Six weeks after Azeri forces launched a military offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh, the deadly clashes continue, the successive ceasefires collapse before the ink on the deal has even dried, and the noose around the Armenians is tightening.
In this interview with Kathimerini, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian speaks of an attempted ethnic cleansing against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, adding that his people will not tolerate a second genocide, 105 years after the historic crime carried out by the Ottoman Empire.
Sarkissian claims that Turkey has already transferred jihadi mercenaries from fighting in Syria and Libya, “like those who are now in Paris and Vienna or elsewhere killing innocent citizens.”
Concerning a political solution to the problem, he says that the attack launched by Baku, with support from Ankara, “dramatically dispelled any desultory hope that some foreign experts used to harbor about peaceful coexistence of the Karabakh Armenians and Azerbaijanis within the boundaries of Azerbaijan.”
The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh has turned from a frozen conflict into a war of attrition for the last six weeks. Could you describe the situation on the ground and give us an idea of the human toll for the Armenian people?
I wouldn’t call the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict “frozen” because the Azeri side has always been trying to change and challenge the status quo by military means since a ceasefire was established between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan back in 1994 reached with the mediation of Russia. Instead of using the negotiation table to reach a final solution to the conflict during almost three decades, the Azeri side not only didn’t refrain from regularly and deliberately violating the ceasefire agreement and killing Armenian soldiers on the line of contact and civilians, both in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, but it was buying a large amount of modern weaponry worth billions of US dollars, including some prohibited ones, and turning the entire region into a powder keg. Moreover, Azerbaijan has been preparing its own population for a war, while the Armenian side then and now was a strong proponent of peaceful solution, and the Armenian elites were even sometimes criticized by some opposition representatives for being too peace-oriented instead of increasing military spending and harsh rhetoric.
Since the early 90s, Azerbaijan has increased its military budget by 10 times, and has never refrained from heavy xenophobic and militaristic rhetoric. Now we are witnessing its genocidal intentions in full action. Moreover, this inhuman aggression unleashed by the non-democratic Azerbaijani regime on September 27 is militarily and politically supported by another non-democratic regime in Turkey. Dictatorships don’t care about the destiny and prosperity of their own people, let alone respect simple human lives, values and dignity. A non-democratic regime, be it in Baku, Ankara or elsewhere, builds its “strength” and “pride” on the suffering of its own people, and hence, is of course more than inhuman toward other nations. Nagorno-Karabakh is not a conflict but a struggle of the pride of the Armenian nation for its security, proud life and dignity vs killings, humiliations and suffering.
As for the human toll of the Armenian people, there is always official daily information provided by the Armenian government which doesn’t hide those figures, unlike the Azeri side, which doesn’t deliver any information about its human or other losses. Every life of the Armenian side matters for us, and it’s not about numbers or mathematics. The beating of every single heart of the Armenian side is priceless to us, and we need to stop the bloodshed.
Who is to blame for the violations of three consecutive, temporary ceasefire agreements?
All three ceasefires or humanitarian truce agreements have been almost immediately violated by the Azerbaijani side, which not only didn’t stop its bombardments, but shelled the territory of Armenia as well. 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 but just to breach it immediately. Well, the logic is that the Azeri, not the Armenian side unleashed this well-planned and designed military aggression and war with a direct participation of Turkish generals, officers, special military units, Bayraktar death machines, as well as jihadists and Syrian mercenaries like those who are now in Paris and Vienna or elsewhere killing innocent citizens. The same is here in Nagorno-Karabakh: professional killers of Azerbaijan and Turkey against innocent people. Why does the Azeri side sign but is then motivated to violate ceasefires? It’s simple: Those dictators both in Baku and Ankara didn’t finish with their “mission,” which lies in “freeing” Nagorno-Karabakh from the Armenians living there for thousands of years.
This operation or policy is called ethnic cleansing, which is 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 the innocent people, but to finalize it. Under the name of establishing their control over Nagorno-Karabakh, they don’t want peace but tragedies, killing of civilians, destroying churches, hospitals and kindergartens, and spreading terror. Who on earth will agree to live with those barbarian terrorists? During about 25 years of negotiations Azerbaijan didn’t agree to any scenarios discussed under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, be it mediated by Russia, the US or France, or by all three co-chairs altogether. Because the only option Azerbaijan was in favor of, is to have Nagorno-Karabakh without Armenians. This is what happened 105 years ago with my nation in the Ottoman Empire, known as the Armenian Genocide. We will never allow another genocide to happen. Never! And this is what the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is about.
