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President Ilham Aliyev gave interview to French Le Figaro newspaper
24 October [22:22] Politics Geopolitics Conflict Interview

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has given an interview to the French Le Figaro newspaper.  presents the interview.

-My first question would be Mr. President, why did you launch an offensive on September 27 against Nagorno-Karabakh? What are the political objectives of this military attack?

-We did not launch military attack on Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27th. It was Armenia who launched a military attack on Azerbaijan, and in the first hours of this military attack we had victims, among civilians and among our military servicemen. This was the 3rd military provocation by Armenia against Azerbaijan, within 3 months. First, they attacked us on the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, far away from the Karabakh region. And by unanimous opinion of international observers it was Armenia who launched an attack on us. They wanted to occupy new territories. they wanted to take control over the strategic energy infrastructure which situated several kilometres from our state border with Armenia. As you probably know, Trans Adriatic Pipeline is almost completed. And the Southern Gas Corridor project is not only a project of energy security of Azerbaijan but also of Europe. We think that one of the goals of Armenia was to take control of that pipelines and to blackmail us, and maybe European consumers. They got a serious response. We pushed them back. But unfortunately, next month, in August, they send the sabotage group, which planned to commit acts of terror against Azerbaijanis. The head of the sabotage group was detected by our military people, military servicemen, and he gives evidence. So, it is a deliberate attempt to disrupt negotiations and to attack Azerbaijan. As far as political goals of Armenia, which they pursued launching the attack, was to keep the status quo unchanged, to put the blame for this escalation on us, to disrupt negotiations completely, and to involve third countries and to internationalize the conflict. We only gave them adequate response, as a result of that we liberated and continue to liberate part of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan.

-Azerbaijan has the mission to be a hub not only on energy pipelines but also on internet, fiberglass cables. And there is Azerbaijani company called Neqsol who want to be the connection between Europe and Central Asia, for internet. Do you think that this project is still possible or not to have directly through Azerbaijan in Internet from Europe, to Central Asia?

-We as you correctly mentioned became already the regional hub for not only for energy, but also for transportation. We are now providing important transportation network for our partners across the Caspian in the eastern part of the Caspian Sea and Europe. Our investments in infrastructure resulted in creation of a very broad international cooperation format on transportation. Of course, everything started with the energy infrastructure, oil and gas pipelines going through Azerbaijan already became very important source of energy security. And with respect to the oil pipelines we already transit oil from Central Asia, through Azerbaijan to Europe. With respect to the internet connection, we invest largely into IT sector, internet penetration in Azerbaijan is about 80 percent. 80 percent of our population are internet users. And we have very developed private companies in this area. Therefore, the company which you mentioned as far as I know is a private company, which has its own agenda, and which invested in the region. And I think their target is to implement commercially viable project. And definitely, Azerbaijan from geographical point of view and point of view of infrastructure today is very important regional actor.

-My question now is can you describe us what is after more than one month of war? where is the front? How are the current military operations?

-It is less than one month, and during this one month as a result of a very successful counter-attack, Azerbaijan managed to liberate part of the occupied territories, cities and villages and every day we report about new cities and villages which have been operated. It was not easy, because during the 30 years of occupation Armenia built on the occupied territories very solid engineering constructions. So, it was not easy to cross the line of contact. But we did it in different directions, in the north, in the south. And this demonstrates the high level of capacity, capability of Azerbaijani Army, and we defeat Armenia on the battlefield. And they have to run away from us. So, we already restored the international border with Iran. More than 130 km of this border was under occupation. So, we did a lot on the battlefield and this continues. Armenia two times violated the ceasefire. If they didn’t violate the ceasefire, first on the 10th of October brutally violated it launching a ballistic missile on the sleeping city of Ganja and second time on the 17th of October, today the clashes would have stopped and political solution would have prevailed. That’s our position. If they don’t stop, we will continue to liberate our lands.

-They bombed Ganja because there was a couple of Turkish F-16 fighters and one of these Turkish f-16 fighters shut down Armenian plane. That’s why they said they bombed Ganja.

