On December 14, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev was interviewed by the Spanish El Pais newspaper in Brussels.
Correspondent: First of all, thank you for receiving us and for visiting Brussels. Thank you also for receiving us at such a special moment and for allowing us the opportunity to conduct this interview. This is a very interesting junction from the point of view of the geopolitical situation on a larger scale and from the point of view of the European Union and its neighbors on a small scale. Thank you for that.
First of all, I want to ask you about the current situation with Armenia. What is the current situation? We know that less than a month ago there were deadly clashes on the border. Of course, both sides put the responsibility on each other. I want to know what happened in those recent events and what the current situation is.
President Ilham Aliyev: More than one year passed since the war ended and general situation is relatively stable. If we talk about the area of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping forces in the area of Karabakh, situation is more stable than on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. And the reason is that Armenia, unfortunately, did not put down the attempts to take revenge. Their loss in the second Karabakh war was very painful for them. It was absolutely demolishing their ideological grounds, their propaganda for almost 30 years about the unbeatable army, about their strength, about the bravery of their soldiers and commanders. Because during the 44 days of war, the Armenian army was totally destroyed and they had to sign the capitulation act on November 10 last year, actually agreeing to give back the territories which we did not manage to recapture during the 44-day war. Therefore, the signs of revanchism is visible in Armenian society, in their political spectrum. Therefore, understanding that in the area where the Russian peacekeepers are serving, it is not possible. They are trying to make provocations, military provocations on the state border. Another issue is that the state border between Azerbaijan and Armenia was not identified. Because the occupation of that part of Azerbaijan was taking place in the beginning of 1990s right after the restoration of the independence of both countries. Therefore, physically and politically it was not possible to demarcate and delimitate the border. Therefore, when the second Karabakh war ended, last November, the climatic situation in that part of the area was different from other parts. It’s high mountainous and it was full of snow. So the snow started to melt in May this year. As soon as it happened, Azerbaijani forces were moving towards the state border, and took the positions on the state border based on our understanding where this border is going. So, that was the story and unfortunately Armenia started to make claims that Azerbaijan is interfering into Armenia’s territory without any grounds. So we are standing now where we think it’s our territory. We from the very first days of the end of the Karabakh war made a proposal to Armenia to start working on delimitation, to establish a joint working group on delimitation and to clarify all the disputes on the table. During this more than one year after the war ended, there have been several attempts by Armenia to make military provocations on the state border. All of them failed. As a result of all these attempts, they lost their military positions, and Azerbaijan strengthened this position on the state border. The same happened last month, when they deliberately provoked Azerbaijani forces. It lasted several days and during the first days there was no shooting just Azerbaijani soldiers explained them that it’s not their territory, that they have to leave and they left. But they started to launch artillery attacks on us and we had several victims and several wounded. Now situation is stable. We did not plan anything ourselves. Otherwise, we would not stop. The clash on 16 November lasted less than one day. It started in the morning and ended at around 6-7 pm. So, if we planned it, we wouldn’t have stopped, because Armenia doesn’t have a military capability to stop us in any destination. We don’t have this plan, therefore we stopped. We want peace and it’s enough of war. We want stability, predictability, and zero risk for any kind of attempt from Armenia to take revanchist actions. Therefore, we will be very closely watching all their maneuvers, all their regroupings and all their attempts to once again create the military potential that can be a danger for us. If we see it happens, we will destroy it immediately and they know it. And international players know it. If we see positive dynamics, we definitely will take advantage of that and make contribution to strengthen peace.
-Mr. president, when you think we will be able to talk about the real peace treaty with Armenia not just a ceasefire?
-That’s a question which probably should be addressed to Armenia. I on several occasions publicly made a statement that Azerbaijan is ready to start peace negotiations with Armenia and to start working on peace agreement. There have been no answer from Armenian leadership so far. Because this kind of statements were made by me for more than six months, several times. So, this shows that they don’t want it. Because peace agreement, if signed, one of the main provisions of this peace agreement will be mutual recognition of territorial integrity of both countries. Armenia doesn’t want to recognize territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. The whole world recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and recognizes Karabakh as the integral part of Azerbaijan. Armenia doesn’t say they do not recognize, doesn’t say they recognize. Before the second Karabakh war, they were saying and their Prime Minister publicly was saying that Karabakh is Armenia-period. That statement actually has ruined the negotiation process and was one of the elements of their bitter defeat last year. But now from Armenia as if they have no position on that. We say that openly, we want to start immediately negotiations on peace agreement with Armenia, comprehensive agreement, which will be as you said not a ceasefire but a full peace agreement. But I hope that probably European partners will persuade Armenia that this position has no future. If they don’t have peace agreement with Azerbaijan, I think they may suffer again in the future.
