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Interview of President Serzh Sargsyan to “Politique Internationale” Journal

04 March, 2009

THE FUTURE IS OURS

On 21 September 1991, following a national referendum Armenia re-established its independence. A year and a month previously, on 23 August 1990 the Declaration of Independence had been adopted by a parliament freely elected by Armenia’s citizens —a first such parliament for the Soviet era. On that historic day, all the Armenian elite were present in the parliament’s main hall. As we stood there, the crowd outside was swirling around the building, like a vast sea surrounding an island. The ceremony was broadcast live on television and, in the street loudspeakers had been set up to enable the people to listen. Emotions ran very high and there was wild enthusiasm.

The long journey to independence
For the second time in the 20th century, we were witnessing the birth of an independent Armenian state. We had lost our statehood in 1375, when the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia fell to the Mameluke conquerors. Captured and taken to Cairo, the last King of Armenia, Leon VI Lusignan, was released only years later following payment of a ransom by King Juan I Castille. Until his death, Leon VI travelled the length and breadth of Europe in search of a sovereign who would help him restore his Christian kingdom. All was in vain. For centuries, while other renowned Armenians —settled in Madras, London, Paris, Moscow or St Petersburg —took up the torch of the struggle for independence, in Armenia itself, the princes of Karabakh and Zangezour waged an unrelenting battle for the liberation of their land.
On that very day, 23 August 1990, those glorious images passed before my eyes. That day, I had made a special journey from Karabakh, where I was head of the Committee for Self-Defence Forces. I was born and brought up there and I have lived there. With ten other natives of Karabakh, I had been elected as a member of the new parliament of Armenia. Those were years filled with hope. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. Gorbachev’s perestroika had undermined the foundations of the “steel-strong empire”. Our lungs had been filled with a huge breath of freedom and nothing could hold us back any longer. In February 1988, the Council of the autonomous region of Mountainous Karabakh (1) with the unanimous support of the population, had passed a resolution by which it applied to Moscow, Baku and Yerevan for reunification with the mother-land-Armenia, the moment we had been waiting for many a long year. For decades, we had cherished the hope that one day a just power would revise the heinous decision of the Caucasian Bureau of the Bolshevik Party which, in 1921, had torn Mountainous Karabakh from Armenia to attach it to Azerbaijan. The people of Karabakh never accepted the injustice, all the more so because the authorities of Soviet Azerbaijan conducted anti-Armenian policies, regularly attempting to close Armenian schools, cultural centres and churches and otherwise harass them. In 1988, we genuinely believed that the moment of truth had finally arrived, that the resolve of the people was unbending and that no one would dare to oppose it.
Soviet power was in its final throes and was struggling to find a solution to the conflict rumbling on its borders. So it began a frantic pursuit of the “Karabakh Movement” (2) which was fighting for freedom and democracy. It was the first great mass movement encountered by the Soviet Union and one which was to have repercussions throughout the Empire to the very edges of the Baltic. We know what happened next: violence was unleashed with anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait and Baku. Many people were victims of looting; others were even lynched by frenzied crowds. In total, 350,000 Armenians fled their towns and villages, abandoning their homes, possessions and jobs to seek refuge in Armenia or elsewhere. On the other hand, Azeris living in Armenia left for fear of reprisals. Armenia was already giving shelter to hundreds of thousands of homeless people following the terrible earthquake in Spitak in December 1988.
However, nothing could discourage us. On the contrary, the difficulties had united us. With the help of the police and the regular Soviet army on the spot, Baku had surrounded Karabakh on every side. Nagorno Karabakh had become the symbol of freedom and Armenian rebirth. The Soviet apparatchiks no longer had any control over the course of events. The people had united in readiness to defend their rights.
On 21 September 1991, under conditions aggravated by the aftermath of the earthquake and the threats of war hanging over us, the Armenian people voted for independence in a 99% poll.

