An interview with Messoud Ashina, Professor of Neurology and Senior Consultant at the University of Copenhagen, President of the International Headache Society, Director of the Human Migraine Research Unit at the Danish Headache Center, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the YASHAT Foundation.
Professor, the great war is over. Although I’m not sure, can we say it’s over? President Ilham Aliyev, in fact, doesn’t recognize any other option, we have turned this page, it’s over, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is history. Even Putin agrees. Should we think the same way, I mean, should we be optimistic?
If we look at the period from the beginning to the end of military operations, we can clearly see that the consistent position the President has been demonstrating for many years has become “cemented” now. During all this time, he maintained this consistency in his interviews with international journalists and in all his speeches. When the President said that the conflict was over, he meant the concrete issue of “five districts+two districts.” He did change the status quo, and he also liberated Shusha and Hadrut. The exit point of the negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh, in general, any negotiations—even regarding the granting of some cultural rights to Armenians—will now be in line with the new situation. I have no doubt that this policy will be continued as consistently.
The President also makes it clear in all his speeches, especially those he made during his trips to Zangilan and Gubadli, that we will be vigilant, we will be ready for surprise attacks, our military budget has already been increased and more funds will be spent on defense in 2021. Because there is no guarantee from the other side. Of course, everyone wants to put an end to it and say, “It’s all over, we live in perfect friendship and peace with the Armenians now.” But it’s not so simple! Obviously, there are still problems. What’s over is the concrete issue—the seven districts, Shusha and Hadrut. No one should doubt that all other issues will be resolved as well.
The presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh has disappointed many of our citizens. What do you think about the Russian peacekeepers?
There is such a thing as realpolitik. Russia is our neighbor, but it’s also a very serious neighbor. It has its own strategic interests to pursue, its own priorities, and we cannot ignore them. Even distant great powers take Russia’s interests into account. I think that this policy has been consistently pursued in relation to Russia during the entire presidency of the current head of state, and this is a pragmatic line. All comparisons are flawed, but Turkey, for example, has not lost its sovereignty because of the US Incirlik Air Base in its territory. Similarly, the temporary presence of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh does not pose a threat to our independence.
Second, after a bloody war, when emotions run high and the issue of compact living with Armenians is urgent, it will take time to build trust for the region’s reintegration—because we have openly said that these are our citizens and all their rights will be guaranteed. It can’t be done in one day. They say, “Why didn’t we go all the way?” But the idea is absurd. This is the opinion of people who know nothing about politics. We cannot conduct ethnic cleansing. We have never done this and will never do this in the future. We are part of the civilized world. Moreover, by agreeing to the presence of peacekeepers, we saved the lives of thousands of our soldiers. Disregarding this, waving the patriotic “going all the way” slogan is not realpolitik.
Those saying this consider themselves experts, when in fact they have no knowledge of political science or international law. Arguments such as “If we were a democracy and Europe helped us…” are just as ridiculous. Realpolitik is completely different. We have pursued a real policy, and the Russian presence is temporary. The presence of Turkish peacekeepers in the region and our close relations with Turkey balance it out. Our relations with Russia need to be very good and balanced. It goes without saying for Turkey, it’s a brotherly country. Even our relations with Iran need to be very good. Iran is also our neighbor, and fellow Azerbaijanis live there. Our state has been pursuing a very consistent policy towards Iran in recent years, we have always cooperated and this relationship will be maintained.
So, in my opinion, the peacekeepers issue should not worry anyone, we need them now, while there is emotional tension. It is especially important to have a neutral party there when our IDPs return home. As for those saying that other contingents could be there… We have all seen those contingents and the consequences of their stay in Bosnia.
The President established the YASHAT Foundation to help the families of martyrs, wounded and veterans, and you have been appointed a member of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Although the Foundation has existed only a month, some work has already been done. Can you talk about it in detail? What has been done, who has received help, how much money has been raised, and what proposals will you put forward for the future?
YASHAT is a kind of national foundation, a common relief fund for all of us. During the war, many people raised money individually to send to the frontlines, to help those affected by the war. In other words, everyone felt obliged to do something, there was an atmosphere of solidarity. When you see all this, you can’t help thinking: why can’t we do this in a centralized form, more efficiently? These donations should go to one account to be distributed in a more transparent way to those in need. Now, what does it mean?
For example, the state currently provides financial assistance to members of the families of martyrs, to wounded soldiers and their families in the form of support packages—fixed payments, salaries. But there are also those whose housing and household problems, health problems, education and credit problems are not eligible for those support packages. So, such problems should be registered individually. That is, we need to collect them in a database and address one by one. The Foundation’s employees, ASAN service volunteers and employees are currently engaged in this work. Think about it, they have already visited the families of more than 2,500 martyrs in three weeks, registered all their problems and entered them into the database. And these problems are being solved and will be solved one by one.
