The president told Euronews he hopes ongoing talks with Armenia will end with with a successful scenario in the coming months.
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev says it is "right to be hopeful" about the prospects for peace with neighbouring Armenia, despite long-standing tensions.
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.
"I hope that the peace negotiations with Armenia will end with with a successful scenario and hopefully in the coming months," the President 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 President Aliyev and Armenia's Prime Minister Pashinyan, Euronews' international correspondent Anelise Borges asked the same questions to both leaders - offered them a chance to express their points of view without interruption or contest.
Anelise Borges : Mr. President Aliyev, thank you very much for having us here. This region has been the stage of some of the most violent episodes in the South Caucasus' recent history, and the tensions haven't really gone away completely since the 2020 peace deal. To what do you attribute this constant hostility?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Difficult to say. I thought that, after the second Karabakh war, the situation would be different. And we were ready for peace. And actually (while) waiting for a while for international players to give us some new suggestions, we understood that there’s kind of a vacuum. Nobody knows what to do. And the situation when we had the declaration signed on the 10th November 2020 was not actually providing a sustainable peace. It wasn't a peace treaty. It was a declaration actually, de facto, that was a capitulation act by Armenia. Therefore, we started to put forward some initiatives in order to find the final solution to our conflict with Armenia. We made it public. We announced that we need to sign a peace agreement. And then again, there was a vacuum… so then we elaborated the principles of peace agreement, which are very well known principles of international law, like mutual recognition of territorial integrity, sovereignty, international borders, delimitation of borders, nonuse of force or threat of force. And we put that proposal on the table. So we - the country which suffered 30 years of occupation and which restored justice by force - we were the authors of new peace process. I would not say it is going very smoothly. We are still optimistic because we are now engaged in a very active negotiations on the level of foreign ministers of both countries.
Anelise Borges: And I was going to ask you about that. You've just returned from Brussels for another round of peace talks. These peace talks have been filling many people with hope of lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Are we right to be hopeful? What came out of this latest round?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: I think it is right thing to be hopeful. But I can tell you that peace negotiations have been held by foreign ministers. Our meetings in Brussels, organized by President of European Council, are meetings that actually allow us to touch upon very sensitive issues –
Anelise Borges: For example?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: like future parameters of the boundaries, because the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan has not been defined because as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, we faced this aggression. So how the border will look like? What will be the real situation on the ground? What will be a situation with communications? Because Armenia has obligation which is signed as a result of the second Karabakh war to allow us access to our exclave, Nakhchivan, but still that is not happening. So main concentration on paragraphs of peace treaty are made by the ministers. Our meetings, they just create, I think, a good atmosphere. But if we see a constructive approach from Armenian side and - most important - if they totally put down all their aspirations to contest our territorial integrity, then we can find the peace solution very soon, maybe even by the end of the year.
Anelise Borges: Well, we'll get more into the negotiations later. But I'm curious to ask you. There's been many international players attempting to mediate this situation. What does the EU bring to the table, to the negotiating table?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Actually, EU was not part of the mediation process during the times of occupation, when we had negotiations since 1992. It was the initiative of President of European Council, Charles Michel, who invited us, and we supported that because we think that taking into account the level of cooperation between Azerbaijan and the EU and Armenia and the EU, I think it's natural for EU to be active, especially when after the second Karabakh War, Minsk Group was no longer functional. Actually, it is not functioning any longer.
So there should have been some international institution. And I think that the EU can be the best because our relations with the EU are based on mutual respect and mutual trust and mutual interest. So this initiative now is transforming into a very active form of dialog because we meet not only in Brussels, we also meet, for instance, at the sidelines of the European Peace Initiative format, last time it was in Chisinau. I think it's important because, we do not allow situation to stagnate. Because if it is stagnation, if it's again kind of a break, then we are not guaranteed from any dangerous scenario.
Anelise Borges: And do you think that the growing mediation of the West, the EU, but also the United States, has somewhat antagonized a more traditional power broker here in the region, Russia ? or the other way around, the fact that Russia has somewhat been bogged down in Ukraine has left some space for potentially Azerbaijan and Armenia to come to common ground.
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Well, actually, Russia was the mediator of a cease fire agreement or declaration of 10th November 2020. And it was not the United States, it was not EU. And our first meetings with my Armenian colleague were organized by Russia in Russia. So after Russian-Ukrainian war situation have changed and we started to see that the United States and Europe became more active. And actually, for us, it's not actually a big difference who will lead the process or who will, to certain degree, monopolize the negotiation process, the important is to come to the result. Whichever actor can produce initiatives that lead to peace agreement, we will support it. And by the way, negotiations between our foreign ministers were held in Washington.
