In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, President of the Republic of Armenia Armen Sarkissian talks about the humanitarian crisis in the Caucasus.
-Two ceasefire agreements have been made during the current war in Nagorno-Karabakh, and both have been violated. Azerbaijan accused Armenia of violating the first and second ceasefire agreement, and the spokeswoman of the Azerbaijani defence minister has stated that Baku does not have the intention of keeping to a ceasefire agreement, stating that her country’s aim is to “liberate the entire Karabakh region from Armenians.” Could you comment?
-As you know, on 10 October, 11-hour talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers mediated by their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov resulted in releasing a joint statement on agreeing to establishing a humanitarian ceasefire. It came into force amidst intense fighting by the Azeri side and the shelling of civilians and Armenian towns and villages, including the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert.
The idea of the humanitarian ceasefire was to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to collect and exchange hundreds of bodies lying on the battlefields. However, the ceasefire was breached almost within minutes of its announcement by the Azerbaijani side, which not only did not stop its bombardments, but also shelled the territory of Armenia as well. That is a fact, and it’s unfortunate because these violations are accompanied by bombing, shelling and killing, and more human lives are lost on the frontlines between Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh and Azerbaijan and more and more innocent civilians are losing their lives in this conflict.
The same thing happened with the second humanitarian truce mediated by French President Emmanuel Macron on 17 October. Once the agreement to stop military operations was established, the Armenian side was fully ready to discuss necessary actions, but again the ceasefire was violated by the Azeri side.
This may sound illogical to you, if you want to understand why an agreement is reached if the Azeri side is not going to respect it but will breach it immediately. Well, the logic is that the Azeri, not the Armenian, side started this war, and they do not want to finish it until they have achieved their “mission,” which lies in “freeing” or “liberating,” as they say, Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenians who have been living there for thousands of years.
This operation or policy is called ethnic-cleansing, and that’s the ultimate goal of this inhuman aggression by Azerbaijan and Turkey against the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. That’s why the Azeri side is not interested in stopping its genocidal policy against innocent people, but is continuing it.
-How do you see the role of Russia in this conflict? Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that his country is the security guarantor of Armenia. But where does the Karabakh conflict stand in Russia’s political calculations? Who else supports Armenia?
-President Putin made it clear that Russia is going to respect every agreement Russia has with Armenia, and this is an absolutely clear message. I think this is important for Russia and for Russia’s policies in the Caucasus as a whole, and in the South Caucasus in particular, which is a gateway to Turkey, Iran, the Middle East and Central Asia. There are political and military treaties signed between our two nations, and Armenia is also a founding member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
Russia will stand with Armenia, as a strategic ally, if there is an attack on the Republic of Armenia. Our alliance cannot be judged solely based on the level of today’s politics, developments on the ground and the scope and frequency of announcements or attitudes or decisions by groups and parties. Relations between Armenia and Russia have been, remain and I’m convinced will be much deeper than political events on the surface. We have built our friendship and partnership on a strong trust between our nations that goes back several centuries. And Armenia is the security guarantor of Nagorno-Karabakh or the Artsakh Republic, as we term it.
In the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia is a trusted and pro-active mediator between the conflicting sides. Russia plays a crucial role here, and it demonstrated its commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the conflict by brokering a ceasefire on 10 October. We must admit that this was a courageous and timely move, even though the Azeri side remained aggressively stubborn and destructive.
It’s also important to bear in mind that the platform of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chaired by Russia, France and the US is still there to bring the conflicting sides to a peaceful solution. Of course, the American administration is busy now with the presidential elections, while President Macron, representing Europe, is very actively involved. There’s another thing that I wish to say here, I want to thank President Macron for his active role in brokering a humanitarian truce on 17 October, which was violated by the Azeri side.
