Karabakh: The big debate
Commonspace.eu today publishes the 7th 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 Arif Aliev, a war veteran and invalid from the Karabakh region of Agdam.
Interview with Gegham Baghdasaryan
Gegham Baghdasaryan was born in 1961, in the Sardarashen village of the Askeran region, NKR. He attended school and received his higher education in Stepanakert before serving in the Soviet Army from 1982-84, and then working at the "Soviet Kharabakh" newspaper between 1984-1991. Baghdasaryan served as the Head of the Information Department in the NKR Supreme Soviet, first convocation, 1992-93. He has also been the Editor-in-Chief of the "Azat Artsakh" newspaper twice in 1994-95 and 1998-99, and has been President of the Stepanakert Press Club since 1998. Throughout his journalist career Baghdasaryan has been the editor-in-chief of "Demo" and other newspapers in NKR. Baghdasaryan also served as an MP in the NKR National Assembly, 4th convocation, between 2005-2010.
Biographical notes are provided by the interviewees themselves.
Can you summarize your overall position on the Karabakh conflict and the conflict resolution process:
I see the current regional reality as this: new statehoods are clearly indicated in the political map of the Caucasus. Moreover, we have "a rich palette" for state-building here - there are state entities with recognized, partly recognized and unrecognized status on behalf of the international community. No matter how long the United States and Europe - in the case of Kosovo - and Russia - in the cases of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -say that these are not precedents. This process was kicked off by its "father" of Soviet perestroika. No one can escape this process as life will establish its own rules. It's impossible to revive our "paper-based guidelines", and it's more realistic to fit our principles with the realities of life.
Concerning the issue of precedence, I regard myself as belonging to the supporters of the view that each and any conflict is unique in its own right, and there cannot be any universal approach to them, at least under this world order. But one thing is clear for me without any doubts - human rights are a 100% universal value. Under the current world order and established relations in the zones of conflict, the existing weight of history is the best, and perhaps the only, way to ensure human rights protection - that being the recognition of political independence of nations.
Whether or not we appreciate it, there is an established clear-cut military-political balance in our region. There are two options - to destroy that balance by force, or either to constructively employ the established balance for regional security and stability. The August war of 2008 (South Ossetia) proved the lack of any perspective for the use-of-force scenario.
The status-quo in this region is maintained not only thanks to the military balance among Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, but also due to a very complicated balance of power between Russia, the US, EU, Turkey and Iran. Some experts would argue that the breach of this system at any level would necessarily bring a breach to the status-quo at the border, or LOC, as it is often regarded.
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:
In the long run I would like to see Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state. Any scenario of Karabakh being a part or subordinate of Azerbaijan or any other foreign state is excluded indeed, as that would mean the loss of sovereignty and threat of assimilation. Regarding Armenia, it's true, we are one nation and we have one culture, however for a long time we have lived separately from each other - developing certain mental specifications. To have special relations and, all in all, integration is much more preferable than becoming a region of the Republic of Armenia. However, in any case, this duality is a matter of choice between a good and ideal perspective. This is our choice to be made in Stepanakert, our opportunity to choose, which we will never abandon.
What is your biggest objection/concern to Nagorno-Karabakh being part of Azerbaijan?
Personally, I don't want to live in a country where, to say the least, human rights are not respected, where xenophobia has deep roots and is even developing nowadays so as even the second generation can hardly overthrow this. Usually, as a precedent the case of Nakhijevan is being brought - where there is no single Armenian left. Nakhijevan comes to mind as an eloquent example of "white genocide", as a precedent which was an imminent threat to Nagorno-Karabakh and will become greater if Karabakh becomes part of Azerbaijan by bad luck. I would prefer to review this from a different perspective.
In the same Nakhijevan, where nowadays only Azeris live, there is a devastating and disgraceful situation around. It seems to be a medieval feudal kingdom - unlinked (disconnected) from the outer world and forgotten by God. A human being doesn't have any value or dignity there - the same way as in Azerbaijan-proper. The change of this attitude and a perspective of becoming a democratic and civilized country is not a "threat" to Azerbaijan anyhow in the near future - so it doesn't make any sense to speak about becoming a part of Azerbaijan.
There are numerous other arguments as well and, I guess, other interviewees have already brought those ones. Thus, I have just tried to portray the situation from another perspective.
Are you satisfied with the policy of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic authorities towards the conflict and its resolution?