Now we got an invitation from Russia to help the round of negotiations in Russia later this month. And we agreed. So if there'll be some other location, of course we will agree, because it's important for us is to come to an agreement and to have a result, of course, understanding the certain geopolitical rivalries, some attempts of some players to be more active. But we can only appreciate that if there is a healthy rivalry, it will lead only to good results.
Anelise Borges: What would you say - because I understand you have a long historical and complex relationship with Russia - how would you say is the Russian influence in the region at the moment ?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Well, it's difficult for me to talk about the region because the region of southern Caucasus consists of three countries. And we can only observe Russia's interaction with our neighbors in the southern Caucasus. But as far as Azerbaijan is concerned, and not many things have changed, because our relations with Russia will be balanced. They were based on recognition of each other's national interests and, of course, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Russia is a neighbor and a partner. We have quite a substantial trade turnover, a lot of projects related to transportation infrastructure, especially now at this moment, projects related to energy development and cultural…
Anelise Borges: you have been striking more deals, especially with regards to the energy sector, with the West, no?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: yeah, with the West, yeah… But that was a long time ago when we launched the initiative to build an integrated pipeline system from Baku to Italy. It started to be implemented in stages and the final stage was implemented something more than two years ago. So it's already for something more than two years, Azerbaijan became an important gas supplier to Europe.
And, of course, situation with sanctions on Russia created a new dimension because our energy resources now are needed more than before. But whatever we do, we do it based on the plans and contracts which had been signed many years ago. It is true that now we have more countries who are applying for additional gas from Azerbaijan and we are ready to do it. And we already started more countries started to get our gas already last year and this year it will continue. But again, it's from a point of view of our relations with Russia, not many things have changed since Russian-Ukrainian war started.
Anelise Borges: Can we talk about the situation here on the ground? Because the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, the U.S., that you have all demanded guarantees with regards to the freedom of movement in the Lachin corridor nearby, citing the danger of effectively potentially holding a population under siege if that corridor is blocked. What do you know of what's happening in Lachin, in the corridor right now?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Well, actually, for more than two years, since the second Karabakh war ended, the so-called Lachin corridor functioned as it functioned during the times of the occupation with one difference: it was under control of the Russian peacekeepers, which was part of the trilateral declaration. And there was no disruption and there was no steps from our side to interfere. In the meantime, the situation on the ground was changing, and the reason why representatives of civil society of Azerbaijan, to a certain degree, started to control the corridor was because of the fact that illegal excavation of natural resources in Karabakh restarted in the in the beginning of November last year.
Because after the war it was stopped because it is illegal - these resources belongs to us - and the several foreign companies were illegally exploiting our gold and copper mines, we could not do anything about that during the times of occupation. But when the war ended, it was obvious that this activity should have stopped. And it stopped. But then in November, it restarted. A representative of civil society asked Russian peacekeepers to allow them to conduct a monitoring of the mines to see what is happening. And because we've seen that the iron ore and golden oil was being transported by trucks from Karabakh to Armenia, accompanied by Russian peacekeepers. So we were denied the right for access. And that is how our civil society representatives started to control it. But again, the road was not closed. It was absolutely free and the movement was free.
Anelise Borges: So it was never interrupted ? Traffic was never interrupted ? So why do you think these institutions have asked, especially on the part of Azerbaijan, because they said you were responsible for the area surrounding it? So you should ensure the freedom of movement. Why do you think that is? Are they targeting you Just because of…
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Actually the International Court of Justice actually addressed its message to us to communicate with civil society activists and not to disrupt any kind of movement. And we did it. And as soon as we established a border checkpoint on our border with Armenia, which is our legitimate right, which is not contested by anyone, including International Court of Justice, we communicated through my representative here in Susa with NGOs, representatives for them to to to stop, and they stop. They left. So now, freedom of movement is not blocked.
Since we established the border checkpoint on the 23rd of April, there have been more than 2000 residents of Karabakh who easily moved to Armenia and back. On the 15th of June, Armenia made another military provocation and wounded one of our border security guards, and temporarily the road was closed for investigation. But then it was reopened. Red Cross restarted again to transport medications and evacuate patients who need treatment in Armenia. But unfortunately, Red Cross trucks, when checked, we found smuggling goods like cigarettes, iPhones and gasoline. Red Cross admitted that and they communicated with us, saying that they do not bear any responsibility because these…
Anelise Borges: the trucks were being used…
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: But these trucks had their logos, and the drivers had their logos on their uniform. So, that is how again, it was blocked. And we asked from Red Cross to stop it and also ask them to work with us more constructively because unfortunately, until today, their office in Karabakh is subordinated not to Baku office, but to the Yerevan office. And this is not acceptable because the whole world recognizes Karabakh as part of our culture. Even the Armenian Prime Minister said many times that Karabakh is Azerbaijan. And why a Red Cross Khankendi office is not subordinate to Baku office, but to Yerevan. Not because that's our legitimate request.
Anelise Borges: Would you say that this issue, the issue of the Lachin corridor and that border control and this passageway, this crucial passageway, is one of the main obstacles for peace right now?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Well, I don't think so, because the situation on the road Lachin-Khankendi changed on the ground on 23rd of April when we established the border checkpoint. Until that time, we had two and a half years of time to come to a peace agreement. The only stumbling block was that Armenia did not want to recognize Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan - officially. Yes, they did it by statements, by oral statements, which is also a position, but they need to sign the document. So I don't think that these two issues are interrelated because I hope that the peace negotiations with Armenia will end with a successful scenario and hopefully in the coming months.
Anelise Borges: Some 5000 people lost their lives in 2020 on both sides. I was here, I came to Nagorno-Karabakh and I met many mothers of fallen Armenian soldiers. I've also witnessed the pain and the devastation on the other side - on your side - through the work of my colleagues here in Azerbaijan. But I remember speaking to one mother in particular who told me she blamed politicians for the war and for the death of her son, saying that politicians should deal with things in a diplomatic way and not fall into the trap of a war. What would you say your mission is? Is it to win a war or to bring lasting peace?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Well, to win the war was the mission of my life, of my political life, which ended successfully. So we won the war, despite many factors : political, despite factors of long lasting infrastructure projects on the occupied territories, which made it very difficult for our military servicemen to break several defense lines. They had in some parts, five in some parts, six, seven defense lines full of mines. And also, you noticed coming from Fuzuli how the road climbs up. So that's how our servicemen came here.
The road, which became the victory road, as I called it later, did not exist. It was a road how our military servicemen were moving towards Susa, they were climbing these rocky mountains. So despite these factors, despite strong political support from many countries which have big Armenian diaspora, we did what was right to do. We restored justice and we restored our territorial integrity. We fought on our land. We didn't fight on Armenian land and we won. So that was a mission, number one, which is over. And now we talk about peace. And for a country which suffered 30 years of occupation because the territory which was under occupation is totally ruined. Susa was not totally ruined, because there were illegal settlements in Susa.
They wanted to resettle Armenians from Middle East, and there've been a couple of thousand Armenians living here - that's why not all the city have been destroyed. But Fuzuli was totally levelled to the ground, Agdam – the same. Almost a million Azerbaijanis were deprived from their homes. So despite all that pain, we did not take revenge. I said, we will take revenge on the battlefield. But as soon as Armenia gave us a date when they will withdraw from all the territories, which I demanded from the first day was a war, we stopped. And then we started to talk about peace. So now peace is on our agenda. If Armenia wants peace, we will reach it. Because we do not have any territorial claims to Armenia and we don't want them to have any territorial claims. I mean, people who live in Karabakh in the area which is controlled now temporarily by Russian peacekeepers, they live in Azerbaijan, and they should choose whether to live as citizens or as ethnic minority, as any other ethnic minority, which Azerbaijanis rich of – or to leave. So this is their choice.
It's not because we want them to leave. Or as Armenia accuses us, we organize ethnic cleansing. No, we give them a choice because how can they live on our territory being a citizen of either Armenia without any legal permission or a citizen of so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which is not recognized by anyone ? So I think this is a legitimate approach. It is in line with international practice. It's in line with the practice which we see in many European countries, which also fight against separatism. And now we see how Europe and the West are united to help Ukraine to fight against separatism. And why, in our case, our fight against separatism is treated differently ? Why Georgia's approach to separatist regions is fully understood by Western communities and politicians and our legitimate, the same origin desire to put an end to separatism is under question ? Why Spain do not allow Catalonia to have a referendum? Those are five or six million, and they don't have their own state ? Unlike Armenia, which has a state next door ? And why should we tolerate separatism? And we will not.
Anelise Borges: You have already issued messages as well of reassurance towards the population, saying that they will be allowed to stay if they want to and protected and allowed to live here. But do you have a message today to Armenians who may be watching us? Not necessarily the government. I know you are in touch with Prime Minister Pashinyan and you don't necessarily need our cameras to send him a message. But what about two other Armenians who may be watching us? What is your message to the other side today?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Well, I never thought about that because that's the first time in my life I am asked this question.
Anelise Borges: Really?
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Yes. I think I would separate the question in two. First, if they listen to what I say, a message to Armenians in Armenia : that we want to have peace with their state. We don't have territorial claims to Armenia, though, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijan lived in Armenia before the war and were totally ethnically cleansed. And their cultural and religious heritage was totally destroyed. Nevertheless, we don't have any territorial claims, but we think that Azerbaijanis, who have been deported forcefully from Armenia, have a right to return when Azerbaijan and Armenia will normalize relations and establish diplomatic relations. Another message to them is to clearly realize the current geopolitical situation and the balance of forces.
For many years, leaders of Armenia were persuading the people that they have the strongest army in the world, that if the war starts, they will come to Baku, that Azerbaijan will not fight for its lands, that Azerbaijan has already agreed for occupation. All these narratives, which are absolutely false and was nothing more than propaganda. So the war destroyed that narrative. And not only that, it also destroyed a lot of ideological, I would say, columns of Armenian state. They realized that they lost the war. And most probably it was very painful for them psychologically. So now when we say that we want peace, it's not because we're weak and we are seeking for peace. No, they know that we are much stronger. It is because we want this blank page of our history to be turned down. We don't want another war. Neither today nor ever in the future. So, for Armenian community, I think they should not oppose peace initiatives of international community or of their government and should understand that if they don't sign peace agreements with Azerbaijan, the situation in the future will be unpredictable. And the geopolitical situation in the world and in the region changing as we see very dramatically, and part of their hopes for their security vanished completely.
Now they're looking for a new security guarantor and who's ready to have a standoff with Azerbaijan on the battlefield, in this area ? Especially after what we demonstrated during the war and after we increased our defense capability after the war ? Is anyone ready to fight for Armenians against us? I doubt it. So. And also another message which I already conveyed to Armenian government in this particular situation – for them the choice is not the best and the very best, for them the choices are among very bad and acceptable. But acceptable based on common sense, on international law, and on recognizing the rights of Azerbaijanis to leave on their own land, which they deprived us for 30 years. And for Armenians in Karabakh, I'd like to remind them, that we started contact with them spontaneously. Actually, it was mainly people to people contacts when we started to build a new Lachin road which passes through several villages where Armenian population lived. And I was informed that the contacts have been established between our road construction workers and Armenian community, and immediately they have became almost friends. If in the first months of the construction, Russian peacekeepers were providing security for both sides. So then they just left. And there was no Russian peacekeepers – and they were easily communicating. So it demonstrates that ordinary people in the majority, they don't have these hatred in their hearts. And for Armenians in Karabakh, they should not follow their so-called leaders.
These leaders were lying to them all the time. Current and previous. Before the war, during the war that they are winning. Even when we took control of Susa, they were telling that Susa was under their control. They know they should not become a hostage of today's clique, which captured power in Karabakh and whose main objective is to provide their own interests. Here in Susa, there are three villas built during the times of occupation. And if you are interested, maybe they can show to you. And these villas were built for the leaders of Karabakh Armenians. They built it for themselves. The city was totally in ruins. What you see now, it's the beginning of our reconstruction process, including this Karabakh hotel, including the mayor's office, including hotels and everything. They built three villas in the best part of the city for themselves. Those people who today lead these so-called unrecognized republic. So Karabakh Armenians should understand that being part of Azerbaijan society with security guarantees, we understand it, with their rights, including educational, cultural, religious and municipal rights. They will live normal life and they will also stop to be a hostage of manipulation. And also, they should understand that situation, which they are now today. Probably will not change in their favor if they continue to ignore us, if they continue to behave like we do not exist, or they leave in so-called country, which has president, ministers, parliamentarians. This is all fake. We offer them normal life. And I think if they listen to me, they should understand. And they know that. I mean what I say.
Anelise Borges: President Aliyev. I thank you very much for speaking to our audience.
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan: Thank you.
(c) Euronews, 2023