Caution Over Armenian Visits to Baku
The increasing frequency with which Armenians are visiting Azerbaijan does not mean a thaw in relations is under way.
A series of visits by Armenians to the Azerbaijani capital Baku have raised hopes that relations between the two countries might be easing, but commentators warn that in reality such trips have little wider political significance.
The two former Soviet republics have had virtually no contact since the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh began in 1988. A decade ago, there was an increase in informal exchange visits, but these subsequently stopped again.
In the autumn of 2007, after a break of several years, there were three notable Armenian visits to the Azerbaijani capital. The first trip involved a group of interior ministry officials from Yerevan, the second the Armenian national wrestling team and the third was by member parliament Stepan Safarian.
On September 6, a delegation consisting of Armenian police chief Haik Harutyunian and three other senior officials attended a meeting of the interior ministers’ council of the Commonwealth of Independent States, hosted in Baku.
Between September 15 and 24, a 31-member delegation from Armenia took part in the World Wrestling Championship in the Azerbaijani capital.
Then, on October 3, deputy Stepan Safarian went to Baku to participate in a meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, BSEC. He was the first Armenian parliamentarian to visit the country since his colleague Viktor Dallakian attended another BSEC event in Baku in 2001.
All the Armenians were escorted around Baku by security guards, a practice that also applies when Azerbaijanis visit Armenia.
Safarian said that his visit almost came to an end as he was checking in for his flight to Baku at Tbilisi airport in Georgia. An Azerbaijani airline official told him, “I can’t allow you to board the plane, because you are an Armenian.”
Only after a phone call was made to Baku did the airline agree to allow Safarian to embark. He said other members of the BSEC assembly were surprised to see him arriving in Baku alone.
When the wrestlers visited, they were escorted from the moment they got on a plane in Georgia and were not allowed to go anywhere on their own.
The general secretary of Armenia’s wrestling federation, Lyova Vardanian, recalled, “We were seated at the front of the plane and told to speak quietly, or in Russian.”
“When we landed, four security service officers got up and blocked us off from the other passengers. When we got off, there were 50 or 60 people waiting for us. All the way through the tournament, we were under observation and even escorted to the toilet. There were people with us, in front of us and behind us.”
The Armenians’ best hope, junior world champion Arsen Julfalakian, did not win any prizes. The team said that the hostile atmosphere made it difficult for them to compete.
“During the competition, the mood in the hall was indescribable,” said Vardanian. “The hall shook as people stamped their feet and shouted, regardless of whether we were wrestling with Azerbaijanis or other nationalities. Every time the word ‘Armenia’ was uttered, and after every Armenian surname, the hall began to whistle.”
Any Armenian visiting Azerbaijan gets an especially hostile reception from the Karabakh Liberation Organisation, which wants to see a military re-conquest of Nagorny Karabakh.
Akif Nagi, who heads the organisation, also lashes out at Azerbaijanis who visit Armenia.
“Those who travel to Armenia, or especially to Nagorny Karabakh, and those who open their doors to Armenians are just traitors,” he said.
Deputy Safarian said that, despite the hostility of many Azerbaijanis, it was useful for him to make the trip to Baku.
“There is a generation of people [on either side] who have never seen an Armenian or an Azerbaijani in their life,” he said.
Azerbaijanis tend to visit Armenia more often than the other way round. The authorities in Yerevan say they want to encourage bilateral contacts – a strategy that many Azerbaijanis say is just a way of trying to freeze an unjust status quo in the Armenians’ favour.
The Yerevan Press Club has organised a number of exchange visits by journalists, often in partnership with the Baku Press Club.
The head of the Armenian club, Boris Navasardian, has previously made four trips to Baku but he says it has been impossible to arrange any trips by Armenian journalists to Azerbaijan for the past six years.
“We haven’t been able to go to Baku under a programme that we launched in 2002,” said Navasardian. “Since then we’ve modified the programme and we hold the meetings in Tbilisi, Turkey or Cyprus instead of Baku.”
Navasardian said he was well received in Baku on the whole, but that attitudes had already begun to harden during his last visit.
“Over time, the press reaction became harsher and more critical,” he said. “During my last visit, the situation was more tense and there was a flood of negative information about us. All the same, I never felt persecuted in Baku and the only unpleasant thing was that our movements were restricted.”
Navasardian said that the latest visits which took place in 2007 did not denote a warming in relations, but rather a pragmatic attitude on the part of the Azerbaijani authorities who were keen to stage international events.
“Azerbaijan needs to tackle international problems and for example turn Baku into a sporting centre and raise its international profile – a bid has been made to hold the Olympic Games in 2016,” he said. “Azerbaijan will therefore allow Armenian delegations to visit the country.”
He said that the general tendency was for relations to worsen rather than improve, as Baku continued to insist the status quo over Nagorny Karabakh was unacceptable.
Spokesmen for the two foreign ministries agreed that people should not make too much of the visits.
The press secretary of the Armenian foreign ministry, Vladimir Karapetian, told IWPR the trips were not to be seen as a positive sign.
“In the past seven years, Azerbaijan’s position has not undergone the slightest change – it still rules out any bilateral contact, and ties this to resolving the Karabakh conflict,” he said.
According to Azerbaijani foreign ministry spokesman Khazar Ibrahim, “It will only be possible to resume diplomatic relations with Armenia after that country releases our lands and recognises the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. But if we are talking about international events, then both sides ought to take part in them. They can take place in Armenia or Azerbaijan, and there is no mechanism to stop any country taking part in them.”
Well known Azerbaijani journalist Zamin Haji, himself a refugee from the Fizuli district which is currently under Armenian control, insists that person-to-person contacts are vital if both populations are to overcome the misconceptions they have about each other.
“We and the Armenians are so like one another that our fight is like a person fighting against himself,” he said. “Isn’t it better to renew our relationship with one another? To get together and ask all the residents of Karabakh — Azerbaijani and Armenian alike — what they, the ordinary Karabakh people, want and how they want to live in the future?”
Vahan Ishkhanian is a reporter with Armenianow.com in Yerevan. Samira Ahmedbeyli in Baku contributed to this article, which was produced as part of IWPR’s EU-funded Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.