ArmInfo. The Head of the Department of Conflict and Migration of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, political analyst Arif Yunusov, in an interview with ArmInfo, comments on the recent domestic political developments in Azerbaijan. He talks about the geopolitical puzzle around the Karabakh conflict, shares his own vision of the further development of events related to the conflict and in the conflicting countries. He comments on the possible impact of the change of power in Armenia on the prospects for the settlement of the conflict.
During all the post-war years both in Armenia and Azerbaijan, alarmist moods and harbingers of an early, and, large-scale war have ripened and continue to ripen. Are there real grounds for such moods today?
There have always been such sentiments after signing a ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire, indeed, does not mean the cessation of hostilities. If there is a front line, where troops are concentrated, and negotiations have long began to be formal, such sentiments are logical. To avoid such moods, real negotiations are needed, it is necessary for the conflicting parties to establish confidence-building measures. And if there are no such measures, if militaristic psychosis is fomented in societies, revanchism propaganda continues, if one side assures that not only Karabakh but Yerevan as well will be returned, while the other side says about the offensive on Ganja and Baku, then such moods are simply inevitable. In recent years, and especially after the April 2016 battles, unfortunately, only these sentiments dominate.
The change of power in Armenia as a result of the Velvet Revolution led to a certain tightening of the authorities' response rhetoric towards their counterparts from Absheron. In particular, July 2018 was marked by a number of rather tough statements by Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan, Nagorno Karabakh Defense Minister Levon Mnatsakanyan and Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan. What may be the reason for such statements?
On the one hand, this is the language of the conflict, a vivid evidence that the peaceful solution is still very far away. One can still understand the military, аs they have always said so, and will say so in the future. This is their profession, they must frighten and threaten. We do not live in Europe after all, but in the Caucasus, in the conditions of an unofficial war. However, the tough statements by the new leader of Armenia are clearly dictated by the logic of the new political situation after the change of power. He should first of all show Armenians that his coming to power will not lead to a change of position on the Karabakh issue. After all, it's no secret that in Karabakh, the May shift of power was perceived cauthously. By the way, in Azerbaijan also Sargsyan's removal and then the initiation of a criminal case against Kocharyan, was perceived as the elimination of the Karabakh clan from the political arena of Armenia. Pashinyan made several populist statements, as well as sent his son to the front line, at least media reported so.
There are politicians in Armenia including the high ranking ones, who consider non-settlement of Karabakh conflict as a decisive factor in favor of Russia's presence and its influence on Armenia and Azerbaijan. Can it be assumed that settlement of the conflict will make Russia to retreat behind the Caucasus mountatins?
Yes and no. The matter is that Russia is not just a part of Caucasus and our neighbor. The matter is that South and North Caucaus are closely interlinked. Moreover, there are other factors that will not allow Russia retreat behind the Caucasus mountains. For instance, Russia had a war with Georgia, and does not have any diplomatic relations. But whether Russia has left Georgia? No. Look at the Georgian economy, where Russia's share is very visible. Politically, Russia lost Georgia, that's right. And now it is very important for Russia to keep Armenia, and Azerbaijan in its field of vision, to be an important player for Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Nowadays Russia does not have a favorable image, it is not attractive especially for a new generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who are increasingly turning their attention to the West. In this sense, the Karabakh conflict is just a great opportunity for Russia to keep Armenians and Azerbaijanis closer to it. Armenians are being frightened that in case Russia leaves the country a new massacre will occur, as Azerbaijan will immediately start a war, Turkey will help it and there will be a new massacre and genocide, and many believe in such a scenario. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan can be held on a leash with the help of the current authorities, which have had serious problems in the West for a long time and badly need the Russian factor. While as a result of the settlement of the Karabakh conflict Russia will instantly lose all its leverage. And it will be unable to give anything in return either to Armenia or Azerbaijan. Especially, given that Russia is not Germany.
Despite the fact that almost all religious preachers, both Shiites and Sunnis are imprisoned, Baku immediately attempted to give the recent unrest in Ganja a religious tone. In your opinion, does the official narrative correspond to the real state of affairs and is there a danger of Azerbaijan's Islamization, in particular shiitization coming from Iran or the sunnisation inititiaed by Russia?
This issue should be considered from two points - the use of the Islamic factor by the authorities and the real processes in Azerbaijan in the religious field. There is a big difference between them. On the one hand, after the collapse of the USSR and independence, the religious factor in Azerbaijan grew sharply. It's true. The number of believers has increased noticeably. But, at the same time, it is too early to talk about the threat of Islamization of Azerbaijan. Still, 70 years of Soviet atheism were not in vain. And the older Soviet generation is still playing a serious role in Azerbaijan. While the younger generation is only starting to direct attention to Islam. We will be able to talk seriously about the Islamization of Azerbaijan in 30-40 years. Not earlier. Not to mention the fact that Azerbaijan is religiously divided into Shiites and Sunnis, and this factor also plays a role.