Ulvi Mehdiyev, Chairman of ASAN Service, clarified all this in his speech on Ictimai Television. These are issues such as what percentage of the families of martyrs and wounded have poor housing conditions, who needs what kind of assistance, whose house needs renovation or redecoration, and who needs household appliances, such as a refrigerator or a washing machine. I mean, the database even contains this kind of things. Similarly, health and healthcare-related problems are divided into emergency, medium and elective categories and entered into the database. Bank loans, installment payments for household appliances, etc. are also taken into account.
As you know, the YASHAT Foundation works with three main groups: the families of martyrs, wounded soldiers and officers, and veterans. Of course, the families of those missing as well. The problems of all these people are divided into categories and registered. The collected donations will then be delivered to their addresses based on those categories. All work will be documented and entered into the database. Suppose you donate a certain amount to the Foundation tomorrow. When you do that, your profile is created there and you can see to whom the funds you have donated are delivered. Even invoices will be shown—incoming funds, outgoing funds, everything to the last qapik will be recorded. That’s how transparent the Foundation’s operations will be. Because this is an extremely serious and important, demanding work. That is why the President entrusted it to ASAN Service, because ASAN has a great reputation among the population. By the way, veterans, disabled people and members of martyrs’ family are among the volunteers working with the YASHAT Foundation, because these are the people who will be more enthusiastic about it. In my opinion, this is a very good initiative, and most importantly, everything will be one hundred percent transparent.
As for the Board of Trustees, their job is to monitor all these processes. We will meet every month and we will be informed every month where and how the money is spent. During the month, when we receive alerts from other places about urgent problems, we will try to get ASAN service volunteers to contact those persons directly and look into the matter. For example, the YASHAT Foundation has been existed for about a month. During this time, I have received several different requests. Someone somewhere is in a poor condition and does not have money to buy medicine. When I receive such alerts, I ask only one thing: give me the concrete description of the problem, the phone number and name of the person in question. Can you believe that often no concrete information follows? Many of those alerts are based on rumors spread on social media. When asked for accurate information, they say, “I don’t know exactly, I read it on Facebook.” Such things create extra workload for us. But there are also those who face real, serious problems, and we can solve their problems if we can just get accurate information.
In the future, YASHAT will also cooperate with some manufacturers. For example, when you buy a product, a certain percentage of the amount you pay will go to the YASHAT Foundation. And one more thing: tuition fees will be included in the program.
In short, this is a very ambitious and serious program. When I was offered the position of a member of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, my first question was how the Foundation would be managed and what exactly it would do. When I was told what the Foundation would do and who would do it, I was very happy and accepted the offer wholeheartedly. Because this is really a people’s foundation. And this very concept—YAŞATmaq, “keeping alive”—is an extremely noble concept. Besides, the implementation of this concept by ASAN service was suggested directly by the President. So, there is no doubt that the initiative will be a success. We all know that any initiative put forward by him and implemented by a specific agency, especially one that has proved its worth, always succeeds. The job of everyone on the Board of Trustees is to monitor how the program is being carried out and to contribute to the process whenever possible with their own ideas and critical remarks.
You said you would meet once a month. Can there be extraordinary meetings?
Actually, we have met twice in the last three weeks. The first was a general meeting, and the second one was more specific: we received the latest information on the work of the program. The Foundation’s volunteers had visited more than 1,700 people by then, in such a short period of time, and now the number has exceeded 2,500. So, this is a very efficient machine. At our last meeting, I for one proposed developing a special posttraumatic stress disorder program, creating a working group to address the consequences of this psychological trauma. Family members of martyrs, wounded soldiers, veterans, children—all should be included in this group.
During our meeting with the diaspora here, I was told about the work of our medical professionals in the war. I was impressed by their courage. All medical personnel, both in the rear and on the frontlines, were outstanding. Our young medical students and doctors living in Turkey came and went to the frontlines. And it’s not easy. There were very serious cases, and they were treated and the necessary surgical operations were performed.
When I was in Baku, I saw how happy those doctors and professors were for every soldier they rescued and every wounded they cured, I saw what it meant to them. There was no acting, no pretense, they were all sincere. I had never seen our nation so mobilized and united. I always thought that we were all good people individually, but we couldn’t do anything together. However, recent events have shown that we have unity.
That’s why when I hear different, negative stories, I feel a dissonance. In the matters of assistance, one thing is essential: our local officials must respond to such cases immediately. In the current highly emotional post-war period, the sense of justice has become extremely strong. Our officials need to understand how important this is.
We need to tell them, to explain this to them.
