Mahammud Mirzaliyev, a soft-spoken farmer clearly unaccustomed to the media limelight, stood in his ruined home village and patiently told his story to one journalist after another.
He used to live in this village, Jojug Marjanli, until it was engulfed by the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the early 1990s. The village changed hands multiple times, and by the time a ceasefire was signed in 1994, it was back under Azerbaijani control but in ruins and mined. Azerbaijan’s government said it was unable to demine the village and render it safe to return because Armenian forces, which controlled a strategic hilltop about three kilometers away, would fire at demining experts if they tried. Mirzaliyev thus became one of the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis (numbers are disputed) displaced from their homes as a result of that war.
But in last April’s so-called “four-day war,” Azerbaijan retook that hill, Lala Tapa. And now Mirzaliyev will be one of the first of those displaced people to be moving back to his old home. The Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action is demining Jojug Marjanli, and President Ilham Aliyev has promised about $2 million to reconstruct 50 houses, a school, and other infrastructure. Mirzaliyev, who now lives in a neighboring village, says he hopes to be able to return to his old home by the end of this year.
Jojug Marjanli, a five-hour drive from Baku and on the Iranian border, is a “pilot project” for what Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons calls its “Great Return” program, Fuad Huseynov, the deputy head of the committee, said in an interview with EurasiaNet.
The “Great Return” program is aimed at planning for the time when Azerbaijan believes it will regain its lost territories – both Nagorno Karabakh, which is de jure part of Azerbaijan but de facto controlled by Armenian leaders, and the seven Azerbaijani districts that Armenian armed forces still control to ensure the security of Karabakh. Jojug Marjanli is in Jabrayil, one of those seven districts.
“This sends a message to the international community that we are willing to restore and rehabilitate our lands which are currently under occupation,” Huseynov said. Huseynov declined to offer further details of the “Great Return,” including its estimated cost, but allowed that it will cost “a gigantic amount of money.”
It is not clear whether Baku has the money to spend. The state budget of late has come under strain, due to the fall in oil and natural gas prices and the subsequent decline in revenue from energy exports. Even so, Azerbaijan’s state oil fund, a reserve accumulated during the years when energy prices were sky high, stood at over $35 billion as of mid-2016.’
Nevertheless, Azerbaijan’s success in the four-day war and the repopulation of Jojug Marjanli are rare good news stories for Azerbaijan, which, prior to last April, had little to show after two decades of promising its population that it would retake Karabakh.
“The government is losing the faith of the people, the IDPs,” Huseynov said. “People have been very patient until now, and fully trusting the state with the responsibility to resolve this conflict.” But, he added, “it’s getting more and more difficult for us, for government officials, to keep convincing IDPs to be patient.”
Asked if expectations have risen after last April, Huseynov said: “Of course.”
“The April war has tremendously changed one thing: the myth that the Armenian armed forces were invincible,” Hikmet Hajiyev, the spokesman for Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry, told EurasiaNet.
The government is accordingly seizing on the story of Jojug Marjanli, heavily publicizing the reconstruction efforts, including organizing a trip earlier this month for journalists from Baku. “This is a historic event,” Aliyev said in announcing the reconstruction program. “We will return our citizens to their ancestral lands after a long hiatus.”
Opinions differ on how this may alter Azerbaijan’s strategic thinking in the future. Some observers argue that Baku, having tasted military success and seeing how it has rallied the population in the middle of a deep economic crisis, will find further adventurism irresistible.
“The perception of a successful military offensive helped reverse two-decades-old feelings of humiliation, and an upsurge of patriotism helped distract the Azerbaijani population from a shrinking economy and falling currency,” wrote Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, in a recent analysis. “There is a temptation for Baku to retry what might be called military leverage – to launch another operation to recapture territory and put pressure on the Armenian side.”
Among those who believe Baku may be emboldened by last April’s success may be members of the Turkish government, asserts Richard Giragosian, the director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center think tank, who conducts informal “Track II” diplomacy between Armenians and Turks. Giragosian believes Ankara is worried that Azerbaijan may try to escalate the situation in a way that would risk embroiling Turkey.
“Azerbaijan is dangerously overconfident after April,” Giragosian said at a recent briefing in Istanbul, paraphrasing the Turkish position. “It’s not a question of if, but when the next military offensive from Azerbaijan will occur. Our assessment is: this spring. It was too much of a distraction, for the Azerbaijani government, from its domestic economic pressure, and too much of a distraction in terms of a rare military victory. Instead of President Aliyev threatening, he actually delivered.”
Others, though, argue that the success story allows the government a bit of a respite among a population that has been told for years that regaining Karabakh is inevitable, but which may be getting impatient. “Showcasing this tiny spot shows how well you can use this for domestic consumption,” a western diplomat in Baku told EurasiaNet, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You’ve created an expectation among the population, and when you show these successes you’ve achieved, that can relieve some of the pressure, it buys some time.”
At the same time, Azerbaijan is using the perception that it may escalate the conflict to increase pressure on international mediators, the diplomat added. Negotiations conducted by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have effectively stalled, and inertia favors Armenia. “The veiled threat of military action by Azerbaijan also should be seen as pressure on the Minsk Group, in particular on Russia,” the diplomat said.