CivilNet’s Stella Mehrabekyan spoke to Arif Yunusov (Yunus), an Azerbaijani author, historian, and human rights activist who lives in the Netherlands since 2016 and is the Head of the Department of Conflictology and Migration at the Azerbaijan Institute of Peace and Democracy.
In April 2014, Arif Yunusov and his wife Leyla were jailed on charges of extortion and treason for allegedly spying for Armenia. After being detained, Arif Yunusov was sentenced to 7 years in jail; his wife, Leyla Yunusov, was sentenced to 8.5 years in jail. Their sentences were suspended 15 months later and the couple was allowed to leave for the Netherlands. On July 16, 2020, the day this interview was conducted, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recognized the violation of rights of Yunusovs and ruled against Azerbaijan.
Arif Yunusov spoke to CivilNet on the recent escalation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and the internal developments in Azerbaijan.
- Mr. Yunusov, before talking about what is taking place on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, let’s begin with the internal political situation in Azerbaijan where in the last days there were protests and mostly anti-Armenian statements and there are some questions as to whether these were directed by the government or not, and if it is like that, in your opinion is it possible that the situation would get out of control?
- Thank you. Yes it is true that, for a while, due to the coronavirus, we had a quiet period, you understand, just as it was there, and all of a sudden, with this incident the situation drastically changed, and not just in the capital. While the center of attention was on the capital, also in other population centers in Azerbaijan, gatherings and protests took place; all were connected to the escalation of the situation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and, in the first place, they were all tied to the funerals. The bodies arrived from the conflict zone and once they were interred, that caused massive spontaneous meetings and protests but more accurately these were processions during which there were calls, of course, connected to Karabakh. If you heard the slogans, they were “Karabakh is ours”, “we need to return Karabakh”, and calls to the authorities to start a war. It is all correct that in the beginning everything was peaceful, even though there were calls to war but there were no anti-government slogans.
Everything was within the framework of the situation on the border, because we have to take into consideration that, occasionally, here or there, people inaccurately think that each country thinks that for itself the question of Karabakh is important while for the other side it is not a priority. And then it heats up, here they think about the Armenians that Russia pulls the strings and vice versa. In reality the Karabakh issue is equally important for Armenians and for Azerbaijanis. Periodically, it can be in second or third place of importance when people are thinking for example about corruption or coronavirus, but the problem lies deep and as soon as it surfaces due to some incidents, clashes or especially death of many people, everything comes out. People came out to the streets not under orders; it was spontaneous. It can be said that during the period of coronavirus people were under pressure and this was a so-called explosion. Yes, there was stored up energy, that’s true.
Energy had been accumulating due to lack of satisfaction with the authorities during the pandemic. They did many silly things. People were very distraught. There was also pent up long standing dissatisfaction with the negotiation process and with the fact the Karabakh conflict is not resolved. Let’s not forget the fact that, in comparison to my generation, a new generation has grown that does not at all remember what happened in the 1980s and 1990s; they were born after, they don’t know. They know that every day the authorities are saying that we are mighty and that we have a strong army, but if everything is mighty, why haven’t we been able to return Karabakh? This has been a frequent slogan. And when these events took place, and these were not just incidents, people were stirred up that senior officers were killed. For example, in the history of the Karabakh conflict there hadn’t been a case of a general dying.
This is the first case when an officer of such caliber died in the field, during military operations. Colonels, yes, one from our side died in 1994, but never a general. This was the first time, and not just any general, but a very popular general who truly, as a rare case, a major general who lived in a rented apartment, who gave his salary to his soldiers, to whom in 2016 an apartment was given by presidential decree and he turned around and gifted it to the family of a fallen soldier. So this was a person close to the people, very popular. He died. There is another angle too, people were very angry that he was buried, we have two honorary places of burial -- the main and the secondary. He was buried in the secondary one and this really angered many people because rumors started that in the main cemetery there are too many people, people whose names don’t mean anything, some even from the Soviet period - some deputies, communists. So they could be buried there, but a person who fought and died for the homeland is sent to the secondary cemetery This angered many people. In any case, the main protest that happened, I am not talking about the gatherings that were in Sumgait, Tovuz and other localities, the main one - that attracted the attention in Armenia too - was in Baku.
