Ilham Aliyev: remembering the past, we must look to the future

Ilham Aliyev: remembering the past, we must look to the future

The world needs to understand feelings of the Azerbaijani people, who liberated their native lands after 30 years of occupation and discovered how devastated they were by the invaders from Armenia over the years, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said, speaking at the the "New vision for South Caucasus: Post-conflict development and cooperation" international conference, which was held at ADA University.

"Before talking about post conflict development we need to understand that our lands were under occupation for 30 years. And we cannot exclude our memories of those who lost their family members, the memory of those who were deprived from the fundamental right to live in their own lands. We cannot forget the atrocities committed by Armenian army. We cannot and will never forget Khojaly genocide and the innocent victims of Khojaly genocide organized by the leaders of Armenia and the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh regime. Therefore, it’s very important to understand that this memory will be with us. We will keep it in our heart," Ilham Aliyev stressed in the first place.

"At the same time, we need to look to the future. Also, the destructions on the territories which we liberated are beyond all our worst expectations. Because we more or less knew what Armenians have done to our citizen villages. Because there have been from time to time some video footages some information from some international representatives who managed to visit those lands. By the way, you probably know that foreigners who were illegally visiting then Nagorno-Karabakh were deprived from visiting territories which you have visited. They were deprived from going to Aghdam, to Fusilli, to other territories which surrounded the former NKAO. Because Armenian government didn't want foreigners to see the devastation and to see their hatred for Azerbaijanis," the Azerbaijani leader said.

"Because it's clear that those destructions and devastations were done after the First Karabakh war stopped - and it was not possible to  destroy citizen villages during the war. They did it deliberately in order to erase the legacy of Azerbaijani culture, in order to erase these territories from our memories, in order to change the origin of those lands. Therefore, we need to understand the feelings of Azerbaijani people," the Azerbaijani president stressed.

"And now when we returned to those lands and we see with our own eyes what the occupation of Armenian forces did to our historical monuments, to religious monuments, to our cities and villages. Of course, this is a very important factor in order to understand our steps during the post conflict situation. You are all very well aware about what happened, you were involved in this process. There's no need for me to make kind of a long speech talking about 30 years of occupation. Probably I will conclude now in order to have more time for discussions. So thank you once again for being here with us," Ilham Aliyev concluded his opening speech.

The first question to the President was from the former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, former Assistant Secretary of State for the South Caucasus Matthew Bryza: "I want to pick up on where you just left off about mindsets both in Armenia and in Azerbaijan. And that fact is that the decisive victory was won by Azerbaijan through a combination of innovative technology, tactics, but also incredible bravery. I don't think people understand that you conducted a war in a restrained way, the collateral damage or civilian casualties were at a minimum. You show strategic vision by pausing after you won a military phase of the war in Shusha. This was preceded by years of negotiations and preliminary agreements back in 2009, the so-called basic principles. I mean the November 9-10 agreement is essentially the basic principles, except there is no possibility in the change of Nagorno-Karabakh status, because Armenia didn't accept throughout the war that solution and lost a war. My question is: is there any sense in Armenia, do you feel it at all that there is an appreciation that the way the war was conducted was actually quite restrained?"

When answering this question, Ilham Aliyev recalled that Azerbaijan has always strived to minimize losses in the conflict, and therefore made so many efforts towards a peaceful settlement. "Thank you for your question. You were directly involved in the negotiation process and therefore you know what was our position and what was the position of Armenia. The Azerbaijani position has always been constructive. We have said many times at our meetings with your former colleagues and ambassadors of the Minsk Group from France and Russia that Azerbaijan always was interested in finding a soonest solution to the conflict, because we were the suffering side. I had a strong feeling during negotiations, which I shared with you, that Armenia does not want a solution. They say they want but they do everything in order not to have this solution," he noted.

"So, when we liberated those territories, those fortifications, those hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, in mining in building these defense lines, we clearly understand that they were doing it to keep these lands under occupation forever. We clearly understand that they were doing it in order to keep these lands under occupation forever. So, their tactics was actually to be in the process of negotiations, I mean the previous governments, to have kind of a process, to imitate, to negotiate, to agree on something, to disagree on other things. But when it comes to make a decisive step to step back as it was in France, in Rambouillet, as it was in 2009 after Armenian side actually rejected the formula of settlement which provided the liberation of the surrounding territories of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan and leaving the so-called status for future negotiations. So, you know it very well," the Azerbaijani leader said.

