South Caucasus Development and Cooperation International Conference
President Ilham Aliyev poses outside of ADA University for a photo with the conference's attendees. April 29, 2022. Image: president.az
For a remarkably detailed and frank estimation of Azerbaijan’s current political thinking, in President Ilham Aliyev’s own words, it’s hard to imagine a more informative source than the recording of April 29th’s conference session. But you’ll need three hours to hear it all. Speaking in fluent English without any visible teleprompter or notes, Mr. Aliyev fielded detailed responses to a remarkable series of thoughtful questions from a highly qualified panel of international analysts and academics. Subjects included geopolitics, education, democracy, transport policy and energy. The impressive roster of participants was a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Eurasian expertise from around 20 different countries. These included Amanda Paul, Svante Cornell and Alex Vatanka, all of whom have previously appeared as guests on our Caspian Podcast.
Held at Baku’s ADA University, the forum was preceded by the delegates being taken to visit Shusha, the culturally important city reclaimed at the end of the 2020 Second Karabakh War. This format helped put into visual context the destruction caused by three decades of conflict for many who had previously studied but never seen in person the devastation on the ground. The trip also gave the participants some off-camera chances for private conversations that helped prepare for the next day's conference. The main session was framed predominantly as a series of responses from the president to statements or queries posed by the experts.
What follows is just a small selection of many enlightening comments, organized by theme though not in the order presented during the event.
Armenia & Karabakh
In reference to finding peace solutions, the president stressed the year’s achievement in having the international community accept the “new realities on the ground” of the post-2020 situation while stating that “we do everything to support the positive” for a new era of peace in the Caucasus. In terms of border delimitation, things are ready to start “very, very soon.” However, later when pushed as to which exact Soviet-era map was to be the basis for the demarcation process, Mr. Aliyev accepted that this issue had not been finalized and that no single map would be totally suitable – the process would also require nebulous ‘historical factors’ to be taken into account. That might include consulting maps from before November 1920 that show much of Zengezur (now Armenia’s Syunik Province) as part of Azerbaijan. This stance is likely to be seen as provocative by Yerevan, though as Aliyev essentially signalled, it is part of Baku’s negotiating strategy.
Over final discussions on a peace treaty, he told the group that “we are ready and we are waiting for the date from [the] Armenian government.” Meanwhile, he warned that Armenia must refrain from seeking any sort of revenge – and it should not walk away or make longer-term plans to rebuild a large military or to expand its population in both numbers and aggressive intent. “That will be the end of their statehood.”
On Armenia-Turkey, Aliyev stated without hesitation or caveats that Azerbaijan supports the rapprochement process, suggesting that the normalization of relations would provide a valuable chance for Armenian politicians to get a greater sense of how they see their country within the region. For now, he insisted, “I don’t think they have a clear understanding,” continuing that Armenia and the diaspora “think that the world owes them everything and someone will come and defend them.” Speaking in passing of the 1915 deportations and massacres of Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, Aliyev pointed out that “every nation has its tragic moments in its history” but that Armenia has made theirs into their central ideology rather than looking to the future.
Alexandra Matas, a senior advisor from the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, asked how Baku could help to reduce public hatred towards Armenia in the aftermath of decades of conflict. Aliyev welcomed the important question but accepted that solving it was hard, at least in the shorter term. Indeed, now that so many people had been on buses to Shusha and Agdam and seen for themselves the level of destruction wrought on those once vibrant places, if anything, the emotion is all the more raw. “I myself will never forget, and I don’t want to forget” the atrocities and barbarism committed by Armenians who used to be our neighbours, he said. But while Azerbaijan should remember and always be ready to defend itself, any peace agenda requires public support. Aliyev believes that his government’s efforts towards reconstruction and peacemaking enjoy a very high level of unity and public trust. To build on this and diminish hatred, he claims that he is encouraging people-to-people contacts, personal, journalistic and academic, that can re-humanize the image of Armenians over the longer term. “It will take [a] long [time], but there is no alternative.”