- How high is the probability that the built-up dissatisfaction and all these processions might target Aliyev himself?
- That’s the exact moment that very often gatherings that start and can even be supported by the authorities can turn against them. There have been such cases, even in Russia Putin was counting on football fans in a rally during which the police started beating people and the slogans turned against Putin, so it is a common occurrence when you support something that can get out of hand. Especially in this case. That was football. But here in Azerbaijan these gatherings were connected to deaths. It was clear that the body arrived and this is not always an advantage for the authorities because a number of questions arose. How come a high-ranking officer died? And that’s exactly what happened. So when the leadership, it also needs to be said that in Azerbaijan the authorities don’t know how to talk to people, because the main argument there, if you watch the video, was that people wanted for someone to go out to them and give explanations.
Our authorities simply don’t know how to do it. They can’t talk to people. They can give orders. And they gave the order to disperse. They dispersed harshly using tear gas, water cannons, batons and sticks and that strongly upset everyone and the situation got out of control. That’s why there was the reaction of Ilham Aliyev. He does not like these demonstrations at all. He entirely thinks that he decides everything in the country. He needs to figure it out. When he sees that anything isn’t going according to his scenario or by his order, that pushes him out of his confines. Of course these demonstrations in Azerbaijan with certain developments can bring negative outcomes for the authorities, because people were seriously bewildered that they were beat up when in reality they came out in support of the government. That’s where the paradox was - they came out in support.
And here the situation is also unpleasant because Ilham Aliyev decided to berate the crowd, either by stupidity or sloppiness, when he said that there were provocateurs from the opposition. And most importantly, he said that he checked with army recruitment offices, and was told that only 150 people had shown up to enlist. That was very insulting, because first, in Armenia, people mocked Azerbaijan, saying with a population of 10 million,only 150 people want to fight? This is of course untrue because just in Tovuz alone a few hundred people, not even the youth, but former servicemen came and expressed willingness to fight if weapons were issued to them. So, just over there, already there were more than what Ilham Aliyev had said. And more in other places. That too, seriously angered people. It’s clear that if there are other demonstrations and processions those might have unforeseen consequences. That’s why Ilham Aliyev also took jabs at the opposition. He sees the hand of the opposition everywhere when in reality in all of these demonstrations the opposition didn’t play any role. This was truly spontaneous. Just like the events on the border had the characteristics of spontaneity, similarly the demonstrations were spontaneous. I am going to repeat it again, because the topic of Karabakh is always present strongly in the hearts of Armenians and Azerbaijanis meaning that these same events could have taken place in Armenia and no one would have said it was a scripted scenario. It is simply the people for whom this is dear and here were bodies of casualties, and such personalities they were, so the reaction was stronger.
- Since the dispersal wasn’t very harsh, can it be inferred that people were given a chance to blow off steam in this manner?
- In reality these actions caught the authorities off guard and let’s say that on the border and with these demonstrations they were caught by surprise. No need to think that they were ready for these situations. It’s one thing when in a village or a small town people are returning from a cemetery and chanting slogans like “Karabakh is ours” or “Down with the Armenians” and such, that does not threaten the authorities. They closed their eyes to this. It’s another thing when in Baku, the demonstrations moved toward the Parliament building and even went inside and even more, that people were livid that the General was not buried where they demanded and specifically, those in power did not come out and talk to them.
