PRINCETON, N.J. — On December 8, Princeton University in New Jersey hosted a talk by Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States, Khazar Ibrahim, through its “Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia” (TRI).

That one of the most prestigious universities in the country — and the world — gave the Azerbaijani government a platform to promulgate its ideas, did not go unnoticed by the Armenian-American public. Formal complaints were filed by Armenian community institutions, including a large number of Armenian-American student groups.

Nevertheless, the talk went on as scheduled. Entitled “The Caucasus Region at a Crossroads: The Challenges and Prospects for Peace and Cooperation,” the event took place on Zoom and was moderated by Prof. Bernard Haykel, director of the institute.

Haykel, an expert on contemporary Middle Eastern politics, has been interviewed by the media numerous times in regard to conflicts in the region; he is especially noted as one of the Western world’s foremost authorities on ISIS. Haykel opened the meeting by noting that although complaints and protests had been registered by Armenian community members, the talk was justified by the principle of free speech. He also noted that the institute plans to host speakers from a variety of viewpoints in the future, including the viewpoint of the Republic of Armenia.

The Speech

Ibrahim, appointed in July 2021, previously served as ambassador to Turkey and also its representative before NATO. He holds master’s degrees from Baku State University and Georgetown.

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Ibrahim began his talk with subjective and vague statements about the Caucasus being a “Crossroads of East and West,” and the claim that Azerbaijan hosts “at least 15 quite large ethnic groups.” He continued with statements like “the three countries of the Caucasus were always living together” and that the challenge today is “mindset and issue of trust,” further stating that issues of “occupation” and “ethnic cleansing” having happened in the recent past were an obstacle to progress. In saying this, Ibrahim seemed to be employing a rhetorical tactic of characterizing Karabakh’s independence struggle as an “occupation” and other incidents (perhaps Khojaly) as “ethnic cleansing,” without actually naming the incidents he was referring to, making his statements almost impossible to rebut. It should be noted that the ambassador engaged in this kind of rhetoric throughout his talk.

Because of the difficulty of presenting Ibrahim’s words without context, Professor Anna Ohanyan, an Armenian-born political scientist at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, was interviewed by the Armenian Mirror-Spectator to comment on some of Ibrahim’s statements.

In regard to the history of the Caucasus, “this conflict is not a new conflict,” says Ohanyan. “It’s not a post-Soviet war; it has imperialist roots.”

Prof. Anna Ohanyan


Ibrahim became more specific when he mentioned the “3 plus 3” plan which has been put forward by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. The plan essentially states that future issues in the South Caucasus should be resolved in concert by the three countries of the region (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan), plus the three regional powers which border the region (Turkey, Iran and Russia).

Ibrahim claimed that “we have a lot of opportunities” because “the countries have changed in the last 20 years.” Again, he did not specify much about what had changed, although he went on to mention that economic corridors (i.e. the oil pipeline) have linked Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, and that 3/4th of the regional economy is based in Azerbaijan and Georgia. He also stated that Azerbaijan was proud to have been elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2012.

In response to the 3 + 3 issue, Ohanyan discussed the concept of regionalism. Azerbaijan’s leaders use “peace” and “regionalism” as euphemisms, said Ohanyan. Furthermore, there are different kinds of regionalism. For example, “hegemonic regionalism” is something imposed from the top down by great powers. This is seen in the Caucasus throughout its history of being governed by the Russian, Persian and Ottoman Empires. The suggestion of bringing back Russia, Iran and Turkey to oversee the region’s affairs in a 3+3 arrangement seems to be a new form of hegemonic regionalism. The format “imports the same problem that the region had for centuries, which is great power rivalry in the region,” according to Ohanyan.

“Armenians are very nervous about 3+3,” she continued. She stated that the Armenian leadership has “been clear that the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] Minsk Group is the model [for solving the Karabakh issue],” and that the 3+3 model “is only for connectivity.”

Ohanyan suggested a 3+0 format instead, which would mean regional issues would be solved by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in concert without their more powerful neighbors. “If we look at other regions,” Ohanyan noted, “the countries come together and institutionalize to keep great powers at bay.” Ohanyan further suggested that “we need to develop regional diplomatic stability” in the Caucasus, in order to “strengthen the norm against militarization, to take war off the table.”

But is that what Azerbaijan wants? Ohanyan mentioned that a different type of regionalism is found in the European Union (EU), where there is real regional connectivity and cooperation. Of course, the Caucasus is far from this. In the EU type model, “there is a lot of contact between businesses and civil society groups, it’s a lot more developmental,” Ohanyan explained. Ohanyan admits that “it is in Armenia’s interest to have greater regional connectivity and more diplomatic states of engagement.” However, this is not what the Azerbaijan government is suggesting, she stated. Azerbaijan is not interested in an arrangement that is “institutionalized and rules-based.” Rather, the Azeris “essentially want a forceful peace on their terms,” she concluded.

‘Territorial Integrity’ and ‘Transport Links’

Stating in the Princeton talk that the “region is different [now],” Ibrahim claimed the border issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan is “over.” Ibrahim reinforced this by saying that “territorial integrity” has been restored, which for him means that Armenia and Azerbaijan “can actually see each other” and engage in peace talks.