And punish those who don’t understand…
Relevant authorities should deal with those who don’t understand. Because by doing so, those officials create a civil conflict. People are emotionally tense, they have a right to justice, and we can’t deprive them of it. Because they went to the frontlines and fought in the war. I don’t know, maybe there are some unethical cases, maybe some people are taking advantage of the situation, but this should not be our a priori. The a priori is that people have this “an injustice is being committed against me and I must react immediately” feeling. No war veteran, no disabled veteran should need anything, the officials should not allow it. If they do, they should be subjected to administrative actions. There must be administrative consequences of such behavior. This is very important. It’s not about giving someone money. All of this is clear, the state does it. You have to be extremely active—as the head of that local authority, as a professional, as an executive. If there is injustice somewhere, you should get in the car and go there personally, look into the matter on the spot and resolve it quickly. Veterans and their family members are forgotten all over the world. But we encouraged them, saying we would carry them in our arms. So let’s keep our word. “I am no longer responsible for this, because there is the Foundation” is not an argument.
I agree. During the war, there was some activity in the Azerbaijani diaspora, whether it was bad or good is another matter. In all cases, be it in the field of information warfare or in fundraising, everybody did their best. That is, we can positively assess the actions of the diaspora. In the end, the Diaspora Committee gave a few medals and many letters of appreciation to those who participated in this process. Today, some of our compatriots living in European countries send those letters of appreciation back, with objections. Some are not happy that those who deserved the award didn’t get anything, and some expect more than a dry thank you. What can you say about that?
Let’s start with the concept of moving abroad and volunteering to something for your country from there. A few months after I moved to Denmark, the events of January 20 took place in Baku. At that time, I mobilized a group of local Azerbaijanis. At that time, 99% of those Azerbaijanis were from Iran and they sincerely supported us. Then we appealed to the Turks, because the Turks were the majority in Denmark. We arranged a major campaign, raised funds, sent a lot of syringes and medical supplies for ambulances to Azerbaijan. I also had some meetings, gave interviews to newspapers about what happened, and gave some video footage of the events of January 20 to the Danish television. By the way, I did it with the help from a journalist of Jewish origin, who is very popular in Denmark. I did the same thing when the Khojaly tragedy happened. But doing that, I never thought that anyone would give me anything in return. Then our doctors wanted to join a neurology program through the European Academy of Neurology and contacted me. Most of them went through my labs and groups. Why am I listing all this? Doing that, I never thought about being rewarded. These things happen on autopilot, they come from the heart. A person does this because their roots are in this land, because they grew up here, and we must never forget this, we must value our land.
This is how I was raised, this is how I raised my children. They were at the forefront of the information warfare during the war. But none of us thought about the reward when we were doing it.
As for the Diaspora Committee, of course, it is nice and I’m proud that they saw and appreciated our work. By the way, at that meeting, the chairman of the committee said five or six times that everyone would get the appreciation they deserve, and there would be more of such awards and honors. On the other hand, if someone is dissatisfied with the state, with any state agency, if they decline an award, it’s their personal business. As for the people unhappy with the work of the diaspora, when I was asked about it, I told them, guys, write down your complaints and tell us what constructive steps should be taken to improve the situation. After I said this, none of those people got back to me. You have to identify the problems and suggest ways out of them. It’s not fair to say that the Diaspora Committee and everything about it is bad. If criticism is constructive, if people suggest some concrete actions, that’s another matter. I learned one thing in Europe: any organization, especially an organization operating at the state level, has its own nuances, its own bureaucracy, its own specifics. When you want to build a relationship with them, you have to be extremely constructive and approach them with a concrete proposal or initiative. If they consider the proposal feasible, if it fits their format, they do it. If not, they reject it. This is how this system works. If you are dissatisfied with something, you can set up your own diaspora activities outside the committee.
When the Diaspora Committee wanted to meet and talk to me as a scientist, as an Azerbaijani, I never said no to them. I could decline on other issues, but I considered it important, because I wanted to lead by example, to show that we have successful Azerbaijanis abroad. But I don’t have time to do only this. I applaud people who want to devote all their time to this work. During the COVID pandemic, I focused on the activities of the diaspora, they were very active. I took a somewhat selective approach to their activities, because I had a lot of work to do because of the pandemic, but as far as I understand, the diaspora was doing a fine job raising awareness. Our doctors and specialists abroad also spoke out on COVID and worked with them.
My last question is about the pandemic. Several countries have already developed their own vaccines, but there are still skeptics. What can you say about vaccination? In general, what awaits us in 2021, when will our lives return to normal? Should we wait for the apocalypse, or will everything be fine?
Forget the apocalypse. This is out of the question. Such pandemics have occurred several times in different periods of history.
But the WHO is doing its best to scare us.
