“It would be a big mistake if Armenia used the support gained from the EU against Azerbaijan”
    Amashov’s impromptu interview with Ambassador Sharp

    INTERVIEWS  25 April 2024 - 16:16

    Orkhan Amashov

    On 23 April, I had a chance to have an audio interview with former UK Ambassador to Azerbaijan His Excellency James Sharp on the sidelines of the Sixth ADA University Policy Forum, just a few minutes after President Ilham Aliyev’s 3.5hr-long conversation with a group of foreign journalists, including Ambassador Sharp.

    Despite its relative brevity – lasting around 15 minutes – and its completely impromptu nature, the interview has proven to be reasonably comprehensive and most gratifying.

    Speaking on the early withdrawal of the Russian ‘peacekeepers’ from Karabakh, Ambassador Sharp stated that it was not a huge surprise to him and this outcome was substantially driven by what happened in Karabakh in September 2023. “My sense is that they were going to withdraw anyway, because the President was always very clear that he had inserted the 2025 deadline into the November 2020 ceasefire agreement, which was a very sensible strategic move and, for the first time, the Russians had tied themselves down in advance to a departure date.”

    Speaking on the escalating Western support for Armenia and the latter’s European aspirations, Ambassador Sharp noted that: “any moves Armenia makes towards Europe are good, so long as they are really about Armenia, Europe and Russia, and the risk, of course, is that Armenia then sees this as a way of actually getting the European Union lined up against Azerbaijan”. He expanded, saying: “that would be a big mistake”. As to Azerbaijan’s concerns on this Western espousal being leveraged against Baku by Armenia, my interlocutor’s view was of reasonable caution: “That was something that the President was alluding to earlier on. I cannot say the concern is legitimate because I don’t really know what is in the Armenian minds, but I think it is a risk.”

    On Azerbaijan’s preparations for COP29, Ambassador Sharp classified the issues to be addressed into three baskets, namely, logistical, substance-related matters and “wraparound stuff” in the realm of reputation management, expounding extensively on each. On the subject of UK-Azerbaijani relations, the interviewee singled out energy and education as key pillars.

    Here is the link to the audio interview:

    Below is the full unexpurgated text of the interview, transcribed from the audio recording.

    Ambassador Sharp, it is great to see you. Thank you very much indeed for this opportunity. What is your general impression of the ADA University Policy Forum? Is it the first time you attended this forum?

    It is my first time attending this forum. It is actually the first time I have been back to Azerbaijan since I left the country about a year and a half ago.

    What is your overall impression? What have you made of the President’s extensive replies to the questions asked?

    It is amazing that your President speaks for something like three and a half or four hours. 

    Without notes…

    Indeed, without notes. He has given us so much of his time and answered every question put to him in detail, and with honesty as well. So, very impressive performance, quite frankly. We also had a very nice session with ADA students early this morning about COP29 and climate change.

    Numerous significant developments took place during the preceding period. Exactly a year ago, on 23 April 2023, Azerbaijan established a border checkpoint at the entrance to the Lachin Road. In September 2023, counter-terrorism measures were conducted in Karabakh, restoring full Azerbaijani sovereignty over the area. Most recently, this April, the early withdrawal of the Russian ‘peacekeepers’ is taking place. Let us focus on the latter. Had you anticipated their early withdrawal well before the set deadline specified in the 10 November 2020 tripartite statement?

    It wasn't a huge surprise to me, because after the operation that happened in September 2023 and the Armenians left, there was a big question about what the role of the Russian peacekeepers should be. Who were they keeping the peace between? So, that question came up and I know that they reduced the staffing levels, but for me, it was not a surprise at all that, ultimately, they decided that “there is nothing for us to do here and we might as well just withdraw.” 

    I think that they were going to withdraw anyway because the President was always very clear that he had inserted this 2025 deadline into the ceasefire agreement. I think that was a very sensible strategic move. It was the first time that the Russians had tied themselves down in advance to a departure date. That was very important. The circumstances had changed, and the overall situation had changed. So, as I say, the Russians left and that's it really.

    The facts on the ground had changed. And the Russians were bound to leave.

    Exactly. Speaking personally, at the time of the ceasefire agreement, all of Azerbaijan was, of course, delighted to see that Azerbaijan gained territory not just militarily, but also that Armenia agreed to hand back the surrounding territories. But I know that the biggest point of contention for most Azerbaijanis was the fact that the Russians had been allowed to have troops here in Azerbaijan. So, I know equally, all Azerbaijanis will be very, very happy that the Russians are now leaving.

    I remember that, back in 2020, there were those who claimed the victory was rendered ‘truncated’ due to the presence of the Russian troops. But what happened in September last year effectively finalised the process of restoring sovereignty.

