Two members of Azerbaijan’s parliament, on a visit to Yerevan, sparked a scandal by picking fights over the city’s history.
The MPs, Tahir Mirkishili from Azerbaijan's ruling New Azerbaijan Party and independent (but pro-government) Soltan Mammadov, arrived in Armenia on February 21 to take part in meetings connected with the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, a forum that includes members of the European Parliament and the parliaments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Whenever Euronest meetings take place in Baku and Yerevan, the focus invariably is on the MPs from the other country and the messages they take to “enemy” territory. With nerves still deeply raw in Armenia’s difficult post-war environment, this visit was no exception.
The MPs’ arrival was greeted by protests from the outset, as members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Youth organization held a demonstration on February 21 in front of the Marriott Hotel where the Azerbaijanis were staying.
The protests continued the next day at the conference center where the session took place. "Today, the presence of Azeris here is symbolic, because back in 2021, the president of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev announced that the Azeris, taking the so-called Zangezur corridor, will return to Yerevan," Edgar Ghazaryan, a former chief of staff of Armenia’s Constitutional Court and one of the protest organizers, told reporters. An Azerbaijani seizure of Yerevan "doesn't necessarily have to be by tanks," he added.
Things got especially tense when Mirkishili posted on Facebook about his February 23 visit to Yerevan’s 18th-century Blue Mosque. While the structure is today presented in Armenia as “Persian,” as it was built when the territory was part of the Persian Empire, Azerbaijanis argue that it is part of their history, given that the Turkic-speaking builders were the ancestors of today’s Azerbaijanis.
"We have been to the Blue Mosque. As far as we know, it is the only Azerbaijani monument preserved in Yerevan, although there are inscriptions related to another state on its walls,” Mirkishili wrote, apparently referring to Iran. “Its architecture, walls, and spirit as a whole are affiliated with Azerbaijan. We believe that its true owners will soon be able to offer their prayers in the mosque.”
Predictably, the post angered many Armenians.
A former lawmaker from Armenia's ruling party, Tatevik Hayrapetyan, took Twitter to shoot back. She shared a screenshot of the post, tagging the Iranian embassy in Yerevan.
A few hours later, the embassy tweeted its own statement, saying the Blue Mosque is a “symbol of Iranian art.”
Regular Armenians also expressed their outrage. One user wrote: "Why are Turks [a term Armenians use to describe Azeris in a derogatory fashion] hanging around in our home, send them away." Another wrote: "What is this filth doing in Armenia in the first place? Stop barking." Other comments were even harsher.
The session itself was rocky, as well.
Asked about the Armenians who remain in Azerbaijani prisons, the MPs denied there were any. "All the prisoners of war and detainees were returned to Armenia after the war," Mammadov said. Armenians count between 30 and 130 prisoners still remaining in Azerbaijani custody; the last return of prisoners from Azerbaijan was on February 7, when Baku repatriated eight Armenians.
The Azerbaijanis also repeated Baku’s argument that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was “closed” and that the war decided its status in favor of Azerbaijan. Armenians argue that the status of the territory, where tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians still live, has yet to be decided. "Conflicts are not over by simply stating that they are over. They are over when the causes of the conflict are eliminated," responded Arman Yeghoyan, an MP from the ruling Civil Contract party.
"The European continent has seen ‘peace at any cost.’ Peace must be built by work, respect for others' rights, human rights, the right to life, and right to property. Is Armenians' right to life and property guaranteed in Azerbaijan? I don’t think so," he concluded.
Azerbaijan's President Aliyev, observing the proceedings while on a visit to Moscow, suggested the two MPs were in physical danger while they were in Yerevan. “In order for them to go there, we received a guarantee from the State Security Committee or the Ministry -- I do not know what it is called in Armenia -- about the safety of these people,” Aliyev said at a February 23 meeting with Russian journalists.
“It is not difficult to imagine what kind of lynching they would be subject to, and what the outcome would be, if they had gone without agreement and without all security measures,” he said. “I'm sure at least they would have been beheaded in front of everyone.”
There is a long history of such contentious encounters at Euronest.
In 2017, the event was held in Baku and one of the Armenian participants criticized “Armenophobia and xenophobia” in Azerbaijan’s school system, and gave a book titled “Azerbaijan: Childhood in Hate” to the host country’s deputy education minister.
When the event was held in Yerevan in 2015, the Azerbaijani side boycotted it, citing Armenia’s "aggressive criminal actions" against it.
With additional reporting from Heydar Isayev.
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.