitarian aid was on its way to the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh via both Azerbaijan and Armenia on Saturday. The development comes days after Baku reclaimed control of the province and began talks with representatives of its ethnic Armenian population on reintegrating the area, prompting some residents to flee their homes for fear of reprisals.

The aid shipments and evacuations followed Azerbaijan’s months-long road blockade of the region led to food and fuel shortages. Baku followed with a lightning military offensive this week.

Nagorno-Karabakh came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. Armenian forces also took control of substantial territory around the Azerbaijani region.

Azerbaijan regained control of the surrounding territory in a six-week war with Armenia in 2020. A Russia-brokered armistice ended the war, and a contingent of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers was sent to the region to monitor it.

On Tuesday, Azerbaijan launched heavy artillery fire against ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. A cease-fire was announced a day later, toning down fears of a third full-scale war over the region.

Under the agreement mediated by Russian peacekeeping forces, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist authorities made sizable concessions: disbanding the region’s defense forces and withdrawing Armenia’s military contingent. But the question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status remains open, and at the center of talks between the sides that began Thursday in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh.

Russia’s RIA Novosti on Saturday published photos of tanks, air defense systems, and other weapons reportedly surrendered by the province’s separatist forces to the Azerbaijani army.

Hundreds of ethnic Armenians evacuated by Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh in the wake of the Azerbaijani offensive — which Baku termed an “anti-terrorist operation” — were filmed Saturday camping outside an airport near the Russian peacekeepers’ base.

Elena Yeremyan, from the village of Askeran, told Nagorno-Karabakh-based broadcaster Artsakh TV that she and her family “had no intention of leaving” the area, as they “didn’t feel safe anywhere” after Azerbaijani troops moved into the region.

Valeri Hayrapetyan from Haterk said that he and his neighbors scrambled to leave after Azerbaijani forces entered the village earlier that day.

“People left as they could. Someone even left without any clothes. They couldn’t take anything. There are people who haven’t eaten anything. Someone lost consciousness yesterday because of starvation,” he said.

A third evacuee, also from Haterk, claimed that Azerbaijani troops were not allowing young men to leave. Romela Avanesyan also referenced rumors that they might be imprisoned, but did not provide specifics.

The evacuees’ claims could not be independently verified.

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan called Saturday for the United Nations to send representatives of various agencies to Nagorno-Karabakh immediately to monitor and assess the human rights, humanitarian and security situation there. A message seeking comment on his request, made at the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting of world leaders, was sent to a U.N. spokesperson.

Mirzoyan complained that the international community had left the region’s residents in peril and deprivation since the road blockade began in December. It was no coincidence, he said, that Azerbaijan went on to make its military move in the midst of the U.N.’s biggest gathering of the year.

“The message is clear: ‘You can talk about peace, and we can go to war, and you will not be able to change anything,’” he said hours after Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov stood at the same rostrum.

Azerbaijan also feels that the international community has fallen short — by not making “real steps and targeted public messages to persuade Armenia to honor its commitments,” Bayramov said.

He said Baku that was working “to address the immediate needs” of people in Nagorno-Karabakh and intends to “reintegrate” them as “equal citizens.” Azerbaijan has said it will guarantee Nagorno-Karabakh residents “all rights and freedoms” in line with the country’s constitution and international human rights obligations, including safeguards for ethnic minorities.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement Saturday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and expressed “deep concern for the ethnic Armenian population” in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Blinken underscored that the U.S. “is calling on Azerbaijan to protect civilians and uphold its obligations to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and to ensure its forces comply with international humanitarian law,” Miller said.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s office said Saturday that Baku had set up a “working group” to provide Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents with medical care, food and other staples.

Azerbaijani authorities reported Saturday that they shipped over 60 tons of fuel that same day through the South Caucasus country’s territory, through a road leading from the city of Aghdam with Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional capital, Stepanakert.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also said Saturday that it had dispatched 70 tons of humanitarian aid, mostly flour, to Nagorno-Karabakh via the road connection known as the Lachin corridor. Russian peacekeepers were supposed to ensure free movement along the route, but Baku imposed a blockade in December, alleging that Yerevan was using the road for mineral extraction and illicit weapons shipments to the province’s separatist forces.

Armenia charged that the closure denied basic food and fuel supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh’s approximately 120,000 people. Azerbaijan rejected the accusation, arguing that the region could receive supplies through Aghdam — a solution long resisted by Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, who called it a strategy for Baku to take control of the region.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said earlier this week that it has enabled aid deliveries along the Lachin corridor.

Moscow has also sent over 50 tons of food aid and other “basic necessities” to Nagorno-Karabakh, the state-run RIA Novosti agency reported on Saturday. The Russian Defense Ministry that same day published a video showing Russian peacekeepers unloading the cargo.

Aliyev said through his press office that “better opportunities” had emerged to seek a peace agreement with Armenia after 30 years of conflict, largely centered on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.

His foreign minister told the General Assembly that the path forward is for Yerevan to take “tangible steps” to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty in the province.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the gathering that it was time “for mutual trust-building” between the adversaries, and that Russian troops “will certainly help.”

Meanwhile, protesters rallied again Saturday in Armenia’s major cities, demanding that authorities defend ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and calling for Pashinyan to resign. Armenia’s Investigative Committee said it had opened 49 criminal cases against demonstrators accused of calling for mass disorder, vandalism and carrying unlicensed weapons.

The Armenian police also told Russia’s Interfax agency on Friday that it had arrested 98 protesters at a rally in Yerevan.

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Armenians find themselves pushed aside yet again

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “inching ever closer to a great fracture in economic and financial systems and trade relations.”