Your Azeri counterpart, President Ilham Aliyev, insists that a military solution to the conflict is feasible. Given the fact that Azerbaijan outnumbers Armenia in terms of military equipment and manpower, how could you possibly prove him wrong?
My nation doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody. The strength of the Armenian Armed Forces and the spirit of the Armenian nation were showcased during the first war in Nagorno-Karabakh in the late 80s. So, it’s not about a simple calculation of numbers and quantity. We fight for our homes, our homeland, children, and the preservation of the Armenian cultural heritage of thousands of years. This is what some fail to understand.
This conflict was imposed on us because Nagorno-Karabakh, overwhelmingly populated by Armenians, didn’t want to continue its forced existence with Soviet Azerbaijan and declared independence from Azerbaijan according to all existing rules and laws – by the way, applying the same procedures that Azerbaijan used to get its independence from the Soviet Union. The Azeri side, as a true dictatorship, doesn’t like freedoms and rights of its own and other peoples, and they tried to solve the problem with the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh by using military equipment and manpower, outnumbering Armenians, as you put it. So, they imposed war on us, and got retaliated against and defeated. Nothing and nobody can stop a nation from exerting its right to live freely and in security.
Would it be fair to say that the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, encourages Baku to adopt a most intransigent behavior? If so, to what end?
The role of Turkey in this conflict deserves special attention and understanding. This direct participation increases the number of conflicting sides, and internationalizes the conflict. Turkey’s proven involvement on the ground, although denied by the Turkish side, levels up the conflict and dramatically increases the scope, the magnitude and hence the consequences of the military aggression by Azerbaijan. The presence of fanatic jihadists and Syrian and other mercenaries renders the whole picture even more complex and complicated and endangers the security of the entire region which can turn the Caucasus into a new Syria.
Not only does Turkey encourage Baku to become a blind killer of peaceful people and to violate ceasefire agreements, but it keeps Azerbaijan as its hostage, transforming it into its new tool of political manipulation against Russia, the EU, the US and Iran. In the short term, Azerbaijan can be happy to have Turkey by its side and have its full support in the war against peaceful Nagorno-Karabakh, but in the mid- and long terms, it will be a failure, and only then will Azerbaijan realize to what extent it has become Turkey’s Caucasian puppet at the expense of its own politico-economic independence, maneuverability, stability and predictability. Turkey is a regional player with imperialistic ambitions and appetite, but with limited resources and a fading international reputation. It is messing up in Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean etc. So, using Azerbaijan to achieve its goals by also encouraging and pushing it to unleash a war is the least it can do in the region and beyond.
Ankara and Baku portray themselves as guarantors of Europe’s energy security, claiming that Armenian forces could shell the oil and gas pipelines crossing the region. Is it a real threat or just scaremongering?
This is a matter of unsubstantiated allegations and respective propaganda the government of Azerbaijan and the paid propagandists of its national interests in the West and elsewhere have tended to spread for decades. The consistent attempts to portray Armenia as a destructive force of the region that allegedly “poses a threat” to the energy infrastructure was and still remains a backbone of anti-Armenian fictional narratives the Azerbaijani side has fostered for foreign audiences. This aims to serve as moral justification for the ongoing aggression and war it wages against the Armenians. Despite numerous fabrications and intentional false interpretations diligently pushed by the Azerbaijani side on this matter, I can find no statement or sign of hidden intention by any acting Armenian top official ever which might contribute to such allegations. To the contrary, as recently as in July, when the fighting in the Tavush/Tovuz sector of the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border reached its apogee, the incumbent prime minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, came up with a clear statement reiterating that Armenia has never had any intention or plan to harm the oil and gas supplies stretching close to the Armenian border. Moreover, the Armenian side remained constructive with regard to the energy infrastructure that appears important for the economies of Europe, Turkey, Israel and so forth, prudently highlighting its share of responsibility with regard to the security of those critical economic arteries.
After all, if Armenia ever wanted to target and destroy the gas and oil pipelines, it has had multiple chances to do so. But why should we? After years of groundless and irrelevant Azerbaijani scaremongering and subtle manipulations to seed anti-Armenian sentiments abroad, it is regrettable to see that some political circles in Europe and beyond have started to buy some misleading fake narratives such as this one.
