President Ilham Aliyev was interviewed by Al Jazeera TV channel
Correspondent: President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, thank you for talking to Al Jazeera.
President Ilham Aliyev: Very glad to see you.
Correspondent: It’s been two decades since the present conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has begun and you’ve been through lots of ups and downs but no peace has been succeeded so far. Why has this conflict been dragging for so long?
President Ilham Aliyev: The main reason is that Armenia doesn’t want peace. They want to keep our lands under occupation forever. They don’t want to change the status quo and this is a reason why it lasted so long. Because otherwise, if Armenia demonstrated a good will and acted in compliance with the resolutions of main international organizations the conflict would have been resolved many years ago. Because back in 1993, when Armenia occupied part of our territories UN security council adopted four resolutions demanding immediate, full and unconditional withdrawal of their troops from our territories. But these resolutions remain on paper. Minsk group which was created in order to facilitate, to find the solution, already is in activity for 28 years, and also without any results. Therefore, the main reason is they said the position of Armenia, the second reason is that lack of insistence from the side of the mediators and lack of pressure on Armenia to start demanding resolutions of United Nations Security Council. On many occasions, I raised this issue and was saying that international sanctions must be imposed on Armenia to force them to comply with resolutions and to start liberation of our territories but my appeals were not answered properly, and now what is happening is a result of Armenia’s destructive policy.
Correspondent: So, you say Azerbaijan doesn’t have the international support that it deserves based on the international legal concerns?
President Ilham Aliyev: From point of view of international law norms and decisions and resolutions of international organizations, we have very broad support. As I already mentioned UN Security Council resolutions which is resolutions of the highest international body adopted resolutions asking Armenia or demanding Armenia to withdraw their troops. The General Assembly of United Nations did the same, other international organizations, like Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Non-Aligned Movement, European Parliament and others did the same but it is not enough, so we have a legal framework for the resolution. But there is not enough practical pressure on aggressor and here we see the contradiction between international law, and what is happening in reality. So, such an open ignorance of the norms and principles of international law by Armenia, should be a good indicator that international law doesn’t work, or it works selectively. In some cases, as you know, Security Council resolutions are being implemented within days, if not hours, but in our case it is on paper for so many years. So, lack of practical pressure on aggressor is also one of the reasons the conflict lasts so long.
Correpondent: You have accused Armenia of starting the war, this conflict actually. Many can argue that Armenia having the territory it has and victory of the velvet revolution in 2018, wouldn’t risk starting an armed conflict. What would you say?
President Ilham Aliyev: Well, I don’t know, what are the reasons for such kind of analysis but what we see here, we see what is happening on the ground. If we look at what Armenia did after so-called revolution, during the last two years, and what they declare, we will see that they were almost provoking us, and they were aiming at starting new war and the reason is to disrupt negotiations completely. They made several military provocations against Azerbaijan. On 12 July, they attacked our villages and our military positions far away from the region of the conflict, in the area of Tovuz, in the western part of Azerbaijan, on Armenian-Azerbaijani border. And it was absolutely difficult to understand why they did it. They attacked us with the heavy artillery. The first victims among military servicemen were Azerbaijanis, four our military servicemen were killed immediately, and one 76 year old villager. So, we had to respond, and after we responded and they suffered bitter defeat, they withdrew and started to plea for a ceasefire and then I said that we do not have any military objectives on the territory of Armenia. Therefore, as soon as we pushed them back and they already realized that it didn’t work, the clashes stopped. It lasted only four days. Then, on August 23, the sabotage group which was sent by Armenian army to penetrate our territory, and to commit acts of terror was dispersed as the head of the sabotage group was detained. And he is now under investigation, he gives evidence that he was sent in order to commit terror acts against our civilians and military servicemen. It was not us who did it, it was them. And then what happened on 27 September is a logical continuation of this policy. Apart from that, if you look at what they have declared, what they have stated, it’s also absolutely clear that they were provoking us. Armenian prime minister a year ago made a statement that Karabakh is Armenia and this statement makes negotiations absolutely senseless. Because one of the main item on the negotiation table is the return of the occupied territories to Azerbaijan. And if he says Karabakh is Armenia and in his understanding Karabakh is not only former Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous district but also all the occupied territories, that means that they don’t want to return these territories back, that means end of negotiations.
Correspondent: So why would Armenia risk a provocation?