That may be so, but not when it comes to Azerbaijan.

A country a third of the size of Britain and with a population of about 10 million, Azerbaijan has faced few problems in bridging geopolitical divisions. And recently, Baku has been offering a masterclass in how to exploit geography and geology to considerable advantage.

From Washington to Brussels, Moscow to Beijing, seemingly no one wants to fall out with Azerbaijan; everyone wants to be a friend. Even now, as Armenia has turned to the world for help, accusing Baku of attempted ethnic cleansing in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh — the land-locked and long-contested Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Warning signs had been mounting in recent weeks that Baku might be planning a major offensive, which it dubbed an “anti-terrorist operation,” and Armenia had been sending up distress flares. But not only were these largely overlooked, Baku has since faced muted criticism for its assault as well.

Western reaction could change, though, if Azerbaijan were to now engage in mass ethnic cleansing — but Baku is canny enough to know that.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan has been courted by all sides, becoming one of the war’s beneficiaries.

On a visit to Baku last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had only warm words for the country’s autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev, saying she saw him as a reliable and trustworthy energy partner for the European Union.

Then, just a few weeks later, Alexander Lukashenko — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s satrap in Belarus — had no hesitation in describing Aliyev as “absolutely our man.”

Is there any other national leader who can be a pal of von der Leyen and Lukashenko at the same time?

Aliyev is also a friend of Turkey; Baku and Beijing count each other as strategic partners, with Azerbaijan participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and the country has been working on expanding military cooperation with Israel as well. In 2020 — during the last big flare-up in this intractable conflict — Israel had supplied Azerbaijan with drones, alongside Turkey.

That’s an impressive list of mutually exclusive friends and suitors — and location and energy explain much.

Upon her arrival in Azerbaijan’s capital last year, von der Leyen wasn’t shy about highlighting Europe’s need to “diversify away from Russia” for its energy needs, announcing a deal with Baku to increase supplies from the southern gas corridor — the 3,500-kilometer pipeline bringing gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

She also noted that Azerbaijan “has a tremendous potential in renewable energy” in offshore wind and green hydrogen, enthusing that “gradually, Azerbaijan will evolve from being a fossil fuel supplier to becoming a very reliable and prominent renewable energy partner to the European Union.”

There was no mention of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, rampant corruption or any call for the scores of political prisoners to be released.

Azerbaijan uses oil and gas “to silence the EU on fundamental rights issues,” Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch complained at the time. “The EU should not say a country is reliable when it is restricting the activities of civil society groups and crushing political dissent,” he added.

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s Brussels office, warned: “Ukraine serves as a reminder that repressive and unaccountable regimes are rarely reliable partners and that privileging short-term objectives at the expense of human rights is a recipe for disaster.”

But von der Leyen isn’t the first top EU official to speak of Azerbaijan as such a partner. In 2019, then EU Council President Donald Tusk also praised Azerbaijan for its reliability.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, however, the EU’s courting has become even more determined — and, of course, the bloc isn’t alone. Rich in oil and gas and located between Russia, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a strategic prize, sitting “on the crossroads of former major empires, civilizations and regional and global powerhouses,” according to Fariz Ismailzade of ADA University in Baku.

And Azerbaijan’s growing importance in the latest great game in Central Asia is reflected in the increase in foreign diplomatic missions located in its capital — in 2005 there were just two dozen, now there are 85.

For Ankara, and Beijing — eager to expand their influence across Central Asia — Azerbaijan is a key player in regional energy projects, as well as the development of new regional railways and planned infrastructure and connectivity projects.

Thanks to strong linguistic, religious and cultural ties, Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s main regional ally since it gained independence. But Baku has been adept at making sure it keeps in with all its suitors. It realizes they all offer opportunities but could also be dangerous, should relations take a dive.

And this holds for all the key players in the region, whether it be the EU, Turkey, China or Russia. The reason Baku can get on with a highly diverse set of nations — and why there likely won’t be many serious repercussions for Baku with this latest military foray — is that no one wants to give geopolitical rivals an edge and upset the fragile equilibrium in Central Asia. That includes its traditional foe Iran – Baku and Tehran have in recent months been trying to build a détente after years of hostility.

For the Armenians, so often finding themselves wronged by history, this is highly unfortunate. They might have been better advised to follow Azerbaijan’s example and try to be everyone’s friend, instead of initially depending on Russia, then pivoting West — a pirouette that’s lost them any sympathy in Moscow.

But then again, Armenia hasn’t been blessed with proven reserves of oil or natural gas like its neighbor.

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Checkmate in Nagorno-Karabakh? How Azerbaijan got Armenia to back down

The Armenian separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday agreed to lay down their weapons following Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive in the Armenian-majority enclave. Between Moscow’s weakening position in the Caucasus and the West’s dependence on hydrocarbons, Azerbaijan has taken advantage of a favourable international context to complete a decades-long mission to control the disputed region.

After more than 30 years of conflict, the battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh may soon conclude. Under the guise of an “anti-terrorist operation” following the death of four soldiers and two civilians, Baku continued its efforts to reassert control over Nagorno-Karabakh on Tuesday. 

Armenian separatists – who have mostly governed the disputed territory since 1994 – promptly agreed on Wednesday to surrender their weapons following Baku’s lightning offensive, indicating they are open to talks on reintegrating the secessionist territory into Azerbaijan.

“An agreement has been reached on the withdrawal of the remaining units and servicemen of the Armenian armed forces … and on the dissolution and complete disarmament of the armed formations of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defence Army,” the Armenian separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement.

This announcement is a decisive victory for Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev who has made the reunification of his country a priority.

