Interview with the Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Paruyr Hovhannisyan

The war with Azerbaijan, the strained relations with Ankara, the distraction of Moscow, the US prospects, the theoretical support of Brussels and the support of Tehran: the complicated geopolitical position of Armenia.

By Domenico Nocerino and Valentina Chabert

General situation

There are still 33 prisoners of war after September 2022, more than 20 unconfirmed. We have some videos and evidence of the most horrifying stories from credible sources (NGOs and diplomats present there, Red Cross). Sometimes you hear about stability, but it is not true at all. With Azerbaijan the situation is degrading, in may 2021 it tried to invade Armenia with clashes starting from the borders, there was no big reaction and so they felt encouraged. There was another attempt in November 2021 and then the escalation of 2022. In the meanwhile there were rounds of meetings as Armenia never rejected an invitation for peace and recently EU Council President Charles Michel with USA, Georgia, Russia promoted bi and multilateral dialogues, few rounds of talks with foreign representatives. There was also a meeting in Brussels in August and all of a sudden this attack of 2022, which the only explanation is that of trying to get more of whatever was agreed, also for domestic purposes. Aliyev came to power only due to conflict: they always need to have enemies, he has to show that he’s a strong leader that can save the nation, therefore he always needs an enemy. One of the encouragement was the absence of many diplomatic and political messages, international organisations paralized, as the UN, the Council of Europe and others. There was an unprecedented attack that came close to densely populated towns in 3 provinces. In some areas we took our ambassadors, there are videos like horror movies which are even worse than what Talibans do.
There is a very aggressive stance and the proposal of peace treaty whatever we put it is sign it, leave it (that is the way they want to negotiate).
From the other point of view, there is diplomatic efforts to France (strong efforts from Macron), US for long time being absent during Trump administration now they are much more active. We are disappointed of Russian reaction; nevertheless, because of maybe these activities they are also trying to voice their concerns. This is the situation for the moment. On the one hand, we are very happy that the European Union deployed for the first time its fact-finding observation mission (it’s 40 civilians), OSCE has its separate mission, we see a High Commissioner for Human Rights and it is still problematic with UNESCO, since Azerbaijan still blocks a delegation to check the status of cultural heritage and particularly Armenian mediaeval churches. They fled around 70 prisoners from the last attack, but those 33 are still there.
The case is very problematic: there is Iran with its forces on the borders, Turkey moving its forces toward the border, so imagine which kind of conflict we would have.
Iran recently opened its consulate general here in Armenia and Turkey opened in Sushi (the part of former Nagorno Karabakh). Dangerous moves, the risk of escalation is still very high, we are trying to have a peace treaty negotiated by EU, France, the US, the efforts are there. Putin invited Pashinyan and Aliyev in Sochi (Russia) in a few days (Oct, 31). It depends a lot on the situation in Ukraine. In August Azerbaijan tried to make another attack using gas and energy as a threat. 

In the past, Russia was very important for Armenia. As we understand from previous meetings, Armenia was disappointed by CSTO and Russia because they did not intervene. Do you believe that Russia will still have a prominent role in supporting the Caucasus or at least Armenia, as well as in ensuring the security of the country?
“From the minutes of the attack, our first reaction was that of recalling the UN Security Council through Russia, to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). From the CSTO we had a mission of experts which presented their reports. From Russia there has been an attempt to have a ceasefire during the escalation, but not very successful. Nevertheless, it was part of the overall picture, and there have been attempts to stop the war. Of course we would expect more and it is not a secret, we put it loud in various occasions. There are specific arrangements, agreements. Still we believe that Russia is of course traditionally an important partner, it has traditional ties with countries on the region, so it would not simply disappear and you cannot make it disappeare, because Russia’s present is still important. We have in Nagorno Karabakh these 2000 peacekeepers, for the moment there is no other arrangement, so they are the only ones guaranteeing the physical existence of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh. There is a Russian base on our border with Turkey, and again if the relations are normalized this is very important. There is of course also Russia’s economic presence, its gas, its investments, presence in Armenia but also in other parts of the region, so it cannot disappear in 1 or 2 years. So we believe that Russia can still play a role in the region, we are constantly in talks about this. We hope that this Sochi meeting could be a contribution to stabilization.”. 