-Are you going to reopen borders? Of course, this question is related to the previous one. Are you ready to open the borders to normalize relations with Armenia, and what are the conditions for this to happen?
-Yes, we are willing to open the borders, and so far there have been several rounds of negotiations in the framework of trilateral working group headed by the deputy prime ministers of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russian Federation. The main purpose and the task of this working group is to open communications. Several rounds of talks have been relatively successful. So, now the full agreement about the opening of the railroad connection between Azerbaijan and Armenia and we actually started to build the demolished railroad on the liberated territories towards Armenian border. At the same time, in previous months Armenia was objecting the opening of the highway. But now we managed to persuade them that it’s inevitable and they also agreed on that. So, there is understanding. Now we discussed about the legal regime of these corridors. Zangazur Corridor which will go through Azerbaijan to Armenia and further down to Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan – the legal regime. Here we have certain issues still open. But I think both countries recognize that this must happen. By the way, during the trilateral meeting in Sochi last month held by President Putin, we adopted a Declaration which really talks about opening of communications. So, it will happen. By the way, also airspace already is in activation. So, Azerbaijan airlines flying from Baku to Nakhchivan started to cross Armenian air space.
-When the meeting with the Prime Minister of Armenia was announced in Brussels, the statement of the European Union said that the intention was to find ways to resolve tensions for the sake of a prosperous and stable South Caucasus. Of course, I thought about this railway and highway passing through the territory of Armenia. But what can we expect from the meeting in Brussels?
-Well, it’s difficult to say, because we have to see what will be the result of the meeting which will take place later today. But we in Azerbaijan highly appreciate the activity of European Commission and personally President of European Council Mr. Charles Michel who is contributing a lot to creation of a ground for normalization of relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. President Michel’s visit this summer to the region was very productive and by the way his initiative to establish a direct link between defense ministers of both countries is also working. So, now this channel of communications is already efficient. So, this clearly demonstrates the willingness and readiness of European Commission to facilitate in creation of a stable environment in the Southern Caucasus, and in the future to facilitate the establishment of the trilateral format of interaction among the three Southern Caucasus countries. Azerbaijan’s position is absolutely open and clear. We want peace, we don’t want war. We won the war, and we are the winner and this reality should be taken into account. Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been resolved. There is no return to any kind of discussions about the so-called status of Nagorno-Karabakh, or something of that. We resolved it ourselves by force and by political means. We implemented the UN Security Council resolutions unilaterally after 27 years as they have been adopted. This is a new reality, which must be taken into account by Armenia in the first place, because as far as this is the development of post-war situation, the main international actors already accepted the new reality and are trying to build the future based on this new reality. Armenia should refrain from any kind of hostile actions against Azerbaijan, should refrain from territorial claims to Azerbaijan, because I said a couple of times that we have much more historical grounds to have territorial claims to Armenia. They have to work on peace agreement and to comply with the normal behavior in the 21st century. We are neighbors anyway. None of us is going to fly away to another planet. Therefore, we must learn to live side by side and slowly, step by step preparing grounds for normalization of relations, including people to people contact. We openly said that we are ready for that. But so far, we don’t receive any positive signs from Armenia. It seems to me that in Armenia internal situation and, as I said, before the frustration and, mildly speaking, disappointment after they lost in the war, created a kind of psychological trauma in their society because of exaggerated expectations and unrealistic assessment of the military and political potential. Therefore, for the government of Armenia, it’s important to lead the process of normalization. Not to be behind the public opinion which was based on cultivation of hatred against Azerbaijanis. To lead the public opinion, to make very important steps to persuade the people that the only way for Armenia to develop is to normalize relations with Azerbaijan, to normalize the relations with Turkey, to become a neighbor, a normal neighbor not a hostile neighbor, and to refrain from territorial claims. So, I think that if this formula is accepted by Armenian government and political elite, we have a chance for progress. As far as we are concerned, our position is straightforward. I several times articulated that publicly. And once again, I am saying that we want peace, we want stability, security and prosperous future for the Caucasus.
-What would you say this EU trilateral contact in Brussels differs from the last meeting in Sochi? And it looks like much a lot of work has been done under the leadership of Mr. Putin. What would you say about the difference in contacts in Brussels?
