Azerbaijan celebrated its first “Victory Day” holiday on the one-year anniversary of the capture of the city of Shusha, the pivotal battle that led to its defeat of Armenia in last year’s war.
The celebrations kicked off on November 7, the eve of the anniversary, when President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, vice president Mehriban Aliyeva, went to Shusha in Karabakh. They inaugurated what has been called the “victory road” through the region of Fuzuli to Shusha, since named the cultural capital of the country. In Shusha they toured various reconstruction projects and laid the foundations for new buildings including a central hospital and a mosque.
In Baku, the events were marked starting on the morning of November 8 with a march by thousands of soldiers and other Azerbaijanis from central Baku to the new Military Trophies Park, featuring Armenian military hardware captured during the war along with controversial depictions of Armenian soldiers.
Initially, Aliyev had designated November 10 to be marked as Victory Day, the day that Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement that formally ended the fighting. But that is also the day that allied Turkey commemorates the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and Azerbaijan later changed it to November 8, the day that Aliyev announced that Azerbaijani forces had captured Shusha.
Turkey was represented at the Victory Day celebrations by Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. Azerbaijan’s victory “was a beautiful response to those who turned a blind eye and remained silent to injustice and lawlessness,” Akar said in a speech ahead of a concert at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Center.
Azerbaijan also enlisted several other foreign dignitaries who were in the country to take part in a conference, the VIII Baku Global Forum. The final event of the conference was a panel on the “Economic Assessment of the Value of Cultural Heritage,” which was held in Shusha on November 8.
Among the participants was former United States ambassador to Azerbaijan Robert Cekuta, who said “the international community needs to think about how it can help revive Shusha.”
Unexpected support also came from Iran, in spite of the tension that the two countries recently experienced. Foreign ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh told a Tehran press conference that Iran had always opposed the occupation of Azerbaijani territory.
“Therefore we congratulate this country on the occasion of the liberation of territories from occupation and we applaud the anniversary of this victory today,” he said. “The most important issue is to eliminate the misunderstandings that occurred in the press and public.”
In Armenia, the anniversary was the source of political backbiting, as opponents of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan took the occasion to blame him for the loss in the war. Participants of one demonstration marched to the Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan holding signs that read “Nikol should be tried” and “We reject the November 9 agreement.” (The agreement was signed in the middle of the night, November 10 by Caucasus time and November 9 by Moscow time, and the agreement is known by both dates.)
Former president Robert Kocharyan, who now leads the largest opposition faction in parliament, was scheduled to give a speech on November 8, which a Kocharyan ally said would mark the “start of the pan-Armenian resistance.”
The anniversary also was an occasion for Armenians to look back and examine what went wrong. In a November 7 interview with public television, Pashinyan discussed an investigative commission that is to be set up to look not only at the conduct of last year’s war, but everything that happened since the first war between the two sides ended in 1994. “Unless we do a deep dive, we won’t know what happened,” he said.
He also described broad investigations into criminal cases being carried out in relation to the conduct of the war, though he didn’t specify what crimes had been committed. He said there are roughly 1,000 cases opened, with 40 people charged so far and 10 arrested. And he said the arrests were only the “tip of the iceberg.”
Many sources had reported that Aliyev, Pashinyan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet on the anniversary of the ceasefire signing to agree to two new deals: on demarcating the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and on a plan to open up transportation through southern Armenia connecting Azerbaijan with its exclave, Nakhchivan. Those reports were barely mentioned in Azerbaijani official media but were the source of intense speculation in Armenia.
In his interview, Pashinyan denied that the meeting would take place on the anniversary of the ceasefire.
On November 8, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov said that a video conference between the three men was being planned, but a date had not been set yet.
The anniversary also served as a reminder that despite the ceasefire, the conflict remains unresolved. The Armenia-backed de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh reported that Azerbaijani soldiers fired on civilians working on a water pipeline, killing one of them. Azerbaijan did not comment on the incident.
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.
Ulkar Natiqqizi is a reporter based in Baku.