    Absolutely. There are still issues about the other questions regarding the peace agreement with Armenia, border delimitation, transport links, which are all still to be resolved, of course. But Azerbaijan did nevertheless restore its sovereignty over all of its territory.

    From what the President said, it is very clear that the process of delimitation and demarcation of the interstate border will be lengthy - arduous and technical. So, we should not wait till the end of the delimitation process in order to sign the long-awaited peace deal. What is your feeling about the possibility of the peace treaty being signed by the end of the year?

    I think it will be fantastic. They're clearly both sides. There are some difficult issues. However, it feels to me that you have COP29 coming up at the end of the year and that gives the two parties plenty of time to actually negotiate and sign some sort of peace agreement. I don't know the details of it. It may well be that you could have an overall peace agreement with some details to be worked out later, potentially. But I think the point about border delimitation is a fair one. It's a very technical one and it takes a long time. And it is a long border which is thousand kilometres. It is very unclear where the border is. We know that because it's just based upon some sort of vague maps from the Soviet times. So, it's quite understandable. There would be lots of discussions, and potentially trade-offs as well between the two countries.

    Given the current landscape, would you say that process will be purely bilateral from now on, with no external mediator involved?

    I would like to think so. I think that the two sides have shown that they can make progress when they sit down and talk to each other, and there's always a risk that the mediator ends up acting as a cover for one side or the other side, not to actually agreeing things. So, the more they can talk to each other directly, the more they can build confidence that they can agree on things directly. I think that's got to be a very, very good thing.

    Azerbaijan, as of April 2024, is the only country amongst the Eastern Partnership nations with no foreign troops on its sovereign territory, and Armenia is currently struggling to reduce the Russian presence. By 1 August, Russian border guards should leave the airport in Yerevan. What do you think about Armenia's challenge to tackle its long-held dependence on Russia?

    Well, I think what they're doing is fantastic. As a British person or as a former diplomat, I think that their attempts to reduce dependence on Russia are very positive. I see the talks with the European Union about how the EU can support the development of Armenia as a good thing. If the Russian border guards leave the airport, that's got to be a good thing for the regional stability, quite frankly. I'm all in favour of that. The European Parliament voted in favour of much closer ties with Armenia. Potentially, there is a sort of association agreement in the offing. I think that's a very good thing. On the other hand, this is not easy. It's easy to say and or it may be easy to sign a piece of paper Beyond military dependence, the Armenian economy is very closely tied to Russia, in particular.

    The membership of Armenia within the Eurasian Economic Union is another factor.  Russian companies own many assets in Armenia. So, it's a very complex situation. From my point of view, from a European point of view, I would say that any moves Armenia makes towards Europe are a good thing, as long as it's really about Armenia, Europe and Russia. The risk is, of course, is that Armenia then sees this as a way of actually getting the European Union lined up against Azerbaijan. And I think that would be a big mistake.

    As to the concerns in Azerbaijan regarding this, the essence of what Baku is saying is that Armenia is free to make its own geopolitical choices, but the support garnered from the EU and others should not be leveraged against Azerbaijan. Do you think this concern is legitimate?

    Well, that was something that the President was alluding to earlier on. I can't say whether it was legitimate, because I don't really know what's in the Armenian minds, but I just think it's a risk. Of course, it's always a risk that these things can happen. There are many European institutions and politicians who have bought into the Armenian concerns and are concerned about all of the people that left Karabakh last year. There is a human story and you can understand why people in Europe will buy into it. However, it is very important not to let that cloud judgement. We should be very clear-sighted and recognise what is needed to secure peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia because that has to be the big prize in the long term. I'm positive. I'm optimistic. I hope that now we're in a situation whereby the two sides can talk to each other and agree on things with each other more and more over time. They recently proved they can do it. Let us keep that up.

    The UK hosted COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland back in 2021 and Azerbaijan will be hosting COP29. It is a massive challenge and enormous responsibility on the world stage. What is your evaluation of Azerbaijan’s efforts in terms of preparations?

    I am not that closely involved in their preparations, but I would say there are several baskets. One of them is logistical arrangements, and I know that the organisers have chosen the location in the Olympic Stadium. It will be a big logistical challenge. Of course, Azerbaijan has hosted the Grand Prix and European Games and Eurovision.

    But this is of a different scale.

    This is a very different scale indeed, as we know, and as you would have seen from Dubai. I think as long as they plan properly and learn the lessons from what happened in Dubai and Glasgow and all the previous COPS and recruit organisations who are used to host hosting these international events, that should be fine. So, you have got the logistics basket and then you've got the actual substance if you like. The chairmanship is about how do you secure consensus solutions, consensus agreements, as a result of very intensive negotiations on a huge range of very delicate and difficult issues. That will require a lot of time and effort by your negotiating team. I think that they've already said that one of the main focuses will be on the financing arrangements which flowed from Dubai, which is fine, which is great. And I think that Azerbaijan, having chaired the Non-Aligned movement, is in a good place to actually discuss and represent the views of a lot of the developing world. And they're also in a good place to work with oil-producing countries, being a member of OPEC+.

