Some Baku residents probably did a double-take when the news broke recently: two members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, a nationalist Armenian party fervently opposed to Azerbaijan’s claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, had arrived in the Azerbaijani capital on a surprise visit.
The two men -- Kiro Manoian, one of the party’s deputy chairs, and Mario Nalbandian, a member of its governing board -- were traveling at the invitation of the Social Democrat Party of Azerbaijan to attend an October 11-12 conference in Baku of the Socialist International, a worldwide alliance of left-wing parties. Public interest in the conference had been minimal; initial news of the two politicians’ arrival came from Armenian media outlets.
For many Azerbaijanis, the surprise lay more in the identity of the visitors than in the visit itself. Despite the ongoing hostility between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenian officials and politicians occasionally visit Baku to participate in international conferences and meetings. But members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (ARF), who are often called Dashnaks, have a particular reputation among Azeris. Media outlets in Baku regularly characterize the party as a “terrorist organization.”
Asked to comment on the government’s decision to allow the two ARF representatives to travel to Baku, Yeni Azerbaijan Party Executive Secretary Ali Ahmadov offered a surprise response. He described the decision as part of a public diplomacy campaign.
“Azerbaijan uses different ways to achieve the return of its occupied territories. For this purpose, all necessary steps could be used,” Ahmadov told an October 13 news conference. Visits by Armenian politicians are “possible if it serves to facilitate the liberation of the occupied territory,” he said, referring not only to Karabakh proper but also seven adjoining Azeri regions occupied by Armenian forces.
Ahmadov did not elaborate how the trip by the ARF leaders served this purpose. The ARF, a former Armenian governing coalition member, is outspoken about its belief that Azerbaijan has no legitimate claim to Karabakh.
One newspaper columnist, though, argued that denying the Dashnaks entrance to the Socialist International conference could have backfired on Azerbaijan. Social Democrat Party of Azerbaijan Co-Chairperson Araz Alizade attended a similar SI conference in Yerevan in 2009, the columnist, Rauf Mirkadirov, noted. “[A] refusal to let Armenians attend a similar conference in Baku would give Dashnaktsutiun a chance to talk about the Azerbaijani authorities’ intolerance,” said Mirkadirov, a commentator for Zerkalo. The conference “is a plus for the country’s image,” he added.
Creating an appearance of intolerance on the eve of Azerbaijan’s November 7 parliamentary elections is not likely a desirable goal for President Ilham Aliyev’s administration. Aside from a more than three-hour delay upon arrival at Baku’s airport – a snag caused by Nalbandian requiring a visa for his Argentine passport, according to Social Democrat Party of Azerbaijan Co-Chairperson Alizade – the Armenian duo’s visit appeared to proceed without a hitch.
Officials sometimes appeared careful about how they represented the government’s role in the trip. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry and embassy in Tbilisi both claimed that they had not been contacted to grant permission for the two men to fly to Baku from Tbilisi on the state-run AZAL airline, Trend news agency reported.
For all the mention of facilitating discussions with Armenian politicians, the Dashnaks’ visit was not without conflict. Chanting “Armenian Dashnaks, get out of Baku!” about 30 activists from the hard-line Karabakh Liberation Organization on October 11 staged a demonstration outside the site of the Socialist International conference. Trying to execute that slogan, a few demonstrators managed to get inside the conference building, but were detained by police. Authorities eventually broke up the protest.
During the conference, discussions hit a few pockets of turbulence. Armenian Revolutionary Federation Deputy Chairperson Manoian contended that the Karabakh peace process had stalled because “the OSCE Minsk Group and other international organizations want to return Karabakh to Azerbaijan.” Peace can be reached only after Baku recognizes Karabakh’s independence, he asserted – an opinion largely akin to waving a red flag before a bull for many Azerbaijanis.
Social Democrat Party Co-Chairperson Alizade responded in kind. Armenia, he claimed, could hardly speak of Karabakh’s independence from Azerbaijan, given that Armenia itself is the outgrowth of Azerbaijan’s former khanate of Yerevan. “Social Democrats are against war, however, the occupied territories have to be liberated,” Alizade said.
In a later interview with News.az, Alizade said that he had invited the two men to the conference to show the Socialist International that the Dashnaks espouse a “national-socialist rather than social democratic” ideology. The alliance is expected to release its position on the Karabakh conflict in mid-November.
Azerbaijani media, meanwhile, focused on another Karabakh-related topic -- the whereabouts of the body of slain Azerbaijani soldier Mubariz Ibrahimov, killed in June during a border skirmish with Armenian forces. The failure to return Ibrahimov’s body to Azerbaijan has sparked much emotional outcry.
Responding to reporters, Manoian, who plays no official role in such matters, blamed the International Committee of the Red Cross for not transferring the body from the “green zone,” a strip of neutral territory separating Azerbaijani troops from Armenian and Karabakhi forces.
ICRC spokesperson in Baku Ilakha Huseynova contested Manoian’s claim, telling EurasiaNet.org that the Armenian government has confirmed that they have the bodies of Ibrahimov and another soldier, and that the ICRC has not received a request from Armenia to return the bodies.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.