-This is fake news. I think that everybody now understands that was fake news by Armenia. Turkish F-16 are here because they were participating in the joint military training just before the clashes started. And they are on the ground. They are not in the air. Armenian SU-25 hit the mountain. They tried to pretend as if it was hit by the Turkish F-16. But that was in the first days of the conflict. It was in September. But they launched an attack on Ganja with ballistic missile on the 10th of October, first. Second, ballistic missile’s launch was made from the territory of Armenia. And you know, big countries can monitor it clearly. They know from where it is launched and what is a task for the missile? The task was to hit civilians. They hit the area of Ganja where people live. So, that was an act of international terror, that was another reflection of the war crime policy of Armenia. These attacks on Ganja, cannot be justified. And they will be responsible for that.

-By accepting the intervention of Turkey and the arrival of Syrian fighters from Turkey, aren’t you afraid of turning local conflict into a regional war?

-First of all, Turkey is not involved in the conflict at all. There is not a single evidence of Turkish involvement. From the first hours of Armenian attack on Azerbaijan Turkey, Turkish president and other high-ranking officials expressed and continue to express strong political support to Azerbaijan, support to the norms and principles of international law, support to the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions which demand immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from our territories. So, this is first. Second, there are no foreign fighters on Azerbaijani soil. This is another fake news. It was spread by some officials, in some countries. But so far, more than 20 days after the clashes started we didn’t get any single evidence neither from France nor from Russia. Because the French and then Russian officials made this statement and we asked for evidence. We asked for proofs. Only words, no evidence, no proofs. And another thing is that we don’t need any foreigners to fight with us. Because we have a regular army of 100 thousand people. We have modern equipment. We have motivated people who were suffering from occupation for 30 years. We did not even announce full mobilization. If we need additional people on the ground we will recruit more. Therefore, this is another attempt to present Azerbaijan as an aggressor, and also attempt by Armenia to diminish the capacity of Azerbaijani army which is beating them on the ground.

-Mr President, you said you have very modern equipment, it is true. You have all kinds of drones some coming from Turkey but also efficient kamikaze drones coming from Israel Harop. So, is the help of Israeli military equipment very important for you, and allow you to make military breakthrough?

-We buy military equipment from many countries. And our biggest supplier of military equipment is not Turkey and Israel, it is Russia. But unlike Armenia, from Russia we buy weapons, we pay for them. Armenia gets weapons from Russia free of charge. We also buy weapons from Iran, from Ukraine, from Belarus, and of course, we can afford to buy modern weapons which today help our army to restore our territorial integrity. Our territorial integrity is being restored by us. But any country in our region is buying weapons. Not many countries in the world can supply themselves 100% with military equipment. So, there is nothing strange about that. And of course, we pay for the weapons. We buy good ones and of course they help us on the ground. But liberation of territories is not by drones. Liberation of territories is by soldiers. By people who there on the ground are doing their job.

-Iran has complained that fighting during a military operation took on the border. Did you settle this dispute with Iran? Did you talk to the Iranian leaders?

-Yes, we did. And as far as I know, Iranian leaders also talk to Armenian side. Because the clashes were taking place just by the river Araz, close to the border with Iran, and by accident, some of the weapons crossed the border. But today we announced that we cleaned completely the Azerbaijani-Iranian border from Armenian occupants. Therefore, no more clashes take place there, and there will be no more inconvenience for our brothers across the river of Araz in Iran.

-What is the best possible mediator to bring out to this war? Is it Russia? Is it the best possible mediator?

-We have three mediators. They have a mandate from OSCE-Russia, France and United States. For 28 years they are trying to mediate. And trying to help parties to find the solution without any success. These three countries are at the same time members of the UN Security Council, permanent members. These three countries adopted those resolutions which I referred to, which demand withdrawal of Armenian troops. But unfortunately, they did not put enough international pressure on Armenia to liberate the occupied territories and to comply with the United Nations Security Council resolutions. Therefore, after the Armenian military attack, we had to defend ourselves, and had to restore justice by force, what we are successfully doing. And among these three mediators, each of them is important and I observe, and I see and I know that on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh they have very rare unanimous approach. It is probably the only issue where their interests coincide.

-What kind of land you want to take back and then be ready to stop this war Mr. President?