In response to a question by Brenda Schaffer, President Aliyev regretted that over 200 have been killed or seriously injured by mines since the end of the war. Many of these were on devices laid 10 to 20 days after the war – days meant to be a ‘grace period’ which was agreed as part of the ceasefire to allow a humane withdrawal of Armenian forces. This post-war mine-laying was, said Aliyev, “terrible behaviour” for which Armenia was “not even reprimanded.”
Finding the skilled labour to demine all of these devices has been difficult for Azerbaijan. Baku is increasing the training of de-miner personnel and buying sophisticated equipment, including specialized mine-spotter drones. Still, the country is not receiving foreign support from NGOs, so has to fund the effort entirely with its own resources. This they are doing by building their own demining infrastructure as the astronomical prices of private international demining outfits are simply too expensive.
Turkey & Russia
Turkish IR Professor Hasan Ünal noted the “good order” of three-way communications between Ankara, Baku and Moscow despite the “era of Russia-bashing” and asked the President how his handling of relations with the Kremlin “impacts on Armenian behaviour.” Mr. Aliyev stressed the independent character of Azerbaijan’s approach to cooperation, always in the country’s direct interests. He underlined that security and a sound economy are keys to cooperating from a point of strength. With Turkey, he points out, that’s easy as Azerbaijan has been an ally anyway in a wide range of matters, including the military, something underlined in the Shusha Declaration. Talking of Russia, a little less gushingly, he noted that there are many fields in which Baku and Moscow cooperate very effectively despite some obviously tricky hurdles.
Aliyev reminded the conference that it was Baku’s careful policy to fight the Second Karabakh War entirely within the borders of Azerbaijan’s legally recognized territory, avoiding Armenian provocations that could have drawn in CSTO obligations – i.e., military help to Yerevan from Moscow. Meanwhile, Russia supplied arms to both sides during the war, albeit with Baku paying market prices, while Armenia essentially got shipments “free of charge – covered by so-called loans… that have never been returned.” Still, “Armenia’s expectations were much higher – they thought the Russian army should come and fight and to defend separatism: it didn’t happen.”
We have “good relations with all our neighbours,” including Georgia and Iran and “wish to have good relations with Armenia” to ensure that Azerbaijan is surrounded by stability in order to concentrate on a “peace agenda [and the] economy” so that the funds spent on arms can be funnelled instead into reconstruction.
Of course, Armenia-Russia relations are excellent, said Aliyev. “We always want relations between countries who surround us to be good – he added with something of a smirk – that’s part of our peace agenda.”
One of the more pointedly combative questions came from Vali Kaleji, Senior research fellow at IRAS (Iran’s Institute of Eurasia Studies). He decried that some attendees of last week’s 5th Congress of World Azerbaijanis had questioned Iran’s territorial integrity by calling for a greater Azerbaijan that straddles the Araz River (the current Azerbaijan-Iran border). Suggesting that the common language and culture of Azerbaijanis on both sides of the border should be a source of inter-state cooperation, not one of territorial contestation, Kaleji suggested that President Aliyev publicly reject the substance of such statements. Mr. Aliyev pointed out that any such comments had not been made by an Azerbaijani government official, so could not be construed as any official pronouncement. He clarified that Azerbaijan’s position on territorial integrity “is well known and not questionable” and that “in Azerbaijan, in the democratic society, people are free to say what they want.” It’s somewhat ironic that Iran wants speakers silenced in Azerbaijan, Mr. Aliyev continued, given the contrasting example of a recent case in which Tehran had not only allowed individuals to speak against Azerbaijani territorial integrity but had refused extradition requests of those who had gone well beyond words and had been implicated in criminal acts in Ganja.
Asked what his message to Ukraine might be based on Azerbaijan’s past experiences, the President suggested a four-word answer “Never agree to occupation.” He recalled how on many occasions, he had been pushed to accept compromises to allow a ‘fake Armenian state’ on the territory of Azerbaijan, but that he had always said no, and that if necessary, the country was prepared to “fight to the death.’ “I was criticized for being hostile while Armenian leaders were praised for being constructive.” Their being “constructive” was, in fact, an attempt to seal the occupation as a done deal.