Today in Armenia and NKR the need and opportunities for recognizing NKR statehood is much discussed, however, from my point of view, today it is much more important to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as a "factor" in general. Unfortunately, Karabakh is not only excluded as a factor from the negotiations today, but also is not perceived seriously on behalf of official Yerevan (i.e. the incumbent authorities), and moreover - on certain occasions - nor as a decisive factor of domestic politics. NKR should have its say not only in the negotiations, but also in issues of pan-Armenian importance.
Karabakh can and should become an independent regional military-political factor. The authorities in NKR should have to face this imperative and the challenges of the time. On the contrary, the transformation from a subject into an object is capable of holding very unpleasant surprises and threatens our national security.
The first step to this may be a clear-cut distinction (differentiation) between the rights and responsibilities of the two Armenian statehoods in the peace process, which would contribute to establish autonomous policies (in certain issues) of the elected authorities in Karabakh. However, the authorities in NKR have few resources and are unwilling to adopt any independent policy. This will continue so long as the NKR authorities are subject to the interference of Yerevan. This is, in my view, the biggest challenge for Karabakh society.
Were you directly involved in armed hostilities between 1989-94?
Between January and August 1994 I have served as the training Regiment Deputy Commander in the NKR Defense Army. Personally, I did not participate in military operations, but was on the front line on numerous occasions throughout the wartime, as a journalist.
How do you evaluate the work of the OSCE Minsk Process?
Evaluating the OSCE Minsk Group efforts to maintain peace and the peace negotiations since the ceasefire, the peace process itself could have been much more effective if the format of talks were chosen in a right composition, and the line of causes and consequences (causal connections) were realized rightfully. The other shortcoming of the OSCE MG activities is the underestimation of the three civil societies involved in this conflict.
In reality, the decisive factor will sooner or later be the opinion of the conflict-affected societies, as peace will not be viable without a consciousness of tolerance. The peace process may be effective only if the parties include the societies of all the warring states. This is why it is very important to build bridges of trust and only after that move towards a comprehensive agreement.
Meanwhile, the mediators, as a rule, escape any contact with the societies, and limit themselves only to meeting with the respective authorities. The societies have always been ignored - both by their own authorities, the mediators and other international actors.
Do you have a publicly expressed a position on the Madrid Principles?
I have touched upon the Madrid Principles in different contributions and articles during recent years. Here are the main theses:
Karabakhis are afraid of the current understanding of "compromise". They realize that the conflict should be resolved by compromise, but do not understand what is the concession of other parties involved. We are asked to give up territories, which, above everything else, are a security belt and an important asset in our own national security system. But this is not everything still.
We are also asked to secure the return of Azeri refugees to Karabakh, i.e. the return of those parts of our population which actively participated in the blockade and the armed hostilities against the other part of the population - Armenians. In return, we are offered some interim status, or, the Azeri version, autonomy inside Azerbaijan. The absurdity of this is the fact that now we enjoy a higher status. Azerbaijan in fact suggests giving us only a minor part of what it wants to grab from us. The same is true with regards to the territories - we are offered a thin corridor, which is only a miserable part of what they plan to take away from us. The Azeri part of concessions is again on our shoulders and this is called a compromise. The second so-called concession of Azerbaijan is much more insulting: whipping up an atmosphere of fear and periodically threatening the resumption of armed hostilities. Azerbaijan has made a compromise of its own, the non-resumption of the war. The President of Azerbaijan has continuously underlined that the limit of compromise for Baku is the commitment to a peaceful settlement of the problem.
In general, we see a strange situation - each time paralleled with the assurances of mediators over a golden opportunity in the conflict resolution, the bellicose rhetoric of Azeri leadership goes up and a new, more reinforced coil of anti-Armenian propaganda kicks off. I have been thinking on this for quite a long time - but then realized the cause. It's a pity, but a fact: the position of mediators and the whole international community is the very feeding factor behind such an attitude from Azerbaijan. Agreeing that the non-resumption of hostilities is really a concession from Azerbaijan, the mediators "willy-nilly" contribute to the permanent actualization of a military threat, for Azerbaijan to keep this virtual concession in stock.
Meanwhile, the non-use of force should be an important condition for the peace process, not a concession from any side. Putting it simply, the winning Armenian side is required to actively behave nicely, and the losing side only restrain from doing anything bad. From the pedagogical point of view - this is a poor method of education.
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?
