Opening of Fuzuli Airport Marks Important Step in Reconstruction Efforts, But Problems Remain
Photo By AyshanASLAN
During a videoconference with Azerbaijani Minister of Culture Anar Karimov on January 5, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated that after demining the Fuzuli district, which was returned to Azerbaijan following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, an international airport would be constructed. Nine months later, on September 5, 2021, Azerbaijan Airlines’ ‘Karabakh’ aircraft conducted the first flight, landing at the Fuzuli International Airport after a 35-minute journey from the Baku airport.
Although the airport is only approximately 95% complete, the construction of an international airport in less than a year represents how restoring the cities damaged during thirty years of occupation is a top priority on the domestic policy agenda.
Authorities have ambitious plans for reconstruction efforts in the territories brought back under the country’s control through the 2020 war. Through the construction of transportation infrastructure, including the Fuzuli airport, the Azerbaijani government is seeking to transform these territories into centers of industry and tourism. There are plans to construct an industrial center in Aghdam, a logistics and trade center in Jabrayil, a culture and tourism center in Shusha, and an additional tourism center in Kalbajar. There is also a particular interest in constructing ‘smart cities’ that are powered by renewable energy, harvesting the hydroelectric, solar, and wind energy potential of the region.
Although an airport was constructed in less than a year, not all restoration efforts can be completed with alacrity. Many challenges to Azerbaijan’s reconstruction efforts persist, leaving many displaced individuals still wondering when they can return to their homes.
One of the most pressing issues for the Azerbaijani government in the post-war environment has been the issue of landmines. After months of denying the existence of maps showing the location of landmines, Armenia handed over maps showing the location of approximately 100,000 landmines in the Aghdam region in exchange for 15 Armenian prisoners of war. In an interview after the signing of the ceasefire agreement, the head of the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) Idris Ismayilov stated that it would take ten years to fully demine the territories reclaimed by Azerbaijan, and three to five years for displaced individuals to safely return to their homelands.
It is also important to consider the cost of these restoration efforts. According to data released by Azerbaijan’s State Statistical Committee, 74,901,200 AZN (approximately 44 million USD) was spent on construction work in Fuzuli, with nearly 200 million AZN (approximately 118 million USD) spent on projects in Zangilan, Kalbajar, Jabrayil, Aghdam, Lachin, and Shusha. Following the signing of the ceasefire agreement in November 2020, President Aliyev stated that Azerbaijan would file lawsuits through a variety of international channels demanding compensation from Armenia for damages to its territories. The Azerbaijani government estimates the damage to exceed 50 billion USD, but so far, the pursuit of reparations has been unsuccessful.
The emphasis that the Azerbaijani government is putting on reconstruction efforts is a positive signal for those displaced from their homes in these regions. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Azerbaijan is home to more than 600,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Unfortunately, while IDPs have been waiting to return to their homes, numerous civilian deaths and injuries have been reported as displaced individuals have attempted to return to the areas they fled from during the first Karabakh war before the completion of demining activities. Despite some early successes, many of the issues in the territories regained in the 2020 war are far from being resolved. It should also be noted that the investments in these regions should not just benefit Azerbaijan, but the entire region. Further dialogue is necessary for the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but pairing improved relations with infrastructure investments could lead to economic benefits for both countries, benefitting both populations and contributing to greater regional stability.