    The decision to appoint Azerbaijan was at short notice, much shorter than normal. Now, the Azerbaijani delegation is going to all different countries and hearing views and coming to some conclusions about what is achievable and what the best things to focus on. There is also the substance. I feel it is pretty important to try to use it as an opportunity to draw attention to Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus region, the Caspian and Central Asia. We need to address the environmental issues here that need to be tackled, such as the shrinkage of the Caspian Sea and desertification and transboundary river issues.

    That was the gist of your question put to the President during the session?

    I believe that was the gist of my question, indeed. There is an opportunity just to get the world focused on this, this part of the world and looking for solutions. They are not easy again. But, nevertheless, it is, I said, an opportunity. And the third basket, which is perhaps a bit more sensitive, is the wraparound stuff in the sense of what will the media look at. What we saw with the World Cup in Qatar is that the Western media tended to focus on things like workers’ rights and LGBT issues. So, I think Azerbaijan just needs to think about that, because there is criticism of this country on human rights questions and the imprisonment of a number of journalists. The government will need to think about all of the aspects that the Western media will focus on. And there's a lot of people out there who are not happy that Azerbaijan got the chairmanship, for various reasons grounded on the criticism of having yet another oil and gas producer getting the chairmanship. Since there will be quite a lot of people out there ready to criticise Azerbaijan, the government needs to make sure you have a very good strategy in place to counter that criticism.

    My final question. A post-2016 or post-Brexit Britain has been actively promoting the concept of Global Britain. Could you elucidate on what this concept actually signifies and the position of Azerbaijan?

    Let me say, first and foremost, that I am actually retired and I am not representing the British government.

    It's not going to be an official view, just your personal perspective.

    I would say that there are a lot of people in Britain, including the Foreign Office, that struggled with the concept of what global Britain actually meant, given that we thought we were doing global stuff anyway. So, we to be honest, we've sort of moved on from that, from that catchphrase. What is changing is that we're now looking internally in terms of trade deals and about how we can change our focus a little bit. If we are not wrapped up in having to attend European Union meetings the whole time and focus on EU legislation, then there is a bit of a strategic shift towards the Indo-Pacific, if you like. So, more resources are now going into South Asia and Asia Pacific. And one of the examples of that was something called AUKUS, comprised of Australia, UK, US, and that arrangement is focused on nuclear submarines and then all sorts of other high military technology. Those are just examples. We have trade deals with Japan and others.

    And what is the position of Azerbaijan within that concept?

    The place of Azerbaijan in that concept is probably pretty much the same as it was before. Azerbaijan was always reasonably important to the United Kingdom for various reasons, one of which was commercial, obviously, with bp being the largest operator here. No change to that effect has been induced by Brexit, but that changed in the run-up to COP26. Earlier, I was talking about responsibility. The UK government decided it would no longer support oil and gas investment overseas. That was when we switched to a much greater focus on renewable energy which was in line with what BP was doing anyway, as they developed a net zero by 2050 strategy as well. And that involves bidding for the solar plants in Jabrayil, which hopefully should be inaugurated this year.

    Hopefully, all of these things will come on stream before COP26 again to sort of show Azerbaijan's qualities as a renewable energy producer. Things are changing anyway in terms of our relationship with Azerbaijan. I feel we are in a comfortable place. There is a range of interests we have here. I hope COP29 will provide those opportunities to cement those. I should just mention education as well, of course, because that was always central for me and the rest of the embassy, being one of the big pillars of the relationship together with like energy. I think there is a lot more we can do in that field. Just last week, I was at an event at the Azerbaijani embassy in London, commemorating the launch of the Warwick University tie-up dual degree programme with the Azerbaijan State Oil and Industry University on renewable energy. They are running a master's dual degree programme. I think that is really valuable and a significant step forward. I would love to see more British universities running dual degree programmes here to support the Azerbaijani development and Azerbaijani education system. At the same time, we are getting hundreds of Azerbaijanis studying in the United Kingdom under your very generous state scholarship programme. We are very grateful for that as well. I have met some of the students in London. I'm just really amazed at how smart these young people are, much smarter than I was at their age. They will come back and be a huge asset to Azerbaijan.

    Thank you very much, Ambassador Sharp. I am most grateful to you. I hope we will arrange a proper video interview at some point in the near future.

    No problem at all. Delighted. Thank you so much.


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