Considering that the last attack was against Armenia, so not Nagorno Karabakh, is there the possibility that western countries (US or Europe) might support Armenia not only with statements but also military or in other ways? Why do we not have any kind of sanctions, as in the case of Ukraine and Russia?
“We should not have a double approach to the issue. Karabakh is disputed, but now since it was Armenian territory it was not some border clashes, they went deep and near densely populated towns that have been evacuated. Unfortunately, the strongest voice was that of Iran, which would have not tolerated any kind of change in the territorial integrity of Armenia. It was quite clear the opening of the Consulate. France was also quite clear, the US is stronger than before, but still we think that the reactions were not enough. Nevertheless, for the first time the EU agreed to send its mission: it is not military, but it has some preventing role,  even though maybe not so strong as the one of OSCE. Azerbaijan was blocking the decision and in the EU again it tried to block this mission, but now probably because it crossed this red line there was this decision to send the mission.
We would like to see more, but at least this current situation let’s hope that there is more attention of the current gravity of the situation than before. US engagement will also remain, and it is like never before in our country.
We hope it would be the case in the future regardless the worsening of other situations in other parts of the world. It is possible to have more measures, because the consequences of this conflict would be much wider than what we could think, as well as implications.”.

Considering that Turkey is going to have the elections, do you believe that in case Erdogan would lose, without its support Aliyev might change the strategy towards Armenia?
“It depends on who will come. Also bad forces might come, because it is not clear what the alternative could be. Erdogan now is quite nationalistic, and as the elections are coming, he can be also more assertive. So that’s not helping neither the normalization talks, neither our position towards south Caucasus and Azerbaijan, much more radical and aggressive than before. At least, there was a meeting between Pashinyan and Erdogan in Prague, and they said that they would continue normalization, but Turkey stated that they would always would agree only if also Azerbaijan agrees. So, why are we even talking if Azerbaijan would not approve?
It is a big and unpredictable neighbor close to us, so we need to talk. We will continue our approach to keep engagement and normalization process. For instance, we agreed last June that third countries’ citizens could cross the Turkish/Armenian border. Now it has not been implemented yet, because from Turkey they say that it is taking time. Before we were proposing that for inhabitants from the villages of the borders, but they refused, as well as when we proposed this for holders of diplomatic passports. Finally, citizens of third counties they agreed, as well as for air cargos, but it took times for this agreements to be implemented. They are not saying that they would not implement it, but are doing it very slowly. Our position is unchanged: we have to still keep going on with them.”.

From the meeting with the Parliament, the normalization should come without preconditions. This is the worrying point: how is possible that Ankara or Baku would not put any precondition?
“The attempts are trying to find steps that can be little improvements. The most difficult thing is that the parties to normalization should be 2 and not 3, because it is very difficult to reach a quick result. I am convinced of the fact that putting preconditions is not favouring any advancements, but nevertheless at least from both sides the message is that of continuing the efforts.”.

In 2022, the CSTO supported Kazakhstan and Armenia was leading the mission. In September, CSTO didn’t support militarily Armenia, even though there was a threat to a sovereign territory. In the case of Kazakhstan it was different, but if we look at the CSTO, Kazakhstan is partner of Turkey and it is also was inside the Turkish Organization Council, it is a strong partner of Azerbaijan. Doesn’t it mean that the organization does not fit anymore the challenges of the present and future scenarios?
“The situation with Kazakhstan was during the Armenian presidency of CSTO. We did it because we were sure that if something would have happened to Armenia, Kazakhstan would have intervened. It was not Karabakh, but Armenia within its borders. Then September came, and the response is what we saw. That is the response to your question. Kirgizstan suspended its membership in the organization because of border clashes with Tajikistan. Kazakhstan is really close to Azerbaijan due to Caspian cooperation, both are members of the Turkish Council. There are some voices that we should leave the organization immediately, but my personal view is do we have perspective to join now another structure? If no, then what will we gain? Those countries would become more hostile? This organization has some little restraining role. Before there was also the possibility to buy armaments, now all the arms are going to Ukraine and there is nothing to buy even if they wished to say.”