Separated from Armenia and attached to Azerbaijan in 1921 by Stalin, the predominantly Armenian mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has been a point of permanent tension between the two former Soviet republics since the collapse of the USSR.

Azerbaijan launched a military operation against the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region on September 19. © FRANCE24

In 1991, the territory declared itself the independent Republic of Artsakh but was never recognised by the international community. Then, in 1994, Armenia won the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, resulting in the de facto independence of the Republic of Artsakh which Azerbaijan refused to accept.

In the intervening years, the tables have turned, says Jean Radvanyi, geographer and professor emeritus at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO). Thanks to significant revenues from oil and natural gas, “Baku has taken advantage of the situation to rearm, with the support of allies such as Turkey, and the balance of power has continued to evolve”, says Radvanyi. 

This role reversal gave Azerbaijan the confidence to launch the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, which saw Baku’s forces overpower the Armenian military.

In the wake of this defeat, Armenia was forced to cede territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. The ceasefire stipulated the presence of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers tasked with guaranteeing the safety of the Armenians but this measure failed to stop regular armed skirmishes on the border.

Taking advantage of a divided Armenia, Azerbaijan then launched the second phase of its plan: a war of attrition designed to cut off the enclave’s 120,000 or so Armenians. Despite the presence of the Russian peacekeepers, beginning in December 2022, Azerbaijan blockaded the Lachin corridor, a narrow mountain road that links Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.

It wasn’t until September 18 – just one day before the offensive – that Red Cross trucks carrying food and medicine gained access to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkish support and Moscow’s declining influence in the Caucasus 

In both the first and second Nagorno-Karabakh wars, Azerbaijan received support from Turkey.

On Tuesday, a Turkish defence ministry official said the country is using  “all means”, including military training and modernisation, to support its close ally Azerbaijan but it did not play a direct role in Baku’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Baku’s success also appears to be the result of Moscow’s weakening regional position. Russia has struggled to maintain its traditional role as policeman of the Caucasus since it launched its offensive in Ukraine in February 2022.

“Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has been the guardian of the region, maintaining a kind of status quo, but Moscow is focused on the conflict in Ukraine, which seems far from over,” says Lukas Aubin, associate researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

What’s more, Russia has become much more dependent on Azerbaijan. The country serves as a corridor between Iran and Russia, allowing for the transfer of military supplies for the war in Ukraine and is one of the countries that enables Russia to circumvent Western sanctions

Finally, Moscow’s support for Armenia has been steadily waning in recent years. Elected in 2018, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has edged away from Russia and turned to the West for security guarantees.

Read more‘We never deliberately attacked civilians’: Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev interview

For instance, in November 2022, Pashinyan refused to sign the final declaration of the summit of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Azerbaijan is also a member. This signalled Armenia’s growing resentment at Moscow’s lack of support for the country.

“Pashinyan is pursuing a pro-Western policy, which was not necessarily the case at the outset, and which irritates Moscow,” says Laurent Leylekian, a South Caucasus specialist and political analyst. “Armenia ratified the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court to protect the Armenian minority in Nagorno-Karabakh.” 

This process began at the end of 2022, but ended, coincidentally, a few days after the announcement of the ICC’s arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin – at a time when Putin wanted to sully the ICC’s credibility, Armenia was legitimising it.

Since then, Pashinyan has multiplied acts of defiance towards the Russian president. In early September, Armenia announced humanitarian aid to Ukraine and undertook a joint military exercise with the United States, which began on September 11. In response, Moscow responded by summoning the Armenian ambassador and denouncing the measures as “unfriendly”.

‘It’s death or exile that awaits the Armenians’ 

A Western response is yet to materialise. But here again, the international context is working in Azerbaijan’s favour.

In January, the European Union signed a far-reaching natural gas import agreement with Baku, to reduce dependence on Russian supplies. A few months later, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, travelled to Baku to announce a new agreement to double gas imports from Azerbaijan.

In an article published in Le Monde, some fifty French lawmakers criticised a project that would once again place Europeans “in a situation of new dependence on a state with bellicose aspirations”.

“The West has always been rather hypocritical in this matter, preferring to negotiate gas and oil with Baku rather than genuinely support the Armenians”, says Radvanyi.

As Azerbaijan now enters negotiations with Armenian separatists from a position of considerable strength, the power asymmetry could spell danger for both the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia itself. 

“The (ethnic) Armenian leaders of secessionist Karabakh have long refused to acknowledge that this territory belongs to Azerbaijan,” says Radvanyi, for whom the power shift on the ground could lead to a “solution” to the long-lasting standoff over Nagorno-Karabakh. 

“I hope this solution will ensure the status of the Karabakh Armenians,” he adds.  

But other experts envisage much gloomier scenarios. “It’s death or exile that awaits the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh because it’s impossible for an Armenian to live in a country where racist anti-Armenian hatred is the raison d’être,” says Leylekian.

Speaking before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, an Armenian ambassador warned of “looming ethnic cleansing” in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh are trapped and they do not have a way to evacuate since Azerbaijan continues to block the only lifeline connecting with Armenia,” he said.

Another concern relates to the integrity of Armenian territory, as Nagorno-Karabakh could lose its role as a buffer zone between the two enemies of the Caucasus.

“There’s every reason to be worried. If this buffer zone were to disappear, Azerbaijan’s ambitions could be even more pronounced,” says Aubin. “Without Russian support and frank and massive support from the West, it’s hard to see the Armenian army being in a position to resist.”

