Report presents an interview with Udo Steinbach, professor at the University of Marburg, Germany.
– After a 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the end of last year, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict finally found its solution after 30 years. Did you follow the war chronicle? How do you assess the fact that the UN resolutions were resolved not through negotiations for 30 years but by military action?
-I’m afraid that the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia may not be entirely over yet. The ceasefire statement made in November last year leaves an ambiguous political and diplomatic situation. The Azerbaijani side hasn’t yet managed to regain full political control over all of Karabakh. Therefore, one can look to the future with some skepticism.
The past 30 years’ experience has shown that both sides seem unable to reach a settlement through diplomacy. On the other hand, the international community has shown that it has its agenda (if any). The EU didn’t feel the need to act as a mediator; it is evident that it considers the conflict to be marginal from the Union’s interests. The US is focusing on Georgia to persuade the country to take an anti-Russian position. Russia can be satisfied that it has returned as a decisive player in the South Caucasus. Nonetheless, Moscow is confused by the democratic agenda of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who’s coming to power was prompted by pressure from people Kremlin dislikes.
So, these factors point to a further impasse, and President Ilham Aliyev may at some point feel pressure to once again resort to military steps to regain full sovereignty in resolving the Karabakh problem finally.
– What prospects do you see for cooperation between European, including German, companies in the territories where Azerbaijan has restored its sovereignty?
– I don’t see great chances for European (including German) companies associated with reconstruction in the liberated territories. First, it will prove to be a costly affair for Azerbaijan’s government: the return of refugees from this area to their former homes, which they left 30 years ago, and the restoration of infrastructure to return to everyday life. If there is any tangible gain in this regard, Russian companies will demand compensation for Russian assistance in keeping the peace between the two sides. The same can be said for Turkey, whose construction firms operated very efficiently in the regions adjacent to Turkey and Central Asia.
– For about a year now, the world has been in a state of the coronavirus pandemic. How do you assess the policy of the EU countries and Azerbaijan to prevent a pandemic? How do you see the way out of the crisis created by the pandemic?
– Certainly, the pandemic has complicated many aspects of private and public life. This applies to the EU countries and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, and Russia, and Turkey. In this respect, the EU is in a situation close to chaos, as each member state strives to take care of its citizens. The longer a crisis lasts, the more likely it is that the world will be different from what we have all experienced in the past. As for the situation in the South Caucasus and relations between the EU and Azerbaijan, it is difficult to predict the political impact on both sides and their relations.
– You are a scientist studying Islam, one of the leading German experts on the Middle East. How do you think how Islam in Azerbaijan differs from Islam in other Muslim countries?
-Of course, Islam in Azerbaijan differs from many other Muslim countries, especially in neighboring Iran, with which the majority of Azerbaijanis share belonging to the Shiite branch of Islam. After Russia annexed the South Caucasus (including parts of historical Azerbaijan), the Azerbaijani elite took part in the process of modernizing the Tsarist empire, which meant, among other things, secularization. Fatali Akhundov (Fath-Ali Akhundzadeh) is just one of the prominent names among the broad intellectual elite. Since 1900, the Azerbaijani people (within the Russian Empire) have been among the most modern parts of the Muslim world. This was reflected in the cultural life and the constitution of the first Azerbaijan Republic since 1918. At the same time, relations between Russian and Iranian Azerbaijani elites (and peoples) were strong; and Azerbaijanis from Tiflis and Baku have strongly supported Iran’s constitutional revolution since 1906 in many ways. Later, after the Soviet occupation from 1920, secularization was even imposed by force, and Azerbaijani society became highly Sovietized.
All these facts were mentioned to explain why Azerbaijan differs from other Muslim societies in terms of religion. Secularism and tolerance towards other religions are striking features of the country’s appearance. However, religious tolerance and secularism cannot guarantee that religion will forever remain outside the political and social room. Under the Pahlavi Shahs, Iran, like Azerbaijan, belonged to the Shiite branch of Islam, was also strictly secular. However, all of a sudden, religion in Iran was used to change the system.
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