As for your question regarding who is supporting Armenia, there are many supporters. It is not about mathematics or numbers: a number of countries with different means and on various levels support Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh in our difficult fight against international Islamist terrorism, military aggression and the destructive behaviour of Azerbaijan and Turkey that have sought to form a “tandem of evil” against us. It is all about not being on the dark side of history.
Today, in Artsakh and Armenia our brave soldiers, male and female volunteers, and the multi-million army of our friends everywhere in the world are carving out a new history by stopping an unprecedented aggression by Azerbaijan and shameful acts by Turkey that supports Azerbaijan in killing innocent civilians and involves jihadist mercenaries in the region. Global players and all other friends of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh should react immediately and support the establishment of a long-lasting peace in this region by taming the malicious ambitions of Turkey and the malign behaviour of Azerbaijan.
-The ceasefire decisions were taken mainly for humanitarian reasons and for exchanging bodies and POWs of both sides. How far did these things happen?
-As I have already mentioned, and you are right, the main motivation for the ceasefire was the human and humanitarian aspect: the exchange of prisoners of war and other detained people and bodies of the dead and also to start substantive negotiations with the aim of achieving a peaceful settlement as soon as possible. However, instead we witnessed grave violations of the ceasefire by the Azeri side for reasons I have already spoken about.
Azerbaijan, militarily and politically backed by Turkey, hosts criminal mercenaries and radical terrorists on its soil who kill innocent people. This country uses its soldiers and even civilians as targets and cannon-fodder, and this dangerous synergy of jihadists and the Azeri military troops that President Ilham Aliyev does not seem to care a lot about, creates a situation in which the Azeri leadership does not even want to get the bodies of its soldiers back and those of the Syrian fighters.
This is why the ceasefires are easily violated by the Azeri side: Azerbaijan wants to impose suffering on the Armenian population, and at the same time it pushes its own people to the brink of death. How on earth can a leadership be so cynical towards its own population? No wonder it is and has been even more cynical and inhuman towards people living in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been populated by Armenians for thousands of years.
-How is this war different from the April 2016 four-day war and from the war in the 1990s that claimed the lives of 30,000 people?
-War is war. A war, especially when the attacking Azeri side starts using all kinds of weapons, including prohibited ones against the civil population, is all about suffering, losses and human tragedies, be it in the 1990s, the 2000s, 2016 or 2020. A war, or the use of force, is never a solution. It triggers more violence and a deadlocked situation.
This is something that the Azeri side was not able to understand and accept in the late 1980s, and it sought to solve the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh by using a genocidal policy of ethnic-cleansing and the extermination of the Armenians. They wanted war, and they got war. They were and remain eager to kill my people, so they got and will see retaliation.
Since the very first day when Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence according to all local and international rules and laws, Azerbaijan has not stopped threatening my people in order to impose another war and suffering. The Azeri side has never accepted any other solution but to use force and kill innocent people. And now, even worse, they are using paid killers, mercenaries and jihadists to kill more people and impose more suffering on Armenians and their own people as well. This is the face of the Azeri dictatorial leadership.
Turkey, which years ago was declaring its commitment to human values, democracy, rights and freedoms, and even wanted to be part of the European Union – and, by the way, some circles in Armenia were optimistic about that possible membership – is now pouring oil on the fire of the conflict instead of taming the belligerent attitude of Azerbaijan. This is unacceptable. The main difference between the different stages of the conflict is that in 2020, amidst a complicated situation with the coronavirus pandemic, the direct military and political involvement of Turkey is a proven fact, and another proven fact is the active military participation of Islamist radicals whose presence could set the entire region and beyond on fire.
-Turkey, which is supposed to be the main ally of Azerbaijan in its war against your country, claims that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a religious one. How true is this?
-Turkey even claims that it is a democratic country and that it is not home to thousands of political prisoners. It claims that it is not messing up in Syria, Libya, Iraq or elsewhere, and is part of the civilised world. Who cares what it claims? Is a simple claim enough to make sound judgements? Acts speak for themselves, and claiming something should be evidence-based, and saying that there is a religious dimension in this conflict is like saying nothing. Armenians have never showed any resentment and intolerance towards other religions. The religious dimension has been excluded from this conflict from the very beginning.
