Former President Serzh Sargsyan

War of Words between Armenia, Azerbaijan over Karabakh

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MUNICH, Germany (RFE/RL) — A minor kerfuffle broke out between Armenia’s president and an Azerbaijani diplomat during a panel discussion at a high-profile security conference in Germany on February 17 as the two men traded accusations over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The sharp words came during a Munich Security Conference event focusing on nations “in-between Russia and Europe” that featured Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip, EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn, and Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov.

When the panel moved to questions from the audience, a first secretary at the Azerbaijani Embassy in Berlin suggested to Sargsyan that Armenia could have played a role in regional energy and transport projects if not for the standoff over Nagorno-Karabakh.

“If there was no policy of ethnic cleansing of Armenia against Azerbaijan, then probably today, Armenia could have benefitted from those projects,” said the diplomat, Sadi Jafarov, invoking an accusation that Baku frequently levels at Yerevan.

Jafarov also denounced what he called the “occupation” of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia. As Jafarov packed both commentary and questions into his turn at the mic, the host of the panel — Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy — intervened in an effort to let Sargsyan reply.

“We don’t have time,” Bremmer said, though Jafarov managed to finish his question.

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Sargsyan thanked Jafarov for the question before saying that Azerbaijani’s leadership needed to “sober up” and “give up on their unrealistic expectations” concerning Nagorno-Karabakh.

“You want to live freely. I assure you, the people of Karabakh want to live freely, too,” Sargsyan said. “They want to live in their historical land.”

He defended a 1991 referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh to secede from Azerbaijan as a “civilized” and legitimate expression of popular will, adding that no one can “break the will of the Armenian people.”

During a speech at the UN General Assembly in September, Sargsyan accused Azerbaijan of committing “a number of war crimes” against civilians and “prisoners of war” in 2016.

Days prior to this incident, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev again publicly declared that Yerevan and other parts of Armenia are “historic Azerbaijani lands,” but was criticized by Russian officials.

Aliyev pledged to “return Azerbaijanis” to Yerevan, Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province and the area around Lake Sevan when he addressed a pre-election congress of his Yeni Azerbaycan party on Thursday. That, he said, is a “strategic goal” of his regime.

Armenia condemned the statement, with President Serzh Sargsyan saying it shows that Baku is not committed to a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“Reports about Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s speech at a congress of the ruling party have certainly been seen in Moscow,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said on Thursday, February 15. “We are well aware that Azerbaijan’s relations with neighboring Armenia are extremely tense. The comment in question will clearly not help to reduce the tensions.”

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry rejected the Russian criticism on Friday. A ministry spokesman, Hikmet Hajiyev, said it runs count to Russia’s “strategic partnership” with Azerbaijan.

Hajiyev was quoted by Azerbaijani media saying that Aliyev did not lay any territorial claims to Armenia and only spoke of an eventual “return of Azerbaijanis to their historical lands.”

Aliyev has repeatedly made similar statements in the past. In 2014, for instance, he stated that Baku will eventually gain control of not only Karabakh but also parts of the “fascist” Armenian state which he said had been created on “historic Azerbaijani lands.”

The Russian, U.S. and French mediators may have referred to the Azerbaijani leader’s latest claim when they urged the parties to the Karabakh conflict to avoid “inflammatory statements” after wrapping up their latest regional tour on February 11.

Aliyev will be seeking a fourth term in office in a snap presidential election slated for April 11. The ballot will be held two days after Sargsyan completes his second and final presidential term. Sargsyan is tipped to become prime minister immediately after Armenia is transformed into a parliamentary republic later in April.

Aliyev and Sargsyan pledged to intensify the Karabakh peace process when they last met in Geneva in October. Their foreign ministers held follow-up talks in December and January.

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