Overall, Aliyev considered that Azerbaijan has a “very clear and realistic agenda in relations with respect to relations with the EU” and that, unlike some (like Georgia), Baku doesn’t realistically see achieving membership. So the relationship needs to be based on “pragmatism and mutual benefits.” In Mr. Aliyev’s opinion, it’s pretty clear that the EU wants stability near its borders and more energy resources and transportation connectivity from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan wants closer relations, access to modern technologies and energy markets, and equality of treatment, i.e., offered similar terms in agreements as Brussels might offer to Georgia and Armenia.
It’s a sore point. Following the Second Karabakh War, the European Union announced over 2 billion Euros in support to Yerevan but just 140 or 160 million to Baku. That was seen as a particularly egregious example of “double standards” against Azerbaijan. After all, “not a single house had been demolished in Armenia while Azerbaijan is the country where 10,000 sq km had been totally destroyed!” Since then, Baku has been lobbying to have the same funding in the same proportions (loans/grants) as received by Yerevan. Nonetheless, Mr. Aliyev believes that the EU remains essentially a “fair broker” that can play a substantial role in the normalization of relations with Armenia – replacing the “dysfunctional” Minsk Group co-chairmanship. Much more than that, Baku and Brussels are now 90% of the way to finalizing a new comprehensive agreement between them that should cover a whole range of trade and geopolitical issues reflecting the ‘new realities.’
Oil & Gas
Energy security expert John Roberts asked whether the improved supply of oil and gas to Karabakh and Armenia might be used as peacebuilding measures. Aliyev clarified that supply currently comes to Khankendi from Armenia, albeit passing through parts of Azerbaijan that are not covered by the Russian peacekeepers. He noted that the closure of the relevant gas pipeline on that route back in March this year had been caused by an explosion and subsequently fixed by Azerbaijani efforts. Yet, the international community had been quick to suspect Baku of foul play and of deliberately causing the problem in the first place. This was rich, Aliyev mused bitterly, especially given that there had been no general condemnation of Armenia in the 1990s when Yerevan cut the gas transit pipeline to Nakhchivan from the rest of Azerbaijan. They had left it cut indefinitely (the exclave finally had supplies reinstated in 2005 but only by building a new supply route from Iran). Longer-term, Mr. Aliyev suggested, everyone would win if Baku ended up providing electricity and gas supplies for Khankendi and other Armenian populated areas of Karabakh. If requested - “we would look at that.”
Interestingly, hinting at the further pursuance of anti-corruption measures, the President expressed confidence that management reforms of SOCAR, the national oil corporation, will “finally transform” it into a “transparent international energy company.” This was, he said, important to reducing relatively sizeable quantities of gas that are ‘lost.’ Some of these losses, he accepted, are justified due to outdated equipment, but others have proved “suspicious.” Along with developing renewable energy, reducing supply losses would be another way Azerbaijan could help cover Europe’s looming shortfall caused by the Ukraine War and sanctions on Russia.
On the question of renewable energies, something that might be seen as a threat to a country like Azerbaijan with an economy so linked to petroleum production, Aliyev was remarkably upbeat about the field offering “additional opportunities” for the country.
Though speaking without notes, he gave a remarkably thorough overview of many facts and figures to illustrate the point. He estimated that Karabakh's massive potential for solar and wind energy could amount to some 9200MW. A small start has seen 20+25MW of hydro already brought online. However, concrete negotiations with BP over a solar and wind programme should include a 240MW solar plant in Jebrayil, while over 400MW of plants have been agreed with Saudi and UAE companies. Together, these should save some 400 million cubic metres of natural gas annually, making that gas available to export. In the Caspian, the potential for off-shore wind farms is enormous too. As an exporter of electricity, Azerbaijan is considering joining the proposed project for building a high-voltage power cable system across the Black Sea via Georgia to Romania. This would be just one strand of a multi-vectored series of cooperation in an ‘energy dialogue’ with the EU that has been given urgency in light of the Ukraine war. Discussions already started in March 2022.
 This small start is set against the destruction of some 30 hydro-power generation units that were destroyed by retreating Armenians in the days of withdrawal allowed by the November 2020 “capitulation agreement” – an egregious act of vandalism in a time that was supposed to be for people that wanted to leave to collect their belongings in safety.