-Practically speaking, I don’t see any differences, because I see the genuine desire of Russia and European Union to help to normalize relations between the two countries. Otherwise, they wouldn’t spend time with us and spend hours in these negotiations. Russia and EU are one of the main international actors. There is a lot of things for them to do, very broad agenda. If they spent time and efforts and not once but regularly, to convene with leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia, to discuss these issues that means that their genuine desire is to help. And we appreciate that. We don’t see any kind of rivalry here though some may think that a kind of competition. Not at all. As far as we are concerned, we see that these efforts are complementary, these efforts can support the peace process and also I know that there have been interaction between President Putin and President Michel discussing many issues, including the relation between Azerbaijan and Armenia. So, I think that these efforts of international community of institutions and countries which are interested in long-lasting peace, may result in something very positive. Because after so many years of occupation and hostility international players definitely should support the process. Also if Armenia agrees to engage with us in elaborating the peace treaty, of course, we will need an international expertise. We will need international partners which will help us to formulate the chapters, to formulate the basic principles and to find a solution. So, my expectations are related to this. Of course, everything will depend on how today’s trilateral meeting will go. But our position is clear, we came here to strengthen the positive dynamic.
-Recent declaration of the International Court of Justice asks your government – I will read it out the way it is – to prevent the incitement and promotion of racial hatred and discrimination against the Armenian national or ethnic origin, to take necessary measures to prevent violence against all prisoners and detainees in connection with the 2020 conflict, to protect them from bodily injuries and ensure their safety and equality before the law. I would like to ask you what steps have been taken in this direction in connection with the situation?
-First of all, I would like to say that the International Court also issued a preliminary assessment based on our case against Armenia, and I would say that the decision so far made by this institution is balanced.
So if you read what is recommended to Armenia, you will probably see much more accurate and much more insisting work. As far as we are concerned, in Azerbaijan our state policy is aimed at the normalization of relations. Therefore, that’s our position, and I openly announce it. With respect to public opinion, one should understand that for almost 30 years Armenia on the occupied territories, committed a genocide against Azerbaijani cultural heritage. Our cities and villages are leveled to ground. There have been thousands of international visitors, including journalists from Europe and other parts of the world, who saw with their own eyes what they have done to our historical monuments, to our cities and villages. Aghdam does not exist, Fuzuli does not exist, they totally leveled to ground. And that was done not during the first Karabakh war but that was done during the years of occupation. Deliberate demolishing of all the buildings, and destruction of our religious monuments. 65 out of 67 mosques have been totally destroyed. In two remaining, they kept pigs and cows in order to insult the feelings of Azerbaijanis. Therefore, it is natural that many people in Azerbaijan, especially those who lost their beloved ones, who lost their territories have negative feelings against Armenia. This is natural. It would be wrong if I say no, the war ended and now let’s become friends. It will take time. But the issue is that, the state policy. I several times said already despite all these tragic events in our history, devastation and genocide in Khojaly, we need to turn the page. If we look to the future we want to build the stable situation. We want to minimize completely the risk of new war, we need to turn the page. So, this is our policy. With respect to detained persons, Azerbaijan, after the second Karabakh war ended, released before Armenia all the prisoners of war. This can be proved by international observers. Those people which are now in detention cannot be considered as prisoners of war, because most of them have been sent to the liberated territories in the end of November, almost twenty days after the war ended, to commit acts of terror. And they committed these acts of terror as a result of which, several servicemen and civilians were killed and they have been detained and brought to justice. Some of them were released on humanitarian grounds. We released so far more than one hundred detainees. But those who committed crimes, have been sentenced. So by no international convention these people can be considered as the prisoners of war. Another thing, that some of the detainees after we returned, and we returned ten of them, just ten days ago, some of them have been arrested in Armenia. This is a very serious signal to us, to this people, to their relatives. We returned them to Armenia and they put them into prison. Probably, they will torture them and they have very tough practice. Because what our hostages tell about the terrible time they spent in the Armenian prison shows that these people will be suffering very hard tortures. Therefore, if we return more, they will put them into prison.
So, this is a real fact and it can be verified.
– Let me ask again about the prisoners of war, because there are direct claims not only from Armenia but also from international organizations that there are dozens of detainees and no-one knows the exact number. Prisoners of war have recently been exchanged for mine maps of your territories. I would like to know if there is a list of these people and whether you are ready to share the list of those detained. You claim that they are terrorists, while the other side claims that they are prisoners of war. Can we have access to the list of names and their number?