No, no, it’s not like that. Let’s look at the number of deaths from the COVID virus—it’s about 3%. If we compare this with the number of deaths from the Spanish flu, it was about 15-20%. The death toll from the Ebola outbreak, which was an epidemic just in parts of Africa and not a pandemic, reached up to 70%. I mean, we have seen more dreadful pandemics.
The difference is that COVID has a high infectious dose and is spreading rapidly in the global world. But note one thing. South Korea, Taiwan, and even China itself took more immediate action because they were prepared after the first SARS epidemic. In Taiwan, this process has been particularly successful. In Europe, however, there has always been this mindset, this false sense of security: it can never reach us, we are above and beyond it, we are a private continent, and so on. They realize now they are no so private after all.
By the way, COVID is not so widespread in Africa. But this doesn’t mean that we should not vaccinate Africa. It is necessary to create this opportunity for poor countries as well.
Back to Europe, they are not used to this but will prepare for the future. Preparation includes basic things. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was worried about Azerbaijan, thinking that the situation here would be almost like in Italy. But, fortunately, it never happened because a special headquarters was created. This headquarters is composed of representatives of all the essential agencies dealing with such problems. Personally, I know of specific COVID cases that were treated in the hospital correctly, in accordance with European standards and free of charge. Because this treatment was free. Some rumors are spreading now and it’s hard for me to say what’s going on, but back then everything was normal.
On the other hand, it was pretty difficult to explain some basic things to our people. I’m talking about the three things that are more effective than drugs: if you are infected, you shouldn’t walk the streets, a patient shouldn’t go out; the second is, of course, masks; and the third is distancing. It’s not just about keeping a distance from each other when waiting in line. It’s about social distancing too—minimizing contacts with friends and relatives, thus limiting the spread of the virus. There were daily reminders about all this, but for some reason people laughed at these recommendations. In Denmark, for example, everyone responded adequately. But here, people mocked. However, the experience of the whole world has shown that the things I have listed earlier are effective, there are facts and concrete results proving it. Think about it: during the war, there was a lot of trust in official sources, we sat around day and night waiting for official news. Even our enemies said that they should have listened to the frontline news reported by Azerbaijan, not to their own news reports. Because this work was carried out by both the Ministry of Defense and the state at a very professional level. This professionalism must now be extended to all institutions of society.
As for vaccines, the West has chosen a strategy of different platforms in this regard, which means there will be not one, but several vaccines. Of course, vaccination is voluntary, meaning no one will be forced to get a vaccine. First to be vaccinated will be patients of nursing homes, people working there, and then the medical staff who are in direct contact with COVID patients, because they are, as they say, fighting on the frontlines. People over the age of 60 are also in the highest risk group. Gradually, this process will be extended to younger groups. Anyone who wants to be vaccinated will be vaccinated. In the first stage, we will have data for six months, then for nine months, a year, a year and a half. Based on the new scientific information we obtain, we will decide whether re-vaccination is necessary and when it should be carried out. By the way, the COVID infection has once again proved an important fact: nothing can be achieved without scientific data. The reason why the vaccine has taken so long to develop is that an inconceivable number of people have been studied and an inconceivable amount of money has to be spent to speed up the process. COVID has had the biggest impact on the economy. However, its damage is not close to the economic consequences of the Great Depression. That’s why development is observed in some countries.
That is why we will survive this. 2021 will be a hybrid year. The vaccination program will be implemented, of course, a certain number of people will get re-infected, and so on. I think our life will return to normal in 2022. Of course, there will be similar pandemics in the future. We just have to be ready for them and take action. Why have there been only seven deaths in Taiwan since the beginning of the pandemic? Because they were ready. They don’t cancel their events, life goes on as usual. But there is very strict control. Yes, it is a democratic country, but the detection and registration of infected people there is carried out religiously. We must do the same. We are trying to do the same. The state has set up an electronic system and SMS system in a short period of time. You get the results to your COVID test via SMS, you are registered, you get a warning not to go out, but you still go out.
Is it part of national mentality?
Whatever it is, it must change. I think it will change, gradually. That’s why I’m very optimistic about the future. I have no fatalist anticipation, no apocalyptic feelings. Little by little, we will get out of this situation. I would also like to say something about vaccination. There are rumors going around that “they” will allegedly change our genes, put in microchips, and so on. This is ridiculously infantile, nothing but conspiracy theories. It is impossible to change the genes of fifty to sixty million people with any product. The vaccine race is a different matter. I think people should have a choice, the monopoly of one vaccine is not a good thing. Both America and Europe are moving in this direction—competitiveness must be taken very seriously.
In the future, we must address the issue of climate very seriously. This doesn’t only apply to Azerbaijan. That’s why, I think that, for example, after our people return to Nagorno-Karabakh, we need to implement projects based on long-term, smart solutions that take into account the future, climate and so on. With our resources—I mean money—we can do it.
Interview by Alekper Aliyev