Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 137

The surprise and controversial exchange of intelligentsia delegations between Azerbaijan and Armenia on June 28 generated heated debates in both societies. The move, the first of its kind in the past decade, raised more questions than answers.

Each delegation was comprised of five or six people and headed by the Armenian or Azerbaijani ambassador to Russia, Armen Smbatyan and Polad Bul-bul olgu respectively, thus giving the visit a semi-official flavor. The assemblage also included university rectors, artists, academicians, and doctors. There was no doubt that the presidents of both countries had approved the visits beforehand.

The delegations visited the contested areas in Karabakh, including Shusha, which has a deep symbolic significance for the Azerbaijanis. Farhad Badalbeyli, a member of Azerbaijani delegation, noted “I was shocked to see the destroyed mosque in Shusha.” The groups later met with both Armenian President Robert Kocharian in Yerevan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in Baku. The delegation from Azerbaijan included many Karabakhi Azerbaijanis, a move that purposefully sent a signal to the outside world that there is a sizable ethnic Azeri population in the disputed region as well.

News of the visit was not well received in Azerbaijan. The Karabakh Liberation Organization, in its traditional approach, condemned these contacts between the two countries and called the members of the Azerbaijani delegation traitors. “Those who visited Karabakh insulted the Azerbaijani people,” said the organization in a statement. The main opposition parties, such as Musavat and ANIP, also heaped criticism on the authorities. ANIP officials stated, “Such mutual visits only serve the interests of the Armenians.”

Yet, more centrist opposition forces, such as Democratic Reforms Party, Democratic Party, Civil-Solidarity Party, Social-Democratic Party, and others, welcomed the move. Sabir Rustamkhanli, an MP and chairman of the Civil Solidarity party, said, “The visit of [members of the] Azerbaijani intelligentsia to Karabakh is a sign of our people’s will to the peaceful settlement of the conflict.” Ambassador Byul-Byul-ogly added, “I believe we did the right thing by visiting Karabakh.”

Most independent experts in the country also welcomed the move. Azad Isa-zadeh, a military expert, stated, “We should not forget that Armenians are our neighbors, and we are destined to live together.” Arkadiy Gukasian, resident of unrecognized Republic, agreed: “If we cannot create an atmosphere of mutual trust, we will always be far away from a peace settlement.”

The international community showed strong signs of support for the initiative, with positive statements coming from the Russian Foreign Ministry, U.S. Department of State, and the Council of Europe. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement predicted that the mutual visit between the two countries would help to create a more favorable atmosphere for settling the conflict, and Jonathan Hennic, head of public affairs at the U.S. embassy in Baku, added, “The U.S. positively evaluates” this visit.

Despite general approval regarding the visit, several questions remained. Foremost, people are wondering what prompted such a sudden shift in the position of the Azerbaijani leadership, which has previously condemned similar exchanges between NGO representatives and journalists. Some people linked the re-orientation with the upcoming elections in both countries and the desire on the part of the political leadership both in Azerbaijan and Armenia to show to the international community that they are doing their best to solve the conflict. Others believe that it was a trial balloon for future actions.

But the most important question is whether this was a one-time stunt or the beginning of a larger trend. Azerbaijani officials had contradictory evaluations themselves, with Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov welcoming the move and saying, “Azerbaijanis should be able to travel to Shusha and Khankendi as freely as to Sheki and Guba.” Meanwhile his deputy, Araz Azimov, warned “NGO visits to Karabakh are possible only after the liberation of the occupied territories.” Jonathan Cohen, director of Caucasus Program at the UK-based NGO Conciliation Resources, believes that this is a political decision. Yet, “they [the leaderships of both countries] can turn it into a larger trend if they want to.”

Both President Aliyev and President Kocharian face elections in 2008, making the likelihood of finding settlement to the conflict and concessions related to it almost impossible in the next two years. Yet, they also understand that the nationalistic crowd at home will make it impossible to reach a compromise even after the elections. Thus, the time is ripe to start working with the domestic population to prepare common ground. Mutual visits and the resumption of public diplomacy between the two societies is the only way to build confidence and trust between the insecure neighbors and pave the way for the lasting and sustainable peace in the region.

Day,az, Zerkalo, Echo, Musavat, (June 28-July 5)