As negotiations with Armenia continue to advance fitfully toward a potential peace agreement, Azerbaijan has introduced a new condition: that the Azerbaijanis who used to live in Armenia be treated on an equal basis with the Armenians living in Karabakh.
The demand has been rolled out publicly in recent weeks, most prominently in a March 16 speech by President Ilham Aliyev.
“Just as we, the state of Azerbaijan, will guarantee the individual rights and security of the Armenian residents living in Karabakh, Armenia must guarantee the rights and security of the Western Azerbaijanis based on the principle of reciprocity,” Aliyev said at a summit of Turkic states in Ankara.
The Western Azerbaijanis are a group of whom little had been heard before late last year. That’s when a new organization, the Western Azerbaijan Community, emerged onto the scene. It purports to represent the interests of the roughly 200,000 Azerbaijanis who used to live in Armenia before the mutual ethnic cleansings of Armenians and Azerbaijanis that took place as the Soviet Union was collapsing and the First Karabakh War was beginning.
The project was initially framed merely as promoting the rights of the Azerbaijanis to move back to their former homes. But in recent weeks, it has taken a more explicit role in Baku’s demands in an agreement with Armenia.
In a late February statement, the Community called on the Armenian government to “immediately start negotiations with the Community within the framework of a relevant international process so that the Azerbaijanis it expelled from Armenia can return to their homeland peacefully, in safety, and dignity.”
That entreaty was ignored by Yerevan. But Armenia’s Foreign Ministry did not let Aliyev’s speech – which cited the Community as the source of his demands – pass, complaining that it amounted to a “clear manifestation of territorial claims against the Republic of Armenia and preparation of another aggression.”
In response, their counterparts in Baku said the refusal meant that Yerevan was not serious about a peace agreement. A statement from Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry noted that they had invited Karabakh Armenian representatives to Baku to discuss the next steps toward the “reintegration” of the Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijan.
“On the contrary, the Armenian side completely rejected the dialogue proposal of the Western Azerbaijan Community. This is an indication that Armenia is not interested in peace and stability in the region and is conducting a duplicitous policy,” it said. “Azerbaijani side will take all necessary steps within the framework of international law against any provocation by Armenia.”
The introduction of the demand follows a well-worn pattern by Azerbaijan as it tries to push its advantage following its 2020 victory over Armenia in the Second Karabakh War: manufacture a quasi-territorial demand against Armenia in order to weaken Yerevan’s own demands for a special status for the Armenians living in Azerbaijan.
There are significant differences between the Azerbaijanis of “Western Azerbaijan” and the Armenians of Karabakh, the most obvious one being that the Karabakh Armenians are currently living there. The Western Azerbaijan Community has not made it explicit whom precisely it was demanding be allowed to return, but the group’s spokesperson has said that her family was forced out of territory that is now Armenia more than a century ago.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan argued that the proper comparison to the Western Azerbaijanis was the Armenians who used to live in the Nakhchivan region of Azerbaijan. And he indicated that Armenia could give as good as it got in the historical homeland game.
“For the entire last century, forced de-Armenization took place there [in Nakhchivan], and after a while not a single Armenian remained,” he said at a March 15 press conference when asked about the Western Azerbaijanis’ demands, JAM News reported. “Armenians evicted from Azerbaijan have the right to demand compensation. I believe that these people will fight for their rights.”
Azerbaijan’s demands for the Western Azerbaijanis’ return come as Yerevan is making its own conditions for the Karabakh Armenians more explicit, including an international presence in the territory to guarantee their security, and a demilitarized zone. Baku, meanwhile, is insisting that the status of the Karabakh Armenians should be an internal matter of discussion between Baku and Stepanakert with no international interference.
The effort initially seemed like an empty rhetorical exercise, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based analyst for the think tank Crisis Group. “But now it seems that Baku believes that it is working as a pressure point,” he told Eurasianet.
Specifically, Shiriyev said that Baku may be trying to get Yerevan to back off on two key issues: demanding an international guarantee for the rights and security of the Karabakh Armenians, and making progress on the talks between Baku and the Karabakh de facto authorities a condition for signing a comprehensive agreement.
Still, the track record for these kinds of endeavors is not a good one, he noted. He cited the Azerbaijani Community of Nagorno-Karabakh, a government-sponsored group representing Azerbaijanis who were displaced from the territory in the first war. That group was formally recognized as a party to the conflict by international mediators, but its significance nevertheless waxed and waned depending on how much Baku needed it in the negotiations process.
“It is still unclear where this story is headed,” he said. “In Baku, tactics often emerge and disappear quickly, as was the case with the Azerbaijani Community from Nagorno-Karabakh.”
In Yerevan, though, the demand has been viewed with alarm and as a potential preview of real territorial demands.
“Currently, Azerbaijan uses this concept as a stick to force Armenia to drop its demands for international presence in Nagorno Karabakh,” wrote Benyamin Poghosyan, an analyst and head of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan, in a recent piece in Armenian Weekly. “However, as the concept of ‘Western Azerbaijan’ gains more acceptance in Azerbaijan through the direct support of the state, there are no guarantees that even if Armenia drops its demands on Nagorno Karabakh and accepts the notion of Nagorno Karabakh without Armenians, Azerbaijan will stop pushing the concept of ‘Western Azerbaijan.’”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.