So to speak about some kind of scripted set-up , by the authorities, yes there were provocative moments, we also paid attention to those, but those were provocations not from the opposition side but from the Azerbaijani authorities. For example, among those who entered the parliament building, I saw a general of the state security service, Major General Rauf Khalafov. I understand that plainclothes members of the security service were in the crowd, that’s understandable, but a general and a cousin to Ilham Aliyev was among those who entered the parliament? That already raises a question. There we also saw, and now it is actively being talked about on social media that among those who actively called for direct action were plainclothes police officers. This all speaks to the fact that, yes, they definitely tried to use this and maybe in the future will use it for reasons of provocation, most likely by the authorities because from the side of the opposition, I repeat, there was nothing of that nature. Even more, the opposition declared that it is ready to support the government in this regard, so to say that there is instigated action here, means it can only be by the authorities or from within the government.
- Let’s talk a bit about the personnel changes in Azerbaijan’s government. In recent days, the discussion is about the anticipated resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Elmar Mammadyarov, there is also talk of the dismissal of Zakir Hasanov. All of this had started already months ago with the resignations of the old guard. Please share a bit about that.
- Yes, in reality those resignations were not connected to the Karabakh conflict but with the internal political struggle within the ruling system. That struggle was between the Pashayev clan and Ilham and Mehriban Aliyev on the one side, and the old guard of Heidar Aliyev on the other side whom we call Ramiz Mehdiyev’s team. This struggle has gone on for many years since the first days of 2009 and ended last year with Mehriban Aliyeva’s victory. Then Ramiz Mehdiyev resigned, Ali Hasanov, of the President’s office, followed him out. After that it was clear that a total change was starting and this was the exit from the political arena for all the officials of different ranks that were connected to the old command. There was talk about parliamentarians, and civil servants in various ministries and also officials in the executive branch.
The parliamentary elections happened within this framework where Mehriban Aliyeva’s supporters were voted in. Dismissals and arrests followed within the executive branch, and of ministers. For example the minister of culture resigned. So these processes were the so-called change of the old guard with the new team of the Pashayevs. True, the pandemic slowed this process a bit, but now in connection with the escalation on the border new scapegoats are necessary who can be packaged as fighting against corruption or even as a beginning of reforms. Here they always frame resignations as reform. In reality, one petty corruptionist is replaced by another one who will carry himself in the same manner except that he will be from the team. What is anticipated now? Yes, following the very harsh criticism that Ilham Aliyev publicly conveyed on the prime minister by saying that he is unable to find the minister of foreign affairs, it’s a bit funny, when he asks the prime minister, “have you called him?” It was a childish theater of the absurd or comedy. It is understandable what you want, just say it as it is. But presenting this as if he could not be located, who will believe in that tale? Yes, he will be dismissed.
Ilham Aliyev made him the focus of criticism also because he had spoken with Armenia’s Foreign Minister Mnatsakanyan about cooperation during coronavirus and it came down as how can there be any sort of a talk about a cooperation with Armenia. So, here we have a question: then what are you doing with Pashinyan? This topic is a bit absurd. It is clear that he wants to gain some political capital on this and show himself in the light of recent events as a cool and resolute person. It’s clear that Mammadyarov’s fate is sealed, he will resign, and regarding Hasanov, he will most likely leave too. In that regard I will still wait because the question is not completely solved. Among the slogans that were uttered on July 15 during the processions in Baku there were calls for the resignation of the Chief of General Staff Sadikov who is Hassanov’s opponent. So there is also a struggle within the army between the minister and chief of general staff. This is an old struggle. Even many court cases were initiated due to this struggle, this is an old topic but the change of cadres is in process and will continue.
- Mr. Yunusov, let’s talk about what is happening on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Am I understanding correctly that you think that everything started with a spontaneous incident and was not a premeditated action?
- I am more than sure that this was spontaneous because when compared to April 2016, you see that then there was some sort of logic. There, it was visible -- maybe not across the entire line of contact but a small section of it --, there was some sort of a logic in the actions of the Azerbaijani military and authorities. But here there was no logic whatsoever. From the start it was evident that we are forgetting something. There is a Line of Contact at the front, in Karabakh. There everything is clear: trenches here, trenches there and a neutral zone in between which you can’t cross because it is laid with mines and is also under direct target. On the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, the problem is with demarcation. Even with friendly Georgia, there are a mass of problems because there is no clear demarcation of borders, and there are regular incidents including the one around the monastery of David Gareja last year which almost escalated to a military incident but they were able to avoid it. That fact says that if a border is not clarified, then sooner or later, it ends badly. In our case the situation is even more difficult because we are in a war, we are not friends or allies.
