OPINION: ELSHAN MURADOV - "Before the conflict started we lived in a friendly way with the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh"



Karabakh: The big debate

Commonspace.eu today publishes the 18th in a series of twenty interviews with key personalities from Nagorno-Karabakh. The interviews give a vivid, even if sombre picture, of the attitude of Armenians and Azerbaijanis from Karabakh whose lives have been deeply affected by the conflict, and whose destiny will be at the heart of any future conflict settlement. Those interviewed sometimes use harsh language. Their opinion is almost inevitably controversial, as are sometimes their biographical notes. However it is through listening to these opinions that a path through the labyrinth that is the Karabakh conflict can be found. A full editorial policy of commonspace.eu is available at the About Us section. The Next interview will be with Saro Saryan, Head of the NGO "NKR Refugee Organisation".

Interview with Elshan Muradov


Elshan Muradov was born in 1963 in Shusha city, Azerbaijan. He graduated from high school Number 4 in Shusha and then continued his education at the vocational school there. After the Armenian aggression and ethnic cleansing policy with larger Russian support started to happen against Azerbaijanis in 1988, he joined the self-defense battalion in Shusha. Later on he took part in the battles as a soldier of the newly being formed national army for defense of Karabakh. After the invasion of Shusha by Armenia he became an IDP and settled in a dormitory in Baku. He is married and has four children.

Biographical notes are provided by the interviewees themselves.

Can you summarize your overall position on the Karabakh conflict and the conflict resolution process:

I would just like to give a very brief introduction to the conflict. Before the conflict started we lived in a friendly way with the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh, as I am from Shusha city I would like to say that we didn't have any serious problems with the Armenian community there until the conflict started. Maybe I make a mistake with the statistics, but as far as I know, 10-15% of the Shusha population with its villages were Armenians, and we had very friendly relations with them. Before the conflict started I didn't witness any local conflicts between the people based on ethnic questions, and the standard of living of the people was almost the same throughout Nagorno-Karabakh, except in the administrative center of Khankendi, where it was slightly higher than in the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh. In February 1988 the conflict started, with Armenian protests in the squares of Khankendi, where they demanded being united with Armenia. But since the Nagorno-Karabakh region historically belonged to Azerbaijan – my family goes back seven generations there for example – of course, as the real owners of that land, we reacted to these protest actions organized by Armenians. So that’s why there were reactions from the Azerbaijani community, and our counter protest movements were peaceful, not using violence. But the first armed incident, where two Azerbaijanis were killed, happened in April 1988 – three Shusha residents tried to go to Kerkijahan, and took a side route through the forest to avoid the main road, where they were stopped by five Armenians who shot them dead with hunting rifles. The youngest one amongst them managed to run away and return to Shusha alive, but the other two were killed. Their bodies were also mutilated by putting out cigarette butts on their eyes and faces, and this brutal vandalism increased the emotions on the Azerbaijani side. This was the first incident of violence I remember. After that the people realized that this is not just a simple issue, but that the whole process was leading to a real conflict and real war. This is how the conflict started.    