Russia is seen as a trusted and proactive mediator
Russia is an ally of Armenia, and has signed military agreements with it which do not include the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow is currently acting as an honest peace broker, a non-biased mediator. Do you expect something more at these most difficult times for your nation?
Russia is Armenia’s strategic ally, and Moscow remains committed to the security-related treaty arrangements it has with Yerevan. President Vladimir Putin made it clear that Russia is going to respect each agreement Russia has with Armenia, and this is an absolutely clear message. During a recent discussion, Vladimir Putin pointed out that while the overall bilateral relationship is growing positively, the interests of Turkey and Russia do not coincide when it comes to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Here in Armenia, in the context of the politico-military rivalry with Azerbaijan, Russia is seen as a trusted and proactive 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 October 10. And we must admit, it was a courageous and timely move, even though the Azeri side remained aggressively stubborn and fully destructive, violating the ceasefire.
One of the key problems at this stage of the conflict that is of mutual concern to Yerevan and Moscow is the appearance of jihadists from Syria, Libya and elsewhere that Turkey transfers to Azerbaijan for their further fighting against Armenians. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, about 2,000 of them have already reached the region. For decades, the region was free from Islamic fundamentalism, and now we have such a non-state actor inside Azerbaijan that employs terrorism as a new inhuman tool against civilians. This is a very destructive factor for regional destabilization, something atypical for our region, and indeed poses a serious challenge not only for the regional powers, but first and foremost for the Caucasus states proper, since the jihadist mercenaries in Azerbaijan increase the security risks for global projects and foreign infrastructure investments. By the way, those mercenaries pose a real direct threat to Azerbaijani society as well.
Armenia appreciates Moscow’s efforts as both treaty ally and honest broker to stop the flaring and hybrid war perpetrated by Azerbaijan and Turkey, and I am confident that this challenge we are facing now is positively testing the tight strategic bond between Armenia and Russia.
After one-and-a-half months of warfare, the Azeris have made territorial gains and a return to the status quo ante seems impossible. What kind of political solution would seem both realistic and acceptable to you?
Let me put it this way. The intensive phase of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is under way, and diverse tactical maneuvers cannot be considered territorial losses or gains. Let me remind you that in summer 1992, it might have seemed like the Armenian side was losing the war, seeking to repel the Azerbaijanis’ first aggression against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. But by May 1994, when Azerbaijan desperately asked for a ceasefire, the situation on the ground was starkly different.
As for the political solution, it is clear that such cruel and inhuman aggression perpetrated by Azerbaijan and orchestrated by Turkey, accompanied by multiple cases of war crimes and inhuman treatment of prisoners of war, dramatically dispelled any desultory hope that some foreign experts used to harbor about peaceful coexistence of the Karabakh Armenians and Azerbaijanis within the boundaries of Azerbaijan. For the Armenian side, this aggression once again came to justify that the only realistic option for the Armenians of Karabakh to survive is the recognition of their right to live and develop in their historical homeland outside Azerbaijan. So the only recipe of survival for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh is to acknowledge that Karabakh, with its reliable territorial connection to Armenia, can never be part of Azerbaijan.
A natural alliance
The Armenian and the Greek peoples are connected by historical and cultural ties. What would you expect from our government and our people at this critical moment of your history?
Greece and Greeks have a special place in the minds and hearts of the Armenians. The natural alliance of the Armenians and Greeks was multiply tested through the centuries, making our bond not only historical or cultural, but civilizational, based on people-to-people sympathy, a similar mentality, a shared historical destiny. The dynamics of political relations between our nations has proved that Armenia and Greece might benefit from a shared geopolitical vision and state-to-state strategic relationship, projecting our regional standings together. One vivid example is the trajectory of strategic trilateral partnership between Greece, Armenia and Cyprus. As long as the threat to our interests and security comes from the same source, Greece has a strong position in the European institutions at large and in NATO in particular, to exert pressure on a consistently defiant and increasingly unreliable Turkey. Greece is in place to raise legitimate concern and a set of actions underpinning or, if necessary, representing Armenia’s voice in this matter. We may unite our political weight and capabilities to take tangible measures along with other allies in the West to institutionally make Turkey and Azerbaijan accountable for their destabilizing and destructive actions.