"With respect to our behaviour during the war from the very beginning it was very clear that Azerbaijan is conducting not only the war of XXI century but the war of new morality if I may say so. When war started my immediate commands to our military servicemen was to behave with dignity to behave in a moderate way, and to do maximum in order not to do damage civilians. And the fact that there have been less than 40 victims on Armenian side among civilians clearly demonstrated. Because we were liberating territories. Some territories were illegally inhabited. Therefore, our attacks, our technical capability was aimed only on military objects. And those less than 40 victims which Armenian side had most of those people were participating in the military operations. They were civilians who were recruited to the military units and they were part of military operations," the Azerbaijani president said.

"The way how we treated those who were left behind also is a clear demonstration of the human nature of our policy and human behaviour of our army. There have been several elderly people left behind for instance in the province of Hadrut. And when our soldiers came they saw these people. They were frightened. The elderly people, they spoke very good Azerbaijani, because they lived together with Azerbaijanis, and they were taken to the hospital. They were treated in our hospitals. Then, when we decided and the Red Cross was involved to return them back, Armenia refused to receive them. One of the elderly who was in poor health condition, they refused to receive him. They said they don't want to take care of him. So we together with Red Cross put him to the hospital in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev said.

"With respect to the question of does Armenia appreciate our behaviour, I would say no. It’s a very unfortunate development.  If we're talking about post-conflict situation, we need to concentrate on some elements, which can lead to future reconciliation. But there has been such a long period of deliberate policy of demonization of Azerbaijan, inventing stories, presenting Azerbaijanis as enemies, as those ‘who occupied Armenia or occupied Karabakh. So, it will probably take time for society to understand, not only during the war, but even after it, what we've done. We returned more than 1,500 dead bodies of Armenian soldiers. We're still participating together with Russian peacekeepers in this searching operations. I can tell you that during the first Karabakh war, we had almost 4,000 missing Azerbaijani soldiers. None of them was returned. We provide easy transportation to Russian peacekeepers through our railways: they bring their goods by railroad to Barda, which is much easier and cheaper than flying to Yerevan and then go for 5-6 hours by Lachin corridor," the President of Azerbaijan said.

"There are other examples I can bring. We allowed Russian Gazprom to transport natural gas to Armenia through Azerbaijani territory due to repairs work on Russian territory. We could’ve said no, but we said yes. We allow Armenians to use 21 km of our road in Zangilan and Gubadli districts, which is a road situated on Azerbaijani territory, but was used by Armenians. We allowed it, we didn't block it. Did they allow us to move one meter to the territories which were occupied during the war? No. So these are all unilateral steps, and it’s not only a gesture, this is a deliberate policy of turning the page of the war," Ilham Aliyev stressed.

"We expect more activity from the civil society of Armenia. Because neither the government, nor the opposition today will not afford them to say not positive but even neutral word about Azerbaijan. Because there's a concept of Azerbaijanophobia. It's decades of cultivation of hatred against Azerbaijanis. But I think they should find courage, and they should start telling the truth to the Armenian people, because the war is already in history, the conflict is resolved, and we need to look into the future," he added.

Caucasus Programme Director at the international peacebuilding organization Conciliation Resources Laurence Broers asked the question of the role of public contacts in the post-war processes. "Mr. President, in the late 1990s, there was a view in Azerbaijan that civil society and NGOs could work with the population to build confidence after the conflict is resolved. I would like to continue what you said and ask what do you think about it now, given what you said that the conflict has been resolved? What should be the role of civil society and peacebuilding in this new vision for the region?"

"I think that they can play a crucial role, especially with respect to what I said about my expectations from the political segment of the Armenian society. There's a big room for civil society to make steps with respect to reconciliation. But I can tell, probably you know that even those very few representatives of Armenian civil society who speak for peace with Azerbaijan are becoming the subject of public attacks, sometimes physical attacks. They are announced as traitors, Armenian politicians call them "Turks", apparently, in their political slang, this is a very insulting word. And they are being frightened by politicians," Ilham Aliyev said in the first place.