-We are ready to stop today. I was telling that since the 10th of October, when in Moscow both sides agreed on ceasefire. And I said: “the sooner the military part of the solution of the problem is over the better.” We want to move on negotiation table. But unfortunately, Armenia brutally violated ceasefire and launched an attack on Ganja. And on the 17th of October they violated ceasefire two minutes after ceasefire was efficient. Therefore, if they stop today we will stop and then, the rest will be done by diplomats. If they do not stop, we will go until the end to liberate all the occupied territories.

-So this is your plan. This is Azerbaijan’s plan to get out of the conflict.

-Yes. If they stop now and behave in a constructive way, if they publicly commit to the basic principles elaborated by France, Russia and the United States which Azerbaijan is committed to, then, of course everything will stop and we will go back on negotiation table. By the way, I am in this process for 17 years. I worked with two former Armenian presidents and we made not a big progress, but we made progress. We were meeting regularly. There have been regular meetings in Moscow, in Paris, in Washington. But after Mr. Pashinyan came to power, he actually did everything in order to destroy negotiation process not only by his statements, but by his military provocations. And since he came to power for already two years or more, there is no process. Therefore, I think the political settlement is possible. But Armenian government should understand that they are not now in a position to dictate, because status quo no more exists, line of contact no more exists. We created a new reality on the ground. And they have to take that into account.

-What is your vision about the future of Karabakh?

-I expressed it many times publicly. And I can tell you now. Also, I delivered certain messages through mediators, through Minsk Group co-chairs to previous Armenian government how we see the future. We see Karabakh as a prosperous, safe, secure area of Azerbaijan where people live in peace and dignity, where Azerbaijani and Armenian communities live side by side. The area which we plan to develop as we did in all other parts of Azerbaijan. I can tell you that we have very substantial economic achievements. We have very low level of poverty, it is about five percent. In Armenia it is close to 50 percent. Also very low level of unemployment. Before the pandemic it was around 5 percent, now it is seven. But in comparison with Nagorno-Karabakh which is endemic, it is day and night. So, we can provide much better life, for Armenians who live there, for Azerbaijanis who will return there. And I am sure that the two nations, two peoples will reconcile, because in the 21st century it is not possible to isolate yourself to commit ethnic cleansing and try to transform de facto situation into secession. It is not possible. No one recognized Nagorno-Karabakh so far, including Armenia itself. I am sure no one will recognize it. Therefore, the best way for the future of Karabakh, not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but all the Karabakh is a big region of Azerbaijan, is to live in peace in harmony, and to try to become good neighbors again-Armenians and Azerbaijanis. This is my plan.

- I remember that in the beginning of 1990s there was an anti-Armenian pogrom in Baku. That’s why Armenians do not trust they can live, they are afraid for their lives to live in Azerbaijani territory.

-Conflict started after separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh, sponsored by nationalists in Armenia launched a secession plan to secede from Azerbaijan. And they could not do it from legal point of view at the time of the Soviet Union. So, they started pogroms in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and in the territory of Armenia. The first victims of the war and clashes were Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh. There have been 40 thousand Azerbaijanis who lived in Nagorno-Karabakh, primarily in Shusha and also in the capital Khankandi who were ethnically cleansed completely. Then, 250 thousand Azerbaijanis who lived in Armenia, many of them were killed and all of them were ethnically cleansed, expelled. What happened in Baku, in those time which you mentioned is a dark page of our history. But, those clashes were taking place everywhere-in Erevan, in other Armenian cities, in Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, this should not be a kind of a reason why people cannot reconcile. In Europe how many times France and Germany had wars? How many times you know other countries had wars? We had World War II which costed lives of 30 or 40 million people. But after twenty years, western Germany and Soviet Union became on good terms. And now nobody remembers that. This is how it should happen in the civilized world. The problem is in Armenia, they cultivate hatred. They cultivate historical hatred against Turkey, against Azerbaijan. Former president of Armenia Kocharyan publicly said that Azerbaijanis and Armenians cannot live together. But look. How they live together for instance, in Georgia? In some Georgian villages Azerbaijanis and Armenians live side by side. In Russia it is the same. In Azerbaijan we have thousands of Armenians who live in our country. Why it is not possible in Nagorno-Karabakh. I think that the wounds of the war must be healed by political wisdom, by political will. And after this active, hot phase of the conflict stops, both sides need to invest largely in order to do everything to heal these wounds.