I remember also the arguments and quarrels I had with the Russian-Soviet Officers in Khankendi. When the conflict started the Russian army installed three tanks on the high ground in Khankendi, and pointed their cannons towards Kerkijahan – a very small Azerbaijani village with just 800 inhabitants. So I asked the Russian Officer, why they were targeting Kerkijahan, which was a small village, and not Khankendi, which was a large city of 65,000 people. I asked him if he thought the small number of people in Kerkijahan would attack the large number of Armenians living in Khankendi. He said 'I am a military person, I obey my orders. If I'm told to change the direction of my cannons to Khankendi, this is very easy for me to do'. We continued to argue. Then the Officer said that to his knowledge his superiors – the military leadership in the Soviet Union – wanted to have a conflict in the region, and that’s why they had to help the Armenians and keep their protests going. I asked him why we need this conflict, and he said that 'Turkey is to the West of Armenia, and Azerbaijan to the East, so if you wanted to clean the region of Armenians you could do that – so we are here to help Armenia and keep a balance between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey by keeping the conflict going'.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh was carried out without any military rules of war, as it was fought between small villages located very close to each other. Since the Soviet Union still existed when the conflict started, the Red Cross could not be involved from the beginning – so that’s why it was a total mess, as there was no aid agencies to get involved and help the people and rescue their lives. The whole process eventually led to the invasion of Shusha, which happened on 8th May 1992, and I became an IDP. Now the Azerbaijani government is in negotiations with the Armenian government for a peaceful resolution of the problems, so as a state we are doing our best to resolve the issue in a peaceful way. The international community is also interested in a peaceful resolution, so we are relying on our government and the international bodies working for peace to bring a peaceful end to the conflict . But unfortunately Armenia is continuing to keep the Azerbaijani territory under occupation by ignoring the international law, UN resolutions and all other international legal documents that urge Armenia to withdraw its troops from the region.

In the long term do you want to see Nagorno-Karabakh as (a) an independent state, (b) as part of Armenia, (c) as part of Azerbaijan, (d) none of the above but in an as of yet undefined status. Comment on your choice:

(c). I am not a politician. But as a citizen I can say that we cannot talk about compromising any part of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The only status Nagorno-Karabakh could have would be within the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Since I am not a politician I don't know what other status models have been used in the world, but I can say that we would give Armenians the highest status within the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, and the Azerbaijani government is all the time looking to afford them this. 

What is your biggest objection/concern to Nagorno-Karabakh being independent or part of Armenia or under some as of yet undetermined status that is not part of Azerbaijan:

Nagorno-Karabakh used to be a part of Azerbaijan before the conflict started, and has been historically part of our lands for at least the last 900 years, and is therefore an integral part of the Azerbaijani Republic. In 1918 when the Soviet Union was established and Soviet power began to be established in the region, several important parts of Azerbaijan – Irevan (today’s Erevan), Zangazur, Goycha, Basarkechar, Vedi – were given to Armenia, but this did not result in conflict because of the Soviet regime, and people didn't have enough power to challenge the orders coming from the top. People woke up in the morning and saw that their addresses had been changed, that this was already written in their official documents – that this area is now Armenian etc. Irevan became the capital city of Armenia thanks to Azerbaijan’s great compromise to them despite the fact that only 25-30% of the city’s population were Armenians. It was Russia’s state policy to cardinally change the demographic balance in the region by evicting Azerbaijanis from their homeland and settling new Armenian families brought from different parts of the world. So we could not resist such decisions. After these areas were given to Armenia, the Armenian government used a repression policy against Azerbaijanis, and now until today not a single Azerbaijani is living in Armenia. So there was an ethnic cleansing policy carried out by the Armenian government. So if we make a compromise to the Armenian government and Nagorno-Karabakh becomes a part of Armenia, who can guarantee that the Azeri people – the community living in Nagorno-Karabakh – will be able to live there in a peaceful manner with the Armenians jointly? Probably again they will face the ethnic cleansing and be evicted from the territory, as our grandfathers were deported from 'Armenia', after their lands were given to Armenia by the Soviets.  

Were you directly involved in the armed hostilities between 1989-94? If yes in what capacity?

Before the conflict started the Soviets used a very tricky method to confiscate our weapons – these were not military weapons but hunting rifles – by officially telling the people that they wanted to check that they were actually functioning as hunting rifles, and that after verifying their validity they would return them. But they didn't return them, so we couldn't defend ourselves as the conflict was becoming worse. So we had to do our best to organize self-defense groups in Nagorno-Karabakh, and as a resident of Shusha I was taking an active part in this process. So I was active in my self-defense group which continued until the signing of the ceasefire in May 1994. At that time the Azerbaijani army was also starting to form, and I was involved with them as an officer, but once the cease-fire was achieved I left the army. 

How do you evaluate the work of the OSCE Minsk Process?

