Statements by Azerbaijan’s president calling for a “return to historical lands” in Armenia have landed Baku in hot diplomatic water, with Russia and France pointedly calling out Baku for the provocative comments.
Speaking at a congress for his New Azerbaijan Party on February 9, President Ilham Aliyev referred to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, as part of Azerbaijan’s “historical land.”
“[To return Azerbaijanis there] is our political and strategic goal, and we need to work step-by-step to get closer to it,” he added.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was quick to respond.
“Until Azerbaijanis reject their maximalist, unrealistic expectations about the negotiations, but instead rave about seizing Yerevan or Zangezur, we will not harbor much hope that the issue will be resolved,” he said during a press conference on February 12.
The international community also waded in.
“Reports about Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s speech at a congress of the ruling party have certainly been seen in Moscow,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. “We are well aware that Azerbaijan’s relations with neighboring Armenia are extremely tense. The comment in question will clearly not help to reduce the tensions.”
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hit back, saying the criticism ran counter to Russia’s “strategic partnership” with Azerbaijan.
France’s Foreign Ministry also warned Azerbaijan's leadership to refrain from making statements that could inflame tensions between the two countries, arguing that they could undermine the peace process in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
“We urge the parties [of the Karabakh conflict] to work diligently in this direction, in particular, to refrain from any statements or actions that could exacerbate tensions,” the ministry’s statements says.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry responded by calling on French colleagues to ignore “disinformation” spread by the “Armenian lobby” in Paris.
France “is very well aware that the main reason for the tension in the region is the continuation of the military occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenia,” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev added.
The statements from Moscow and Paris notwithstanding, Armenian MFA spokesman Tigran Balayan said the international response was insufficent and may jeopardize regional security.
“Absence of an adequate reaction by the international community toward President Ilham Aliyev’s territorial claims on Armenia have encouraged [Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir] Hasanov to reiterate the threat to use force,” he said.
The statement refers to a February 19 meeting with Tovio Klaar, EU Representative for the South Caucasus, in which the Azeri defense minister warned that “a war may break out at any moment.”
Aliyev has made similar public statements in the past. In 2014 he said Baku would gain back, in addition to Karabakh, parts of the “fascist” Armenian state that were created on “historic Azerbaijani lands.”
Commentators link the recent surge in hostile rhetoric to Aliyev’s electoral campaign. The president will be seeking a fourth term in office in a snap presidential election slated for April 11.
The ballot will be held two days after Sargsyan completes his second and final presidential term. The Armenian leader is widely expected to become prime minister immediately after the country adopts a new parliamentary system in April.
Both leaders have pledged to intensify the Karabakh peace process.
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.
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