In contrast with this, Azerbaijan’s presidential foreign policy advisor Hikmet Hajiyev said Wednesday that the country aimed to “peacefully reintegrate” Armenians living in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh and that it supports a “normalisation process between Armenia and Azerbaijan”.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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Azerbaijan claims full control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region as Armenian forces agree to disarm

September 20, 2023 05:16 pm | Updated September 21, 2023 05:31 am IST – YEREVAN, Armenia

Azerbaijan claimed full control of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region Wednesday after local Armenian forces there agreed to lay down their weapons following the latest outbreak of fighting in the decades-long separatist conflict.

Authorities in the ethnic Armenian region that has run its affairs without international recognition since fighting broke out in the early 1990s declared around midday that local self-defense forces will disarm and disband under a Russia-mediated cease-fire.

They also said representatives of the region will start talks Thursday with the Baku government on Nagorno-Karabakh’s “reintegration” into Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev trumpeted victory in a televised address to the nation, saying that “in just one day, Azerbaijan fulfilled all the tasks set as part of local anti-terrorist measures” and “restored its sovereignty.”

On Tuesday, the Azerbaijan army unleashed an artillery barrage and drone attacks against outnumbered and undersupplied pro-Armenian forces, which have been weakened by a blockade of the region in the southern Caucasus Mountains that is recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan said at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were killed and more than 400 others were wounded in the fighting. He said earlier that children were among the dead and wounded.

His casualty figures could not immediately be independently verified.

The hostilities worsened an already grim humanitarian situation for residents who have endured food and medicine shortages for months as Azerbaijan enforced a blockade of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

Thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh residents flocked to a camp operated by Russian peacekeepers to avoid the fighting, while many others gathered at the airport of the regional capital, Stepanakert, hoping to flee the region.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a speech to the nation that fighting decreased following the truce, emphasizing that Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh are fully responsible for its residents security.

“If peacekeepers have proposed a peace deal, it means that they completely and without any reservations accepted the responsibility of ensuring the security of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, and provide the conditions and the rights for them to live on their land and in their homes safely,” he said.

Mr. Pashinyan, who has previously recognized Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, said Armenia wouldn’t be drawn into the fighting. He said his government didn’t take part in negotiating the deal, but “has taken note” of the decision made by the region’s separatist authorities.

He again denied any Armenian troops were in the region, even though separatist authorities said they were in Nagorno-Karabakh and would pull out as part of the truce.

Protesters rallied in the Armenian capital of Yerevan for a second straight day Wednesday, blocking streets and demanding that authorities defend Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The U.S. White House national security spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about Azerbaijan’s military actions. “We have repeatedly emphasized the use of force is absolutely unacceptable,” he said, adding that the U.S. was closely watching the worsening humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s move to reclaim control over Nagorno-Karabakh raised concerns that a full-scale war in the region could resume between the two neighbors, which have been locked in a struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh since a separatist war there ended in 1994.

During another war that lasted for six weeks in 2020, Azerbaijan reclaimed broad swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories that were held for decades by Armenian forces. More than 6,700 people died in the fighting, which ended with a Russian-brokered peace agreement. Moscow deployed about 2,000 peacekeeping troops to the region.

The conflict has long drawn in powerful regional players, including Russia and Turkey. While Russia took on the mediating role, Turkey threw its weight behind longtime ally Azerbaijan.

Russia has been Armenia’s main economic partner and ally since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and has a military base in the country.

Mr. Pashinyan, however, has been increasingly critical of Moscow’s role, emphasizing its failure to protect Nagorno-Karabakh and arguing that Armenia needs to turn to the West to ensure its security. Moscow, in turn, has expressed dismay about Mr. Pashinyan’s pro-Western tilt.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Pashinyan on Wednesday, welcoming the deal to end the hostilities and start talks between Azerbaijani officials and representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said some of its peacekeepers were killed Wednesday, although it didn’t say how many and whether it happened before or after the start of the cease-fire. The ministry said the peacekeeping contingent had evacuated more than 3,100 civilians.

The separatists’ quick capitulation reflected their weakness following the Armenian forces’ defeat in the 2020 war and the loss of the only road linking the region to Armenia.

Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said the separatist forces, which consisted of several thousand poorly supplied men, were “probably not a match for the Azerbaijani forces.”

While many in Armenia blamed Russia for the defeat of the separatists, Moscow pointed to Pashinyan’s own recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan.

“Undoubtedly, Karabakh is Azerbaijan’s internal business,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “Azerbaijan is acting on its own territory, which was recognized by the leadership of Armenia.”

He voiced hope that Azerbaijan would respect the rights of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Aliyev and “condemned Azerbaijan’s decision to use force … at the risk of worsening the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and compromising ongoing efforts to achieve a fair and lasting peace,” the French presidential office said.

Mr. Macron “stressed the need to respect” the cease-fire and “to provide guarantees on the rights and security of the people of Karabakh, in line with international law.”

Azerbaijan’s presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev said Baku is “ready to listen to the Armenian population of Karabakh regarding their humanitarian needs.”

In announcing its military operation Tuesday, Azerbaijan aired a long list of grievances, accusing pro-Armenian forces of attacking its positions, planting land mines and engaging in sabotage.

Even though Aliyev insisted the Azerbaijani army struck only military facilities during the fighting, separatist officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said Stepanakert and other areas came under “intense shelling.”

Before the cease-fire, explosions reverberated around Stepanakert every few minutes on Wednesday — some in the distance and others closer to the city. Even after the truce was announced and the shelling could no longer be heard in Stepanakert, many residents decided to stay in shelters for the rest of the day.

Significant damage was visible in the city, with shop windows blown out and vehicles punctured, apparently by shrapnel.

The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office said Armenian forces fired at Shusha, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control, killing one civilian.

