Azerbaijani president visits Karabakh's abandoned main town
During a visit timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his accession to the presidency, Ilham Aliyev trampled on the flag of his vanquished foes and delivered an aggressive and gloating speech.
Azerbaijan's president traveled to the former de facto capital of the now-defunct Nagorno-Karabakh Republic on October 15.
Ilham Aliyev's visit was full of aggressively triumphant symbolism, captured in a 4-minute video released by APA TV.
Clad in military fatigues, Aliyev toured the building that formerly housed the de facto Armenian government in the town known to Armenians as Stepanakert and Azerbaijanis as Khankandi.
As he entered the building, he stepped on a Nagorno-Karabakh flag that had been placed on the floor.
At one point, he opened a window and laughed as he wafted out the air he seemed to suggest had been contaminated by the breath of the previous inhabitants.
At another he gestured at an atlas turned to a map showing a conception of a historical Armenian state that encompassed much of the South Caucasus, eastern Anatolia, and northern Iran.
"This is their disease, so-called Great Armenia. It's what made them wretched," Aliyev remarked.
Outside, Aliyev raised the Azerbaijani flag in front of the building, which had already had the Azerbaijani state seal installed on its facade.
He delivered a triumphant speech in which he noted that his visit coincided with the 20th anniversary of his first inauguration as president, an office that he effectively inherited from his father, Heydar Aliyev.
"Twenty years ago, when I began discharging my duties as President, I set myself the top priority task of raising the Azerbaijani flag in all our territories, all our lands, cities, and villages that were occupied at the time," he recalled. "Every day, every hour, we moved towards this sacred goal. Every day, we were bringing this cherished moment closer and repeatedly saying that each of us should try to bring this day closer with our hard work."
Armenian forces defeated Azerbaijan in the first Karabakh War in the early 1990s, gaining control over the Armenian-populated former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of Soviet Azerbaijan, as well as seven surrounding Azerbaijani districts. That control lasted until the Second Karabakh War in the fall of 2020, when Azerbaijan took back most of the territory it lost. It left only a rump Armenian de facto statelet that was surrounded by Azerbaijani territory and under Azerbaijani blockade for the nine months prior to the September offensive.
He accused international mediators - which were chiefly Russia, France and the U.S. - of being uninterested in achieving a real resolution of the conflict during three decades of talks that Aliyev called "meaningless and fruitless."
"Unfortunately, the mediators dealing with this issue wanted to freeze the conflict, to perpetuate it. They wanted this wound to fester. The people and the state of Azerbaijan could never come to terms with this situation. I have often said that we will never accept this situation; we will never allow a second Armenian state to be created on our land."
After the offensive and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's surrender, Azerbaijani officials had two meetings with representatives of Karabakh Armenians, where they reportedly discussed the reintegration of the population to Azerbaijan.
Now, with practically the entire population having fled, it's not clear what reintegration could mean. A UN mission deployed to Khankandi/Stepanakert on October 1 reported that as few as 50 Armenians likely remain in the region. As of October 4, Azerbaijani authorities reported that 98 Armenians had applied to receive Azerbaijani citizenship.
Aliyev did not mention any prospect of reintegration or return of Armenians back to Karabakh in his speech.
But he did gloat over Azerbaijan's arrest on terrorism and separatism charges of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's last three de facto presidents and several other former officials.
"The three clowns who used to sit here and call themselves 'president' await their deserved punishment today. I wonder if the man who used to sit in one of these buildings and call himself a 'prime minister' will ever dare to threaten us again. His tea is being served in the detention facility as we speak," he said.
"A separatist who called himself a "foreign minister" once sarcastically said that Azerbaijan should open an embassy in our country if it wanted to raise its flag in Khankendi. Now, his tea is also served there in the detention facility. Our flag is flying high here. This should be a lesson to them."
Caucasus analyst Thomas de Waal criticized Aliyev's address in a post on X.
"It's an angry speech, dwelling on past grievances, with nothing about the future or reconciliation. No olive branches," he wrote. "The message is very much 'Karabakh without Armenians.'"
De Waal continued: "It bodes ill for what comes next with the Republic of Armenia. No sign here of what Westerners are urging: that Aliyev should start to treat Armenia and Pashinyan as a partner, rather than a defeated adversary. Instead it suggests that Aliyev still believes he derives legitimacy from the public by mobilizing anti-Armenian sentiment. So strong indications that he will keep on threatening Armenia itself."