Azerbaijan has repeatedly warned foreign officials and diplomats over taking unsanctioned visits to the Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenia, saying this contradicts international law. Many governmental agencies in Baku have stated that such visits, made without prior notification of the relevant authorities of Azerbaijan, are illegal and damaging to the settlement process of the Karabakh conflict. However, until now, no legal mechanism existed to “punish” those individuals who visited these territories without Baku’s official consent. Azerbaijani Member of Parliament (MP) Zakhid Oruj had stated in an interview in May 2013 that Baku lacked normative-legal acts that could negate the fact of Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijan’s territories, adding that Baku also needed a “law on Karabakh or on occupied territories that would also help to regulate the visits of foreign citizens to Karabakh” (Zerkalo, May 18).
In early August 2013, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs disclosed a list of 335 people who had illegally visited Karabakh. Among them are MPs of Germany, Slovakia, Iran, Russia, Australia, Austria, France, the United Kingdom and even the United States Senate. The list also includes journalists, students, artists and employees of non-governmental organizations (NGO). The foreign ministry identified all on this list as “persona non grata” or declared they would be denied visas or entry into any part of Azerbaijan (Contact.az, August 3). Nevertheless, Elman Abdullayev, the head of the foreign ministry’s press service mentioned that the list is flexible, and those on it may appeal to the government of Azerbaijan. “The Azerbaijani side understands that many people on the list where brought to Karabakh by the Armenian side without their consent or understanding. Some of them made statements afterwards explaining that they had been lied to on their visits. Baku is ready to consider the requests of the people who visited Karabakh on the issue of excluding them from the list,” Abdullayev stated. He added that many other people from various organizations in the United States and Europe who made official requests to Baku for permission enter Karabakh, in most cases, received a positive answer and were able to visit the occupied territories (Day.az, August 6).
Following the disclosure of the list, the Moscow-based organization Armenian-Russian Cooperation announced it was planning a visit of several Russian journalists, public figures and human rights activists to the Armenian-controlled Karabakh region. Among them were the famous Russian ex-spy and TV host Anna Chapman, human rights activist Sergei Karnaukhov, Rossiyskiy Reporter (Russian Reporter) magazine and Daily News Agency correspondent Alexandra Ryzhkova, as well as others (Azernews, August 26). Baku has instructed its embassy in Moscow to investigate this proposed visit. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abdullayev said that if the fact of the visit is confirmed, all the persons, who illegally visit the occupied territories, will be listed as “persona non grata.” “Azerbaijan’s position in this matter is principled,” Abdullayev declared. “Visits uncoordinated with the relevant agencies of Azerbaijan are illegal and violate the law on the state border of Azerbaijan,” he said (APA, August 26).
The situation with continued visits of foreign citizens to Karabakh has intensified Azerbaijan’s domestic discussion on adopting the Law on Occupied Territories, which would clearly regulate visits to these areas. According to the proposed regulations, citizens of countries that share a visa regime with Azerbaijan, as well as residents without Azerbaijani citizenship would only be able to visit Karabakh and the occupied territories after receiving a visa directly from Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The people from countries having no visa regime would be allowed to visit the occupied territories after securing permission from either the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Ministry of Defense. One of the legislative sponsors of the Law on Occupied Territories, MP Zakhid Oruj, believes that new regulations should also enforce the non-recognition of any legal or economic documents on the sale of lands, concessions or other agreements that were made prior to the restoration of Azerbaijan’s de facto control over the areas currently occupied by Armenia. “The companies working in the occupied territories should understand that after liberating the lands, the Azerbaijani government will not recognize the documents signed by the separatist government,” Oruj concluded. It is worth mentioning that the Georgian parliament already adopted a similar law on occupied territories several years ago pertaining to the status of economic deals struck with the separatist governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Zerkalo, May 18).
It is hard to say whether the actions of the Azerbaijani government will have a long-term effect. So far, the actions do not involve any criminal or financial penalties. The legislative proposals on the nullification of deals made with Karabakh’s breakaway authorities by businesses and individuals may provide some bite if the situation on the ground significantly begins to shift in Baku’s favor. For now, however, Azerbaijan’s threats are mostly theoretical as long as the status quo holds and the occupied territories remain out of Baku’s control.
Yerevan, on the other hand, is likely to attempt to increase the number of people visiting Karabakh without Baku’s express permission, thus further lengthening the list of individuals banned from entering Azerbaijan. The two countries are, therefore, perhaps consciously expanding their stand-off in the diplomatic sphere by expressly injecting foreign individuals into the conflict and seeking to alienate them from the other side’s government. Yet, how effective this strategy becomes may ultimately depend on how long the list of banned individuals grows, and which influential persons find themselves on it.