Mountainous Karabakh, the tortured land (3)
Seventeen years later, on 9 April 2008, during the extraordinary session of the National Assembly held in the auditorium of the Opera House in Yerevan, on the day of my presidential inauguration, I was standing to the national anthem, and this time I saw other images passing before my eyes — dramatic situations in which I myself had participated. When the people of Karabakh, in accordance with Soviet laws, requested reunification with Armenia, the Soviet–Azeri forces of repression, on the pretext of “ensuring the observation of passport regulations”, launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Armenians that quickly became a proper war. Every day, all the towns and villages of Karabakh were subjected to volleys of gunfire and showers of shelling. The old, the women and the children sought shelter in cellars. All the men had gone to defend their homes and families. All of Karabakh was in flames and had shrivelled to nothing. The fate of Armenia itself hung in the balance. There were many victims and heroes too, and, thank God, we were able to resist.
We resisted, and with a spade in one hand and a gun in the other, we built our country. I remember the offices of the Armenian Parliament, in Yerevan, clouded with cigarette smoke, where we would meet to draft the constitution —an exercise that gave rise to impassioned debate! We had been through war, the economy was in tatters, poverty was endemic, discontent was swelling, but we were sure that we had chosen the right path, and we were convinced that beyond these ordeals, a better life, peace and security, awaited us.
Why am I bothering to recount all this? After all, in Armenia, everyone knows it by heart. If I take the trouble to recall those moments, it is for those who did not experience them personally. For almost fifteen years, I headed security or defence structures: I was Minister of the Interior, of National Security, and also, for longer years, Armenian Minister of Defence. In Karabakh, as I mentioned, I headed the Defence Committee and before that, during the Soviet era, I was the assistant to the party’s First Secretary Henrik Poghosyan. More recently, I have had the honour of being the Prime Minister of Armenia. I have been through many hardships. I know the cost of war and peace.
That is why, as the person responsible for the security and stability of the country I lead and of its people, my principal purpose is to speak above all about the place and role of the South Caucasus in today’s world, and of the challenges that we are facing.

Regional security
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cold light of day unveiled problems that, until then, the old regime had succeeded in concealing. Suddenly, new actors appeared on the regional stage. The region gave rise to considerable interest because of its energy resources and the importance of its geopolitical situation. In addition to the ambitions of the regional and world powers with respect to the South Caucasus, there was disruption occasioned by ongoing regional conflicts. More than fifteen years after achieving independence, the countries of the region are still not managing to fulfil their economic potential.
Since 8 August 2008, all gazes, especially that of Europe, have been focused on our region. The dramatic events which played out in Georgia are threatening to alter the balance of power and the geopolitical image of the region by creating new security models. In the face of those changes, our fellow citizens are now asking us crucial questions to which we, as the leaders of the region’s countries, must provide clear answers. For Armenia, regional security remains a top priority. We have always made proposals for the peaceful resolution of conflicts based on compromise. We have also put forward proposals with a view of healing the rifts, adopting mutually acceptable security systems, developing regional co-operation and establishing relations between neighbours without preconditions.
The events of last summer revealed just how fragile the regional balance is, and we hope that in future the international community will have a better understanding of our concerns. Maintaining stability, which continues to be our dearest wish, is not an end in itself: it is a necessary condition for the existence of the peoples of the region; it is essential to their security and their development. Stability is also crucial to the optimal operation of regional and inter-regional communication routes.
In any decision-making process, we always need to refer to the values we believe in, the most precious of which is peace. We need to try to understand the point of view of others and to respect it. For that, in case of diverging opinions we need to have the will to choose dialogue over methods —as ineffective as they are dangerous —using force, constraint or threat. We need to create a common vision and an atmosphere of confidence and co-operation. That is where things begin to become complicated, for the long-term goals must never be sacrificed in favour of more immediate gains, a principle that demands courage, political will and constant effort. Armenia is ready to commit to this path in order to contribute to the lessening of regional tensions and to the reconciliation of the region’s peoples.
In that context, we hail the principles of resolution drawn up by President Medvedev and President Sarkozy, as the president of the European Union at the time. We believe that their implementation is likely to restore peace in the region.
Nevertheless, the international community appears to be still propounding many preconceived notions on the subject of the South Caucasus, notions formulated during the many decades when the region was not in its primary scope of its interest. Even today, Europe and the world are slow to devise a consistent policy with regard to the South Caucasus.
However, the countries of the region, which all have their own expectations, have engaged in a process of European integration: they are members of the Council of Europe and have established ties of enhanced co-operation with the European Union in the framework of the Neighbourhood Policy, which is creating a good basis for regional co-operation. Nevertheless, there are still concerns regarding the possible appearance in our region of new lines of division, especially when they are aimed at isolating Armenia. I am fully convinced that the future of our region lies in the settlement of our differences, the building of democratic societies, and the creation in the South Caucasus of a common economic zone.
Despite the difficulties, our reform policy has borne fruit. The evaluations of specialist international organizations are very positive, and the economic indicators speak for themselves: since 2000, Armenia has registered an average annual growth of 13.6%. In 2007, it reached 13.8%, stabilizing at 10.4% over the first nine months of 2008. Over the last ten years, under the presidency of Robert Kocharian, the income of Armenian citizens has risen: the amounts of pensions and average salary have increased sixfold. Since 2005, per capita GDP has tripled. It is clear to all that the country has totally changed.
Today, Armenia is a country with a stable financial system and a dynamic economy. We have overcome the repercussions of the conflict over South Ossetia, despite major damage. Given the fact that 70% of Armenian trade with the outside world transits through Georgian territory, it is not difficult to understand what the impact of the closure of communication routes might have been on our economy. For the most part, we have escaped the first wave of the world economic crisis. Today, we are getting ready to cushion the blow to growth through a series of targeted initiatives. A remarkable fact worth noting is that businessmen of Armenian descent living in various countries, affected by the economic crisis, are planning to return to Armenia to settle (4), because they are finding here the opportunities and stability needed to carry on their businesses. However, two crucial issues remain unresolved: the Karabakh conflict and relations with Turkey.

