By Emil Danielyan
Azerbaijan’s tough-talking President Ilham Aliev has said that Nagorno-Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population must agree to return under Azerbaijani rule or emigrate from its homeland.
“We will never allow the creation of a second Armenian state on Azerbaijani soil,” Aliev said in his New Year’s address to the nation cited by Azerbaijani media. “If the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh want to self-determine, they should do that within the framework of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. If they don’t want that, they should leave Nagorno-Karabakh and create their second state elsewhere.”
The remarks came just two weeks before international mediators’ crucial visit to Baku and Yerevan which should finally clarify whether the Karabakh conflict can be resolved before presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008. The French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group still hope to hammer out a framework peace accord before the Armenian election slated for February 19. Sources close to them say the conflicting parties essentially agree on the main points of the Minsk Group’s current peace plan.
The plan calls for a gradual settlement of the bitter dispute which would start from the liberation of Armenian-occupied lands in Azerbaijan proper and end in a referendum of self-determination in Karabakh. Although it sets no time frame for the holding of such a referendum, the mediators seem to accept the very possibility of eventual international recognition of the disputed territory’s secession from Soviet Azerbaijan.
However, Aliev again insisted that his country will never come to terms with the loss of Karabakh. “Nagorno-Karabakh will never be granted independence,” he said. “The leadership and the people of Azerbaijan will never agree to that.”
Aliev also pledged to carry on with a military build-up which Baku hopes will eventually enable it to win back Karabakh. He said Azerbaijan’s defense spending will rise by at least 20 percent to $1.2 billion this year as a result. “We are reinforcing our army because we must be ready to free our lands of occupiers at any moment and by any means,” he added.
Armenia’s defense budget, although more modest in absolute terms, is likewise set to increase by over 30 percent to $400 million in 2008. In the intensifying arms race with Azerbaijan, Armenia can also capitalize on its close military ties with Russia which allow it to receive Russian weapons at knockdown prices or even free of charge.
In a televised speech on December 31, President Robert Kocharian said his government further boosted the combat-readiness of Armenia’s Armed Forces in the course of 2007. “The strengthening of the army will remain a top priority,” he said.
Kocharian said that Yerevan will also “step up efforts to bolster the Nagorno-Karabakh by helping our brethren to build viable statehood. A statehood which is able to defend itself.”