Azadliq Radiosu interviewed Richard Kauzlarich, former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan
Azadliq Radiosu: You have served as an ambassador to Azerbaijan in 1994-1997. These were different times back then. What was Azerbaijan like then? What were the relations between the two countries? A lot has changed in the past 20 years?
Richard Kauzlarich: you are absolutely right. Things are much different today and I try when I observe what’s going on in Azerbaijan not to project only my experience on developments. It was a different time. It was at the very beginning of Azerbaijan’s latest independence. I count 1918 as the first. It was a time even though there were major differences over things like section 907 of the Freedom Support Act there still was an intent by both Baku and Washington to work together because we saw we had common interest and wanted to preserve the independence and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan wanted US support as it began this very difficult process of emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was not as if we had total agreement. We disagreed on things like human rights and conduct of elections but on the other hand it was a relationship where we still found areas where we could work together and we did.
Today it seems [and I have written about it on Brooking’s Institute blog] that era has ended with the document Ramiz Mehdiyev wrote that appeared in very early December-it seems to have ended that period and the differences now define the relationship as opposed to trying to work together on common ground.
Q: How do you see the arrival of the new ambassador amid the on-going crackdown?
It is always better to have an ambassador than not to have an ambassador. That is the representative of the president of the United States and when the ambassador speaks to government officials and to the public - not that our embassy has not done an outstanding job in doing that, but it just come with that extra authority.
At the swearing in yesterday for ambassador Cekuta I attended the Counselor of the department of state said it is really important to understand the Ambassador’s full titile. He is an ambassador plenipotentiary and extraordinary. And he is plenipotentiary because he represents the President of the United States. So that really is very important. Ambassador Cekuta made clear he is going to try to have as wide range of contacts with all parts of Azerbaijani society as well as the normal political leadership that all ambassadors deal with. He has a difficult job ahead of him because of what I regard as the changed environment. But it’s an opportunity as well - if official Baku wants to move things in a more positive direction they have the opportunity but I really think it’s going to have to be a move from the Azerbaijani side rather than some new initiative that our new ambassador will bring with him.
Q: What about the upcoming subcommittee hearing scheduled for February 12 on Azerbaijan, energy, security and human rights interests? You are a witness there. Anything you could share with us ahead of the hearing? Any positive outcomes to expect?
I am testifying as someone who has had two decades of involvement in the south Caucasus and in Azerbaijan. I am not representing anyone other than my own personal experience on that score.
For me the more important part is how members of congress approach the hearing. People know – I individually and with colleagues have written on Azerbaijan, everyone knows that. There will be no surprises if you will with what I am going to present as my official testimony for the record. I think the really important thing is the discussion that takes place and the kinds of questions that the members of congress ask. The committee itself is to be commended for having this hearing. It is very important and the subcommittee chair Congressmen Rohrabacher laid out in the announcement of the hearing what he was interested in, including the shutdown of the RFE/RL and the human rights but other issues – energy security – as well.
I think to listen for is less what I or the other witnesses – both very knowledgeable about Azerbaijan – say- it is more important to listen to what the members of the congress ask and what next steps might be in terms of the increased attention to Azerbaijan. That is by the way only to the good.
The holding of the hearing is a positive outcome but I cannot predict what the members are going to say and we have to really wait for that to get a sense.
Q: Magnitsky Act vs statements of concern, grave concern and as Congressman Rohrabacher mentioned in his announcement “constructive engagement”? How effective are these statements?
I think they are. Along with my former colleague from the State Department David Kramer – we have suggested that at some point things have gotten bad enough where we have to engage in more than just the traditional diplomacy. Keep the focus on freeing those people who are unjustly being held, detained or actually imprisoned. And it may be that some form of sanctions [I am less focused on whether it’s a particular existing piece of legislation or whether it’s something the administration can do on its own without needing additional legislation than actually doing something]. But then again the focus has to be on – in making that recommendation I am not interested in punishing people or making the situation worse – the objective is to get people who are being detained and under arrest out of jail.
This may not be the only way to do it. If people have a better way I would welcome that, because sanctions are never the first step and we learned that with the Freedom Support Act 907 sanctions that they don’t necessarily lead to the outcome that people want.
Sanctions – it’s a big step. But at this point I am not sure other things are showing any sign of moving forward and again, as I have started since early December there is a clear position that we aren’t going to have an environment where normal diplomacy works well.
Q: In a piece you wrote in October of last year, you mentioned the possibility of Khadija’s arrest. Two months later she was arrested. Was her arrest not a surprise? And later, raid and closure of RFE/RL’s local bureau – was this expected? And what now?
Expected yes, if you look back over the last two years in particular you could see there was series of steps the authorities were taking, which resulted in more people being arrested, more institutions and organizations being shut down or forced to close or losing their financing. It got to the point where the last voices left being heard were Khadija in particular and the RFE/RL in general so for me it clear thatabsent any other shift to the better further arrests seemed to be the path. Official Baku was going to suppress any voice that opposed the current situation of democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan as well as outlets to media that the government wasn’t able to control in some fashion. So personally I was not surprised.
What do we do now? Good question. Part of it may be with the new ambassador going out he may be able to talk about these things in a different way.
The first step would be to have our new ambassador on the ground and his getting a sense of where things are and what is doable.
Everyone here finds the steps against both US organizations whether it is RFE/RL or IREX or NDI and the arrested individuals (like Khadija) and their families as unprecedented and not indicative of a good relationship that previously both Azerbaijanis and Americans wanted.
Q: You have also been subject to some attacks?
I don’t worry about it. I know who I am and what I did. If people want to do that, that’s up to them. Unfortunately what it shows, it’s going to be very hard to trust what some people in the regime say when they will manufacture lies about people like me. I am just a former ambassador and I represent nothing but my own views and if they go through this much trouble, I worry about what they do about Azerbaijani citizens.
If that’s the way they choose to react that’s up to them.
Q: In an interview with the radio over the summer you mention you had no optimism for any development in NK conflict? Is this the overall feeling in DC among decision makers? Are discussions failing? Is OSCE Minsk Group failing?
MINSK group mission was always to be a mediator. It was never to find a solution and impose a solution on the parties. And from the point of view of being a mediator and providing ideas and a mechanism if Yerevan and Baku choose to use it to find a peaceful solution I think the MINSK Group has been a success. The failure of achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict rests only in the hands of Azerbaijani and Armenian officials and politicians.
It is simply unacceptable to blame Minsk group Co-chairs or the process for leadership in Yerevan abd Baku politically being uable to reach a settlement.
And the longer this is going on the greater are ricks of this degenerating into an armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. We have seen enough incidents over the past months that this is a real possibility. How it would start and when it would start I have no idea but along with human rights the most important concern for the US must be the worry about resumed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan which would be in no one’s interest.
What others are thinking I really haven’t had any conversations with officials in the State Department or elsewhere specifically on this. I do read the continued calls from the Ambassador Warlick and others for Armenian and Azerbaijan to re-engage. I just hope it happens but the rhetoric doesn’t sound good and tragic steps on the ground where more people both military and civilian are losing their lives are not good either.
There has been no public space where people can actually talk about conflict in a way that isn’t extreme formulation. If there is going to be peaceful settlement and negotiated settlement compromises come with that and so neither side is going to achieve their extreme positions . So how do you have a discussion with the public so that they understand why and what kinds of compromises are necessary.?
Again, I do not think the MINSK Group can do that. It is really the question of leadership in Baku and Yerevan doing that.