-This is my last question. Aren’t you afraid Mr. President that after a while President Erdogan of Turkey will stop his support and his policy in Caucasus to focus on Northern Cyprus?

-Turkey and Azerbaijan are brotherly countries. And our brotherhood have been tested in many circumstances. And in this particular case, Turkish President expressed publicly strong support to Azerbaijan. He said that Azerbaijan is not alone. Turkey is side by side. So, this is a very strong political support and we are very grateful for that. This is first thing. Second, what I want to say that what we are doing on the battlefield we do ourselves. Yes, with modern weapons, with modern equipment but it is Azerbaijani soldiers and officers who liberate our motherland. Our relations with Turkey have a great history but even brighter future. Turkey as a country which is the only country in the world having a border with all the three republics or countries of Southern Caucasus- Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, has, I think, a legitimate right to be involved in this process. Because as a neighbor, as a country which can provide and provides stability, predictability for the region and as a country whose agenda is very clear they defend international law. International law says that our territories are under occupation. So, what wrong do they do? They just demand international law to be implied. Armenia doesn’t want to do it. They want to keep our lands for more than thirty years under occupation by illegal settlement of Armenians from Lebanon, by military operations against Azerbaijanis, by destroying our historical and religious heritage. Turkey’s role is very positive. And after the war with Armenia stops, and political settlement is enforced, I am sure the role of Turkey will be very important and very positive.

-So, you don’t think that Turkey has a plan to erase Armenia in order to have a direct connection to the Turkish people of Central Asia.

-No, this is again, Armenian phobias, and Armenian provocations. In the peaceful plan which I was discussing with leaders of Armenia before Pashinyan came to power, there was a clear reference to communications. After the peace agreement is signed, all communications are opening, including communication between Nakhchivan Autonomus Republic of Azerbaijan and the mainland of Azerbaijan. And thus, Turkey and Azerbaijan and Central Asia will have a land connection. Today we don’t have it. But Turkey still has connections through Azerbaijan. We built couple of years ago Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad. So, Turkish goods through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Caspian go to central Asia and backwards. But the road from Turkey, Nakhchivan, Armenia and Azerbaijan is shorter. So, it is not the fact that Turkey does not have this connection. And as you say, somebody thinks that they will erase Armenia to have it. They have it. We have it. We will have another one. But it is again part of the peace plan. All communications will be open. And I think that Armenian government should not try to frighten its population with Turkey. And should stop this hatred towards the Turkish and Azerbaijani people.

-How is your relationship currently with Georgia, who is another Christian nation in the Caucasus region?

-Yes, with Georgia our relations are excellent. We call each other strategic partners. Azerbaijan is the first or second largest investor in Georgia, and the first or second largest taxpayer. I am saying first or second because one year it is Turkey, another year it is Azerbaijan. And we have a trilateral format of cooperation between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. We had presidential summits, ministerial meetings, including defense ministers, foreign ministers, economy ministers. We have all our major transportation and energy communication going through Georgia. We have a big Azerbaijani community in Georgia close to 300 thousand people. Therefore, relations are excellent. And I think it could be a good example, like our relations with Turkey, our relations with Georgia are good examples of good neighborhood. By the way, the fact that Georgia is Christian and Azerbaijan is Muslim does not make any difference. We do not look at this region from this point of view.

-You don’t take religion into account when you do projects.

-No, religion is separated from the state. According to our constitution, Azerbaijan is a secular country. We respect our religion, we respect religions of all other nationalities who live in Azerbaijan. And I think the best indicator of religious harmony in Azerbaijan would be the words of His Holiness, head of the Roman Catholic Church Pope Francis. When he was in Baku several years ago, he made a public statement highly praising Azerbaijan’s role in intercultural and interreligious dialogue. All the representatives of different religions in Azerbaijan live in peace and harmony, including Armenians. In the center of Baku, there is an Armenian church which has been restored by us and protected by our government. But our mosques on the occupied territories have been destroyed. And Armenians keep pigs in our mosques. Just recent videos were on internet. In Zangilan region, after liberation of one village, it was on internet how pigs walk in our mosque. So, Azerbaijan is a tolerant and a secular country and will continue to be like that in the future.

-Thank you. It was a very good interview Mr. President.

-Thank you.