President Ilham Aliyev: First, I think they wanted to destroy completely negotiation process. Then they wanted to put a blame on us, as they do it, and say that look, with Azerbaijan it is not possible to have negotiations. And I think one of the reasons could be the internal difficulties. Because we know what is happening now in Armenia, they suffer very serious political crisis. The leader of main opposition party was arrested two days before they launched an attack. Two former presidents are under criminal investigation, and actually dictatorial regime have been established in Armenia. All the promises which their prime minister was giving after revolution just are on paper, nothing was implemented. They have one of the worst in the world per capita situation with pandemic, so to distract attention and he managed to. And now what he is trying to do to consolidate society in front of the so-called Azerbaijani aggression and to strengthen his personal rule. So, everything is very logical from their point of view, but they did a very big mistake, and moreover, before the aggression, several days before, I was speaking at UN General Assembly, saying that they are preparing for war and they must be stopped. And that’s what happened.
Correspondent: You said before that the Armenian military must unconditionally withdraw from the territories that they have occupied. What do you aim for in the region as Azerbaijan?
President Ilham Aliyev: We?
President Ilham Aliyev: We still keep our position unchanged. What I am demanding is absolutely in line with international law, because the whole world recognizes territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, and no country in the world recognizes the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”. What I am saying is completely almost the wording of the UN Security Council Resolutions. And they need to leave our territory, and then, the war will stop and then the conflict will come to an end. And then, maybe some time later people of Azerbaijan and Armenia can again live together, in piece. So, that’s our position, and it is unchanged, and it is based on historical truth, it is based on international law and also it is based on today’s political and geo-political realities in our region. I think Armenian government overestimated their so-called importance on global arena, overestimated the possible international support to them and made very serious mistakes provoking us, attacking us and now they are suffering the very serious defeat.
Correspondent: Would you accept going to the negotiation table with Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan?
President Ilham Aliyev: Actually negotiations stopped, because after his statement that Karabakh is Armenia, I said there is no rule for negotiations but our Minsk group co-chairs were making requests to me that Azerbaijan show maybe more how to say understanding, with respect to the fact that Armenian government is new, and maybe they do not completely control their emotions and their words. And I said okay. Let’s try. We want to find a peaceful solution therefore, we waited for so many years and probably negotiations would have been continued if not for this distractive approach. And after that statement I had a meeting with Armenian Prime Minister but they were absolutely meaningless. They were formal. He was telling me that they are not going to give territories back. And then, what to talk about? If they don’t want to do that, if they go against elaborated principles by the Minsk-Group, which they elaborated for years, and means that he destroys negotiations. Negotiations cannot be held unilaterally. We need to have a partner but, in Armenia so far we don’t have a partner for negotiations.
Correspondent: So, can we say that Azerbaijan’s preconditioning for coming to a negotiating table is that Armenia withdraws from the occupied territories?
President Ilham Aliyev: Actually, it was Armenian Prime Minister who put precondition to us. And that, by the way is another provocation. I think several months ago he put seven preconditions to Azerbaijan. Actually, he wanted to dictate his agenda, to us and to the Minsk-Group. And one of those preconditions was that Azerbaijan should negotiate with the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh authorities”. And not only we but also Minsk-Group rejected it. Because it changes completely the format of negotiations, which was elaborated for more than twenty years. And negotiations are taking place between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So, he puts precondition on us and we rejected it. And the reason why he did it was again, he wanted negotiations to stop and keep the status quo unchanged. As far as we are concerned, we are always ready for negotiations. We never rejected it, we had difficult times in negotiation process in previous years. Not everything was going smoothly. But, with the previous Armenian leaders we had a process. And we were elaborating the so-called step by step approach. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been in this process for so many years. It was not useless time. I think we have made a very big progress. I am in this process since 2003, and I worked with two previous Armenian presidents and we made progress. It was not easy, we had of course big variety of use but we were making step by step progress and we elaborated what we have now. And after Pashinyan came to power, he not only destroys everything before him, and he wants to pretend that Armenia before him did not exist and he is now the creator of new Armenia and he destroyed all the elaborated principles. Therefore, full responsibility is on him and his government. And by the way, reasonable people in Armenia understand it. They were already making statements alarming Armenian population that this person leads their country to catastrophe. It is not a way how to behave on negotiations, it is not a way how to provoke Azerbaijan. Another provocation was the so-called inauguration of the so-called leader of Nagorno-Karabakh in the ancient Azerbaijani city of Shusha. No other so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh leader” did that. Why he did it. In order to insult the feelings of Azerbaijanis. Then, they decided to move the so-called parliament of “Nagorno-Karabakh” from Khankandi to Shusha. Why? Another insult on Azerbaijanis. They openly resettle Armenians from Lebanon to the occupied territories, demonstrate it on TV which is a brutal violation of Geneva Convention, in order to demonstrate their hatred to us. Everything what he did was to destroy negotiation process. Therefore, now when they are pleading for negotiations, when Pashinyan calls world leaders many times and is complaining about Azerbaijan, I think those leaders should tell him it was you who destroyed negotiations. It was you who provoked Azerbaijan. It was you who insulted the feelings of Azerbaijanis. Therefore, you must be responsible for that. And Armenian people and I made an appeal a couple of days ago to Armenian people. They should make him responsible for that. We don’t have a problem with Armenian people, they are our citizens, we have thousands Armenians living in Azerbaijan, and those who live in Nagorno-Karabakh area we also consider them our citizens. And we invite them to live together with us as many other nationalities and ethnicities who live in Azerbaijan. Therefore, Armenia should refrain completely from these provocative statements. They should make new statements that Karabakh is not Armenia, and then, we will see.
Correspondent: So, within this deadlock, political deadlock, would a Russian mediation work for Azerbaijan?
President Ilham Aliyev: Russia is one of the countries which is a mediator along with United States and France, and during my involvement in this process for 17 years all 3 countries were equally involved in the process. And there was and there is a quite a high level of coordination in the process. Of course, Russia has a special position, because it’s a neighbor to Azerbaijan, neighbor to the region. It does not have a state border with Armenia, but nevertheless, Russia is a country which Azerbaijan and Armenia have good relations and historical relations. Therefore, of course, their role, their - I would say capability to mediate are much higher due to objective reasons from those who are situated far away from the region and maybe not completely know what was happening here during the last decades. Therefore, we think that three countries should continue to work together if all of them keep neutrality. This is important. And we are concerned that just recent days we see some statements which are counter-productive and which are demonstrating a kind of a change in the position in neutrality. Every country can have its position, it’s normal. But if you are mediator in such a sensitive issue, you should act in this capacity. If you want to act in your national capacity, of course, but then you should step down from the Minsk Group co-chairmanship and say whatever you want accuse whomever you want, deliver stories about what happened which has no proof and of course, nobody would object. But if you are a mediator you have to be neutral. You have to be a mediator, otherwise mediation will not be acceptable by us.
Correspondent: So, there are calls from the international community for a ceasefire. But given the latest statements by both Azerbaijan and Armenian side are you choosing to ignore international calls for a ceasefire?
President Ilham Aliyev: No, we are not ignoring. But ceasefire cannot be achieved unilaterally. I’m just trying to deliver the message to those leaders who called me during these days saying that it was not Azerbaijan who started it. We had to defend ourselves. If we did not respond this time the way we did, today we would have had hundreds of victims among civilians. We still have a lot. This morning I received information we have 19 victims among civilians, two of them are children. We have 54 wounded people among civilians. And we have more than 300 houses damaged or completely demolished by Armenian artillery. And they attack our villages, they attack our people, they were to kill as many Azerbaijanis as they can. They started yesterday to use long distance missiles from the territory of Armenia. Thus, they make this weapons which they use a legitimate target for Azerbaijan. And we have to destroy those targets and then they will accuse us that we attack Armenian territory. They want it. They want to invite third parties to the conflict that these parties defend themselves and provide for them another 30 years of illegal occupation. Ceasefire okay, but on what conditions? Conditions must be that they withdraw from the territories. I said just two days ago, let them start withdrawal, let us have the timetable for withdrawal, let them undertake serious obligations proved by mediators and the ceasefire and also, obey the ceasefire regime and of course we will also do the same. Why should we need this military clash? We need our territories back by peaceful means and we demonstrated for 28 years our willingness to have peaceful settlement. During this 28 years there have been times of clashes and the biggest is now. There was another one four years ago. So, that is our point and I think it is absolutely reasonable taking into account what I said about political and military provocations from Armenia.
Correspondent: So, when we look at the latest conflict, Azerbaijan military gained some advance and took back some of the villages around the Fuzuli district does it mean that Azerbaijan is not going to withdraw from those areas that they have regained control?
President Ilham Aliyev: No, of course not. Because these areas belong to us. These areas the areas of our ancient land, these areas are where our people lived for centuries and they were occupied and destroyed by Armenians. There are pictures in internet of what happened to Fuzuli what happened to Aghdam, what happened to other cities and villages of Azerbaijan in the southern-eastern part of the occupied territories. There are also destructions in the districts of Lachin and Kalbajar where they had some illegal settlements. But not as heavy as in this area. Therefore, it’s our land, we regained it. We regained it by force, we regained it giving our victims. we will never step back from them. We will leave there, our people who were forcefully deported from those territories today they live with one dream, with one goal, for almost 30 years to go back. I can tell you there was a very illustrative example when in April 2016 we liberated part of the territories and gained as a result of the Armenian aggressions we launched a counter-attack. And one of the villages which was destroyed by Armenians and Azerbaijanis could not return there because Armenians’ positions were on the mountains. We built for refugees the new village and even those who never saw that land, those who were born after, all of them returned to Jojug Marjanli. I said Jojug Marjanly is a symbol of our dignity, a symbol of our will, Jojug Marjanly is a symbol of our return, and I said our return starts now. So, I am sure that all those who have been deported from those territories will go back. There is nowhere to go back. Because everything is destroyed. Everything. Not a single building, everything was destroyed and of course, we will help we will rebuild the cities. We will rebuild the villages. We will return their initial names because Armenians committed a cultural genocide against us. They destroyed all the mosques on the occupied territories. They keep pigs and cows in the mosques, thus insulting the feelings of all the Muslims. They changed the names of our cities, changed the names of our villages. All the names will go back. We will go back to our lands. This is our legitimate right, this is a historical task for us and I am sure we will succeed.
Correspondent: The Caucasus region is a very complex one. Not only in terms of geography, but also when it comes to culture, ethnicity and social structures. Do you believe in peoples’ rights to self-determination?
President Ilham Aliyev: You know, this is the point which Armenian propaganda often uses. Thus trying to mislead the international public opinion, which of course broadly ordinary people, they are not specialists in the international law. But there are very clear identification of the basic principles of international law, which have the reflection in the Helsinki Final Act. Principle of territorial integrity is prevailing, self-determination is one of the important principles of international law. But if we go back to UN Charter, if we go back to Helsinki Final Act, we will see that self-determination should not damage territorial integrity of the countries. And other important point, the territorial integrity of the country cannot be changed by force, and cannot be changed without an agreement of the people of the country. Therefore, in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of course, self-determination is not working the way how Armenians want to do it. And another argument, Armenian people already self-determined themselves. They have independent Armenian state. Today Armenians live everywhere. They live in France, they live in America, they live in Russia, they live in Middle East, let them ask for self-determination in those countries. What would be reaction of authorities of those countries if Armenians would ask the land which does not belong to them and ask this land only because they now became majority? Their tactics which they use for many-many years to come, to ask for support, to ask for land, and then to start changing the historical identity of the territory, making fake news about their so-called ancient history, and demand those lands for them. Those countries which want to give self-determination to Nagorno-Karabakh, let them give part of their land to Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, take them and give self-determination there. I would see what will be their reaction.
Correspondent: The way I think we have right now you have the Russians, Iranians, Turks, the French and the Americans signaling concerns over the conflict. Could this conflict ever become a regional one?
President Ilham Aliyev: I don’t think so. I think there is no ground for that and we are strongly against this conflict, to transform into a regional. That’s what Armenia wants to do. Therefore, they invent fake news about some external support to Azerbaijan. But at the same time, they are asking for external support for themselves. That’s why I have the feelings that the main target now when they suffer a very serious defeat on the battle field, they want to make this conflict regional but I am sure that the countries which you mentioned will never allow it to happen. Because security in our region is in the interests of all the regional countries and among those countries which you mention - Turkey, Russia, Iran are regional countries. Other countries they have nothing to do here in the region. And they are not regional countries. They have the mandate, to facilitate the negotiations because that happened in 1992. We are not responsible, me personally for this composition of the Minsk-Group. If we decided today about the composition of any Contact Group which could facilitate peace, of course composition would have been completely different. I don’t want now to specify, but some countries would not have place in those group because of their biased behavior. So, we need to do everything, especially the regional countries, to stay away from the conflict, not to interfere in any sense to the conflict and give the signal to Armenia: Stop occupation! Stop occupation and then you will see the benefits. Then you will integrate with the regional economic, investments, energy, transportation projects, which Armenian leadership for many years deprived Armenians from because of this aggression. So we need to do everything that this conflict stops as soon as possible, the resolution is found as soon as possible. We are not in the position to listen to statements or stop it and we will work, we will negotiate, we will help. We heard it many times, we don’t have time to wait another 30 years. The conflict must be resolved now. Those who want to help Armenia, their so-called close partners, let them help by telling them ‘leave the territories’, ‘demonstrate your will’, ‘stop firing’, tell that ‘today or tomorrow only one week I will leave Aghdam, ‘next time, next week I will leave Fuzuli, next week I will leave Kalbajar’ etc. and we will stop. So, this is a very fair position, this is a position aimed at peace not at war.
Correspondent: What about Armenia’s claims that Ankara is militarily involved in this conflict with their planes etc.?
President Ilham Aliyev: This is a false information, it has no proofs, I already made statements about that. Turkey is our brotherly country from the very first day of Armenian attack, from the very 1st hour, Turkey expressed its full support to Azerbaijan. My brother, president Erdogan many times made very important statements. And yesterday speaking at the opening session of the parliament he made another very important statements that Turkey is next to Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan is not alone. We feel the support we are very grateful to our Turkish brothers and president, and other officials. But Turkey in no other way is involved in the conflict. One of the Armenian fake news which now is not any longer in the media, was that Turkish F-16 shot down Armenia’s SU-25. This is fake news. Where are the proofs? No proofs. Every plane, which lands and takes off is in the computer. Everybody can see what is happening. And I wonder why? Minsk Group co-chair countries France, United States, Russia they do not comment on that. They do not comment on this fake news, some of them comment on other fake news that Azerbaijan with Turkey invited terrorists here.
Correspondent: This is what I would like to ask Mr. President Armenia also accuses Turkey for transferring Syrian opposition fighters to Azerbaijan.
President Ilham Aliyev: This is fake news. Absolutely. The same fake news as they said that Turkish F-16 shot down the SU-25. The SU-25 had an accident I was informed, it hit the mountain because of unexperienced pilot.
Correspondent: But they say that they have evidence
President Ilham Aliyev: Let them show it. Where is evidence? Not only Armenia, unfortunately President of France I heard yesterday made a statement about that and he called me on the 27th in the evening and I said it is wrong, it is false. And he made the statements without any evidence. Let him give us evidence. Let him give us proofs. Only words? We can also say many words. But we don’t. We behave in a responsible way. There is not a single evidence of any foreign presence in Azerbaijan. What we do, we do ourselves. We have capable army. We have enough people in our army, we have enough people in our reserves. I announced a partial mobilization, which will allow us to involve tens of thousands of reservists. If necessary, so we don’t need it. Armenia needs it, because Armenian population is declining. And it is only two million people. Therefore, they themselves now recruit people from Middle East and we have evidences and not only of Armenian origin. And by the way, it doesn’t make any difference whether it is of Armenian origin coming from Middle East or non-Armenian origin. If anybody comes from outside to fight as a mercenary that should be internationally addressed. So, it is this accusations that absolutely groundless, and we reject them, and we demand the evidences to be put on the table.
Correspondent: Will you also be presenting your evidence on the foreign mercenaries that Armenia brings?
President Ilham Aliyev: We have already some intelligence information and plus, just yesterday I was shown that there are videos in the internet as the people from Middle East are sitting together with Armenian soldiers and they have their uniform, they have Armenian national flag, and they sit together and discuss, you know it is without voice. But it is enough I think. And they must be responsible for that.
Correspondent: So, could diplomacy ever work or is the war only solution for you?
President Ilham Aliyev: I said already. Diplomacy can work if Armenia will comply with the international law, will start immediate withdrawal from part of the territories on time table. And of course we need to restore territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. By the way, when we were discussing the issues on negotiation table before this government in Armenia came to power, one of the first items was that the conflict must be resolved on the basis of territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. It must be restored. That is what we demand and I think we have a right to demand it.
Correspondent: President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, thank you very much for talking to Al Jazeera.
President Ilham Aliyev: Thank you.