On this point, Ohanyan stated: “Aliyev is the only one saying the conflict is resolved. For him it’s a territorial issue, for them [Karabakh] it’s a self-government issue.”

Ibrahim stressed that the creation of a transport link from Azerbaijan to the Nakhichevan exclave under the authority of Azerbaijan, is part of the peace deal that ended last year’s war and needs to be opened. He also mentioned that when Azerbaijan started their energy infrastructure project (i.e. oil pipeline), Armenia was the shortest route between Baku and Turkey. However “because of the occupation, politics, and practical reasons this was impossible.” Again, Ibrahim glossed over the entire Karabakh conflict with the simplistic term “occupation.”

As opposed to the time when Karabakh was free, “now we have the opportunities,” and there is so much economic activity in the region that the links between Armenia and Azerbaijan can have an impact beyond the region. However, Ibrahim opined that “if this window closes, we will be back to our old realities,” and laconically commented that “it’s not the most important thing for my country,” suggesting Azerbaijan would be doing Armenia a favor to now engage in trade. The ambassador went on to say that “it’s even more in the interests of Armenia, the more roads and investment there is.”

In regard to regional economic activity and Azerbaijan’s role, Ohanyan stated that “regionalism starts from community organization…regions are as strong as their weakest links…disregarding ethnic communities has been the problem [for Azerbaijan].” She further stated that Azerbaijan is “a rentier state,” meaning that it derives a majority of its revenue from rent paid by foreign entities, and that there is “not a lot of productive capacity.” She also suggested that Armenia needs to “increase the cost of war for Azerbaijan,” potentially by building economic and other ties that would make it non-beneficial for the Azerbaijanis to attack Armenia and Karabakh.

Question and Answer Period

The floor was opened to questions, and numerous queries were sent to the Professor Haykel through the chat function of Zoom, especially from pro-Armenian individuals. A question was asked about the oil pipeline, which Ibrahim really didn’t answer, though he mentioned that a highway would be built through Armenia to Nakhichevan. To him, that was a certainty and “a question of when and how.”

Haykel also questioned Ibrahim about growing tensions with Iran and changing relations with Turkey, along with the possibility that Russia is “tilting” more toward Azerbaijan than in the past. Ibrahim mentioned that Azerbaijan has great relations with Israel and Turkey, and even mentioned the slogan “One nation, two states,” in reference to Turkey and Azerbaijan. He mentioned that it is a bit strange that Iran does not side with Azerbaijan, even though they are also a Shia Muslim country and have a historical connection. He also stated that Azerbaijan will never take foreign policy steps against Israel, and that they are allied because of the historic, longstanding Jewish community in Azerbaijan. Finally, he mentioned that Azerbaijan does not have a collective security agreement with Moscow.

Haykel asked about the POW issue, which was being brought up by numerous members of the viewing audience. Ibrahim claimed that anyone being detained by Azerbaijan at this point is not a POW, but a detainee “that happened after the war,” and further claimed that “Armenian agrees with that.” He stated that some of these instances came about when people lost their way near the border.

When questioned about the jingoism in Azerbaijan or racism toward Armenians in Azerbaijani textbooks, Ibrahim said, “Forget the theory or allegations, look at the outcome,” stating that if there was something wrong in the textbooks, then there would be more hate among the youth in Azerbaijan. He claimed that this is not the case, and attempted to prove his point by mentioning that today there are many students from Azerbaijan in US schools, but they are not protesting the Armenians “for committing genocide,” rather, “hundreds of Armenian young people are protesting” Azerbaijan, going further to state that racism against Azerbaijanis is “probably in the textbooks in Armenia and in Diaspora organizations.” He chose not to address the Trophy Park in Baku, where the helmets of dead Armenian soldiers as well as realistic figures of Armenian soldiers are on display.

Ibrahim further claimed that “our armed forces are for defense,” and that “we never in the last 500 years went against anybody. Our armed forces are for peace.” Like all other grandiose statements, this also went unchallenged.

Student Protesters

An Armenian-American student at Princeton, Artur Sirkejyan, who is originally from California and is a senior majoring in Molecular Biology, was contacted for comments. Sirkejyan, who was among those protesting the ambassador’s talk, and also attended the talk virtually, wrote: “The event was organized with tight control around audience participation as questions from spectators passed through the arbitrary filter of [the Institute], which hosted the event. Questions that were critical of the Azeri regime, namely those regarding the unlawful capture and torture of Armenian POWs, of which there is ample evidence, were sugarcoated as “claims of POWs, torture, etc…”

In regard to Ibrahim’s statement about Armenian-American students, Sirkejyan had the following to say: “Perhaps the lowest point of the Azeri ambassador’s monologue came towards the end, when he stated his disappointment at the fact that hundreds of Armenian-American youths had opposed the event and contacted Princeton faculty in an attempt to stop a speech by a representative of the Azerbaijani government. The Azeri ambassador pointed out that Azeris don’t engage in such activities, which is untrue, but even still it drew a false parallel between the Azerbaijani government, which conducts human rights violations on a daily basis and engages in ethnic cleansing to this very day, with the Armenian government which, despite its faults, has no such burden. On this point also, the host of the event, Bernard Haykel, made no reproach.”

At press time, the Institute for Transregional Study had not uploaded the Zoom video of Ibrahim’s talk onto its website where past speeches in the same series are available.


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