Ilham Aliyev visits a military base near Karabakh on Feb. 13, 2019. Official photo
Ilham Aliyev visits a military base near Karabakh on Feb. 13, 2019. Official photo

The interview with CivilNet’s Stella Mehrabekyan about the factors that will influence potential negotiations.

Stella Mehrabekyan: The rhetoric of war was changed to a rhetoric of peace in recent months between Armenia and Azerbaijan. How justified are these expectations? How can Baku and Yerevan manage high expectations with the realities on the ground?

Emil Sanamyan: While in fact there has been reduction of militant rhetoric, I don’t see much peace rhetoric at all. The H1 program about Tavush border villages or Turan news agency’s reporting from Armenia are in the realm of token gestures, “testing the waters,” rather than serious policy changes. I don’t see much in the way of “high expectations” either. The Aliyev regime said that it is giving Pashinyan government a “chance” to take a more conciliatory position on Karabakh than Sargsyan government had. Such expectations – if they in fact exist – appear groundless. I would also note that relaxation of military tensions occurred before the change of government in Armenia, still in 2017. In other words, after four years of consistent military pressure, the Aliyev regime decided to take a pause and re-group. This is what is continuing now, but it does not preclude fresh escalations.

SM: The Madrid principles are criticized both in Armenia and Azerbaijan. However there are certain principles over which the parties have been negotiating since 1994. Do you think it’s realistic that negotiations can start from scratch? If so, what can be changed on the table and who can benefit more?

ES: The Madrid Principles were just the latest iteration of a peace process that is nearly 30 years old. There has always been continuity between different stages of negotiations, but there have been changes as well. If in 1991 Armenia agreed to “high autonomous status” for Karabakh inside Azerbaijan, the Karabakh war changed that approach and by 1997, Armenia could no longer agree to such a status, at least not publicly. And if in 2001 the Armenian side was ready to hand over most of the former Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno Karabakh’s Soviet-era borders in exchange for Karabakh and Lachin corridor being recognized as part of Armenia, a solution like that is seen as controversial today, particularly with regard to Kelbajar. I think after the April 2016 war any territorial compromise will be a non-starter until there is a genuine peace process in place. Can there be a genuine peace process with the Aliyev regime? I am not sure that is possible, but I am certain there must be one with Azerbaijan. So, if that regime is unable or unwilling, Armenian authorities could look for alternative interlocutors among the Azerbaijani influence class, particularly the exiled or Diaspora communities.

SM: Since assuming the post of Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan has repeatedly stated that he has no right to negotiate on behalf of the people of Artsakh, since he has not been elected by them. Pashinyan says he sees “both very specific forms and methods on how Karabakh can engage in negotiations.” To what extent can this change of discourse be effective?

ES: I am skeptical of this approach. The only way Azerbaijani leaders ever agreed to talk to Artsakh leaders was when they were under military pressure, this is why Heydar Aliyev met with Robert Kocharyan, then leader of NKR, in 1993. Yes, indeed, Karabakh has its own political system and that should be considered. But the problem here is not the Armenian leader representing Karabakh interests – because they are not all that distinct from Armenia’s interests – but Armenian citizens in Karabakh being shut out of Armenian political system. Today, Armenia and Artsakh are one cultural, economic and security space, the fact that they have separate political systems is an unnatural condition that should be mended.

SM: How would you evaluate the recent statements of the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, saying that in the world, the principle of “the one who has the power is right” is prevalent; this coming in a period of time, when there are talks of relative calm, a favorable atmosphere in the negotiation process and preparing the two nations for peace.

ES: There is indeed relative calm that has been in place since the fall of 2017.  However, beyond that and a few statements, conditions of confrontation have not given way to a genuine peace process. “Might makes right” is the assumption that most countries embrace as they operate in the world. Dictatorial regimes like Aliyev’s also use this same assumption in their domestic affairs. There are more than 100 political prisoners in that country, because the regime believes that it can exercise power over these people and not bear substantial consequences, making this systemic abuse a norm rather than an aberration. We know from history that all such regimes are eventually overthrown.