Armenia and Armenians have full respect for all religions and beliefs, and we have clearly demonstrated our attachment to human values, including tolerance and respect for other religions, cultures, races, etc. I don’t know any Armenian who has hatred towards the representatives of other religions. Why should we? For two millennia, the Armenian nation has experienced wars, conflicts, exoduses and even a genocide, but it has never become blindly or religiously fanatical, as we see now among many of those fighting against us on the Azeri side. But you will always find those who want to ignite hatreds and fuel new escalations, and they will tell you there is a religious dimension here, which is nonsense.
-During the first week of the fighting, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry made a statement in which it criticised Armenia for allegedly harming the lives of international journalists by organising visits to military areas and violating international humanitarian laws. How would you respond?
-The international press is committed to spreading the truth wherever and whenever that is possible, and it is our responsibility to allow the freedom of journalists to fulfil their duty. It is the duty of the international media to tell their audiences what they see and feel, especially at times when innocent civilians are caught up in a horrific war, like we have here as a result of the Turkey-sponsored overt aggression of Azerbaijan. It is particularly immoral to create obstacles hindering the representatives of the international media from visiting and covering events in the conflict zone.
From the beginning of its aggression, the Aliyev regime has managed to set up an information blockade not only on its own society by restricting the Internet, but also and most importantly by critically limiting the accreditation of international journalists, allowing only loyal Turkish media outlets to broadcast from the frontline. Such non-transparent and intolerant behaviour towards journalists aims to conceal what is really happening in Nagorno-Karabakh. The reason is presumably to conceal the atrocities, which can be categorised as war crimes, that the Azeri side is already committing through intentional multiple shelling of residential areas and towns and villages where civilians are living peacefully. It is aiming to conceal the use of banned cluster munitions, or the recorded executions of unarmed civilians as well as POWs as part of ethnic-cleansing policies.
Realising that the Armenian side welcomes the provision of appropriate accreditation to media reporters, the Azeri side has made this statement with the intention of legitimating the targeting of journalists as well.
-The Azerbaijani authorities claim that Nagorno-Karabakh is Azeri territory and that it should be “liberated” from Armenian troops. What is your comment?
-This claim is absolute nonsense and a cover story to justify the Azerbaijanis’ genocidal intentions against the Armenians, and here is why. Nagorno-Karabakh, or historical Artsakh, being always overwhelmingly populated by Armenians, has never been part of independent Azerbaijan. Even the League of Nations, founded by Woodrow Wilson, rejected the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic’s membership in 1920 because it disputed Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
During the Sovietisation of the Caucasus by the Bolsheviks in 1920-1921, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was occupied by the Bolsheviks, and in 1921 was incorporated into the territorial-administrative boundaries of Soviet Azerbaijan, which was not an independent state, but was a part of the Soviet Union. Following decades of continued discrimination, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1987-88 started to raise their voices to re-join Armenia, using peaceful demonstrations and letters to the authorities in order to do so. This coincided with mounting ethnically-motivated persecutions in Soviet Azerbaijan, which culminated in the Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani cities of Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad (Ganja), accompanied by mass killings, harassment and ethnic cleansing.
Because of this, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh initiated a referendum and declared their independence in December 1991 from Soviet Azerbaijan in compliance with the Soviet Union’s Constitution. It is crucial to realise that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh declared their sovereignty and separated from Soviet Union earlier than Azerbaijan and on the same legal basis as Azerbaijan, which in fact became independent without Nagorno-Karabakh. However, despite this and other facts that make Azerbaijan’s claims incompatible, the regime of Aliyev in Baku seeks to militarily oppress the right of Armenians of Artsakh to live in their homeland in the way they prefer to, in its pursuit of the forcible taking of the land and cleansing it from its traditional inhabitants and their heritage, acting like 17th-century colonists ignoring basic fundamental rights.
