Armenians have lived in Nagorno-Karabakh for more than three millennia.
Tigran Mkrtchyan is Armenia’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Greece, Cyprus, and Albania. He has a BA in History and MA in World History (specialised in Ancient History) from Yerevan State University, an M.Phil in International Relations from Cambridge University, and a Ph.D. in political science from the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University.
The ethnic cleansing of Artsakh has led to the exodus of more than 100,000 people. What is their situation? How is Armenia coping with this humanitarian crisis?
The forcibly displaced Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh are survivors of ten months of blockade and Azebaijan’s latest military aggression. Many of them have serious health problems as a result of months of malnutrition and lack of proper medical care. Many also have psychological problems. Social problems are also added to all this, as many of them left their homes in a hurry without taking money and valuables.
In order to address the needs of these displaced people, the government of the Republic of Armenia has already initiated assistance programmes from the state budget. The government of Armenia has approved and adopted numerous decisions aimed at addressing the issues of employment, education, scholarships, and pensions for forcibly displaced refugees. These decisions are being implemented through special programmes of relevant bodies of the government.
Mid-term activities are also being planned to ensure a sustainable livelihood for refugees. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are the indigenous population of that area; for more than three millennia, they have continuously lived in this part of the world, and we and the international community can neither forget nor ignore this matter. I regret to mention that for months we have been warning from all possible platforms and through every possible official and unofficial channel that Azerbaijan would do everything to subject more than 100,000 Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh to ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately, the international community did not take tangible steps to prevent it, and the ICJ (International Court of Justice) decisions remained on paper.
Starting from the first day, we have been closely cooperating with our international partners, UN agencies, and different countries. Assistance has been announced by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the European Union, the U.S. Government through USAID, and United Nations agencies. We are grateful to all our international partners, and the EU and its member states in particular, for humanitarian assistance during these challenging days for Armenia and the Armenians of Artsakh.
And what about the Armenian cultural heritage: the churches, the monasteries, the khachkars (carved, stone slabs bearing a cross)? Has there already been any declaration or practical support from UNESCO to protect this cultural heritage?
A huge historical, cultural, and spiritual heritage has remained in the depopulated Nagorno-Karabakh, which is under serious threat. The crosses of the Stepanakert church domes have already been removed. Unfortunately, we know from experience what happens to the Armenian historical and cultural heritage in the territories under the control of Azerbaijan. Just look at Nakhijevan, the destruction of the mediaeval khachkars of Nakhijevan, as well as the painful events that took place after the 44-day war—the destruction of Kanach Zham (Green Church), St. Ghazanchechots in Shushi, Spitak Khach Monastery (White Cross) in Hadrut, as well as the desecration of a number of gravestones—unfortunately do not inspire optimism. Especially when all this happens in the presence of a decision of the ICJ, obliging Azerbaijan “to take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration directed against the Armenian cultural heritage, including churches and other places of worship, monuments, landmarks, cemeteries, and artefacts.”
Even when there is no destruction, the Armenian identity of the cultural artefacts and architecture are distorted. Many monuments of mediaeval Armenian Christian culture, such as the Amaras Monastery (4-5th century), Dadivank Monastery (9th century), Gandzasar Cathedral (13th century), and many other Armenian religious sites, have been confiscated from the Armenians.
The original definition of the crime of genocide, as presented by Raphael Lemkin, gave cultural genocide centre stage. As a legal concept in international law, cultural genocide was devised as a sub-category, or aspect, of genocide—the attempt to systemically and willfully destroy a group—alongside physical genocide and biological genocide. It denoted the destruction of both tangible (such as places of worship) as well as intangible (such as language) cultural structures. This is what we have been witnessing happening in Azerbaijan over the last decades and currently in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan still refuses to grant access rights to the UNESCO fact-finding mission to Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories to conduct an inventory of the most important cultural values proposed by the UNESCO Director-General in November 2020 as a precondition for the effective protection of the region’s heritage. I really hope that this time international organisations, particularly UNESCO, will really act within their mandate and will be able to prevent new cultural genocides. In this regard, I want to emphasise a significant point. Azerbaijan does not simply destroy historical and cultural heritage. Azerbaijan cleans the Armenian trace from Nagorno-Karabakh because this historical and cultural heritage is the most eloquent evidence that Armenians have lived in Karabakh for thousands of years.
Several of the Artsakh Republic’s leaders have been arrested by Azerbaijan and charged with terrorism. Is there any possibility of returning them to Armenia? Is there an international body supporting the Armenian government in this case?
Talking about terrorism is simply foolish and is as false as other anti-Armenian tricks by Azerbaijan. I think that the return of Armenian captives, and especially Nagorno-Karabakh leaders, will only be possible only under strong pressure from the international community. Currently, only the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) supports us in this matter, to the extent that it visits the captives and regularly transmits information about their health situation.
On October 4, the Republic of Armenia appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) with a demand to oblige Azerbaijan to release the former and current arrested leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh.
What do you think accounts for the silence or apparent disinterest in what happened in Artsakh by the international community and the mainstream media?
What happened in Nagorno-Karabakh is a heinous crime. People were not only subjected to ethnic cleansing but also were deprived of their homeland. The reasons for silence by the international community and the mainstream media are multilayered. First, it turned out that today, unfortunately, for the international community, Azerbaijani oil and gas are more important than Armenians and Armenians’ rights to live in their historical homeland (we cannot heat Europe in winter). But parallel to this, I think it is no less important that the world has found itself in a terrible vortex of changes, and especially negative developments, and the international community and media do not manage to react properly to all the developments.
The world order is reshaping rather rapidly, and as a result, international relations are being transformed on bilateral and multilateral levels. I think the problem comes from the fact that solving problems by use of force has become the norm and is tolerated, and it’s terrible as this has never solved problems. We could find ourselves in front of an open Pandora’s box if we don’t speak out against these crimes. Peace is not established by war, because the latter, the use of force, or even threat of force, are gross violations of international law themselves. You cannot establish order by trampling on the roots of that order. The claim that force can lead to peace of the Azerbaijani leadership is known in the language of logic and philosophy as argumentum ad absurdum (argument to absurdity). And it is amazing that the representatives of this country are repeating this claim abroad without understanding how ludicrous such claims sound.
Azerbaijan is now demanding an extraterritorial corridor through Syunik from Armenia, with Turkish support and Russian passivity. Given that it has had carte blanche so far, do you think Azerbaijan could try to seize this corridor militarily?
Azerbaijan’s rhetoric towards Armenia has continuously been aggressive and belligerent. According to the December 7th statement, Azerbaijan agreed to release 32 Armenian military servicemen, and Armenia, in its turn, agreed to release two Azerbaijani servicemen. There were some other mutual commitments. Moreover, there was a reconfirmation of the intention of the sides to normalise relations and to reach a peace agreement on the basis of territorial integrity and sovereignty. That should mean release of all captives from Azerbaijan, withdrawal of Azerbaijani forces from the occupied territories of Armenia (as of now, close to 200 square kilometres of Armenian land is under Azerbaijani occupation), successful completion of delimitation works, and rejection of any claims to extraterritorial corridors.
That should also mean putting behind the propaganda campaign of the ‘Grand Return to Western Azerbaijan,’ an unfortunate state-sponsored project which questions the very existence of Armenia, promotes the thesis that Armenians are newcomers to the region against all historical evidence. In general, this should mean putting aside the pseudo-scholarship of absurd claims towards Armenia in Azerbaijan. We can’t start historical debates now, but we cannot allow anyone to question our history.
For the Republic of Armenia, the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity is a red line en route to a peaceful resolution of issues. Since Thucydides said that the “strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” 2,500 years have passed, and the rules of war and peace have changed a lot. Besides, in that same history of the most admirable Greek historian, the strong and the weak often are replaced. There are no perpetual winners nor perpetual losers. History is a witness to that. But what history has also shown time and again is that peace is attainable when there is an inclination to make concessions and compromise. We need enduring peace, and not perpetual cycles of violence.
In the event of further aggression, do you think the international response would be different?
Taking into account the grave consequences of solving issues through the use of force and sense of impunity for the perpetrators, the international community should take every effort to prevent any kind of escalation and military aggression by Azerbaijan. The progressive world should realise that the conflict in the South Caucasus is a striking example of a clash of value systems: on the one side is democratic Armenia and on the other side is the oil-rich but authoritarian Azerbaijan. Every new failure of democracy will bring new failures to other corners of the world and further aggravate the anarchical international situation. This must stop; the sooner, the better for everyone. Had the Azerbaijani military aggressions of 2016 and 2020 received a proper response, we might live in a different world, not only in our immediate neighbourhood but in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
The Armenian side continues to believe that, despite all the difficulties and challenges, there is a real chance of establishing peace between the two countries, which can be implemented if both sides have political will. As demonstrated numerous times before, Armenia proved its readiness to resume engagement in the negotiations, guided by the following principles: mutual recognition and respect of each other’s territorial integrity without any ambiguity; future delimitation process on the basis of the most recent administrative maps and borders of the Soviet Union; unblocking regional communications on the basis of full respect for the sovereignty and jurisdiction of states; and the principles of equality and reciprocity.
To achieve these goals, the government of the Republic of Armenia has presented the ‘Crossroads of Peace’ project. This is a plan to connect our regional countries with railways, roads, cables, gas pipelines, power lines, or strengthen existing connections. At the moment, we do not have any functioning road, nor any functioning railway, cable, pipeline, or power line with either Turkey or Azerbaijan, and we propose to change this situation positively.
The ‘Crossroads of Peace’ project will also bring benefits to Georgia and Iran, including bilateral as well as in terms of strengthening ties with Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Armenia. The implementation of this project will be beneficial not only for our region but for international trade, connectivity, and stability. And I hope for support not only from regional countries but from the international community in general. We are in front of very important, even historic crossroads.
Russia has failed in its role as an ally in the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) and has aligned itself with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Where does Armenia’s relationship with Russia stand?
The CSTO in general has not met Armenia’s expectations, to put it mildly. No matter what words of play from various sides are used, it is a fact that the CSTO treaty obligations have not been fulfilled. On the one hand, violation of Armenian territory and occupation of Armenian territories were never acknowledged to be such. Hence, inaction was justified. On the other hand, the 2020 ceasefire statement was violated on several accounts a month after its signature with Azerbaijani transgressions. No practical steps were taken to prevent the aggravation of the situation. Moreover, the attacks on the Lachin Corridor and the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh were undertaken under the nose of Russian peacekeepers, who were supposed to guarantee the safety of the corridor and the population of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. On all those accounts, we saw abysmal failures and attempts to justify those failures.
What new alliances can Armenia forge for the future?
Armenia is developing relations with many countries. We have enhanced partnership cooperation with the EU, the United States, cooperation with India. We are developing relations with the Arab world and Latin American countries. Indeed, our immediate neighbourhood is of utmost importance. We have excellent relations with Georgia and Iran, and indeed, we hope to normalise relations with Turkey. Eventually, relations with Azerbaijan should normalise as well.