Azerbaijan says border issues shouldn’t get in way of peace deal with Armenia

By Alexander Marrow

LONDON (Reuters) – Azerbaijan sees no major obstacles to securing a lasting peace treaty with its neighbour Armenia and believes the question of defining their borders can be resolved separately, a senior Azerbaijani official said on Tuesday.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s forces mounted a lightning offensive in September to retake control of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, whose ethnic Armenian population had broken away in a war in the 1990s. Aliyev said his “iron fist” had restored his country’s sovereignty.

“The 35-year-long conflict is now over,” Hikmet Hajiyev, a top foreign policy adviser to Aliyev, told reporters in London. “The strategy for Azerbaijan now is to win peace. (This) requires action from both sides.

“A peace treaty is not rocket science,” Hajiyev said. “For Azerbaijan there are no longer obstacles on the way to a peace agenda.”

The South Caucasus neighbours have fought two wars in the past 30 years over Nagorno-Karabakh, but staged a prisoner exchange this month and issued a joint statement saying they want to normalise relations and reach a peace deal.

The United States, the European Union and Russia have all tried for decades to mediate between the two sides, but Hajiyev stressed the importance of direct bilateral talks which he said would continue next year.

Since its recapture of Karabakh, Azerbaijan has been increasingly hostile to outside involvement in brokering an agreement. Aliyev has accused the United States of jeopardising relations by siding with Armenia, and Hajiyev called the U.S.-led approach to talks lopsided.

Among the outstanding issues between the two neighbours is the lack of agreement over their shared border, with each holding small enclaves surrounded by the other’s territory.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said last month that this was a matter for negotiations. Hajiyev said Baku was willing to discuss it but “the border delimitation issue should be kept separate from peace treaty discussions”.

Most of Karabakh’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians fled to Armenia after Azerbaijan took back control of the territory. Armenia described that as ethnic cleansing; Baku denied that and said they could have stayed on and been integrated into Azerbaijan.

The World Court last month ordered Azerbaijan to let ethnic Armenians return and ensure their safety. Hajiyev said people’s right to return should be determined on a case-by-case basis, and they would need to become citizens of Azerbaijan.

“Once Azerbaijani citizenship has been granted, the right of return can be ensured,” he said. “We cannot afford a legal limbo status any more.”

There should be reciprocal rights, he said, for Azerbaijanis who were forced to flee Armenia or Armenian-controlled territory since 1988.

(Reporting by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)