Azerbaijani Internally Displaced Persons from Nagorno-Karabakh have emerged as a potential new lever of influence for Baku in its protracted negotiations with Armenia over a conflict-resolution plan for the disputed territory, analysts say.
"It is time at last that the world heard the voice of the 65,000-member Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh," declared the community's leader, Bayram Safarov, at the group's inaugural congress, held in July in Baku. Although tens of thousands of Azerbaijani IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) from Karabakh have been housed throughout the country for nearly two decades, the IDP community has never had a formal organization to represent its interests.
The reasons why the IDP organization is coming together now -- amid the emotionally charged Armenian-Turkish dialogue aimed at ending decades of enmity -- remain unclear. Turkey and Azerbaijan enjoy a special strategic relationship.
Members of the IDP group, known officially as the Azerbaijani Community of the Nagorno-Karabakh Region, did not explain the timing for their organization's debut. They say that they plan to set up branches abroad, hold international events, and produce movies about the 1988-1994 armed phase of the conflict with Armenia over the territory. They did not provide details.
Officially, the Azerbaijani government is not connected with the group. But a $2.5-million budget allocation for renovation of the group's Baku headquarters clearly indicates that it operates with the government's blessing.
Some 200 government officials, parliamentarians, representatives of international organizations and diplomats were on hand for the group's July congress. That gloss of officialdom carries over to the congress' newly-elected 22-member board; the president of Baku's Slavic University, the director of the State Philharmonic Theater, and the president of the Baku Music Academy are among its more prominent members.
Elhan Shahinoglu, head of Baku's Atlas think-tank, believes that the government hopes to use the Community to bolster its diplomatic position in the Karabakh peace process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "If . . . Armenia will insist on including Karabakh Armenians in the talks . . . then Baku will bring the Azerbaijani community in, as well," Shahinoglu said.
Yerevan so far has maintained that Armenia can best represent the territory's interests; Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is a native of Karabakh. The region's de facto government, however, has long pushed for its inclusion in the talks -- a prospect opposed by Azerbaijan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Back in the 1990s, a government-appointed envoy from the Azerbaijani Karabakh community -- the late Nizami Bakhmanov, former mayor of the Karabakh town of Shusha -- participated in peace talks. But a repetition of that role looks unlikely. "Nagorno Karabakh is Azerbaijan's territory and the Azerbaijani state itself conducts talks with Armenia," Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov commented earlier this year.
Mammadyarov projected that "the communities" -- both Azerbaijani and Armenian -- "could join the process" once a peace deal is signed and attention shifts to the logistics of the situation on the ground in Karabakh.
Another analyst, Rauf Mirgadirov, a political columnist for the Russian-language Zerkalo (The Mirror) daily, sees a domestic use for the IDP group. "If any political agreement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict's resolution will be signed soon, there will be a lot of criticism of it both in Azerbaijan and in Armenia," Mirgadirov said. "In this case, support for the government's position by Azerbaijanis from [IDPs] could be important for the government."
Shahinoglu disputes this position; Karabakh IDPs have never before played a role in Azerbaijan's domestic politics, he notes.
Little sign exists that any differences divide the government and the Azerbaijani Community of the Nagorno-Karabakh Region. The group's position on a peaceful resolution to the conflict "totally coincides with President Ilham Aliyev's position," community leader Bayram Safarov repeatedly emphasized in July.
Elaborating on that point in September comments to EurasiaNet, Safarov underlined that Azerbaijan's border with Armenia "could be opened only after the liberation of the occupied territories [land surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that is held by Armenian forces - ed] and the IDPs's return."
"It is the undivided opinion of all the Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh Community members," he added. The position has also garnered praise from the radical Karabakh Liberation Organization, which rejects all forms of compromise with Armenia.
Pro-government politicians say that they hope the IDP group will enhance Baku's own arguments on that score. "It should now inform the international public about the truth of the Karabakh conflict," independent parliamentarian Bakhtiyar Aliyev, a Karabakh native, commented.
IDPs' desire to return to Karabakh is likely to headline that information campaign -- the group will fiercely oppose any deal with Armenia that does not include provisions for such a return, analysts say. Karabakh IDPs with whom EurasiaNet spoke echoed that desire, saying they hope that the Azerbaijani community's organization will lead to better representation of their interests as the peace process moves forward.
"Once a peace deal is signed, there will be many technical issues, including security, which the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh knows much better than anyone else," said Isfendiyar Rzayev, 50, a history teacher from Shusha, who now lives with his family of five in a Baku kindergarten.
For now, the prospect of a return to Karabakh may seem remote. But hope dies hard among Karabakh IDPs. "A kindergarten is not a place where a family should live," said history teacher Rzayev. "We want to return to Shusha."
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.