Karabakh: The big debate
Commonspace.eu today publishes the 13th in a series of twenty interviews with key personalities from Nagorno-Karabakh. The interviews give a vivid, even if sombre picture, of the attitude of Armenians and Azerbaijanis from Karabakh whose lives have been deeply affected by the conflict, and whose destiny will be at the heart of any future conflict settlement. Those interviewed sometimes use harsh language. Their opinion is almost inevitably controversial, as are sometimes their biographical notes. However it is through listening to these opinions that a path through the labyrinth that is the Karabakh conflict can be found. A full editorial policy of commonspace.eu is available at the About Us section. The next interview in the series will be with Anar Usubov, an Azerbaijani peace activist from Khojaly.
Interview with Armen Sargsyan
Armen Sargsyan was born in 1963, in the Martuni region of Nagorno-Karabakh. He graduated from the State Pedagogic University in Yerevan with a PhD, then returned to Karabakh. Sargsyan was the commander of an armed militia to protect his village from 1988. After the war, he worked as a lecturer in Artsakh State University from 1995-98. Sargsyan was also director of a historical museum in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic from 1995 -97, and then Minister of Culture, Youth affairs and Sport of NKR from 1997 to 2004. Since 2005 he has been a Member of Parliament, and was reelected in 2010. Sargsyan is now the head of the ARF–Dashnaktsutyun Party Faction.
Biographical notes are provided by the interviewees themselves.
Can you summarize your overall position on the Karabakh conflict and the conflict resolution process:
The conflict in Karabakh, as we call it now, erupted in 1918. Nagorno-Karabakh was forcefully pushed into Azerbaijan in 1921. During 70 years of Soviet rule the people of Karabakh have several times appealed to the central authorities to reconsider the issue of Karabakh, i.e. put it back into Armenia. I believe that the solution to the conflict nowadays may be found in studying the history of the issue and considering the mistakes. This will help us to find such a solution that will prevent any further eruption of this conflict and a new war. This is the strategy as I see it. So, if we study the history, when NK was included into Azerbaijan, for the whole next four years they were thinking on how to map the borders of this new autonomous oblast (region). During 1921-1925 the authorities had two options before them. First, one mapped the borders as we have them today, excluding the part that now borders with Iran and is a region of NKR constitutionally. The second option considered only a “corridor” with Soviet Armenia through Lachin. The maps of NKAO in 1923 have this latter version and clearly show this, as it was then adopted.
The ARF-Dashnaktsutyun party strictly denounces the Soviet regime and all its decisions, among others, regarding the issue of nationalities. From the other side – now we are discussing all existing scenarios for conflict resolution. The thing is that we had 70 years to witness what the “corridor” option brought. In fact we had three major movements in Nagorno-Karabakh – 1945, 1967 and 1973 – and at the end of the day, the war erupted in the late 1980s. Therefore, I would bring your attention back to the two scenarios of the early 1920s to show that the second option with “corridor” was ineffective, it brought to war, and that perhaps we need to try the other one which outlined all the existing borders currently under Karabakh rule.
My second argument here would be that the international community should not allow any state to do whatever it wants. Instead, internationally recognized human rights and dignity should be respected, which then gives rise to a state system. We strongly denounce and criticize terrorism all over the world, wherever it happens. Azerbaijan itself is a case where state authorities have employ terrorism against another nation – against Karabakh, which was inside its own Soviet borders for 70 years. There was a clear-cut pattern of state-sponsored and organized terrorism against Karabakh. Its a well known axiom that the war of aggression was started by Azerbaijan against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, and today it is absurd to me than the aggressor and the defending side are suggested to make parallel concessions in the peace process. Instead, the aggressor – Azerbaijan – should be condemned so that any aggression in the future may be excluded both in the case of this conflict and internationally. Aggression must be condemned in order not to be repeated. This is the issue that remains out of the current peace process.
Last but not least, the Karabakh issue should be solved in a way to secure viable peace for future generations and not bring us to a new war years later. In this context, naturally, I do exclude any subordination of NKR to Azerbaijan, while instead NKR should be regarded as a nation which already exercised its right to self-determination and now builds its own independent statehood, and this should be recognized internationally. By the way, to my best knowledge, wherever in the world the right to self-determination of a particular nation was recognized – Southern Sudan, South Ossetia, Kosovo and elsewhere since 1960 – war and bloodshed were immediately stopped and they began building a peaceful future. This pattern should be considered.
In the long term do you want to see Nagorno-Karabakh (a) as an independent state; (b) as part of Armenia (c) as part of Azerbaijan; (d) none of the above but in as yet undefined status. Comment on your choice:
Now we have two Armenian statehoods in the region – NKR and Armenia. To be honest, in the future our main goal is to have one, united state of Armenia. Reunification of Armenia is our far-reaching goal, but to achieve that, first we need to complete the stage of self-determination, which Karabakh-Armenians have been exercising since 1988, and which is recognized by the international community. After this we can jump to the second stage of re-unification. Options (c) and (d), of course, are excluded.