When the OSCE Minsk Group was established we had great hope for the mission, we thought that the Group will be able to reach a peace agreement between the parties. But 20 years have already passed and we don't see any positive fruits out of the process. So I would like to say that it is very hard and difficult to live in our current conditions with problems all around us. My four children and my wife are partially-blind, and I can't afford to buy the things that they need for their care because I cannot make proper money and everything is expensive. All over the world now people have access to computers and the Internet, but I can't even buy one simple computer for my children to use. Its really hard to live under such circumstances, and it makes me very disappointed with the process. All these factors make us lose hope with the international community, and in our case the OSCE Minsk Group in particular. 

Do you have a publicly expressed position on the Madrid Principles?

It doesn't matter according to which principles the negotiation process is going on, or held by the parties, they can be the Madrid Principles or other principles. The only thing that we would like as ordinary citizens and residents of Shusha and Nagorno-Karabakh is to see Nagorno-Karabakh returned as an integral part of Azerbaijan, and to return to our homeland - I want to live there and I want to die there. So it doesn't matter for me what kind of documents will normalize the situation or be a basis for peace talks, but of course I would like first of all to find a resolution to the conflict by peaceful means. But if there is no peaceful way out and the peace negotiations are not giving real positive results, I am always ready to again take up arms and go to Nagorno-Karabakh as I did many years ago to defend my people. So I would go there voluntarily to liberate our lands, but we must do our best to reach a peace agreement.

Do you think that it is important/appropriate that the de facto authorities of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic be part of the peace process facilitated by the Minsk Group? If yes should they be there instead of the Armenian Government?

I welcome the participation of any groups or parties in the peace negotiation process who are in favor of seeing positive results in the conflict resolution process, it doesn't matter if they are from Zimbabwe or Mozambique or other parts of the world, if they would really positively contribute to the resolution process they are welcome. So in this sense I am not against the participation of the de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh (as you put it) at the same level with the Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh. As I already mentioned I think that Nagorno-Karabakh should remain within the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan but with the highest status of self-management. So within this framework I agree with anyone's participation in the peace making process. But frankly speaking everyone can see and observe that the conflict is very protracted, so its time to make real efforts to take steps forward in the conflict resolution. So everyone's suggestions and proposals with regards to the resolution of the conflict are welcome, as they may come up with new ideas on how to solve the problem. So I am not completely against the idea of their participation as long as it contributes to finding a real and sustainable peace, within the framework that I mentioned. My goal actually is just to be able to go back to my homeland and restore my life there – so that I can give something to my children and pass away.
Sometimes the possibility is mentioned that the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian control since 1994 should be returned to Azerbaijan as part of an interim peace agreement, leaving the issues of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh to a later date. Do you have an opinion on this issue?

If that step would be a dove of peace of course I would support it, but I don't wish to wait another 20 years for the status of Nagorno-Karabakh to be defined. I think that step - the return of the seven regions - would be a stimulus to the people and help build trust between them and overcome stereotypes and increase mutual understanding. I think that step would bring the two peoples closer together, so in that sense I think the return of the surrounding regions to Azerbaijan without precondition would be a good sign and a positive stimulus to reach a sustainable peace and resolve the conflict.

What is your opinion with regards to the role of Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States, the European Union or any other country or international organisation, or the international community in general, with regards to the Karabakh conflict and its settlement:

Russia is very interested to stay in the region in order to keep it under its control, and since we have been a part of the Soviet Union, Russia knows about the value of our country – what natural resources we have, the geo-political strategic importance we have – they know everything very well. Russia is not interested in bringing peace to the region, they are interested in the protraction of the conflict by actively and openly supporting Armenian aggression for as long as they are able to do that. Economically and strategically the region is very important to Russia, but since they don't have a goodwill or fair intentions in the region I am against their participation in the process. I completely support the removal of Russia from this process. Iran is a neighbor country so you may think they could play a positive role in the process, but according to my observations, I see that Iran has played a negative role at the state level in the process. Of course we got some support from the ordinary people living in Iran when the conflict destroyed everything in the region - we got some financial and moral support from Iranian social groups - but it didn't mean that Iran had a positive state policy with regard to the conflict resolution process and they didn't help Azerbaijan on the state level. As for France, the Armenian lobby and diaspora is very strong there (and in the US also), and I cannot understand how they are able to impact the political decision makers there. We see their negative impact in our negotiations with Armenia, and this is a very disappointing fact. I think that is why France's role in the peace making process is not that positive. The Armenian diaspora is not as influential in the US as it is in France, but of course they can affect the decisions made at the US Congress or other political levels in the state.