Expert at the International Crisis Group Nigar Goksel asked Ilham Aliyev to share his vision of a peaceful future in the South Caucasus.

"It is difficult to predict how Azerbaijanis and Armenians will interact in the future. I think to a large degree it will depend on the will and political wisdom of politicians, because I think we need to be more active here and in Yerevan in order to try to build bridges, of course, if Armenia wants that. We don’t know what are their intentions. They never elaborated on that. I already on several occasions made it very clear that we consider the page of the conflict turned down. We even can talk and I already said it a couple of times about a possible peace agreement with Armenia. These are our plans. But we do not have any messages of this kind from Armenian side. Armenian prime minister is silent, Armenian foreign minister is very aggressive," Ilham Aliyev pointed out.

"Armenia is not in the situation now to afford themselves to be aggressive against Azerbaijan. They should remember what happened during the war. Armenian opposition is now actually in hysteria. And Azerbaijanophobia, Turkophobia became one of the main, it always was very important but now, I think, it is the only factor. I am sure that they will build their election campaign on Azerbaijanophobia, Turkophobia on the feelings of revanshism. Therefore we cannot establish this interaction unilaterally. Our position is clear. We are ready for that. It will not be easy," he noted.

"Those former refugees who will return to Aghdam and other cities, they will see what Armenians have done to their lands, to the graves of their beloved ones, to their religious monuments. What will they feel? I can predict. I felt the same. When I was approaching the line of contact during the war, and was only able to see Aghdam through lenses from binoculars and when I went there, to all the occupied territories. Yes, I am a President and I must be in line with my duties but we are all people we have feelings, we can hide them, we can control them but sometimes it is very difficult. I can predict what will be the feelings of former Azerbaijani refugees but as a President, as a person who looks to the future we will do everything if Armenia has positive signals to us to try to build these connections," the Azerbaijani president said.

"We made steps to build bridges between our civil societies members even during the conflict. There were two delegations visiting Armenia and Karabakh, and coming to Baku, but after the second trip of representatives of civil society, journalists and some members of parliament, the Armenian side stopped it. When I asked former President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan why they stopped it, there was no answer. After we found out that they were afraid that there could be some approach, there could be some elements of cooperation. They were always blocking that," the Azerbaijani leader noted.

"We need to be able to deliver our messages to the Armenian society. Our resources are very limited, the public space in Armenia is strongly controlled by the government. As I said, any positive sign about Azerbaijan is considered to be a treason. Therefore, I think that international organizations, especially those with experience in dealing with this kind of issues of post-war reconciliation, or normalization, confidence-building measures. I think we should count a lot on the support from international NGOs, and Azerbaijan is ready to work with them on this issue," the President of Azerbaijan said.

Nigar Goksel also asked about Turkish-Armenian relations: "In the near or medium term, do you think Turkey should open its borders with Armenia for regional integration and to address the problem of demonization of Turkey and Turkophobia in Armenian society?"

"We see some signs, we hear some low voices in the Armenian establishment about reconsidering their policy towards Turkey. Even during the conflict on several occasions I was talking about that, saying that it is absolutely unacceptable and strange that such a small, impoverished and weak country as Armenia has territorial claims to such a great and powerful country as Turkey.There are so much ideological dogmas and turkophobia has become their national policy, that they have even lost their sense of reality," Ilham Aliyev stated.

"As far as I know, the Turkish government is planning the steps in a very constructive way, but of course, they need an adequate response. The first thing Armenia should do is to refrain from territorial claims against Turkey. They should rewrite the Constitution. They should adopt a new constitution, Yerevan is already planning to rewrite the Constitution, but only for the political agenda of a government that wants to strengthen its political position. I think I can give them good advice: remove territorial claims against Turkey from the Constitution. I do not know in which country's Constitution there is a territorial claim to other country. I think it's a unique situation," the President of Azerbaijan noted.

"Everyone should understand that there have been many wars in history. In Armenia, facts are falsified regarding, for example, the so-called" genocide ", which has nothing to do with reality. Then there was a war, there was a situation when people and countries were fighting with each other - but then there was a reconciliation. By the way, at that time Armenia not only had difficulties with the Ottoman Empire, but also with other neighbors. Why did they select Turkey for their unjustified attacks? The Turkish government on several occasions publicly offered to create certain joint groups of historians to look impartially  - but they refuse in Armenia. Why? Because they need a fake history in order to get political dividends. They were exploiting this fake story to get protection and get some assistance from some countries," he said.

"Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of Turkey, but I can say, and it is not a secret, that today we are discussing the unblocking of communication channels, in particular, the Zangezur corridor. The Zangezur corridor cannot be unblocked without Turkish agreement and participation. Although Turkey is not present in a trilateral working group at the level of deputy prime ministers of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia, but Turkey has been informed by us what we discuss. If Armenia wants to put an end to difficulties with communications, if they want to get the opportunity to become a transit country, it's only Turkey which can provide that. As far as I know, the Turkish government is ready. Again, the ball is now on the Armenian side," Ilham Aliyev said.

"Armenia needs good doctors. I have said many times, they are poisoned with poison coming from the diaspora, which sits in very quiet and nice places in southern France, California, Krasnodar Territory, in some other capitals, enjoying their life. The Diaspora wants the Armenians in Karabakh and Armenia to be their hostages and tools for them to pursue some ambitious and chauvinistic ideas. The Armenian society needs to destroy the iron curtain behind which it lives under the influence of poisonous ideas. We are ready to help them with that," the Azerbaijani leader concluded.

Head of the Center for Central Asia and Caucasus Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Stanislav Pritchin asked a question about Azerbaijan's future.

"We actually have elaborated the mid-term and long term development strategy for Azerbaijan even before the war. Of course, the liberation of territories will be additional opportunities, because though the restoration of territories will demand a lot of resources, at the same time these resources will be spent in Azerbaijan. They will stimulate business, they will stimulate the construction sector of our economy, they will create jobs, they will create opportunities, they will create additional values in agriculture. Therefore, now we, in a way, have two development programs; first is an annual development program which we approve every year, and also the development program until 2030, and the second is the development program for Karabakh reconstruction which is now only in the phase of beginning. So, now our governmental structures work in combination or coordination between two, in order not to spend twice for the same purpose. And for that purpose in the liberated territories we are now introducing an absolutely new model of governance. There will be a different model of governance of presidential administration and there will be a very modern approach to development not only during the reconstruction but also after it," Ilham Aliyev said.

"Therefore, we are now evaluating all our resources which have been illegally exploited by Armenia. There is a big potential for mining in those areas. By the way, we already started illegal procedures against some so-called businessmen who were illegally exploiting our copper and gold resources on the liberated territories," he noted.

"Karabakh will generate a lot of GDP in non-energy sector of our economy, also transportation. Three airports are already in the process, in one airport works have already started, railroad connections. Zangilan can become important transportation and logistical hub taking into account its location and close proximity to the neighbors. Industrialization, attracting more investments in non-energy sector, business opportunities. You all probably heard that the leading rating agencies improved our ratings. On the World Bank Doing Business report we are number 28. So, the business climate is improving and we have very educated people and young generation which now is generating ideas and its hope for the future. As I said during the war, the biggest burden of war was on the shoulders of those who were children when I came to power. So, we managed to help young generation to develop. Taking into account, energy resources and completion of all major oil and gas pipelines that will feed our economy with additional sources of supply. We do not depend on foreign aid, our foreign debt is something around 18% of GDP, and I put a target to reduce it to 10% of GDP which will be then one of the best results in the world," the Azerbaijani leader said.

"We have a very low rate of poverty around 5%, when I came to this position it was 49%. So, we actually feel that we will be able to implement all our plans, which is with a strategic vision. But for that we need stability not only inside Azerbaijan, which we have for already 28 years, but we need stability beyond our borders. And one of the main concerns will be our steps in order to minimize risks. We have taken the obligation of the chair of Non-Aligned Movement with great success. Our international efforts in the region led to the creation of new formats of cooperation or a trilateral cooperation with Turkey-Iran, Georgia-Turkey, Russia-Iran. So this is also a contribution to stability and predictability. Of course, there should be zero risk of revenge attempts from Armenian side. If they do it, I said we want peace, but we will destroy them completely. Destroy them completely and let them not forget what I say now," President Ilham Aliyev stressed.