What is your biggest objection/concern to Nagorno-Karabakh being part of Azerbaijan?
Under any Government of Azerbaijan – be that Musavatists or nowadays – they did not want to have any minorities in their country, Armenians or any other nation. They only want these territories but not the people living on the lands. At all times, any democratic and liberal policies vis-à-vis Nagorno-Karabakh or any other minority nations – the Kurds or Lezgian people – were simply excluded. Today in Azerbaijan you cannot find any Kurd – their IDs are for Turks only. They assembled the ethnic background of "Azerbijanis" by usurping the Persian and other nations' cultures as far as there is no single document to identify a nation of Azerbaijan before 1918. In 1918, at Turkey's order, the ethnic group was labeled by the name of the region in order to assimilate all these peoples.
Concluding I would once again bring your attention back to the fact that under all Azeri governments since 1918 they clearly specified they don’t need the minorities but only their territories. Pay attention to the following. Azerbaijan is a rare country in the whole world that calls its history the "History of Azerbaijan". We, Armenians, and other nations in the world call our histories the "History of Armenian nation", "history of German nation" etc. History is a science about the life of peoples. They call their history by the name of their territory, not the nation, which is funny.
Are you satisfied with the policy of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic authorities towards the conflict and its resolution?
First, I regret to see "de facto" wording in your question. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is a de jure statehood as far as it is based on the will of the people, Declaration of Independence, the referendum on independence, a Constitution which was adopted in a referendum, and a President, National Assembly and other bodies of a regular state – elected by the people. Is this "de facto" or de jure? I mean, the United States recognized the USSR only in 1934 – do you mean the Soviet Union didn’t exist before US recognition?
De jure status of statehood shall be based on the will and choice of its own people, which elects its representatives to govern them – not whether the international community recognizes it or not.
To the second, main part of your question, I would answer – Yes, in general – yes. Of course, there are several issues where we have different perspectives but in general we are on the same page.
Were you directly involved in armed hostilities between 1989-94?
Yes, I was involved. Our village was under direct, imminent threat of armed attack and invasion by Azeris. Azeris attacked, took away the cattle, killed the shepherd, killed a young man and his wife who was in her last week of pregnancy - they opened up her belly and took out the unborn child - and we had to organize a self-defense militia to protect ourselves. I was the commander of the squad until 1994.
How do you evaluate the work of the OSCE Minsk Process?
I would evaluate the work of the Minsk Group in two directions. Firstly, by tactics and strategic aspects the Minsk Group does a good job and its mission is very much important. They take steps to secure a peaceful settlement to the conflict, to maintain peace and to bridge contacts in different levels. So, the first is positive. Secondly however, the format of the Minsk Group is composed in a way to solve strategic issues, to solve the roots and causes of conflict itself, among other factors, just because NKR is not a party to the present process. We are only an indirect participant to the negotiations. Unless we are a full-party to the process any sustainable solution is impossible.
Do you have a publicly expressed a position on the Madrid Principles?
We have so far made several statements on the Madrid Principles. In one sentence – we reject these principles as we don’t think the real conditions are calculated there. As I mentioned before these principles represent an attempt to place the aggressor and the defenders on one block. This is simply an attempt to solve the issue for this particular moment. Whether this will bring a new confrontation and a war in the future is not considered. I will bring the following fact – since the ceasefire in 1994, when Azerbaijan overwhelmingly lost the war, the Karabakh side made a one-sided concession and stopped the war without any precondition. This concession didn’t bring peace however. Azerbaijan, getting wealthy, now again speaks about a new war. Despite once making a concession, we have the result of today. More concessions will bring the same in a decade. In short, we are against these principles.
Do you think it is important/appropriate that the de facto authorities of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic be part of the peace process facilitated by the Minsk Group? If yes should they be there instead of the Armenian Government?
I need to point at your "de facto" wording again. This is the first thing. Secondly – the answer is no, I don’t think we need to switch Armenia with Karabakh. I am sure that the NKR authorities need to engage in the current peace process, have its say in the talks, but together with Armenia; as far as both Armenian states have a stake in this conflict. Besides, Armenia has long been negotiating the conflict resolution and it doesn’t make sense to kick it out now.
Sometimes the possibility is mentioned that the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian control since 1994 should be returned to Azerbaijan as part of an interim peace arrangement, leaving the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh to a later date. Do you have an opinion on this issue?
This is an incorrect position and it’s impossible to implement. Those who offer this – they are not trying to solve the issue itself. First – if they want to solve the issue, why do they suppose to delay the recognition for 15 more years? If they postpone this – the core issue of the conflict – they are not aimed at reaching any final settlement.