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Azerbaijan opens fire on Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh, three people reported killed

In this photo taken from video and released by Official Twitter account of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Artsakh Republic in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan on September 19, 2023, a damaged residential apartment building following shelling is seen in Stepanakert in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan on Tuesday declared that it started what it called an “anti-terrorist operation” targeting Armenian military positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and officials in that region said there was heavy artillery firing around its capital.
| Photo Credit: AP

Azerbaijan’s forces opened fire on September 19 on Armenian positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in what it called an “anti-terrorist operation,” and ethnic Armenian officials reported at least two civilians were killed and 23 wounded amid heavy artillery fire around the region’s capital.

Azerbaijan’s authorities also accused Armenian forces of killing a civilian, which brought the civilian death toll of Tuesday’s hostilities to at least three.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry announced the start of the operation hours after four soldiers and two civilians died in landmine explosions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The reports raised concerns that a full-scale war over the region could resume between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which fought heavily for six weeks in 2020.

The Ministry did not immediately give details, but said front-line positions and military assets of Armenia’s armed forces were being “incapacitated using high-precision weapons,” and that only legitimate military targets were attacked.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry, however, denied that the country’s weapons or troops were present in Nagorno-Karabakh and called “all rumors” about sabotage and planting landmines in the region “a lie and fabricated.”

In this photo taken from video released by Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan on Tuesday, on Sept. 19, 2023, explosion flame rises over an area which Azerbaijan says hosts Armenian forces’ positions in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan on Tuesday declared that it started what it called an “anti-terrorist operation” targeting Armenian military positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and officials in that region said there was heavy artillery firing around its capital.

In this photo taken from video released by Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan on Tuesday, on Sept. 19, 2023, explosion flame rises over an area which Azerbaijan says hosts Armenian forces’ positions in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan on Tuesday declared that it started what it called an “anti-terrorist operation” targeting Armenian military positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and officials in that region said there was heavy artillery firing around its capital.
| Photo Credit:

Ethnic Armenian officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement that the region’s capital Stepanakert and other villages were “under intense shelling.”

Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman Geghan Stepanyan said two people were killed in the firing — including one child — and 23 were wounded. At least eight of those injured also are children, according to Stepanyan.

The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office said Tuesday that Armenian forces fired at Shusha, a well-known city in Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control, from large-caliber weapons, and one civilian was killed there as a result.

Although Azerbaijan said the operation was limited to military targets, the defense ministry said that “humanitarian corridors” had been created for “the evacuation of the population from the danger zone.”

Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said the military operation may be part of a plan by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to get ethnic Armenians to leave the area.

“Maybe what we’re looking at, and again, it’s very early to say, is a kind of limited military action which will try to coerce thousands of Armenians to flee to Armenia. And then Aliyev can achieve his objective of taking over Karabakh with not so much bloodshed,” de Waal told The Associated Press.

Earlier Tuesday, Azerbaijan said six people were killed in two separate explosions in the region that is partly under the control of ethnic Armenian forces.

A statement from Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry, state security service and prosecutor-general said two employees of the highway department died before dawn when their vehicle was blown up by a mine and that a truckload of soldiers responding to the incident hit another mine, killing four.

Nagorno-Karabakh and sizable surrounding territories were under ethnic Armenian control since the 1994 end of a separatist war, but Azerbaijan regained the territories and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself in a six-week war in 2020. That war ended with an armistice that placed a Russian peacekeeper contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh.

However, Azerbaijan alleges that Armenia has smuggled in weapons since then. The claims led to a blockade of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, causing severe food and medicine shortages in the region.

Red Cross shipments of flour and medical supplies reached Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday, but local officials said road connections to the region were not fully open.

The hostilities come amid high tensions between Armenia and its longtime ally Russia. Armenia has repeatedly complained that the 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force was unable or unwilling to keep the road to Armenia open even though that duty was stipulated in the agreement that ended the 2020 war.

Armenia also angered Russia, which maintains a military base in the country, by holding military exercises with the United States this month and by moving toward ratifying the Rome Convention that created the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday denied claims that Russia was informed in advance of Azerbaijan’s intention to mount the operation, saying the peacekeepers were notified only “a few minutes” before it began.

Analyst de Waal said that the Russian peacekeeping force “has lost probably its best officers to the war in Ukraine” but that ”this breakdown in Armenia-Russian relations is a factor here.

“I think it encourages Azerbaijan to be bolder and it makes the Russians more ambiguous and less willing to to intervene. And, you know, it’s quite possible indeed, that the Russians want to use a crisis to instigate regime change in Armenia,” he said.

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Pashinyan: ‘Nobody promised it was going to be easy to reach peace’

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told Euronews that a road to reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan is possible, but work needs to be done.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says that peace is a must between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been host to some of worst violence in the south Caucasus’ recent history.  

After prolonged fighting between both sides over the mountainous enclave, a ceasefire was brokered by Russia in 2020. Since then both countries have been exploring avenues for peace.  

“Not only there can be, but there must be peace. This is my belief, my position. And this is what I believe in. But for this to happen, it’s also important for the international community to be aware of important nuances,” the Prime Minister told Euronews.

There have been two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Sitting down separately with both Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev, Euronews’ international correspondent Anelise Borges asked the same questions to both leaders – and offered them a chance to express their points of view without interruption or contest.

To watch the full Global Conversation interview with Prime Minister Pashinyan click on the player above.

Full transcript

Anelise Borges, Euronews:

This region has been the stage of some of the most violent episodes in the south Caucasus’ recent history. And the tensions have not really gone away since the 2020 peace deal. To what do you attribute the constant hostility?

