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Azerbaijan’s President Calls for Renewed Nagorno-Karabakh Talks. It’s Not That Simple.

Azerbaijan’s President Calls for Renewed Nagorno-Karabakh Talks. It’s Not That Simple.

Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev has called for renewed talks with Nagorno-Karabakh, the separatist region in Azerbaijan’s southwest.

Nagorno-Karabakh is populated by mostly Armenians who say they are a sovereign state, separate and apart from Azerbaijan. The breakaway region is a source of tension between the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan (and the people in Nagorno-Karabakh itself) since long before 1994, when the all-out post-Soviet clash over Nagorno-Karabakh region came to a halt.

“At the first stage, the negotiations should resume as soon as possible. Armenia should not elude the talks,” Aliyev said during a visit to France, which is co-chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Aliyev also noted that France — as well as the group’s other co-chairs, Russia and the United States — are pushing to resolve the dispute.

“We say that too, and we want the status quo to be changed as soon as possible, we want this conflict to end. We want peace in the region, allowing Azerbaijani refugees to return to their homeland,” Aliyev said.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence is not recognized by the international community. The country, however, claims sovereignty, and has its own parliament — which, last May, voted for Ruben Melikyan as its ombudsman for human rights.

Melikyan was brought in from Armenia the month after some of the worst fighting the region had seen since 1994. Each side maintains the other started last spring’s fighting.

“It’s not frozen,” Melikyan said of the conflict, in an interview with Foreign Policy. A frozen conflict is one in which both sides are at a tense but calm standstill. But in the past 10 months, Melikyan noted, 20 soldiers from the Nagorno Karabakh side were killed, and 95 were wounded. He said he knew that the Azeri side suffered losses, as well.

“People are dying” was also Melikyan’s response when given the question of whether both sides might use the issue of Nagorno Karabakh to stir up political fervor back home (which is, incidentally, exactly what Vugar Gurbanov, counselor at the Embassy of Azerbaijan, said Armenia is doing).  “People are dying,” Melikyan said. “How can we say we benefit from that?”

Melikyan said he is a human rights defender, “not an Armenian rights defender,” and points to efforts he made to get an Azeri man accused of entering Nagorno Karabakh to foment unrest the lawyer of his choice. But Azerbaijan, he says, does not recognize the rights of those in Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijan does not recognize Nagorno Karabakh the humanity of the people therein, he told FP, adding, “rights must be universal.”

Unsurprisingly, the situation is viewed somewhat differently from the Azeri side. Gurbanov noted that Azeris were expelled from Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding areas. “It’s not only about the occupation of territories, but how they are occupied,” he told FP.

Hikmat Hajiyev, spokesperson of Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, said in an email to FP that the “reality on the ground is that Armenia used force against territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan and occupied 20 percent territories of Azerbaijan.” Further, he said that Armenia, with “its policy of occupation and notorious ethnic cleansing by all means tries to present the conflict as [a] self-determination issue of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.”

Artak Nersisyan, spokesperson of Nagorno-Karabakh’s foreign ministry, said in response that this was not a territorial dispute, but an issue of self-determination, and that Azerbaijan “not only violates the fundamental norms of the international law, but also undermines foundations of the negotiating process under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group.”

And the talks themselves are also seem a point of contention. Melikyan said talks and statements will be futile unless Azerbaijan changes its “Armeniphobia.” Meanwhile, Gurbanov dismissed that as Armenian nationalism, and cited OSCE co-chairs as saying, “Without starting talks, no one should expect peace in the region.”

That things should change is the one thing on which both sides agree. “Of course” the people of Nagorno Karabakh “deserve a better life,” Gurbanov said.

Melikyan, meanwhile, wants to bring the international human rights community to the region, so that the conflict won’t only be a back and forth between the two sides. He is also focused on creating a mechanism to investigate the sequence of violent, often contested events in the region.

“Otherwise, it’s a vicious cycle,” he said.

Update, Mar. 16 2017 11:38 am ET: This piece has been updated to include comment from Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry.

Update, Mar. 20 2017 12:53 pm ET: This piece has been updated to include further comment from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Photo credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images