BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Back in August 2013 I wrote a column headlined: “Baku’s Blacklist of Artsakh Visitors Helps Armenia, Hurts Azerbaijan,” explaining the foolishness of Azeri officials blacklisting anyone who visits Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) without Azerbaijan’s permission. I stressed that blacklisting visitors to Artsakh from around the world was a disservice to the interests of Azerbaijan in the first place, because the blacklist isolated Azerbaijan from the rest of the world! In fact, the larger the number of blacklisted people — many of them prominent individuals and high-ranking officials — the more Azerbaijan deprives itself of such important visitors.
In my 2013 column, after quoting several famous individuals who ridiculed being blacklisted by Azerbaijan, I suggested that my name be also added to the blacklist since I had gone to Artsakh and written a column about my visit. Amazingly, shortly after my suggestion, the government of Azerbaijan added my name to the blacklist: “Harut Sassounian, Syrian-American journalist of Armenian descent.” Since then, I visited Artsakh again!
I must add that many years ago, while Papa Aliyev was the President of Azerbaijan, he invited me through intermediaries to Baku to meet with him and discuss the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Of course, I declined the invitation. I even turned down Pres. Heydar Aliyev’s offer to meet with him in a third country, such as the UK, if I did not want to come to Azerbaijan. I turned down that suggestion too. So, now that I am on the black list, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry has deprived their President of the ability to invite me to Baku!
There are more than 700 names on the Azeri blacklist, including parliament members, businessmen, journalists, entertainers, elected officials and other celebrities. The latest visitor to Artsakh to be blacklisted is Anthony Bourdain, who is the host of a world famous CNN food show. Last week, he went to Armenia and Artsakh to do a TV program on the Armenian cuisine in both countries, and Azerbaijan immediately declared him persona non grata!
Bourdain’s name was added to the blacklist “for his disrespect of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Hikmet Hajiyev, Azeri Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Agence France-Presse. “Filming a food show on Azerbaijan’s occupied territory is an insult to one million Azerbaijani refugees who were forcefully expelled from their homes,” Hajiyev added. This makes no sense. The only thing Azeri officials were able to accomplish is prevent Bourdain from going to Azerbaijan and prepare a CNN show on the Azeri cuisine, which would have provided a lot of publicity for the country!
Azerbaijan’s black list has several major shortcomings:
1) So far, there are only 700 names on the black list, whereas, over the years, several hundred thousand tourists have visited Artsakh from around the world. While the names of all visitors to Artsakh are not publicly known, certainly much more than 700 visitors have gone to Artsakh! It appears that someone at Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry is sleeping on the job.
2) Why is it that of the 700 names on the black list, there is not a single citizen of Armenia? While the names of regular visitors from Armenia may not be known to Azeri officials, they surely know that the President, Prime Minister, and other high-ranking officials from the Republic of Armenia frequently visit Artsakh and their trips are well publicized. Could it be that Azerbaijan does not consider citizens of Armenia visiting Artsakh to be foreigners? Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry’s website acknowledges that “Nagorno-Karabagh” is “temporarily out of the control of the Republic of Azerbaijan.” Is it possible that Azerbaijan now considers Artsakh to be permanently “out of the control of the Republic of Azerbaijan?”
3) Very few of the blacklisted visitors have complained about not being able to visit Azerbaijan. On the contrary, many of them have expressed their pride that their names are on Azerbaijan’s black list. Even more shocking, several individuals, not seeing their names on the black list after visiting Artsakh, have asked that they be added to the black list because they consider being on that list a badge of honor!
To make matters worse, in recent months Azerbaijan has requested that other countries extradite their citizens to Baku for having visited Artsakh. In one case, a journalist from Belarus was shamefully arrested and sent to Azerbaijan where he was jailed for several months! He was finally released after international pressure on Azerbaijan and condemnation by the European Council.
This is an abuse of power and export of Azeri oppression and intimidation to third countries which must be ashamed for collaborating with a despotic Azeri regime!