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: First of all. The document was signed on November 9th, 2020. It is not a peace treaty or a peace deal, as you said, in its legal sense, but not so much as de facto, a number of its provisions are gravely, grossly violated. I agree with you that it can be and it is a certain concept of the future piece of architecture. And unfortunately, many provisions are regularly violated by Azerbaijan. They are currently violated. Now, you see, you said in your question, speaking of Nagorno-Karabakh – and everyone understands that – but Azerbaijan, for instance, continues to claim there is no Nagorno-Karabakh. Although the November nine trilateral statement, defines the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh as an entity, and the president of Azerbaijan signed that statement. 

Moreover, it reads that in Nagorno-Karabakh there is a line of contact, and Nagorno-Karabakh has a territory that is defined by paragraph seven of the trilateral statement. Moreover, paragraph seven of the statement provides that refugees and internally displaced persons shall return to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the related districts under the auspices of the UNHCR. Unfortunately to date, Azerbaijan has not secured it and this right has not fulfilled its obligation. Moreover, during the war, in a number of villages that the Armenian population was forced to flee from, they are carrying out construction works and Azerbaijan declares that it will resettle these territories with Azerbaijanis and all these factors, let alone that until now, in spite of paragraph eight of the trilateral statement, the prisoners of war, captives, hostages, other detained persons, other persons held have not been returned. 

There have been 33 prisoners, and recently two more persons got abducted. Now, turning to the Lachin corridor, which is mentioned in the trilateral statement to which you referred, the purpose of which is to ensure the link between Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia by signature of the President of Azerbaijan that this corridor must be under the control of Russian peacekeepers. The Lachin corridor, by the way, is not just a road. I want to draw your attention. It’s a five-kilometre wide space. It is currently illegally blocked by Azerbaijan.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: We’ll get to the Lachin corridor later. I wanted to ask you about these peace negotiations. You’ve been back from Brussels where you met the President of Azerbaijan, you’ve been meeting several times under the mediation of the EU as well. These peace talks have been filling many people with hope of lasting peace in this region. From what you’re saying we’re wrong to be hopeful so can there be peace and what can you tell us about what came out of these talks in Brussels?

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: “Not only there can be, but there must be peace. This is my belief, my position. And this is what I believe in. But for this to happen, it’s also important for the international community to be aware of important nuances. To be clear about why there isn’t progress at a sufficient pace. Let me go back to our penultimate meeting in Brussels when European Council President Charles Michel was present and I and the president of Azerbaijan agreed, or rather, we reached an understanding that Armenia and Azerbaijan will. Mutually recognised territories: the territory of Armenia. 

The 29,800 kilometres and the 86,600 square kilometres of Azerbaijan. The territorial integrity of each other. After that, Charles Michel made a statement to that end. After which, when Armenian journalists asked me about it, I publicly confirmed the facts. Up to this point, the president of Azerbaijan has publicly not confirmed that understanding. He has not denied it either. Now, this is a subtlety that creates a certain lack of trust. And our understanding also is that between Baku and Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, the main city there, there must be a dialogue between Baku and Stepanakert about the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh in the framework of an international mechanism. 

And that dialogue so far has not taken place but we need to follow up on this and we need to work for this. Nobody promised it was going to be easy to reach peace. If it were easy, it would have long ago been achieved.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: What about the mediation of the EU? Many international actors attempted to mediate this crisis, Russia, the US and now the EU has been playing a bigger role, what do they bring to the negotiation table?

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: I would like to start off by emphasising that the advantages of mediation have long been known to everyone. But all mediations come with certain shortcomings. They all have shortcomings, and each mediation has its peculiar shortcoming. And if you allow me, I’ll speak about the shortcoming. Look for the Brussels platform, that’s the problem we see and it’s been a continuous problem, is that around the table we reach a certain understanding and we do this in the presence of the European Council President. And if either side does not honour that understanding, or does not deliver upon that understanding, this is not followed even by a public assessment or specific assessments. 

Here’s a specific example in my presence and in the presence of the European Council President, back at the end of last year, Azerbaijan promised and undertook that in the next week to 15 days, and that was last year, they would let 10 prisoners of war. They have still not honoured that commitment. On the other hand, though, I assume that effective mediation is when the failure to honour and understand will be followed by at least a show of political attitude towards the one that fails to honour that commitment. At the Brussels platform, for instance, we are not seeing this. I keep raising this question. Let me even break a secret to you. We’ve even prepared a document that we called an audit, where we enumerate the understandings that were reached at the Brussels platform but were subsequently not honoured. And it’s quite a thick package. It turned out quite a thick package, which is alarming.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: You’re saying that Brussels is not following up when it comes to the shortcomings of either side?

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: If without diplomacy, then yes.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: Do you think that the fact that the West has been playing a bigger role here, the US and Europe, has antagonized a more traditional, regional power broker Russia, or the other way around, the fact that Russia is more involved in a buck down in Ukraine has given more space to other players to come and help you and Azerbaijan and potentially find common ground.

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: Those episodes do occur when we see some geopolitical jealousy. We’ve seen this, but I’m glad to say that now the emphasis seems to have changed somewhat, and that change concerns what we hear from different sides’ statements that any platform that is going to be favourable for the peace process, they would welcome and they will continue to welcome such platforms. And this is very important. Let me remind you that these international competition scenes are not linked with us directly. Because the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have been created for addressing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But since February 24, 2022, the co-chairs simply stopped interacting. 