So what does an Armenian-Azerbaijani border mean? Each side interprets the former Soviet borders as they see fit, the reality is that each side controls several strategic high grounds, has installed positions and declares that this is their territory. It is not clarified that this high point is yours and this one isn’t. It’s what you think is yours. Of course the opposing side does not agree with this and periodically incidents happen when either side wants to take this or another high ground, or someone gets confused and crosses the red line, this or that shepherd or soldier is sent back. So this is a common occurrence. The problem is the absence of demarcation and the absence of a clear border. Yes, since last year the border protection forces are there to decrease the possibility of a conflict. A year ago we read a statement that the forces were pulled back and now border protection would do the monitoring. In reality as we saw that is not the case. When we read that the whole incident happened because of that UAZ vehicle, the first question that came up, since the Azerbaijani authorities a year ago ceremoniously declared that all border crossings have been supplied with Mercedes gelandewagen vehicles, there are no more UAZs. But the Ministry of Defense of course has them.
So if this was an accident that the car ended up crossing the border territory, then this was not the work of border patrol. It’s clear that in the situation where the clear-marked border is lacking, the UAZ with Azerbaijani soldiers ended up there truly by accident. They didn’t know where, saw the high ground, and decided to go take the position. They were intercepted. The official Armenian version said there were warning shots, but that is the official version. In real war situations, the Azerbaijani side could have interpreted it as fire directed at them. One thing is to notify by phone and say you crossed a border, go back, another is to shoot and it doesn’t matter if you are shooting in the air or to kill. In either case it was an accident. Because if there was anything planned, they would not have acted that way, they would have come out in a different way. But here, because of some vehicle that definitely ended up on Armenian territory, there were military actions and everything escalated. The actions of both sides, and I looked at statements from officials in Azerbaijani presidential administration, from your government and others, I saw a lack of uniformity. That signalled that everyone was caught by surprise. We are seeing that there are no clear borders.
- Mr. Yunusov, in any case, serious fighting continues as we speak. In your opinion, will this lead to a wide scale escalation and spread to other sections of the border or to Karabakh and what are your views on the common assumption that everything depends on the Russian position.
- I don’t believe that this will turn into a wide scale war. It will remain a border incident, a serious one. Moreover, I know that there are already unofficial negotiations along the triangle between Baku-Moscow-Yerevan. The Americans and Europeans are not participating, it’s a triangle but negotiations are ongoing. We are not told about these negotiations but they are and during these negotiations at midnight a truce was reached and no one will be shooting there. But, following the events in Baku, it looks like a command was given and since this morning the fighting restarted. But again, according to my sources a few hours ago, truce was reached again so most likely now something will be reached even if not at once or maybe with some conditions but a sort of a truce will be achieved because no one needs a wide scale war. War is always a major risk and a risk for everyone. No one will win especially when you are not even prepared for it. Wide scale war means massive losses. If now, after short but serious fighting, there are deaths and the reaction was what it was, can you imagine the situation when the numbers of dead are higher, what would the situation be let’s say during demonstrations in Baku or in Yerevan. No one needs that. In the big picture, Russia does not need that either. Another thing is your question about the Russian role in this. Certainly Russia plays a role. The region has seen a serious weakening of attention from the West and mainly the United States and the Europeans. Today in our region Russia plays the decisive role. Russia is the decider and according to my information there are negotiations now between Baku and Yerevan through Moscow. I don’t know on what terms the truce will be reached but I believe that we will know the results sometime soon.
- Thank you, Mr. Yunusov for your time and the conversation.
- Thank you, and we will be hoping for the best.