Can President Aliyev be trusted on Nagorno-Karabakh?

In this photo provided by the Azerbaijan's Presidential Press Office on Oct 20, 2020, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev gestures as he addresses the nation in Baku, Azerbaijan [Azerbaijani Presidential Press Office via AP]

On November 10, a peace deal was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan to end the fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Although there were accusations on both sides of ethnic cleansing, such mass violence did not take place. The exodus of Armenians which some envisioned also did not happen.

After the deal was signed, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, for his part, called for peaceful coexistence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. But given his questionable democratic credentials, many have doubted his intentions.

I can understand this. In 2009, I was imprisoned for more than two years for what I believed was merely helping a friend put together a satirical film, which the authorities deemed an act of “hooliganism”.

Clearly, this is an administration with which I have had profound disagreements. Yet on the question of Nagorno-Karabakh and the reassertion of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over its territory, I find myself for once in total agreement with it, as do Azerbaijani opposition parties, civil society and indeed the population at large.

Nobody in Azerbaijan craves a deluge of reprisals against the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, neither do I believe we shall see one. How governments deal with political dissidents is different than how they treat minorities. The violation of civil rights in a country is not the same as the systematic persecution of a group on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

Modern-day Azerbaijan demonstrates this. Democratic hurdles aside, the nation is multicultural. All – whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian – are equal in rights and dignity, including the 30,000 Armenians who call Azerbaijani regions outside Nagorno-Karabakh home. This is not a matter of democracy, but of peaceful coexistence. The latter is by no means contingent on the former. In fact, recent history has provided us with many examples where democracies have failed to prevent racist violence and ethnic cleansing.

President Aliyev’s intention in pursuing the military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh appears to overlap with the Azerbaijani people’s desire for reaching a solution for this decades-old conflict and upholding the right of return of the 700,000 displaced Azerbaijani refugees back to their homes. There is no reason why this must come at the expense of the Armenians who have lived in Nagorno-Karabakh for generations.

If the military operation had been driven by more nefarious impulses, the November 10 deal would not have held. The Azerbaijan military appeared to be winning and it could have reclaimed more of Azerbaijan’s territory occupied by Armenian forces. Instead, Baku agreed to peace.

This agreement differed markedly from the three previous ceasefires as it provided for the deployment of foreign peacekeepers in the conflict zones, as well as the vital corridor that connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

To agree to peacekeepers from Russia – Armenia’s principal backer in the conflict – was a substantial compromise for Azerbaijan. Given many quarters in Azerbaijani society were pushing for liberation of all territories held by Armenian forces, it is not a decision that had been taken lightly. It very much signals the desire of the political leadership for peaceful coexistence moving forward.

The presence of the Russian peacekeepers over the next five years will reassure the ethnic Armenian population, giving the Azerbaijani government time to earn their trust, build confidence and ensure security in the region.

Civil society should also be reaching out across the ethnic divide to provide reassurance. Trust is difficult to build not only at the government level, but also at the societal level. For far too long Armenians and Azerbaijanis have seen each other as the enemy. We now must begin the complex process of demystifying the other, of seeing each other as humans, speaking in the language of dialogue and compromise.

A platform should be established through which the Armenian and Azerbaijani civil societies can connect. Organisations from the European Union and the United States could facilitate this rapprochement. Whatever form this outreach takes, it must be part of a truth and reconciliation process that must also take place. Without it, mutual mistrust will be allowed to fester.

In parallel, a large-scale effort to rebuild Nagorno-Karabakh has to get under way. Despite the deficit in some freedoms, the Azerbaijani government does have a good track record in development, social welfare programmes and large-scale infrastructure. It has significantly improved the standard of living of ordinary Azerbaijanis since the 1990s.

For 30 years, Nagorno-Karabakh has been held back by conflict and international isolation. It is time for the benefits of the Azerbaijani state largesse to extend to its population as well. An ambitious economic development plan that provides opportunity for all in Nagorno-Karabakh will go a long way in facilitating reconciliation.

Peaceful coexistence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis has always been possible. We only need to look at the time before the 1990s war for proof. It is clear that President Aliyev is trusted by his own people to deliver his promise of liberation and peaceful coexistence. Should the rest of the world trust him, too? His actions should speak for themselves.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.