Azeris Panic Long Before a Single Iraqi Armenian Sets Foot in Karabagh

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By Harut Sassounian
California Courier Publisher

Up until a couple of weeks ago when I reported in this column that a small group in Armenia had suggested that Armenian refugees from Iraq be settled in Karabagh, the government of Azerbaijan was contentedly awaiting the outcome of the U.S. war on Iraq, hoping to get political "goodies" from the Americans in return for its expression of support.

All those rosy expectations quickly soured, however, the minute the Azeris heard that Iraqi Armenians might be coming to Karabagh. From that moment on, the Azeris went into total panic, even though not a single Armenian had left Iraq since the outbreak of hostilities, and there were no plans to move any of them to Karabagh.

Without a shred of evidence, the chairman of the so-called Karabagh Liberation Organization, Akif Nagi, confidently told an Azeri news agency: "Iraqi Armenians are being settled in Karabagh in violation of international legal norms." He claimed that Armenia was trying to change the demographics of Karabagh by increasing its Armenian population. Nagi appealed to international organizations to respond to "this infringement" by halting the re-population of Karabagh. He threatened to organize demonstrations in front of foreign embassies in Baku.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry responded to Nagi's allegations by calling them "groundless." The ministry's spokeswoman said that no Armenians had arrived from Iraq since the beginning of the war. She qualified the "news" of their resettlement in Karabagh as "not serious."

But the Azeris kept up this tempest in a teapot. Isa Qambar, the leader of the Musavat Party and the chairman of the Democratic Congress, said during a press conference that the resettlement of Iraqi Armenian refugees in Karabagh "is unacceptable and should be seen as another hostile step by Armenia against Azerbaijan."

Taking this make believe story to a new dimension, the Azeris alarmed themselves even more by claiming that Kurdish terrorists from Iraq were moving to Karabagh. Journalist Rahib Kazimli of the Yeni Musavat newspaper quoted an Azeri "military expert" by the name of Xaqni Huseynli as saying that "it is possible that terrorists, especially the PKK, will flee" to Karabagh.

Not to be outdone by journalists and military experts, the Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan, Vilayat Guliev, said last week: "Baku resolutely protests against the settlement in Nagorno Karabagh of Iraqi Armenians who are fleeing from the war. This is inadmissible. If ethnic Armenians wish to re-settle in Karabagh, they should know that one day they would have to leave Karabagh too." He said that he had appealed to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in this regard. This issue will be discussed with the co-chairmen of the OSCE's Minsk Group during their visit to Baku later this month, Guliev said.

Apparently, the Azeris made so much noise that, according to the Azeri Lider TV station, Walter Schwimmer, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, was sucked into this non-existent problem. During a press conference, he allegedly expressed "his discontent with the resettlement of Iraqi Armenians in Karabagh." He supposedly added, "this could have a negative impact on the settlement of the Karabagh conflict."

The Azeri media claimed that the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers disseminated a document last week calling on Armenia to prevent the movement of foreigners to "occupied lands." Baku Today reported that "special

programs are realized to attract Armenians from other regions in order to increase the number of the Armenian population in Karabagh. For the past few months, information is spread that Armenia intends to place Armenian refugees from Iraq in Karabagh."

Even more amazing was the reaction of Ghalib abd Hussein al Tamimi, the Ambassador of Iraq to Azerbaijan, who surely must have more important things to worry about than Karabagh! He said that the government of Iraq would take all appropriate measures to prevent Iraqi citizens from maintaining contacts with non-recognized bodies, meaning Karabagh. He said that since Iraq does not recognize Karabagh as a state, the citizens of Iraq could not have any contacts with that unrecognized territory.

Finally, Karabagh officials got into the act. Serzh Amirkhanian, Karabagh's chief of the department of migration and refugees, said that although no requests had been received from Iraqi Armenians, should such requests be made, the government of Karabagh would accept all refugees from Iraq irrespective of their ethnic or religious background.

Finally, Ashot Gulyan, the Foreign Minister of Karabagh, issued a statement declaring that "Azerbaijan has no right to tell Karabagh how to act in this or that situation." Gulyan said that since Karabagh had accepted the Geneva Convention, it "would be prepared to admit on humanitarian grounds all Iraqi refugees, should they appeal to the government of Karabagh."

The statements of Karabagh officials probably startled the Azeris even more, triggering a new round of panicky reactions. If the Azeris are so concerned before a single Iraqi Armenian sets foot in Karabagh, imagine how much more alarmed would they be when the first few Armenian families from Iraq begin arriving in Karabagh.

Given the amount of time and effort the Azeris wasted in reacting to this non-existent story, it may be worthwhile for Karabagh officials to consider inviting a few Armenians from Iraq to settle in their territory just to keep the Azeris pre-occupied with this issue for a few more months!