Second, if we assume the refugees will return to their villages and will participate in the referendum in 15 years – how will he or she determine and/or evaluate whether the state where they live is good or bad if they have not been living in a state as such, because of the unrecognized status? What should determine their vote? Isn't this absurd? And adding to this – how can we force the refugees to live exactly in the village they had been living in previously? They should however have that right, but they don’t have to follow it by all means. This is kind of an anti-international norm. Each human being has the right to live in the best place they want, including their homeland, but how many Azeris have applied to the Government of NKR to return to their villages? NKR has a Law on Refugees – not only about Armenian refugees, but covering all refugees. How many Azeris have tried to apply this law and return?
Third, the final settlement should be found in a way that excludes any further war and secures a viable peace. Can you imagine what will happen if the refugees are back and then a new war erupts? What will happen then? That would be catastrophic! These people will become refugees for a second round with all the devastating consequences, as happened in Georgia in 2008.
Fourth, we have Armenian refugees from Sumgayit, Baku and elsewhere from Azerbaijan who did not raise arms to fight against Azeris. They were forcefully expelled from their homes as a result of ethnic cleansing. While the Azerbaijani displaced persons are not refugees as a whole, especially those from the inner villages of Karabakh. They raise arms and fought against the newly established Republic. So, I think we need to distinguish two sets of Azeri refugees – those who raise arms and those who did not. The latter group is the group of real refugees, while those who fought in the war together with the Azeri army cannot be regarded as a peaceful population of refugees, they are combatants. Thus, the Armenian and Azeri refugees should not be equated. This is very important.
Getting back to the issue of territories – these territories which you mentioned are the main security guarantee for NKR. The return of those lands will bring a war. But in the future, when the relations between the two countries – NKR and Azerbaijan – will be better, of course, as in Europe, the freedom of movement of peoples will make the borders a very relative matter. But this is so far impossible.
these interviews would be unnecessary, and the negotiations would finish up soon after that.
What is your opinion with regards to the role of Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States, the European Union or any other country or international organisation, or the international community in general, with regards to the Karabakh conflict and its settlement:
Of course, all states have their national interests. But Turkey is the founder of Azerbaijan in 1918 – remember the treaties of that period in Moscow and Kars, when Turkey was the security guarantor of Azerbaijan. So I will exclude Turkey from this list. All other states and international organizations should have a primary goal of bringing the two sides – NKR and Azerbaijan – to a viable and final settlement based on their interests and values. Any dictated from those international mediators should be excluded. They should only create conditions for the peace.
How do you evaluate the role of informal, NGO-level contributions to the peace process? Do you believe that informal contacts have a useful role to play prior to or after a formal agreement?
If we take this issue as an absolute – yes, I do believe in the strength of informal communications and NGO activities. But considering the present situation – no, I don’t believe them useful. The modern undemocratic state of Azerbaijan is structured in such a way as to control all NGOs and civil society and even establish NGOs itself, so-called Governmental NGOs. These are financed and moderated by the government and I don’t believe their mission will ever be aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. So, these organizartions are not free to push informal contacts on their own.
Do you have a position on the desirability or not of free movement of Armenians and Azeris between their two countries before a final peace agreement?
You know, from the beginning we need to achieve this. We have only two ways forward. At the end of the day, these two peoples had been living together for a long time and will continue living for ages. These kinds of contacts and cohabitation should be in a natural way and that is very much important. However at the outset we need to have the final peace agreement between the two states – NKR and Azerbaijan – peace should be established as a precondition.
Do you think that Armenian and Azerbaijanis will ever be able to live together peacefully in Karabakh again in the future?
I do think so. When Azerbaijan becomes a true democracy, and realizes that the main values of humankind are the freedoms of human beings and peace, and in the name of securing that peace recognizes the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic – a viable peace will be established and the peaceful cohabitation of Armenians and Azeris will become the natural way of things.
What is your opinion on the issue of return of refugees/IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh
A human being shall not and must not be forced to live in any particular place, and freedom of movement is a basic human right. As soon as Azerbaijan becomes a democracy this issue will be much easier to solve. However if a country is overly nationalistic and harbors hatred against other nations, with xenophobia and racism widespread – any cohabitation of two or more nations is impossible. We clearly see this in Azerbaijan. As soon as Azerbaijan becomes a democracy, Armenians can also return to their homes there, but I don’t see such an opportunity in the coming decades.
All in all, I think we need to forget who lived where, now we need to find a final settlement to this conflict, secure a viable peace in this region and after that the people will find their best places to live freely.
Read previous interviews in this series:
According to the Armenian government website, the prime minister presented the details of the informal meeting he had with Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev in Davos in January.