-Yes, it’s not a secret at all. And the list is known, and international institutions know and Armenians know. For instance, as a result of their military provocation in the middle of November more than 30 Armenian military servicemen have been detained. One of them was wounded and our doctors took care of him. They made a medical surgery, and he recovered and as soon as he recovered, we sent him back. This is a real story which can be verified. Ten people from that group also have been returned and many of them are now in Armenian prison. So, there have been something more than 30 detained Armenian military servicemen, as a result of Armenian provocation in November and 40, maybe 41-42 as a result of the military provocation in last November. So, we do not hide the number. The Armenian side was provided the list of names and surnames and date of birth of all of them. So, they know it, international institutions know it. We do not hide it, it is not a secret, and decision of our court is also open to the public. So, everybody knows how many of them there are. But again, it’s a matter of justice. Those of them who did not commit any crime, who did not kill Azerbaijanis have been released as I said, more than one hundred. Those of them who committed minor crimes as far as I know, received very small sentences. Those of them who participated in killing of Azerbaijanis must be brought to justice as in any other country. But again, these people have been detained, at least twenty days after the second Karabakh war ended. On 26 November they have been sent to liberated territories and they have been detained in the beginning of December last year and the next group as I said, this November. So, this is absolutely a transparent picture.
-Is it possible that these people will be returned to the Armenian side in accordance with the agreement on the assessment of prisoners of war and the cessation of hostilities?
-As I said already ten of them have been returned just ten days ago, and the process based on humanitarian ground continues. We never said no, but it must be based on the legal framework in Azerbaijan, on justice and on humanism. So, the combination of this factor is here. And the process is ongoing. Therefore, of course we cannot exclude that this process will continue. I cannot tell you now when and how, in what stages, but it will continue.
-Let me turn to reserves. As you know, the EU’s gas reserves have been declining recently, while gas prices are rising. There are tensions in relations with Russia, which is our main gas supplier accounting for 40 percent of our imports. The relationship is going through its worst period. Azerbaijan’s economy is based on oil and gas exports, and its export markets are the EU and the West. How would you analyze the current situation? How can the EU and the region as a whole cope with the current crisis?
-First of all, I would like to say that we are working actively on diversification of our economy and to reduce dependence on oil and gas. If you look at the structure of our GDP the oil and gas factor is less than 50 percent. But in our export, of course, these are the main products of our export and the export is growing with respect to natural gas. There is current gas price crisis if I may call it, so, I don’t know. Frankly speaking I’m not interested what is a reason. What were we doing? We were just doing our homework, we were attracting multi-billion investments to oil and gas sector and working on one of the major infrastructure projects of the 21st century, Southern Gas Corridor, which was completed on the last day of the last year. The fourth segment of that project, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline was commissioned on 31st December 2020. Since that time, our exports to Europe stopped. Before that, our exports were going primarily to Turkey and to Georgia. So, now among recipients of our gas the biggest is Italy among EU countries, Greece and Bulgaria. And there is a potential to expand the geography. This year we already exported to the EU, more than 7 billion cubic meters of gas. Next year we plan 9, in 2023 we plan 11, and it can grow. But of course, you know that the gas market is different from oil market, you need to have contracts. All the gas which we now extract for export have been contracted before we inaugurated the pipeline. So, that is how gas business works. Therefore, for us in order to plan increase of production, or to plan cooperation with new members of EU, we need to engage in negotiations, on practical level, and to evaluate the potential of that party, evaluate the connectivity of gas infrastructure systems in Europe. I know that now the work is going in order to make more connections and to plan, because our gas is sold on the long-term contracts and we obey to the contracts hundred percent. So, Azerbaijan is a reliable partner for EU and this issue, of course, is permanently on our agenda. So, my assessment is that we have huge deposits of natural gas, we have a shorter transportation route than the traditional suppliers of the natural gas to Europe. Our gas is new, for European market, because as you said production in EU and some European countries not members of EU is going down. We all know that demand for natural gas in Europe will grow, because of some decisions made by some countries with respect to their energy strategy, and Azerbaijan here as a reliable partner, as a friend to Europe, as a county which already completed all the infrastructure works. Imagine, 3,500 kilometers of pipeline from Baku to Italy, part of it goes under the sea, was done. Everything is ready and gas is coming. So, only what we need to do, is to engage closely with the European Commission, and with member states those who want to get more gas from us or those who want to get new gas from us, and to start negotiations.
-Was the new gas corridor, the TAP project which you implemented last year, mentioned in your talks with Mr. Putin? Is this a concern for Mr. Putin, because it is an alternative to Russian gas?
