Alexei Venediktov: Russia-Azerbaijan relations should be cleared of ‘random mines’
APA presents interview with famous Russian journalist, editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow radio station Alexei Venediktov
Q: What is going on in the relations between Azerbaijan and Russia? What do you think of the latest statement of Russia’s Foreign Ministry?
A: Today, Russia is facing a very complicated situation in the South Caucasus. On the one hand, Russia is a military ally of Armenia, on the territory of which there is a Russian military base, on the other hand, Russia sells arms and military equipment to Azerbaijan. The Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is going on, this is not a “frozen conflict”. According to the latest reports, bloodshed continues in the conflict zone. Therefore, Russia found itself in a complicated situation. As you know, there are many people of Armenian origin among Russian citizens. For Russia, these Armenians don’t differ from other citizens. One can understand the reasons for Russian discontent over recent events.
Q: It is not known for what purpose Armenians, who have recently obtained Russian citizenship, are going to Azerbaijan. What do you think of it? It should not be forgotten that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved.
A: In my opinion, Armenians who want to visit Azerbaijan should themselves think about this. I think Azerbaijan’s special service bodies, in terms of professionalism, are not inferior to those of Russia. If Azerbaijan’s special services suspect Armenians arriving in the country with Russian passports, they will be able to prevent their possible provocations.
Q: Why did Moscow react to this issue in a strict manner?
A: Russia may have many reasons for such a reaction. I think there are moments that we do not know. This is a principled position. Russia’s Foreign Ministry defends its citizens’ rights regardless of their ethnic origin. I think this situation will become even more aggravated. If we comment on the issue from a political point of view, perhaps this tension arose before the beginning of a new round of negotiations on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We see that the situation in the region has once again worsened, there are reports of armed incidents and losses on the contact line of troops. It is clear that the reason for any tension sooner or later comes out. Perhaps, one of the parties is trying to gather motives ahead of a new round of negotiations. Perhaps, Armenia is trying to draw Russia’s attention precisely to this moment, the policy of discrimination by Azerbaijan towards Russian citizens of Armenian origin.
Q: You mentioned that Russia defends its citizens’ rights regardless of their ethnicity. Then why does not Russia defend the rights of its citizen Dilgam Asgarov? Russian citizen of Azerbaijani origin Dilgam Asgarov was sentenced to life in prison by Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh over three years ago. He is being subjected to torture in prison. Why is the Russian Foreign Ministry not interested in the fate of the Russian citizen?
A: I’m not a representative of Russia’s Foreign Ministry. If Dilgam Asgarov is a Russian citizen, of course, the Foreign Ministry should make a statement on his arrest. Here there is another important issue – multiple citizenship. I would like to touch upon what happened with blogger Alexander Lapshin, who has Russian, Ukrainian and Israeli citizenship. As far as I understand, Russia did not demand Lapshin’s extradition from Belarus, nor did Ukraine and Israel. Although the Russian Foreign Ministry claims that it demanded Lapshin’s extradition from Belarus, I don’t believe in it.
Two of my deputies, Sergey Buntman and Vladimir Varfolomeyev, are declared persona non grata by Azerbaijan for their visits to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. Naturally, I don’t agree with this decision. I also told it to your President, Mr. Ilham Aliyev. However, I understand this logic of Azerbaijan, because the country’s law prohibits visits to Nagorno-Karabakh without Baku’s permission. From the point of view of Azerbaijan’s law, Buntman and Varfolomeyev committed a crime. Although I don’t agree with this, I understand the logic of Baku’s policy. If Buntman was blacklisted by Azerbaijan because his grandfather was Armenian, then I would have taken a more decisive position.
I would like to note that Moscow’s latest statement did not draw the attention of the Russian society. I’m aware of it, because this statement was sounded twice in our radio, but it did not attract the attention of ordinary Russian citizens. This issue, in my opinion, is very dangerous, since it can become an occasion to poison the relations between Azerbaijan and Russia. I’m not going to hide the fact that there are many Armenian lobbyists in Russia and they will use this issue in favor of Armenia. These people support Armenia’s stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and this is not all citizens of Russia of Armenian origin.
Q: A number of foreign journalists blacklisted by Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry for their illegal visits to Nagorno-Karabakh appealed to the Azerbaijani side, asking to remove their names from the list of undesirable people. A positive response was given after their appeals being considered. Have you appealed to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry regarding your deputies?
A: Yes, I’ve already appealed to Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry. I was told that my deputies violated the law of Azerbaijan, therefore, their entry into the country is denied. I understand very well Azerbaijan’s position. There are differences between the issues related to my deputies and Russian citizens of Armenian origin. My deputies were informed in advance about the fact that the visit to Nagorno-Karabakh without the permission of Azerbaijan is prohibited. I want their names to be removed from the list of undesirable people of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry.
I’ve many Azerbaijani friends, for example, the Gusman brothers. They are the most influential lobbyists of Azerbaijan in Russia, and they always inform me of the realities about Azerbaijan. I’ve very good relations with Azerbaijani Ambassador to Russia Polad Bulbuloglu. I participate in your official receptions, despite the fact that my two deputies are blacklisted by Azerbaijan.
Q: Russia’s Foreign Ministry, in the last paragraph of its well-known statement, noted that it will draw conclusions from the current situation. In your opinion, what steps can Russia take in this regard?
A: Unfortunately, I don’t know what steps Russia’s Foreign Ministry can take in this regard. The Russian Foreign Ministry continues to pursue the policy based on the principle of “an eye for an eye”. I fully disagree with this policy. If you remember, President Vladimir Putin did not respond adequately to Washington’s decision to expel Russian diplomats. Putin was looking for other ways. It was a truly manly act, a truly state approach. It’s inadmissible to expel innocent people and diplomats from the country. If their espionage activities are proven, it’s another thing. Now imagine what will happen if Russia’s Foreign Ministry begins to deny the entry of Azerbaijani citizens into the country. In this case, my attitude to this issue will be sharply negative. I’m against retaliation. This road leads to a dead end. To my mind, the heads of state will eliminate this tension. Bilateral relations between the two countries allow me to speak so.
Q: How do you think the relations between Azerbaijan and Russia will continue to develop after all this?
A: There are two points of tensions in Russia-Azerbaijan relations. The first point is the Karabakh conflict, the settlement of which, I believe, for Russia and its president will become a matter of honor in the near future. Russia will have to solve this problem. The second point is the ongoing tensions in Russia’s relations with the US, Europe and Turkey. Russia’s relations with Azerbaijan play a key role in its ties with the West and Turkey. Russia-Azerbaijan ties can become hostage to Russia’s relations with the West and Turkey. This is not a simple issue. The relations between Russia and Azerbaijan should be cleared of ‘accidental mines’.
Q: Russia’s interests with the West in the South Caucasus region, especially in relation to Azerbaijan, are colliding. What would you say about this?
A: Today, one of the goals of Russia is to ensure stability along its borders. Russia strongly favors maintaining stability in the South Caucasus since the conflict [in Karabakh] will undoubtedly affect Russia. Russia is suffering the threat posed by terrorists in the Middle East. Therefore, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia is not needed. On the contrary, Moscow needs security in this region. The West is also against the war in the region since it has large energy projects there.
Q: Next year is going to be significant for both Russia and Azerbaijan. The presidential elections will be held in both countries. What are your predictions for the elections?
A: I don’t expect that something will change in Russia. In our country, everything is already known. I cannot say anything about Azerbaijan. I’m not following this issue. In the election year, of course, I’ll follow this process.
Q: You interviewed Azerbaijan’s president and what do you think of his attitude towards Russia-Azerbaijan relations?
A. To begin with, I had repeated contacts and interviews with President Ilham Aliyev's father, Heydar Aliyev. He was truly a great politician. I have a lot of memories of him.
I met Ilham Aliyev when he became president. Before the interview, I gathered information about this person. At that time, Russia's relations with Azerbaijan were not so good. Azerbaijani migrants were oppressed in Russia. So I asked the President of Azerbaijan for an interview. President Aliyev arrived at the meeting without any notes. He answered my questions directly, without referring to any records. This amazed me, and my attitude toward Ilham Aliyev changed. The person before me was not just Heydar Aliyev's son, but also a real politician. Ilham Aliyev is truly a great politician. Ilham Aliyev has an exceptional role in building Russian-Azerbaijani relations. As I have already noted, at that time relations were stranded between the two countries. Prior to his meeting with me, Ilham Aliyev had received the then-Minister of Internal Affairs of Russia, Rashid Nurgaliyev. I knew why Nurgaliyev was in Baku. I understood that Ilham Aliyev insisted and solved the problem.
I also met with the First Vice-President of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, a very wise person. She listened to us very attentively. I have great respect for her. I'm happy to watch how great persons are engaged in charity activities. In the post-Soviet republics, there are not a lot of such people. I also heard about Mehriban Aliyeva from Russian philanthropists. Nobody in the post-Soviet territory is engaged in such a charitable activity as Mehriban Aliyeva. Her work in the protection of cultural heritage and charity is greatly appreciated.
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