How do you evaluate the role of informal, NGO-level contributions to the peace process? Do you believe that informal contacts have a useful role to play prior to or after a formal agreement?

I was a very aggressive person when we were forcibly deported from Nagorno-Karabakh and became IDPs, all the time I was thinking of how to take revenge and get back our lost territories, and all the time I was remembering how we lost our very close relatives. But thanks to those involved in the NGO sector and their works, my hatred and feelings for taking revenge have significantly decreased. Now I can think about how to coexist and find some peaceful way to get the conflict resolved. This highlights the important role of the NGO sector in the resolution process. I deeply believe that after the final peace agreement is achieved, there will be a great need and increasing importance for the role of NGOs in the peacemaking process. 

Do you have a position on the desirability or not of free movement of Armenians and Azeris between their two countries before a final peace agreement?

At this stage I think that it’s not possible.

Do you think that Armenians and Azerbaijanis will ever be able to live together peacefully in Karabakh again in the future?

I deeply believe that there cannot be hatred and anonymity forever, this is the historical fact which we witness and observe in all conflicts in the world. If you look at the background to the conflict, in 1905 and 1908 there was conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh planned and provoked by tsarist Russia with the help of dashnak Armenians – I know many people whose grandfathers were killed by Armenians during these conflicts, not only in Nagorno-Karabakh, but also in Baku, Shamakhi, Guba, Salyan, Zangazur, Irevan and not only Azerbaijanis, but also jews, kurds, Georgians etc. – but 10-15 years later the sons of those grandfathers were married to Armenian girls, and started to peacefully coexist. Again we will witness this and other forms of cultural exchange. These historical facts give us grounds to say that it is very possible of course to again coexist in Nagorno-Karabakh and reach the peace together and live together.

What is your opinion on the issue of return of refugees/IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh?

Everyone knows that this is the most important issue after a final peace agreement is reached. The first step must be clearing the lands of the mines, and secondly the restoration of the cities and villages. For example Aghdam doesn't exist at all anymore and Shusha was half destroyed. In all the occupied villages and settlements, if the Armenians didn't destroy a building they deconstructed it and sold the materials in Iranian bazaars or took them back to Armenia. Our return won't be a short process, it will take a very long time. To ensure the restoration of Nagorno-Karabakh again after the peace agreement is achieved, it is good that we have received many statements from the international community pledging financial aid and logistic support to facilitate the restoration of the destroyed buildings, the infrastructure etc. So this is very good, and I think it would be the next step along the way for the IDPs to return to their homelands. But of course we must also guarantee the security and safety of the Armenian community living in Nagorno-Karabakh, and therefore peacekeeping forces will have to be deployed in the region to ensure peace and the security of all the residents together. But I would stress that we don't want to see Russia as part of the peacekeeping mission in the region, we don't wish to see Russian soldiers again in the region. I think these issues are the most important for the return of IDPs to their homeland and to facilitate this process.


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Read previous interviews in this series:

Artur Tovmasyan

Bayram Safarov

Masis Mayilian

Rovshan Rzayev

Vahram Atanesyan

Havva Mammadova

Gegham Baghdasaryan

Kerim Kerimli

Sergey Ghazaryan

Arif Aliyev

Hrant Melkumyan

Sevda Ibrahimova

Armen Sargsyan

Anar Usubov

Hayk Khanumyan

Vagif Jahangirov

Garik Grigoryan

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