Some of them decided they do not want to interact with the other co-chairs, and that’s when a problem came up. You’re referring or what I call geopolitical jealousy that emerged after that date. Before that, such a genre did not exist. But on the other hand, it would be more productive if the international partners bring together their efforts. There have recently been signs that nevertheless, they are somewhat interested in this latter logic.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: President Putin has invited you and the President of Azerbaijan for another round of talks in Moscow. What would you say Russia’s influence in this region is like today?

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: Let me first say that I have not received any invitation yet, I have to emphasise that. Regarding Russia’s presence, of course, due to the virtue of the events in Ukraine, not just Russia, but other geopolitical actors’ interest in our region has been declining because in practice Ukraine is where all the international attention is focussed. And yes, that is a factor. But Russia is present in our region. Russia is present in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia is present in the Republic of Armenia. 

But the EU is present too. Which is a new factor. The EU Civilian Mission on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the mission was supposed to be on both sides. Initially, that was the understanding which was reached in Prague on October 6, 2022, during the quadrilateral statement. That was when the EU mission first came to our region. Initially, it seemed that we had agreements to have the EU mission present on both sides of the border. But for unknown reasons, Azerbaijan withdrew or gave up on that.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: Let’s talk about the situation on the ground. You talked about the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, the US, and the EU, which have all demanded guarantees for the freedom of movement in the Lachin corridor. What do you know about what’s happening in this which is a crucial gateway for the people inside of Nagorno Karabakh?

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: Regarding the International Court of Justice, I want to view it separately from the other factors that you listed, because the decision of the International Court of Justice is legally binding. That is the highest international court, the decisions of which have the highest legal force. Based on Armenia’s application on 22nd February 2023, it decided that Azerbaijan must do everything within its reach to ensure the free movement of vehicles, goods and citizens in both directions through the Lachin corridor and on July 6, the court reiterate it, confirmed its decision. This is very important also for the logic of the international legal order because the international highest court’s decision is not being followed in terms of law and legality. I think this is a bad message and it’s food for thought for the international community. 

Anyway, we will be raising this issue in international instances. Now, what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, there’s a humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. What is a humanitarian crisis? No food is being supplied to Nagorno-Karabakh, no food. There’s no external supply of food. A number of essential commodities are not being supplied. Baby food is not supplied, and medication is not available. No hygiene supplies. No other essential goods are there. Natural gas supplied to Nagorno-Karabakh was interrupted by Azerbaijani electricity supply to Nagorno-Karabakh, it was interrupted by Azerbaijan. The supply of fuel was interrupted by Azerbaijan. So in this sense, there’s a real threat of hunger, as well as health problems and so on and so forth.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: You know that they deny all this, right? Azerbaijan keeps denying that the Aghdam road is accessible.

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: I don’t know what you’re referring to because I’m speaking about the document that I signed. Which is which has the status of an international document. It reads clearly that the Lachin corridor, which is under the control of the Russian peacekeepers. And it’s not just the road, it’s a five-kilometre-wide area. It must be out of Azerbaijan’s control and it must ensure a link between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Well, in principle it may sound absurd, but the road from the moon to Nagorno-Karabakh is open too. But I cannot refer to institutions which are not known to me or from Mars or from the Moon or wherever else. I’m speaking about what is documented. A notion that is on paper now that road is now closed. If anyone doubts you can take a trip there and try to reach there. Go to Nagorno Karabakh. 

By the way, yesterday the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) made a statement saying it is no longer able to deliver humanitarian relief to Nagorno-Karabakh because of the closure of the Lachin corridor. What does this mean? This means that the ICRC officially declared the necessity of delivery of humanitarian aid to Nagorno-Karabakh. Otherwise, they wouldn’t say that. Secondly, it’s accepting that they cannot do it because the Lachin corridor is closed. Following that, I think Freedom House, the international institution, also made an appeal, saying it’s necessary to ensure access to humanitarian goods in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yesterday, the government of Armenia decided today this relief is en route. 400 tons of humanitarian goods are currently en route to Karabakh. Let’s see if that reaches Nagorno-Karabakh. Whether that’s under the trilateral statement and the international court’s decision that aid must reach them. Let’s see if it reaches Nagorno-Karabakh. Going back now to the humanitarian crisis. Of course. Especially during this season here are some agricultural activities. 

However, the Azerbaijani army is shooting at farmers’ equipment who’re carrying out agricultural activities. After 2020, we had cases of a tractor driver being killed by an Azerbaijani sniper while carrying out agricultural work. There are no longer tractors operating now because there is no fuel. People cannot harvest the crop if by some miracle they harvest the crop. For instance, those goods, because of the absence of fuel the harvest cannot reach, cannot be transported to the flour mills. If by some miracle they turn it into flour, then because of the absence of fuel, it can not be delivered to the bakeries to bake bread. Diesel fuel, electricity, and gas are absent because of that. If by some miracle the flour reaches the bakeries, they cannot bake bread at industrial volumes. If somehow some bread could be baked, then again because of the absence of transportation, that bread is hard or impossible to deliver to the shops if it gets delivered to the shops. There is no public transport. And again, there was no private transport again because of the absence of fuel. So for people to go and to buy that bread in the shops if somehow they managed to get to the shop. 

Because of this blockade, all enterprises have shut down. All people lost their jobs. And people do not have the income to buy bread in the shop. If by some miracle, they have the income to buy bread, the queues are so long and the quantities of goods are so scarce that if by some miracle you reach the shop that limited quantity that by miracle, miracle after miracle reached the shop, after this chain of miracles and is being sold, they may never get to buy it because of the queue. Think of baby food. Imagine young mothers cannot feed babies with baby food. Many of them may have started off not breastfeeding the children, so they started off with formula. And then one day the formula just disappeared.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: I’ve spoken to a journalist inside Stepanakert who described pretty much the same you’re saying painted a very bleak picture for people inside Nagorno Karabakh. I wanted to ask you about the 2020 war. Thousands of people have lost their lives, soldiers, and civilians. I was here in Armenia, I went to Nagorno-Karabakh during that time. I spoke to mothers of fallen soldiers, and I’ve witnessed also the pain and devastation of the other side through the work of my colleague in Azerbaijan. But I remember this one mother here in Armenia who told me that she blamed the death of her son on politicians who were trained in the art of diplomacy but still trapped in the war. Do you think that your mission is to win a war or to negotiate peace?

