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Aliyev and Pashinyan face off in Munich debate

18 February 2020
Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev at the 2020 Munich Security Conference.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan have discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in a tense debate during the 56th Munich Security Conference. 

The public panel discussion titled ‘New Developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict’ took place on 15 February. It was the first public debate between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

During the 45-minute panel, Pashinyan and Aliyev argued over the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, with their discussion frequently veering into competing historical narratives that went as far back as the 19th century Karabakh Khanate and the dealings of Armenian King Tigran II with the Roman Empire.

The two leaders traded barbs over place names, historical demographics, and accused the other side of ethnic cleansing, without admitting any wrongdoing on the part of their own country.

When asked about ways to resolve the conflict, Pashinyan stated that the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh should join the negotiation table. He also stressed that the conflict could not be resolved in one to two steps, but that ‘micro-revolutions’ needed to take place leading to a solution acceptable for all sides: Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan.

Aliev also stated that the conflict should be resolved in phases, which he said should include the return of territories and IDPs, with the status of Nagorno-Karabakh being defined later. ‘Status must not interfere with the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan’, Aliev claimed.

Pashinyan urged the international community to make it clear that there was no military solution to the conflict. ‘For Karabakh, it is not about territory, but about the security of the people’, stated Pashinyan. ‘It is not possible to give up security in Karabakh.’

President Aliyev argued that Pashinyan’s request to have the Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh included in the negotiations required serious pre-conditions.

‘We are ready to talk to Nagorno-Karabakh in case Armenia stops funding this illegal entity, Armenia pulls back all troops from Nagorno-Karabakh, completely withdraws from our territory’, Aliyev said.

The debate ended with Aliyev quipping that Yerevan was ‘70% Azerbaijani in the beginning of [the] 19th century’. Pashinyan shot back, saying that in antiquity ‘in our region there were only two nations: Armenians and Georgians’.

Reactions in Armenia

Reactions in Armenia to the discussion were mostly that of dissatisfaction.

Editor-in-Chief of Civilnet, Karen Harutytunyan, wrote that the panel was doomed to fail from the beginning —  as instead of putting a positive agenda on the table and emphasising how to move forward the two leaders focused on the past.

‘This Munich discussion will not solve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, nor will the stance of the two sides change based on how the debate went’, wrote Harutyunyan. ‘However, if the negotiations taking place behind closed doors are on this polemic level of knowledge on history and facts, then we should worry.’

In an interview with Azatutyun, Spokesperson to the President of Nagorno-Karabakh David Babayan said that the panel once again proved that Baku was not ready to take constructive steps toward peace.

‘I’m a little surprised because we thought Aliyev was better informed about his own history’, said Babayan. ‘The things he said were that of a third-grader influenced by propaganda. I advise he read his history better.’

In a Facebook post, Richard Giragosian, Director of the Regional Studies Centre, wrote that the panel was a missed opportunity and a loss for all sides. ‘The history lectures by both were better for their own domestic audience’, he wrote. ‘I was expecting better and wanted to see an attempt to elevate the discourse, engaging and talking to the audience and to each other, rather than talking past one another. This was more of a return to the stale rhetoric of the past.’

Reactions in Azerbaijan

In contrast to Armenia, the Munich debate was greeted with praise for Aliyev’s performance in Azerbaijan, with many headlines praising the president for having ‘taught a history lesson to Pashinyan’. Though some did criticise the recourse to historical debate as a step back in the negotiation process.

News agency Turan wrote an editorial ‘History lessons on the sidelines of Munich conference’ in which they argued that despite the title of the debates — ‘New Developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict’ — nothing new came of the meeting.

‘Tactical evasion of the issue of new developments showed that both sides are far from concluding something like the Westphalian peace, which put an end to the 30-Year War in Europe in 1648’, they wrote, further criticising the discussion as a ‘roll-back in the negotiation process’.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayil told Meydan TV that the debates showed that the parties involved did not have a new plan to move forward, though she did praise the public nature of the discussion.

‘It would be good if the process would be held transparently in public’, she said. ‘When such formats happen publicly it could bear new ideas, because it is not easy to repeat the same things in public’.

Political expert and journalist-in-exile Rauf Mirgadirov told Meydan TV the Munch debate offered nothing new, and that both parties repeated propagandistic statements that were directed more to domestic than international audiences.

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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