Public protests have erupted in Azerbaijan after the chair of the Azerbaijan branch of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly visited the disputed Karabakh region and met with the leadership of the unrecognized Karabakh republic. Arzu Abdullayeva and several young activists from her organization went to Armenia’s Lori region as part of their participation in the “Gugark” youth summer camp from July 28 to July 30.
Several local NGOs, such as the pro-governmental youth movement IRELI, the Forum of NGOs of Azerbaijan, and mass media outlets have lambasted Abdullayeva for her “treasonous” action and for her cooperation with Armenians. The private TV stations ANS and ATV have even gone so far as to accuse Abdullayeva of “mis-educating our youth and visiting an Armenian cemetery after drinking with Armenian hosts.”
Public diplomacy, exchange visits by the media and NGO representatives, are strongly condemned in Azerbaijan. This attitude, mainly coming from the government and pro-government circles, is derived from the belief that such reciprocal visits will help draw the Karabakh republic out of its international isolation and eventually legitimize its existence. “These visits only favor the interests of Armenia and harm the interests of Azerbaijan,” says Akif Nagi, chairman of Karabakh Liberation Organization and a strong opponent of such visits. Nagi believes that both the government and the public must do everything possible to prevent such contacts.
The head of the Information and Press Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, Tahir Tagizadeh, refuses to accept the blame on the part of the authorities. He says it would be improper to “put limits on the exchanges.” But he suggested that the visits not take place until after the first stage of conflict settlement is done; that is, until the occupied territories are freed and the status of Karabakh is being determined. Only then we will consider them as a strong and important part of the peace process, he said.
Thus, any direct political and people-to-people contacts between official Baku and the authorities of the unrecognized Karabakh republic have been minimal throughout the past decade. The liberation of the occupied territories is held up as a pre-condition for any possible contacts between Baku and Khankendi. Contacts are allowed for human rights activists and media representatives, who still are branded traitors in Azerbaijan. Such individuals typically work in collaboration with international organizations, often the donors supporting such bilateral meetings, to allegedly aid the separatists.
Similarly, international sport and cultural events that include participants representing Karabakh lead to protests in Azerbaijan. Several days ago, Azerbaijani NGOs sent a protest letter to the municipal government of the eastern Turkish city of Kars for inviting folk groups from Karabakh to participate in the city’s cultural festival. As a result, organizers withdrew their the invitation to the Armenian delegation. Last year, official Baku denounced chess tournaments and Independence Day concerts in Khankendi. The Azerbaijan national soccer team even refuses to host the Armenian team in Baku as part of the European qualification games in order not to appear to be cooperating with the Armenian government.
There are, however, some politicians and activists who believe that public diplomacy and the gradual build-up of trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis are vital for the peaceful resolution of the conflict. “Visits to Armenia will produce dividends in five to ten years,” says Avaz Hasanov, the chairman of the Humanitarian Research Center and a frequent visitor to Armenia.
With the peace process on Karabakh deadlocked and both sides using bellicose rhetoric, conflict analysts around the world are once again pushing the idea of public diplomacy. It is widely believed that the political leadership of both Armenia and Azerbaijan understand the benefits of the painful compromises and seek a way to settle the conflict, but they are either unable or incapable of convincing their respective publics. More than 15 years of war propaganda portraying the opposite side as a mortal enemy make a peace-settlement process based on compromise very difficult, because the Azerbaijan and Armenian peoples do not want to accept anything less than what they believe belongs to them. The longer this problem continues, the more difficult it will be for the governments of both countries to open the minds of their citizens.
(ATV, ANS TV, Musavat, Day.az, Trend, Olaylar, September 10-15)