Mountainous Karabakh: A problem not yet resolved
The international community is following these issues very closely. The OSCE Minsk Group, made up of thirteen countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been engaged for over sixteen years in a mediation mission. The United States, Russia and France are its co-chairs. Much effort has been exherted throughout these years; the mediators are familiar with every last detail of the issue. They have at their fingertips the points of view of every party, and even their ulterior motives. Every possible solution has been proposed, and every one of them has been rejected by one or others of the parties. At present, we have on the negotiating table a proposal which we believe to be quite realistic.

SERGE SARKISSIAN 7
On several occasions an agreement has seemed to be within reach. The late Heidar Aliev —the father of the current president of Azerbaijan, a man of experience —was conscious of the need to reach a peace agreement swiftly. He thought less of the potential advantages that he might gain from the negotiations than of the suffering which the peoples would be forced to undergo if the conflict persisted. In January 2001, thanks to the mediation of President Chirac, we reached agreement on what came to be known as the “Paris Principles”. The text was drafted in April 2001 in Key West, Florida. Presidents Kocharyan and Aliev made the final amendments. The matter seemed to be drawing to a conclusion, but once again, everything foundered at the last minute. After the return of President Aliev to Baku, it turned out that Azeri public, especially the elite were not ready to accept such an agreement. At that point, in frustration, the mediators stated that the leaders were ahead of their peoples...
After the death of Heidar Aliev, almost two years were lost before a new process got under way. In Madrid in November 2007, the co-chairs of the Minsk Group presented proposals on the principles of conflict resolution which are still on the negotiating table.
Karabakh is de facto independent. It has effective public institutions, a well-trained army which controls the neighbouring areas, and a rapidly developing economy which is taking advantage of the truce period to make advances. It is joined to Armenia by a common border. Seemingly, then, there is no urgency in the matter. However, it is our belief that time is working against us all, for we are allowing golden opportunities to escape us; by combining our efforts we could transform the South Caucasus into a stable common space where, and I have said this before, human rights and freedoms would be guaranteed and where citizens would be able to lead decent and prosperous lives.
For over fourteen years, a relative ceasefire has been observed in the conflict zone of Mountainous Karabakh, even though no international peacekeeping force has been deployed there. Of course, there have been cases of ceasefire violations on the part of Azerbaijan. But the negotiation process is all the more difficult because international law is sometimes interpreted in an arbitrary manner, presuming priority of one of the fundamental principles over another. The overwhelming majority of the world’s   nations   achieved   independence   by   exercising   their inalienable right to self-determination. I stress the word inalienable because it is a sovereign right that belongs to the people — the right to decide freely and in complete independence their own destiny —and not a benefit granted by a third power.
On 2 November 2008 in Moscow, together with the presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan, I signed a joint declaration that I very much hope may mark the beginning of a new, more active stage of the resolution of the conflict, leading us to a definitive solution. I think that favourable conditions have united to make this the right time.
Through the referendum of 2 September 2001, the population of Nagorno Karabakh expressed their will to take their fate into their own hands. Any solution must be based on respect for the right to self-determination. We have said over and over again, and we repeat it here, that this conflict cannot be resolved by military means. History has proved it. No externally imposed solution, and especially of a military nature, could ensure a lasting peace.
If the Armenians could reach an understanding with the Azerbaijanis and the Turks, and if the Georgians managed to become reconciled with the Abkhazis and the Ossetians, one can imagine what prospects would open up for the development of the South Caucasus! The region, rich in energy resources, could become an important hub for trade, from Europe to China, and from Russia to the Persian Gulf. But Azerbaijan seems to think differently. The Azerbaijanis are using all the means at their disposal —political, economic, military and diplomatic —to exert as much pressure on Armenia as possible and to extract the maximum concessions on the issue of Karabakh. Armenia has been subjected to an unrelenting blockade for over fifteen years. Our borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed; so are all communication routes. The railway lines between Gumri and Kars and Yerevan and Djulfa (5), though they are essential transport routes, are no longer operational either. And that is not all: Azerbaijan is doing everything it can to harm us in every international arena.
The Azerbaijani diplomats have been instructed to denigrate us on every possible occasion. While the government of Baku continues to participate in the negotiations within the framework of the Minsk Group, it is trying behind the scenes to discredit the mediators and is acting to get the Karabakh problem transferred to the jurisdiction of other authorities. The Azerbaijani leaders are increasing military expenditure every year and are making many warmongering statements. Anti-Armenian propaganda, which sometimes borders on armenophobia, is promoted at state level.
Instead of creating new problems, or raising new obstacles on the path to resolution, we must seize the opportunity that I am convinced is being offered to us to find a solution to the conflict and to promote a return to peace and stability in our region.