Baku managed to use this method for the first time in 1991-1994, when it openly attacked the provinces of Nagorno-Karabakh after the latter’s referendum and declaration of independence, and it is doing the same now. Therefore, I believe that Azerbaijan ultimately lost any right towards Nagorno-Karabakh from the moment it started its aggressive military campaign wrapped in open racism and animosity towards all Armenians.
At the same time, the issue of civilian casualties is another tool in the Azerbaijani political playbook against Armenia. While the Azeri side often boasts of its precision-guided munitions, it deliberately shells Stepanakert, Shushi, Martakert and other towns with civilian populations. The double strike on Shushi’s Holy Saviour Cathedral, Ghazanchetsots, while people were praying in it is a case in point. On the other hand, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have learned the lessons of the first war with Azerbaijan and have not only stationed military facilities and bases far away from residential areas, but have also established an effective system of underground shelters, allowing the population mostly to withstand the regular bombardment of Azerbaijani artillery and missiles.
This is why despite heavy and almost daily bombardments, as well as the severe destruction of civilian infrastructure in the capital Stepanakert, the number of civilians killed is relatively small. On the other hand, it has been many times verified and recorded that the Azerbaijani military has intentionally located its military bases, artillery batteries, or other military assets either in critical vicinity to civilian sentiments, as in case of the towns of Terter, Barda or Horadiz, or disguised them in larger cities like Ganja. In this context, having no or highly limited precision munitions, the Armenian side faces tough dilemmas, since the elimination of legitimate military targets might inadvertently harm the civilian infrastructure as well.
The government of Azerbaijan has been using this as additional leverage, using an information campaign to demonise the Armenian side abroad and in fact using its own population as part of its design to attack “the Armenian aggressors”.
-How can the war in the Caucasus be stopped?
-The immediate solution to stopping the war is to be committed to the ceasefire regime, painstakingly brokered and diligently attained by mediators, though this was immediately verifiably violated by the Azerbaijani side, as we have already discussed.
In this regard, since the Azerbaijani side does not respect the international mediators’ efforts and continually violates the previously agreed ceasefires, the recognition of the Republic of Artsakh by the international community must be the solution that can stop Azerbaijan and its Turkish patrons from carrying out their aggressive and xenophobic intentions.
-What do you see as the role of the mediators, mainly the OSCE, in finding a solution to the Karabakh conflict?
-The OSCE Minsk Group has long invested tangible efforts in probing potential compromises between the conflicting parties to find a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, asserting that there is no military option to resolve the issue. Regrettably, it is now evident that the leadership of Azerbaijan, in a Machiavellian manner, has exploited the negotiations and has used the decades-long scrupulous work of the mediators, namely the United States, France and Russia, as a shield for its own hidden intentions to attack Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
This is to say that the mediating initiatives of the OSCE Minsk Group could have been productive if one of the conflicting sides had remained within the parameters of civilised policy-making and finding solutions to issues and had appreciated the peaceful process. By perpetrating large-scale military attacks and by systematically shelling civilian settlements, President of Azerbaijan Aliyev has stated that there is a military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and that bombs, the deaths of thousands and the deployment of jihadist mercenaries is a solution.
Aliyev believes that through brutal power and military coercion and threats, or as he says “through a military solution,” he can force the Armenian side to do or sign what he wants. This is illegal and criminal as it seriously contradicts many international conventions, which stipulate that no accord is legal if it is produced by direct military threats, coercion or warmongering by one of the sides.
-Where does the Armenian Diaspora stand in this conflict?
-From the very outset of the Turkey-sponsored Azerbaijani aggression, the Armenian Diaspora has embarked on a mission to draw attention to the situation in the countries in which Armenians are living. The Armenian Diaspora around the globe has also mobilised to provide every possible support to Armenia and Artsakh by organising humanitarian aid and donations.