Aliyev welcomes Karabakh Armenians as compatriots – but not a word about status

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, speaking at the conference “South Caucasus: development and co-operation” held at ADA University in Baku on 29 April, appeared to be offering an olive branch to Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. “We accept Armenians living in Karabakh as our citizens. We hope they will soon realise that they have all rights and security guarantees that they need as citizens of Azerbaijan” he told participants. Aliyev said that the Karabakh Armenians can soon start participating in the economic activity of Azerbaijan and benefit from it, but they must first isolate the separatists amongst them.

In an upbeat speech where Aliyev spoke for the first time about the real prospect of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani leader appeared satisfied with the responses he had received from the Armenian side about the start of peace negotiations. Looking forward, he said that maybe in ten years' time all the misunderstandings and problems with Armenia will be solved, by which time he said: “the South Caucasus region will be fully integrated and the three countries of the region will have close co-operation”.

Whilst some welcomed Aliyev’s speech, its content would not have been satisfactory for many Armenians. Even for those Armenians who are ready to accept the principle that Karabakh returns under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan, the issue of status remains important. For the moment, however, Azerbaijan is insisting that there will be no special status. Up to the 2020 Karabakh War, when Armenia held all the cards, and Azerbaijan hardly any, the Azerbaijani position was to offer the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh the highest level of autonomy practised anywhere in the world, as long as they accepted the sovereignty of Azerbaijan. This offer, and indeed any other offer that provides for any special status for Karabakh is now off the table, and Aliyev speaks only about Armenians exercising their rights as normal citizens of Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani side feels that the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh will revert to their control soon, and to speak of status will only complicate matters.

There are those however who feel that this is simply an opening Azerbaijani bargaining position. A peace deal with Armenia is unlikely to be agreed upon if this issue is not somehow resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and that will require compromise. For the moment, however, Aliyev is keeping his vision of how that compromise can look like very much to himself.

source: This commentary was first published in the Karabakh Concise newsletter on 5 May 2022

photo: President Ilham Aliyev speaking at a conference at ADA University in Baku on 29 April 2022.