No, frankly speaking I can tell you that never with President Putin we discussed this issue. Though we meet regularly several times a year and we are permanent on the telephone conversation, but never he raised this issue, because I think this issue of competition is largely exaggerated. Our gas supply can by no way compete with Russian gas supply. Russian export to Europe is hundreds of billions of cubic meters and is growing. Our export to Europe, as I said already, is not a competition and we never looked at it as a competition. For us, this project was commercial, a project of commerciality. Because now when all the infrastructure pipeline works have conditions. The internal rate of return of Shah Deniz Gas deposit which is the main source of gas supply of our gas supply to Europe and other countries. The internal rate of return increases. So it became a very attractive from commercial point of view. So, we had huge deposits of gas, we needed to have a market.
What could be a market for us? It cannot be Russia, because Russia itself is exporting. It cannot be a big market in Georgia, because Georgia’s demand is relatively small. It can be Turkey, further down, Europe. That’s what we have done. Supplies to Turkey started in 2006 and was growing steadily and supplies to Europe started. For us it’s commercial. It was politicized unfortunately to a large degree without any grounds. The Russian Federation’s leadership clearly understands the real substance of the story. Our gas is nowhere alternative, it’s just additional supply which is demanded, which is needed for consumers. For instance, now our gas makes about 20 percent of Turkish demand close to 90 percent of Georgia’s demand. By the time we increase the supply to EU will also make substantial part if in EU some member states demand.
-My last question is about drones. In the war with Armenia, the presence of drones proved very important. I would like to know your thoughts about this. If I am not mistaken, you have drones based on Israeli and Turkish technology. I want to know if these drones will be sold in the world now. You have the opportunity to produce them independently and sell them to the world. Is the world interested in this? In general, it reflects the modern war and how drones have become a necessary element of modern wars.
-Yes, it’s a general assessment by international military specialists that Azerbaijan conducted the war of 21st century. No one before us conducted the war in such a way. It was not only drones it was a very accurate reconneisance. It was the integration of, as you said, drones from both countries-Turkey and Israel. The Israeli drones we have the surveillance drones and the Kamikaze drones, Turkish drones we have the surveillance drones and the fighter drones. And to integrate this in a single military operation, of course, was not easy. The same with our air defense system. We have air defense system of Israel, air defense system of Russia S-300. We have air defense hook. So, to integrate this air defense was also a serious target and by efficient use of air defense we protected ourselves from a big tragedy. Because Armenia was launching the ballistic missiles against us and destroying sleeping cities. The city of Ganja several times suffered the attack by Scud missiles, and they were targeted to destroy their living compounds. They used Iskender M ballistic missiles which they used the last day to destroy Shusha and there was not a one. Therefore, many of these missiles were intercepted by our air defense. So, air defense, drones, artillery, the drones were giving target to artillery. It’s not a secret any longer that in the first days of the war we were using the small light airplanes for discovery of the Armenian air defense system. The pilot was just jumping out and the small plane for agriculture purposes have been used. We were going to the positions and Armenian air defense was discovering itself by attacking this useless target and then we were destroying the Armenian air defense. So, combination of these factors plus first is the motivation and courage of our soldiers and officers who sacrificed their lives. Almost 3,000 Azerbaijanis died for their motherland. All these factors played a decisive role in the victory in a very difficult geographical condition, because we have to climb to the mountains. In the conditions where Armenians for almost 30 years created six lines of fortifications, mines. Only after war, we have almost 200 people killed or injured on the land mines. Of course, all that created the ground for our victory. With respect to the drones, we are continuing to purchase them. After the war ended we signed new contracts to buy new modifications. At the same time, we are also, as you said, producing the surveillance drones, not fighter and not Kamikaze. These drones are available for the market. Azerbaijan exports its military products to more than 30 countries and we already developed a military industrial complex which produces our basic needs. We continue that, because as I said, there is still a threat of Armenian revanchism. There is still a threat of destabilization. So, we must be always ready to defend our border.
-Has the outcome of the war increased your interest in military products?
-Yes, of course. That and also interest in our experience. Because we have been approached already by several countries which want to learn our experience how we did it. But again, as a Commander-in-Chief who was from the first until the last day of the war in charge, I can tell you that it will be difficult to explain how we did it. Because you need to feel it, because we were suffering from occupation, from humiliation, from arrogance of Armenians for almost 30 years. They were sitting on our lands, destroying our lands, claiming that these lands belong to them, contradicting all the basic international organizations’ documents. United Nations Security Council, OSCE, Council of Europe, European Parliament, all of them adopted resolutions supporting us. But they were just sitting there and declaring that they will sit there forever. So, motivation and the spirit were the main factors of our victory and courage. This was a matter of national dignity and the national pride. So, though we are approached by many how we did it I think it will take many years to explain.
-Thank you so much for your time and for the interview.
-I wish you success in your meetings today and in the coming days.