Iran made a lot of statements about the borders of Armenia, affirming that they should stay as they are. Do you think or were there some discussions that Iran would intervene militarily to defend Armenia or it is just sustain from the legal point of view?
“For Iran, Armenian borders are a redline and if they would be violated, they would react with all possible means. The opening of the Consulate General is the step demonstrating that they are being serious, statements of all level including with Putin and Erdogan are very clear too. The activities on all level show that they are very worried that if Armenia would lose its southern territories it would be for them unacceptable. We are discussing many transportation rules with Iran, but also with Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia. Iran is interested in many alternatives, of course he is engaged with Turkey and Azerbaijan on other routes, but for them it is important transportation routes. Armenia is trying to promote many interconnectivity projects. There are also provocative statements from Azerbaijan regarding the Azerbaijani community claiming for Iran, it is about 10 to 15 millions. Iran is not happy at all to hear these statements, claims that the cultural heritage is azeri. At the beginning of the Year two members of the Azerbaijani parliament came to Yerevan to the mosque, which was reconstructed thanks to funds from Iran. These two azeris went to take pictures and stated that it was an Azerbaijani monument. Then Iran immediately responded saying that they have not to prove something, but reminded that it was built by Iranians. Azerbaijan is claiming that many Persian writers and actors have been of Azerbaijani origin. However, there was not azeri identity, which came just with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the project of Turkey to create this Turkish state as many others in Central Asia. New nations were created, and Iran is very sensitive also to the cultural heritage issue as we are. I believe they are much more engaged than before. It is also good for Europe, as it would be a great contribution in security, energy, stability and stabilization in the region. At the moment, Armenia is taking the gas both from Iran and from Russia. We are trying to diversify our energy sources, we take 30-35% of our energy from the nuclear station that we have since soviet times; now the IAEA has made visits and was satisfied with the situation of our nuclear plant. We have also hydroelectric sources, and the rest is with gas and termo-stations, but we are still trying to diversify with solar energy. With the gas, Iran is a very small contribution, but there could be much more possibilities.”.

How does it works, due to the fact that both Iran and Russia are under sanctions?
“We are very cautious about sanctions, and this is why our trade with Iran is always the same. We have the biggest American embassy in the region, so we are very cautious about sanctions. Nevertheless, America is being understanding how difficult is the situation in terms of flexibility towards these issues. Of course our hope is that if the sanctions would ease the nuclear deal to go ahead, for us it would be better, since the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan is closed, our hope of opening the borders would not come to reality. Our priority now is the opening of the transportation route, in which also Georgia is being included, and of course Iran, because we do not have railway connections with him.”.

Talking about the US, Nancy Pelosi visited Yerevan, then she went to Taiwan. How do you interpret the interest of the US? Is it just to fill the vacuum and do something against Russia?
“It is possible to have this feeling, but during Trump administration it was nothing at all, and it didn’t help, because it left Russia and Turkey to discuss among themselves. We do not have to push someone in or out: what we want is to push international engagement, because our idea is that of not having just one player, one who fills the gap of the other, we never wanted to be dominated by one actor. We want the internationalization of this approach. US important from this point of view: how much they would be engaged it would be something to see in the future, but it is much better to have someone playing a role. For instance, these 77 prisoners of war released after the attack on September, it was US efforts which insisted and negotiated, managing to give the prisoners back. How much and in which format this engagement will continue, it is a good question and we will see. For us it is important to have more engagement, more attention, more diplomatic efforts.”.