On the other hand, in the conditions of the total policy of severe repression, the former opposition has noticeably weakened. In these conditions, believers in many respects began to play a serious role in the political life of the country. Suffice it to say that according to the data for July 17, 2018, there are 151 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. 80 of them are believers. And they are not terrorists, but just peaceful believers, who, however, constantly criticize the authorities or frighten the authorities with their very existence. Let us just bring an example of such a person as the theologian Taleha Bagirzade, who principally opposes violence. And openly declares that it is simply not serious to speak in modern Azerbaijan about the necessity of the Sharia. I quote him word for word “But we have to fight, for the victory of democracy, human rights, ensuring the free and prosperous life of people. We want no one to be persecuted for their convictions, we want exercise the freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. " Could such words have caused a positive reaction from the authorities? Of course not. In 2015 they concocted another "case about the terrorist attack and attempted coup" and condemned Bagirzade and his supporters for long terms of imprisonment, having previously subjected them to brutal tortures. The authorities are constantly trying to use the "Islamic factor" in their policy. Especially when they have problems with the West and international human rights organizations. Then they immediately get this card and use it for frightening to justify their repression in the country. At the same time, the authorities do not go into the detailsof reliousous issues of the country, considering that the West will not do that ehither. And I have heard several times joint statements of the law enforcement bodies of Azerbaijan that the village of Nardaran, for example, became a stronghold of Wahhabis, although the community involves only Shiites who perceive Wahhabis (more precisely, Salafis, but even authorities do not use this word as it is unknown for them) as their fierce enemies. And there are many such examples. And in this respect, the July events in Ganja are very indicative. Then on July 3, an attempt was made on the head of the executive power of Ganja Elmar Veliyev, and a week later a rally took place. The authorities at first tried to present what had happened as a crime that had nothing to do with the political processes in the country. But then they sharply changed their rhetoric. And we were surprised to hear another statement by the republic's law enforcement agencies that Yunis Safarov, who was attempting to the head of Ganja, first had become a Shiite who had been trained in Iran. Then the authorities, without batting an eyelid, announced Safarov a Sunni Wahhabi and sent him to fight in Syria.
In fact, the authorities' policy has long provoked irritation in the country. A particularly difficult situation has developed in the regions of the country where local authorities behave like medieval khans. But the head of Ganja Veliyev stood out even against their background. And his tyranny has long become a household name in the country. On the other hand, apparently, especially in conversations with relatives of Yunis Safarov, we see a naive a la Robin Hood, who took on the mission of committing an act of justice. And, interestingly, society percieved him just this way. Even a song was created about this and became very popular in Azerbaijan, which is also very featuring. People compose songs in honor of the man who shot at the Head of the city! The authorities saw such a reaction and therefore decided to present these events as actions of "religious extremists".
In recent years, major world players have been trying to solve their problems through "hybrid wars" in the territory of third countries: Ukraine, Syria, Iraq. Does the smoking Karabakh conflict have the prospect of becoming another place for such geopolitical games, for example, if the Syrian conflict is resolved? Or whether there is a more dangerous scenario, both for Armenia and for Azerbaijan, than Karabakh becoming another Syria?
Theoretically, such scenarios are possible. For example, the situation in Azerbaijan has worsened, there have been anti-government unrest, and as a result, in order to divert attention from themselves, the authorities may launch a big war that could cause serious destabilization in the region. Or considering the Armenian authorities' sharp turn towards the West, Russia with the help of its protégés in Armenia and Karabakh, as well as Azerbaijan, will try to destabilize the situation with the help of war. Another external factor that could influence the development of situation around Karabakh is the current deterioration of relations between the USA and Iran. In case of US striking Iran Iranian hostages will flow into Armenia and Azerbaijan and the situation in the region will be seriously destabilized. At the same time the political scientist considers that for many reasons such scenarios in the region are hardly possible, at least in the near future.
Can we consider that the "velvet revolution" in Armenia is the first step towards peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis? A step capable of proving once again the statement that democracies do not fight? Or should several generations change?
The Velvet Revolution in Armenia for the first time led to a situation that many Azerbaijanis sincerely began to envy of Armenians. After all, as a result of the revolution, processes are now going on in Armenia, which can not but cause a positive reaction among many Azerbaijanis. First, of course the new regime's fight against corruption in the upper levels. And many people in Azerbaijan are wondering when will this happen in our country-, when our crooks in power will be arrested and imprisoned? At the same time, one should be realistic and understand that the revolution in Armenia is not yet a step towards peace with Azerbaijan. A similar revolution should take place in Azerbaijan, after which it will be possible to speak seriously about peace. Meanwhile, as of today, the authoritarian dictatorship holds power in Azerbaijan, which leads Azerbaijanis into the distant past, is trying to close the country like Turkmenistan or North Korea. In this light, it is rather difficult to imagine the process of peaceful settlement today, when such polar persons head the two countries. As you know, two persons are needed to tango, in other words, for a peaceful settlement of the conflict it is necessary that serious changes begin in Azerbaijan, which does not mean that the revolution in Azerbaijan will immediately lead to peace. There are many examples of the opposite. But if there are democratically elected authorities there will be a serious chance for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. With antidemocratic authorities, one can do something only for quite a short period of time.