For me personally there are two components, the very existence of which in the negotiation process would prevent me from evaluating it optimistically - that is the full participation of NKR in the talks and cessation of the information war. Today we have neither. Under the existing context I give more importance to the second component which may become a basis for the first one and ultimately the whole process. No one speaks about resolution during a shelling. The information warfare of Azerbaijan against Armenians is usually a measure before armed hostilities.
Karabakhi people do not trust the peace process, among other reasons, because they don't participate in the business of deciding their own destiny. Any decision without the say of the Karabakhi people will not make sense, while Azerbaijan denies any participation of NKR. It's obvious that only NKR can bear responsibility on the issues of refugee settlement, as well as territories - questions which are of primary interest for Azerbaijan.
Regarding the format of talks, the political-military balance that emerged after the cessation of hostilities is the main guarantee of non-resumption of war and this needs to be recognized.
The conflict has three sides - Azerbaijan, NKR and Armenia. However we don't need to fall along extremes and switch Armenia with NKR, which, particularly, was suggested by former NKR President Arkadi Ghukasyan on the last year of his presidency. The conflict has many problems which may be resolved in NKR-Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan- Armenia, and NKR-Armenia frameworks. For instance, NKR cannot negotiate any return back of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, but Armenia should deal with the issue, etc.
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 possibility doesn't make any sense to me, because after getting back the territories Azerbaijan will not have any incentive to be constructive on the status issue. Furthermore, this will redouble Azerbaijan's temptation to use force - having a more favorable situation. By the way, Azerbaijan doesn't make a secret out of this. You can find numerous links with such official statements in the media. Here is one: www.regnum.ru/news/1195958.html
Such kinds of scenarios, phrased in your question, are not understandable at all. Those who care about our security should not try to destroy our security system. Under the conditions of today's active anti-Armenian hatred and propaganda from Azerbaijan we shouldn't even think about such scenarios.
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:
Under the conditions of competing geopolitical interests between Russia and the US in the South Caucasus, the EU can balance the overall geopolitics with its participation in peace-building initiatives. Thus, the EU may become a main component of regional security and stability, and one of the important pillars for conflict resolution here.
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?
Someone from the Armenian authorities once said that the information over the negotiations process is shared only among six people. I guess the same amount is true for Azerbaijan. Of course, some information about the negotiations should be kept confidential in any case, but on the flip side without engaging the societies, considering their voice and position on a possible compromise, any agreement may remain just on paper. One day the authorities may be asked what they have done to prepare the societies for a compromise.
Keeping a long story short, engaging the conflict-affected societies is a must, from my point of view.
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?
The leadership of Azerbaijan does its best to escape any contacts or cooperation with NKR and puts a precondition of solving the broader issues and only then going for contacts. However contacts and cooperation may only bring both sides to a conflict resolution, this is in our powers for sure.
This reminds me of a Soviet-time joke: from the memoirs of a Kolkhoz chairman - "we have two issues on the agenda today - the construction of the barn and the construction of communism. Not having the necessary building materials we skipped to the second issue".
Do you think that Armenian and Azerbaijanis will ever be able to live together peacefully in Karabakh again in the future?
I have never been serious on the talks of genetic incompatibility between Armenians and Azeris, regarding it as absurd. The real challenge is to secure an environment for Armenians and Azeris to live and develop good neighborly relations. This is an important requirement in Armenia, NKR and Azerbaijan - all three sides. This requires time to destroy stereotypes, and build bridges of trust. In the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict there is an issue of double-refugees. This is a great tragedy indeed and should not be repeated elsewhere.
What is your opinion on the issue of return of refugees/IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh
The issue of refugees needs to be solved on a mutual basis. I don't think it's possible to have a massive return to Armenia, Azerbaijan and NKR. The mass return is a certain war in itself, while not everyone is ready to return, others will wait for the first settlement as good practice to follow. It's necessary to have an individual, not a massive return. However first an appropriate environment must be established. Without this, it will only serve to build up ghettos at best. I don't think this is the aim of mediators.
Nagorno-Karabakh, without its own will, has become the symbol of separation of Armenians and Azeris - but now we have a historical opportunity to get rid of the wall of alienation. This is possible only if NKR, Armenia and Azerbaijan would see this region as an oasis for the future. It's much easier to find grounds of cohabitation in an oasis.
Read previous interviews in this series:
The public debate between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Munich on Saturday was not there to be won or lost, but was itself a confidence-building measure, argues Dennis Sammut in this week's Monday Commentary