Are there plans of meetings between Pashinyan and Aliyev in the near future?
“Yes, there are plans. The first will be on the 31st October in Sochi, with Putin’s invitation. There are also plans to have meetings in Brussels and also foreign ministers are planning to meet to discuss the new prospects of the peace treaty. We are always ready to discuss new engagement and never rejected meetings in any form, be it with Russia, the EU, US and even bilateral, when Georgia organized a meeting in Tbilisi  just facilitating the talks, we didn’t deny also that. We are open for any efforts.”.

The military gap between your troops and Azerbaijan maybe represents one of the main impediments to peace. How are you trying to cope with Azerbaijan’s military superiority?
“The military superiority comes from the direct support of Turkey and it is clear that we cannot compete with Turkey. The engagement of some others like Pakistan is the very danger, but we also know how to use diplomatic sources and are trying to recover our military defense capacity with many partners: India (we have a military cooperation with our potential partners), this unbalance is dangerous but we are trying to do our best. I believe that this conflict has no military solution for lasting peace. This is the best moment to do it once and for all, without entering in never-ending circles. I have to remind that in the past Armenia won the war, then it lost but it may be the case in the future to win again.”.

So, the diplomatic way is the only method to solve the conflict?
“I don’t think that there may be any alternative to this.”.

In April 2021, the USA recognized the Armenian genocide, last month Nancy Pelosi came to Yerevan and here it has its second biggest embassy. Is this relation with the USA affecting your ties with Russia in any way? Do you believe that it is genuine or is it just taking advantage of a fading Russia due to Ukraine?
“US engagement did not start with Ukraine. Of course there could be other elements, but for instance it was Ronald Reagan first mentioning about the Armenian genocide. After WWI, Wilson had the mandate to re-draw the map of Armenia, after the genocide it was the US that provided the greatest support with Armenia children taken to US. We wish to maintain the relations with all the States, not just with one side. So I wouldn’t put it just in the context of recent developments or rivalries between US and Russia. The Minsk group until the war in Ukraine started was the only format when Russia and the US were cooperating very effectively. That is what we hope may be the case one day, and what is certain is that we wouldn’t like to be forced to choose between one or the other. We don’t want to choose: for us it is not an option. We have not seen any specific issue with Russia, which is an economic, military and strategic partner. US forces more on assistance and development of democracy.”.

Could the maintenance of territorial integrity in exchange for the crystallization of the situation in Nagorno Karabakh a proposal to be considered even though it would mean deceiving the Armenian population?
“We always rejected this narrative which is Azerbaijan narrative to see the conflict as a territorial integrity issue. It is about human rights and security of Armenians living in Artsakh. Even in the Madrid principles the measures there were not about the status of the territories but the deployment of peacekeepers, de-blocking, interim status of Armenian. The last points were about the future, what to discuss and how to decide the future status of the land. Now it is the same: first, ensuring security and existence. There are episodes threatening existence: in Karabakh winter is much more cold, and azeri blocked and closed the pipelines for long. They restored the pipeline and the flux of gas thanks to American mediation, then it was shootings, loundspeakers making pressures to leave the land as if this was their last chance, Islamic prayers during night time and lights on the houses while people are sleeping. I would have expected Russian peacekeepers to be more active to protect the population there, and even invasion of villages. Nevertheless, nobody left: the Armenians of Karabakh are so attached to their lands that there has not been an exhodus of population. For us, at the stage we cannot discuss the status because it would not be productive. It would be a step to recognize that there is a problem, since Azerbaijans doesn’t even recognize that it exists. Then, we could proceed with other topics.”.

Will one day Ararat be Armenian again?
“Ararat is for us like Vesuvio for Napolitans It is hard to say: it is more a religious symbol for us and has not any territorial claim. I am sure it could be Armenian in many ways: for instance by opening the border, if Turkey would allow Armenians to come to visit this place, to go close to it. It is not necessarily to dream about unrealistic things, but there are measures that could be done and are worthy to be tried. Opening the border would be a big challenge because many products would be a competition for us, but it is not normal to have border closed and to deprive people from their rights. If borders are open, it may still become Armenian: people could have access to the land of their ancestors, bringing it back at least psychologically.”.

Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia