The rising death toll at the Armenia-Azerbaijan front line is a tragic result of the violation of the ceasefire, which is causing serious concerns for the international community, as both conflicting countries are close neighbours and members of the Eastern Partnership initiative (EaP). EU-Azerbaijan relations have survived on an intense relationship, which has been upgraded as strategic due to the energy exports from the Caspian region, with a view to the creation of the Southern corridor - a crucial direction for EU energy security policy, based on the diversification of providers and routes.
Meanwhile, the EU institutions have consistently criticized human-rights issues in Azerbaijan, with the the two-track approach provoking tensions. The head of the mission of Azerbaijan to the EU, Fuad Isgandarov, shared his thoughts on the current state of affairs.
EU Reporter: Lately, an exchange of rather tough statements took place between the EU and Azerbaijan. It came as a surprise to many, especially after a recent visit of Commission President José Manuel Barroso to Baku. It seems that the DNA of the relationship has changed, hasn't it?
HE Fuad Isgandarov: Azerbaijan has been a reliable partner in all its engagements - our relationship with the EU is no exception; we have been a committed participant in all chosen endeavours. However, there has always been this duality in our ongoing dialogue with the EU, with a certain penchant from their side for a relentless search for negative, sometimes grounded, sometimes false aspects, and we always kept a philosophical approach towards this peculiar EU attitude. The violation by Armenia of the ceasefire regime and tragic loss of life does not leave us any space for meditation - we expect to feel the shoulder of our friends but not a kick in the teeth - a wrong moment and a wrong case.
What are your expectations from the EU?
We expect the EU to live up to their own declarations: back in October 2013, the European Parliament aligned EU policies with the UN resolutions on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moreover, they stated that within the EaP the occupation of a territory of one country by another is inadmissible. I presume the EU executive body of the EU should follow the political guidelines of the elected representatives of 500 million Europeans. We are missing a common approach from the EU side vis-à-vis the settlement of the protracted conflicts and aggressions in its Eastern Neighbourhood.
But what steps can the EU undertake concerning the protracted conflicts? Does it have real power in this field?
The Armenian obstruction to fulfilment of the UN resolutions and the latest provocations call for application of sanctions by the international community. The EU has a solid role to play in the application of restrictive measures in the cases of breaches of international norms, especially concerning territorial integrity. The application of the restrictive measures mechanism should become a universal tool to cool off the aggressors.
Didn't the EU support your struggle for territorial integrity?
The Spokespersons of the EEAS and the European Commissioner for Enlargement and ENP have released nine pessimistic statements since July 2013; all of them are very critical and non-objective, dedicated to domestic issues. And there has been no single document supporting the independence and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
But meanwhile the Commission has proceeded with the opening of the Southern corridor...
These are positive and mutually beneficial developments; four significant agreements were signed during the last year, next to the energy projects for approximately 45 billion euro. But they have never been assessed as achievements on the level of spokespersons. During his visit to Baku, President Barroso underlined that he is looking forward to maintaining this fruitful and meaningful dialogue and assisting the country in its strategic objectives - similar positive statements were never heard from the spokespersons in Brussels, a geographic and bureaucratic paradox, inexplicable but true.
Is it that the rhetoric changes dependent on the latitude?
You can investigate the phenomenon yourself; it is well known that none of the EU leaders ever criticized us in our domestic policies during high-level meetings, but at the level of spokespersons the lexicon changes, another phenomenon to observe. Another example? While Azerbaijan is appreciated behind closed doors, and asked for support in integration of the other EaP countries to Europe, it is treated differently.
What about the arrest of Dr. Leyla Yunusova, an internationally acknowledged human-rights activist?
We are self-critical and preoccupied with the development of the civil society. If this is not an ambition for compliance with the highest democratic standard, why join the Council of Europe? Azerbaijan is conscious about the beneficial effects of criticism on the development of the society and statehood. But the case of Yunusova and the reaction of the EU have nothing to do with this trend. The notoriety of Ms. Yunusova, who is charged with high treason, does not shield her from facing justice. Alarmingly, we are witnessing increasing attempts to use issues of 'civil society' as a tool to undermine the territorial integrity and sovereignty of young states; other EaP countries are involved, not only Azerbaijan.
What do you expect from the European Commission?
Nothing out of ordinary, just to stick to their own guns and respect the independence of the judiciary in Azerbaijan - the idea of influencing a legal system in a non-EU member state is bizarre. I'm not sure the EU member states would appreciate such a bureaucratic zeal concerning their own judiciary.
Will the persistence of the Commission to follow their cause damage current projects? The Southern corridor?
We always appreciated all the efforts in the fields of human-rights protection, but preferably not à la carte, in their integrity: there are still more than one million of our citizens who have been expelled from the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories, waiting for their rights to be respected. Concerning the Southern corridor, as I said right from the start, we are pragmatic and reliable business partners, and we understand that Europe is interested in our natural resources. But we consider it pointless to limit our co-operation to this pragmatic dimension, hindered by a self-professed debate on human-rights violation in Azerbaijan, conducted by the European Commission, which is not mandated by the international community for such an activity. I expected to build a wide political interaction based on this huge economic project, but some of our partners focus on negativity, and if they wish to restrict our co-operation it is their choice, not ours.
What is your perception of political interaction?
I believe that in spite of current turbulence our relationship has great potential. In a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous and explosive, in facing the new challenges we stand for genuine strategic partnership with the European Union. It is not only our wish, but a pragmatic need on behalf of the EU, taking into consideration Azerbaijan's historical and strategic disposition in the region. I am sure there is enough wisdom to reach a strategic partnership, but not to lose each other as partners. We hope to create authentic ties between our people based on equality, respect and trust. The pessimism in assessments undermines this endeavour, in which enthusiasm and encouragement are paramount. Azerbaijan, of free will, decided to appreciate the best of European experiences, but we never subscribed for a tutorial. I hope you understand the difference.