Normalization of relations with Turkey
What was said above is true with respect to the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey. I do not propose to dwell on the issue of the Genocide, for it is widely known. When Armenia became independent and Turkey was among the first countries to recognize it, we believed that we should adopt a new approach to that country which seemed to us different from the country which had exterminated Armenians in 1915. But shortly afterwards, as a token of solidarity towards Azerbaijan, a country with Turkic roots, Turkey closed its border with Armenia. On several occasions, we have proposed to normalize our relations without preconditions and to reopen the borders, but to no avail.
As I have mentioned, the Armenian population is not the only victim of the closure of the borders. Every country in the region, including Turkey, together with the European community, is paying a high cost for this unnatural obstruction to progress and international cooperation. The time has come to raise this artificial obstacle and to put an end to this deadlock —a situation where no one benefits and everyone suffers.
After my election, President Gu¨l was one of the first heads of state to offer his congratulations. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his part, underlined the fact that the doors were open for a new dialogue. Well, I propose a new start, a new dialogue with the Turkish government and people to normalize our relations and to open the borders.
The absence of diplomatic relations and the closure of the borders have not prevented our two peoples —business people, traders, journalists, academics —from developing contacts through third countries. Groups of Armenian artists appear on Turkish stages to warm applause. During the last two Eurovision contests, Turkish people even gave maximum points to the Armenian performers!
It is clear that people find ways to get together. There is the proof that both peoples have a real desire for co-operation, and it is up to us, as heads of states, to fulfil their wishes.
The establishment of normal political relations between Armenia and Turkey will enable us to tackle all the issues, even the most sensitive. We will not be able to make progress until we have established a frank and open dialogue.
I used the opportunity of a football match between the national teams of Armenia and Turkey to invite President Abdullah Gu¨l to Yerevan on 6 September 2008. Until then, Armenian presidents had had occasion to go to Turkey but no Turkish leader had ever visited Armenia. I am pleased that President Gu¨l responded positively to my invitation. The visit enabled us to initiate a process intended to establish a climate of mutual confidence.
The citizens of both Armenia and Turkey support the move and I am convinced that in the very near future they will be able to hail the opening of the borders. Although there are political obstacles in our path, we must have the courage to take action in the name of our vision of the future. Armenia and Turkey cannot and must not be eternal adversaries. The same is true for Armenia and Azerbaijan. I am convinced that a prosperous future shared by the South Caucasian states and Turkey, together with the opening of the historic east–west corridor for the benefit of the Caspian region, Europe and the world as a whole, are goals that we can and must strive to attain.
Recent events have given us cause to reflect. If we do not bear in mind the absolute necessity of stability and peace (I hope I may be forgiven for repeating myself, but that is the key to the whole matter) we cannot exclude the possibility of a new Cold War in our region. The region cannot develop unless all the actors and partners co-operate and show understanding of each other’s security concerns.
Believe me, for a people that have survived the Genocide, these are not just idle words. What is at stake is the protection of human rights, both individual and collective. As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (two fundamental tenets of international law), we need to ask ourselves whether we are truly faithful to those universal principles. If we can say “yes” unhesitatingly and with a clear conscience, then we can congratulate ourselves on ushering humanity into a new era.
The history of our region is punctuated with wars between empires, conflicts, invasions, deportations and massacres —so many tragedies that have delayed development and instilled in our peoples a very specific sensibility to potential threats. We have also experienced periods of peace and expansion, though they have been rare.
Our region is rich in natural resources and it is populated by hard-working, courageous and hospitable people. I can see no reason not to put all those assets to work for the common good. We must find within ourselves the strength and determination to change the course of events and put an end to hostilities both old and new.
In my youth, I felt overwhelmed by the burden of problems bequeathed to us by our ancestors. Let us lift that weight from the shoulders of our children. It is time for us to overcome the artificial barriers that separate us and to work together for a better future.

(1) Mountainous Karabakh is the upper part of the whole of larger Artsakh, the ancient Armenian province, however is more widely known under the Russian name as Nagorno Karabakh.
(2) "Karabakh Movement": a popular democratic movement, founded in Armenia between 1988 and 1991, which led the country to independence. Armenia never acceptedthe annexation of Karabakh to Azerbaijan by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s or throughout the whole Soviet era. In the 1960s at the time of the Khrushchev de tente, the issue wasraised with the Soviet leaders. Armenian intellectuals and students nurtured patriotic notions; demands and appeals circulated in secret. In 1965, a mass demonstration in Yerevan demanded recognition of the Armenian Genocide and historic justice. The participants were arrested and the demonstration was quashed. In the years between 1960 and 1970, secret organizations were created, but the KGB dismantled them and jailed their members. Many Armenian political detainees were held in Soviet prisons. A new movement sprang up at the time of the perestroika initiated by Gorbachev. Its claims initially related to the protection of the Armenian language and environmental issues. After 20 February 1988, when the Regional Council of Nagorno Karabakh opted to support separation from Azerbaijan and reintegration into Armenia, the movement took
on massive proportions. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators throughout Armenia took to the streets in support of the decision of their brothers in Karabakh. A "Karabakh Committee", with eleven members, was formed to manage the operations. At the end of 1988, all the members of Karabakh committee were arrested and sent to prisons in Moscow; they were released a few months later following popular and international pressure. The Karabakh Movement became a movement to combat totalitarian Communist ideology and to support liberty and democracy. Its influence was felt throughout the Soviet space. The leaders of the movement became the leaders of Armenia on its independence on 21 September 1991.
(3) Mostly populated by Armenians, Mountainous (Nagorno) Karabakh was incorporated into Azerbaijan in 1921 and became an autonomous region in 1923. Benefiting from the perestroika initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the region sought reunification with Armenia following the unanimous decision of the Regional Council on 20 February 1988. Azerbaijan reacted strongly and violence broke out in Azerbaijan and in Mountainous (Nagorno) Karabakh —violence that culminated in 1990 with genuine anti-Armenian pogroms. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent. Nagorno Karabakh, too, took the opportunity to declare its independence on 2 September 1991, following a referendum. Azerbaijan rushed troops there to re-establish control over the territory. Over a period of three years, many were killed in combat. Armenians of Karabakh finally managed to repulse the Azeris. A truce was signed with Baku on 12 May 1994. Since that date, conflict has been suspended. Negotiations within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group are continuing in an effort to resolve the conflict.
(4) During 2008, entrepreneurs of Armenian descent living in Russia invested several million dollars in various sectors of the Armenian economy.
(5) The Gumri to Kars railway connects Armenia to Turkey. The Yerevan to Djulfa railway links Armenia to Iran by way of Nakhidjevan (Azerbaijan). Despite repeated calls by the Armenian side to their Turkish and Azeri neighbours, so far, none of the railway lines is operational because of the blockade.
The notes were compiled by editorial staff of Politique Internationale.

 

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