Interview News.Az with Avaz Hasanov, head of the Humanitarian Research Society, an Azerbaijani non-governmental organization.
At the recent Karabakh summit in Sochi, the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia noted the importance of establishing contacts between representatives of civil society in the two countries and asked the Russian president to assist in this process. What can Russia do to help?
I think this humanitarian activity will continue with the support of funds from Western states even without Russian mediation. The Russian role in this issue has been minimal. Any conference, meeting or other event held in Russia has always been political rather than humanitarian.
I do not think that Russia can achieve great success on this. Russia has been trying itself to get involved in this process but unsuccessfully, since this niche is already occupied by European countries. Since 2009 the European Union has been working on a big regional project, European policy on Nagorno-Karabakh. This project is intended for four years and I think Russia has no chance to compete with this.
Russia simply has the capacity to influence the conflict parties to ensure that mutual visits are made directly via the front line. Russia can achieve this. The people now governing Nagorno-Karabakh are under the direct influence of Russia which we felt during the mission organized to the conflict area by the ambassadors of Azerbaijan and Armenia to Moscow two years ago. It was evident that Russia can ensure joint passage via the front line within a short period of time.
That is, Russia has certain capacities but no chance to compete with the EU in a humanitarian peacekeeping mission. For example, I and my colleagues taking part in this process do not believe in Russia’s sincerity. For example, if I am invited tomorrow to join an action in Moscow, I am unlikely to do so since I do not trust Russia. I shall think this is all a sham.
The presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia themselves asked the Russian president about mediation. That is, Serzh Sargsyan also asked for his help, although he is reported to have frustrated a planned meeting of representatives of both communities of Nagorno-Karabakh in November. What could have caused this change of heart in Yerevan?
Neither Armenia nor Nagorno-Karabakh agree with the meetings in the communities format. They are very much against any such initiatives. On the other hand, if these meetings are presented as meetings of the current residents of Karabakh with those forced to flee, the Armenians can also be persuaded. But when the meetings are said to be at the level of communities, they avoid them, as Yerevan does not consider contacts between Karabakh Armenians and Azerbaijanis to be significant.
This is because Armenia wants to rid itself of responsibility in future, it wants to demonstrate to Europe that it has allegedly no capacity to influence Nagorno-Karabakh and all issues related to resolution of the conflict should be settled through Karabakh. It is also difficult for Azerbaijan to do this and to stand aside. We consider the current residents of Nagorno-Karabakh to be de jure our citizens, so we cannot avoid contact with them, and the Azerbaijani authorities cannot accept this provocation. I think we were in too much of hurry when we described the format as that of the two communities of Nagorno- Karabakh; it would be better to describe this as the format of representatives of civil society.
What do you, as a direct participant in such contacts, think about the future of these meetings? What format should they take in order to assist a political settlement of the conflict?
First of all, we should dispel the myths between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Our communities still live with these myths and we must change this. Azerbaijan and Armenia have rich experience of co-existence and even kinship. We have lost this and today there is no chance to show this for real and this positive practice is already being forgotten. The younger generation needs to be made aware of this positive experience so that they understand that it is possible.
There is a need to settle humanitarian problems in order to increase mutual trust between Azerbaijan and Armenia. For example, there is the problem of refugees and hostages, the problem of the normal return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes; there is the problem of information warfare, which is accompanied by mutual accusations and insults; abuse and insulting language should be excluded from information resources and society as a whole. It should all be avoided so that when we sit at a table tomorrow, we can discuss the issue of the return of Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent regions and the status of this region, instead of solving insignificant problems. Unless we resolve the smaller issues, we will focus only on them during the meetings and won’t be able to talk about the return of the occupied lands.
In this sense, I consider the recent statements of the presidents important. The presidents have already entered the phase we have been talking about for years. We have long been insisting on resolution of the smaller issues in order to allow the bigger ones to be tackled. If we cannot settle them, but manage to create trust between the peoples, it will still be difficult to make the people accept an agreement signed by the heads of state somewhere abroad.