There is real potential in peace, not conflict in Nagorno Karabakh

Interview 19 November 2021
There is real potential in peace, not conflict in Nagorno Karabakh

Former MEP Sajjad Karim has called for renewed efforts, including by the EU, to find a “lasting and sustainable” peace in the troubled South Caucasus Region.

His comments, at an event in Brussels, come after he recently visited the Nagorno-Karabakh region on a fact finding trip.

A short war last year between ethnic Armenian forces and the Azeri army over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave killed at least 6,500 people.

Thousands of land mines were left behind after the 44 day war that start on September 27 2020.  The conflict ended after Russia, which has a military base in Armenia, brokered a peace deal and deployed almost 2,000 peacekeepers to the region.

On Wednesday (17 November), a conference on the issue was held at Brussels press club, along with a photo expo featuring various scenes from the region, both past and present.

The conference heard that a major problem today, though, is the “huge” number of mines still present in the region which pose a daily threat the lives of local people. There are numerous other challenges facing the region before it can fully recover, it was said.

Karim, a former UK Tory MEP, told the event, held both online and physically, that there was “huge interest” in developments in the region.

He said: “This area has been and is a very dynamic and changing environment. I used to work on this issue in the European Parliament and still follow it closely.

“In order to study the situation on the ground, I took the chance to visit Azerbaijan   and Nagorno-Karabakh, including the  liberated areas. I saw a sharp contrast in the sense that it’s evident there had been neglect for many years and that towns and villages have been run into the ground. It was a great shame this has happened.

“Places of religious and historic interest have fallen into ruin and there is clear evidence of deliberate wrong doing.

“On a positive note I also witnessed a huge amount of capital structural development underway. I have never seen anything to compare with the extent of this. This presents a real opportunity for the entire South Caucasus   to come together and ensure that life opportunities for everyone in the region area greatly improved by this changing dynamic.

“This is a tremendous vision, particularly in today’s world with rising nationalism and populism. I hope this will rise out of an area that has suffered so much for decades because of religious and identity-based politics. I believe that we can now see a real force for good emerging.”

He said: “The aim for everyone should be to bring people together in the region to ensure that all sides are present at the table,playing their full part in finding a constructive future for this region.”

Former  Romanian MEP Ramona Manescu said: “I have never been there but what has happened in the region is quite tragic.”

The former foreign affairs minister added: “I have worked in the parliament to bring sides together to discuss their problems but through dialogue which is the only way to bring peace.  I hope the region that has known so much hate and war can be stabilised and finally see peace. If there was ethnic cleansing there should not be any more.  There are economic, human and environmental challenges which are so big that all sides have to get involved to get help and support. Azerbaijan needs support on this, for instance rebuilding the infrastructure. It cannot do it without international support."

Another speaker, Ramil Azizov, of ANAMA, said: “Much of this land has been under occupation for over 30 years and a lot of it has been completing destroyed.  Many people have been injured by the mines left by the former forces in the region. It is essential they are allowed to return to their homes safely.

Another keynote speaker at the event, “Post Conflict Challenges - South Caucasus Region”, was Fuad Huseynov, State Committee for Refugees and IDPs, or internally displaced persons.

He said:  “As a country, Azerbaijan hosts one of the highest number of refugees in the world and faces a huge arms of IDPs, people who have been displaced from their homes in NK.

“It is estimated that a total of 1m out of entire population of 7m are considered displaced: more than 10 percent of the population.”

He outlined efforts to help such people, saying: “Today, 115 new residential complexes have been erected for IDPs and 315,000 IDPs have been given housing. As a result, the poverty level for IDPs has dropped from 75  per cent to less than 10 per cent over the last 25 years which is substantial.”

Speaking online, he told the event, “This is a model for other countries who might be dealing with IDPs. The job now is the full restoration of liberated areas and return of IDPs to their homes in a safe and dignified manner.”

He said the area is said to be one of most mine polluted areas in the world  and that Armenia had refused to hand over land mine maps.

He added: “With the concerted efforts of the international community Azerbaijan will, I believe, be able to present a new model of post conflict zones in the coming years.”

He warned, though: “But at present the international community is turning a blind eye to what has happened in NK.”

The trilateral ceasefire agreement brokered last year by Russian President Vladimir Putin and co-signed by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reflected the fact that Azerbaijan had inflicted a military defeat on Armenia and recaptured lands that it had lost more than a quarter of a century before.

Divisive issues keep the two countries a long way from political agreement, however. These issues range from the future status of the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh to the continuing detention of Armenian soldiers in Azerbaijan, the demarcation of borders, and the sharing of maps of minefields relating to districts formerly under Armenian military control now restored to Azerbaijan.

Leyla Gasimova, an Azerbaijan national who hosted the 2 hour seminar, said: “I have spent several years in peacebuilding activities and in trying to find a solution to the NK dispute. But people must know that peace cannot be achieved while land is under occupation.”

She said: “Today, Azerbaijan has liberated its land but we still face many challenges to maintain stability and peace in the region and the liberated zones. For instance, displaced Azerbaijani people cannot currently return to their homes due to mine pollution.

“These challenges, including other serious environmental issues, remain and we cannot apply confidence building measures. The aim of this event is to find common solutions to these challenges and enhance cross border cooperation through the engagement of third parties.

“Confidence building is needed to restore trust, including providing land mine maps, to protect both civilians and the environment.”

Swedish artist and photographer Peter Johansson, who presented a photo exhibition at the press club on the region, explained the reasons that attracted him to the issue.

He said,  “I was very curious about Azerbaijan   and that is why me and my wife visited liberated areas around Nagorno Karabakh. We try to show the reconstruction work  of the area currently underway along as the potentially dangerous nature of this work. Unfortunately, many of the buildings are so badly damaged they cannot be restored and this is very sad and tragic.”

He added: “Despite all this, I felt positive that everyone wants to rebuild the towns and cities.

“I am glad to say that Sweden, my country, has supported humanitarian work in the conflict areas and finding a sustainable peace between the parties.”

Summing up, Karim said, the expo provided a real life account of the challenges - and opportunities – that face the region.

The former MEP concluded: “There is real potential in peace, not conflict. This is the time for the EU to engage to win the peace and move the region forward and this is something I want to encourage.”

EU Reporter