Interview of Arif Yunusov, Head of the Conflict Studies and Migration Department of the Institute for Peace and Democracy (Baku), with ArmInfo News Agency
by David Stepanyan
Until very recently, Russia was interested in exploitation of the Gabala radar station and was negotiating with Azerbaijan to prolong the lease period. However, the situation has deteriorated and the Russian Defense Ministry has announced that it is leaving Gabala. What is the reason of Moscow’s decision, in addition to Baku’s demand that the leasing price should be increased 40 times?
Built in 1985, the Gabala radar station was once one of the most important elements of the Soviet missile defense system. Today, after thirty years, the Gabala radar station has become outdated politically and technically and can no longer be perceived as a factor of Russia's political presence in Azerbaijan and in the region. The problem is now determined by the deteriorating interstate and even personal relations of Vladimir Putin and Ilham Aliyev. It has been reflected also in the Wikileaks cables. Irrespective of the two president's efforts to show that the scandalous publication was not serious, it was evident that the relations of those politicians and leaders are not good. As long as Dmitry Medvedev was on the post of the Russian President, no one thought that there would be any problems with the Gabala radar station. The Azerbaijani authorities then believed that Putin would not come to power again. However, as soon as they in Baku realized that Putin is returning, even pursues a goal of establishing a Eurasian Union with a single customs zone, the clouds began to gather over the Gabala station. However, it was just Azerbaijan's response when Baku demanded such a high price for leasing the Gabala radar station to avoid any official refusal from extension of the lease term. Baku just wanted to show that everything depends on the economic factor, allegedly they failed to agree on a leasing price. In reality, the situation with the Gabala radar station should be studied from the viewpoint of the deteriorating interstate relations.
Very often Azerbaijan speaks of the pressure exerted on Baku by Moscow concerning the formation of Azerbaijan’s energy policy. Do you agree with such statements?
Undoubtedly, Russia imposes certain pressure upon Azerbaijan not only in the matter of formation of the energy policy. Actually, they mean changing of the foreign policy vector of Azerbaijan. It is not accidental that the authorities of Russia made such a step like setting up of a new political organization in the person of the known activists of the Azerbaijani community of Russia, the so called "Club of billionaires", as well as started the campaign on activation of the activity of several organizations of national minorities of Azerbaijan, the activists of which live in Russia. These are the links of one and the same chain. And after Ilham Aliyev refused to attend the CIS summit in Ashkhabad and to adopt a decision on the Gabala radar station, it has become clear that Russia will undoubtedly take new measures against Azerbaijan in the near future. These measures will most likely be taken against Azerbaijani migrants in Russia via artificial creation of problems in the economic sphere, just the same way as the ban of Moldavian and Georgian wine delivery to Russia, and even more activation of the national minorities in Azerbaijan. Perhaps, other events will also take place. Let's not forget that the coming year is the year of the presidential election in Azerbaijan.
Last week SOCAR President Rovnag Abdullayev said in Istanbul that the TANAP construction was put off till 2014. On 15 Sept 2012 Abdullayev said in Baku that the construction would be launched before the end of 2013. Is this decision connected with the 16 Oct 2013 presidential election in Azerbaijan?
I am sure of that. This decision has obviously been taken in order to wait for a calmer period.
Europe has started a new "parade of sovereignties”: Scotland, Catalonia, and Flanders. Do you think the new European reality may introduce some changes in the resolution of conflicts in the post-Soviet territory, in particular, in the Karabakh peace process?
Europe has really started a new "parade of sovereignties". But this parade covered those European countries where borders do not play any special part any more, where the law really plays its part, where the rights of the people are a priority and where many other things differ very much from the situation in our region. A financial rather than an ethnic issue lies in the basis of this sovereignty. For this reason, I am confident that this parade will not really end. Anyway, the South Caucasus is very far away from Europe. We are not yet Europeans and will hardly become Europeans in the near future. We have got our own level and the attitude to our region will differ. For this reason, the European events will not affect the Karabakh conflict settlement. More truly, everything will be in its current position in the Karabakh settlement, "neither war nor peace".
According to the public opinion polls in Armenia, the Karabakh problem is number three or four for the Armenian public. What significance does the Karabakh conflict have for the Azerbaijani public?
The Karabakh conflict is of secondary importance for Armenians because they consider it a de-facto settled issue, which must be settled de-jure through diplomatic efforts. As for Azerbaijanis, they do not think so, as they are a defeated party and the issue is a priority for them. If the situation on the front line grows tense or any collisions occur during the negotiations, Armenians will immediately forget all their problems and focus on the Karabakh conflict again. Therefore, it would be right to say that the issue is still acute for both of the peoples.
Azerbaijan has some problems with freedom of speech but realizes at the same time that the entry into the international arena is impossible without a good image of the country. What effect do you think the pardon, glorification and reward of Ramil Safarov, who had been sentenced to life in prison by the Hungarian Court for murdering an Armenian officer, had on Azerbaijan’s image?
Undoubtedly, the effect was negative. However, I'd not like to exaggerate that factor, because in the succession of time everything will remain in the past. Many factors, and first of all, the interests of state and ruling elites, often play a crucial role in the politics. Therefore, we see such paradoxes when democratic western states are in friendly relations with countries with open dictatorship and little care for their image.
After four years in jail for slander, tax dodging, calls for terrorism and incitement of ethnic hatred the journalist Eynulla Fatullayev was pardoned by the Azeri President following a verdict by the European Court of Human Rights. This case has become an example of effective international pressure on the Azeri authorities. Can one say that the other human rights activists are not yet in jail exclusively due to that pressure?
Yes, the release of journalist Eynulla Fatullayev was the result of international pressure, but that pressure is not general and is much weaker than before. That's why instead of one released journalist the Azeri authorities are arresting many more. Nobody can guarantee that there will be no new arrests of journalists and human rights defenders before the upcoming presidential election in Azerbaijan. Practice shows that the number of such arrests during election years is much higher.