Anelise Borges, Euronews: You know, in any case, war is wrong. If there’s a war somebody somewhere did something wrong or several people in several places, that something’s wrong. But from the other side, what’s the cause of war? The impossibility of reaching durable peace or of maintaining peace. And that impossibility is it genuine, is it real? Is it authentic, is the other question. Because you spoke about a parent, a mother who spoke about politicians. Well, of course, I understand. And I accept that I’m in no way contesting the fallen soldiers, mothers, wives, children or anything they say. But we forget the context. The politicians are human too. It’s not like they are a special genetic breed. My son was in the war as well. My wife was in the war as well. But now you’re asking a very serious question. It’s a legitimate question indeed. But I think there is so much depth to it. Throughout our existence, humanity, humankind has spoken about the need to avoid wars, about the need to reach peace and… Let’s assume, and this is the building where the politicians were bad are bad. 

What about the thousands of other buildings around the world? How come? Everywhere, in all places. That would be an easy explanation. And there are people who are people and there are politicians. So it’s because of these bad politicians that they’re not allowing these good people to get on with their lives, which is by and large, true. But with one misunderstanding. In a democratic society, they might switch places. The politician might become a human or the human could become a politician and a government official. And the problem is that these cycles have been going on for millennia.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: In a way you mentioned something which is very important. In a way, it seems to be in this region a very particular and tragic cycle. Where the triumph of one side can be achieved by the capitulation of the other side. Today I spoke to a young Armenian who told me she’s a generation of independence and she said back when she was young there used to be talks mediated by Georgia between Azeri kids and Armenian kids. And she says she remembers that very fondly cause they actually could talk. Do you think that if peace is brought up by the politician side, do you think it can be implemented in so much pain and heartbreak or instead should have been built from the bottom to up?

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: Yes, I believe. To continue what I said, let me draw your attention to nuance. Politicians create, they generate the public mood, but they also bear the public mood and they influence the public mood and they are influenced by the public mood. It’s a very intricate, very complex system. But you spoke about young people. I do remember in 2018, I proposed that idea. And I could see in the social media Armenian and Azerbaijani users. And engaging. A very aggressive exchange of language. And in a public press conference, I urged Armenian and Azerbaijani users of social media, and this was mostly happening on YouTube – this is where they encountered one another under a video -they would leave comments, I said okay, we’ve cursed at each other so much, this is enough. We could use this platform for speaking for dialogue and not just cursing at each other. So I made an appeal. 

But later it turned out the appeal did not have sufficient results. Or maybe we did not follow up on it enough. And in regarding the war logic, we should never forget. Conditionally speaking, the factor of the first blood spilt is because whenever blood spills, there’s a victim, and there’s a casualty. It is a profound social, psychological, political and public moment. That’s very hard for the public and for the politicians. Though, in reality, there is no such division, I reiterate: politicians do influence the public mood, but vice versa they’re also influenced by the public mood. So it’s very hard sometimes to opt for solutions, concessions and decisions which profoundly may be understood that those people who died in the past died for no reason. That’s a problem. Everywhere. Everywhere. And it’s never the problem of one side because. You spoke about the mother of the soldier who died. Imagine what an important factor it is such an important factor that in this discussion now you’re bringing it up as something we need to discuss. But before that or after that even a question may come up. If you now make these concessions or mutual concessions, what about our children? What did they die for? Nobody has the answer to that question. 

Nobody can ever give the answer to that question. And you should know that. This question lies on the table of any politician, even when people understand it’s important not to have any future casualties, they always know, they also have to get the answer to the second question. What about those who died in the past? What did they die for? Was it for no reason that sacrifice? Well, then again, the politicians will be accused of taking those people away and getting them killed. What would then be the purpose, the meaning, the mission of all that is happening? And it’s very hard to explain to people that, you know, your son or your daughter died for future peace. How can this be explained to someone? How can you die for peace? If our whole purpose is peace.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: Do you lose sleep at night over what happened three years ago?

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: Obviously and naturally yes. Not that I think about it a lot. It’s very hard to sit these thoughts aside for a second and then go work on doing your daily job.

Anelise Borges, Euronews: I’ve got one final question for you. I wanted to if you have a message to the other side, not the politicians you meet during the talks, but the people of Azerbaijan. Do you happen to have a message to those who are watching us right now?

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenian PM: Well, you know, I think it’s not a good genre because when two politicians are speaking with one another, It’s really the two peoples speaking, because on one side is the person elected by those people, and on this side is a person elected by these people. So, therefore everything that I said now, this is an international platform, this is also addressed to that people and if there’s anything to communicate, I would say what I have been saying the from the start. Everything I said is also addressed to the Azerbaijani people, to the people of Azerbaijan. 

But in some cases, there are sentences that people normally say, oh, we have long lived here and we will long be living here. I think all the words have already been said. By the way, there is perhaps something which I would address equally to the public of Armenia and the public of Azerbaijan because the public of Armenia and Azerbaijan both must demand peace from their governments. It should be articulated as a public demand. And [there needs to be] peace, flexibility and skill to deliver that requirement.

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