In a move suggestive of a game of dare with Azerbaijan, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan on March 31 declared that he will be the first passenger to board a planned flight from Yerevan to Stepanakert, capital of breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan, which is seeking to recover its lost territory, has threatened to shoot at any plane flying into Stepanakert. The town’s airport has been closed since 1991, just before the hot phase of the Karabakh conflict commenced between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces.
The inaugural flight, to be operated by a newly formed airline, Air Artsakh (the Armenian name for Karabakh), is scheduled to take off May 9. That is a date loaded with significance – still celebrated as Victory Day, commemorating the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany. It also marks the 19th anniversary of Armenian and Karabakhi forces’ entrance into the strategic Karabakhi town of Shushi. In addition, Azerbaijan on May 10 celebrates the birthday of its revered former president Heidar Aliyev, the father of the incumbent leader in Baku.
At a joint news conference with Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey, Sargsyan termed Baku’s shoot-down threats as “nonsense” and “the statements of sick people.” Residents of Karabakh have a “right” to have access to air transportation and the question is not “a matter for haggling,” continued Sargsyan, a native of Karabakh who formerly headed the breakaway territory’s military forces.
“As to Baku’s statement, recent history has seen many such threats, yet there is one ‘but’ -- such threats have been made by terrorist organizations, and not by states,” he asserted.
Baku has not issued an official response to Sargsyan’s flight plans, but the deputy director of Azerbaijan’s State Civil Aviation Administration Fuad Guliyev stressed on March 29 that Azerbaijan will not simply sit and watch Air Artsakh’s flights take off and land. “We have stated several times and reiterate that all flights to our occupied territories are illegal. They will be prevented [via actions] within the framework of legislation,” the News.az website quoted Guliyev as saying.
Azerbaijan has filed a complaint with the International Civil Aviation Organization about Stepanakert’s airport, and claims that it has not received a response from Armenia. Armenian officials could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
As tensions mount along the ceasefire frontline that still separates Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, the planned opening of Stepanakert’s airport is garnering international attention. Both US Ambassador to Armenia Marie L. Yovanovitch and US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza have urged caution. “Similar threats do not proceed from the principles which should be observed by Azerbaijan in a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict,” Yovanovitch said on March 23, PanARMENIAN.Net reported.
In turn, Bryza, a onetime co-chair of the Minsk Group, the OSCE entity charged with overseeing the Karabakh peace process, appealed on March 29 to both Baku and Yerevan “to get together to talk over the civil aviation issues before the airport opens.”
“We think that the issues can be worked through,” Azerbaijani media outlets reported Bryza as saying.
Sargsyan’s statement has already set off discussions both in Armenia’s political circles and social networks; many young people are particularly enthusiastic about the president’s promise. “I am proud of our president, of his bold statement,” commented 25-year-old accountant Narine Manukian.
Thirty-six-year-old arts critic Vahagn Nersesian, however, said that it was too early to praise the president. “I will respect Serzh Sargsyan if he keeps his promise; these are just words so far,” Nersesian said.
Armenia’s largest opposition grouping is adopting a similar stance. Opinions about Sargsyan’s flight should be reserved for after May 9, said Vladimir Karapetian, the foreign relations coordinator for the Armenian National Congress.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.