05/10/2021, 09.09
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Šuša and the Nagorno Karabakh prisoners of war: the arm wrestling continues

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The city, conquered by the Azeris last November, has been declared the "cultural capital" of Azerbaijani Karabakh. But the Armenians claim it. About 200 Armenian prisoners have not been returned, violating the agreement mediated by Russia. For now, the Azeris continue to hold them hostage to use as a weapon of blackmail in negotiations.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - On May 7, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev (photo 1), declared the city of Shusa the "cultural capital" of Azerbaijani Karabakh, after having wrestled it from the Armenians in last November’s conflict. But the Armenians also claim the historical and cultural heritage of Šuši (in their linguistic variant) in the mountainous region of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh).

The city at over 1300 meters above sea level, was a place of encounter and conflict between Armenians and Azeris, Christians and Muslims already at the time of the Russian Tsarist Empire. Located at a crucial crossroads for transport and trade in the region, Šuša has been a place of eclecticism since its foundation in 1752, embracing churches and mosques, large markets and caravanserais, museums and meeting places for poets and artists of various kinds. Even before a war and political vindications, the cultural appropriation of one of the two sides is a wound to a shared memory.

Following the clashes that took place after the collapse of the USSR, Shuša had remained under Armenian control since May 8, 1992. Aliev's declaration took place precisely on the eve of that date. Azerbaijan declared the conquest of the city on November 8, 2020; a month earlier he had bombed the great cathedral of Ghazanchetsots, the pride of the Armenian Apostolic Church (photo 2).

The Azerbaijani president said that "the further refinement of the governmental and legislative administration in Šuša will not only serve the restoration and preservation of the historical and cultural heritage in the city, but will provide an opportunity for its continued development", according to the principles of Azerbaijani and Muslim identity, "elevating it to the international arena as a shining pearl of Azerbaijan's rich culture, architecture and town planning over the centuries".

The question of prisoners

In addition to the dispute over identity, the Armenians are still deeply troubled by a highly contentious issue linked last autumn’s conflict: the return of prisoners of war.

The issue has become a delicate international one as Baku has repeatedly resisted pressure from the US and Russia to find a solution. It is a question of fulfilling the mutual obligations approved with the mediation of Moscow, but also of allowing a broader agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan to rearrange the entire ex-Soviet region of the Caucasus, which allows Russia to reconnect with Central Asia to the south.

Last May 6 in Yerevan, Sergej Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, conducted talks with his counterpart Ara Aivazyan and the "acting" prime minister Nikol Pašinyan, asking for the signing of a memorandum on mutual understanding between the governments of the two States in conflict on biological-health security. The text envisages a large project to modernize the health facilities of Armenia, largely financed (10 million dollars) by the United States.

However, the Armenians condition any further agreement to the return of the approximately 200 prisoners. These are still in the hands of the Azeris (photo 3), who only recognize just over half that number and continue to hold them hostage as a weapon of blackmail in the negotiations.

On May 4, the head of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, Rustam Muradov, had brought three of them back to Yerevan, to facilitate Lavrov's mission, but the gesture was not enough to soften the position of the Armenian representatives, who expect Moscow to take a of a much more decisive position.

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