WATCH | Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: History & Contemporary Geopolitics – The New Indian

In this interview, former Armenian diplomat, Vaner Harutyunyan delves into the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, exploring its historical origins and contemporary geopolitical intricacies. From territorial disputes to regional power dynamics, this conversation between TNI Editor Aarti Tikoo and Vaner offers a comprehensive understanding of this enduring conflict’s regional impact.

AARTI TIKOO: Armenia had a war with Azerbaijan in which Armenia lost territory. What is the status today following the war and where do you see Armenia going ahead geopolitically in the region, with such hostile neighbors?

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: First of all, I would like to provide a larger picture of the conflict. Armenia was at war because it was attacked. Historically, the territory called Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) was populated with Armenians. This region was annexed by the Soviets in 1920 and the native population was forced to live under Azeri rule until the collapse of the USSR. Then, the people of Armenia voted for independence, at the same time as the Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed. But in the 90s, the first Karabakh war resulted in the de facto independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. During 30 years, the negotiations within different formats didn’t manage to ensure a lasting peace. After the Armenian revolution of 2018, there was a fear that the Azerbaijani dictatorship would attack us, because the military budget of this country was (and still is) equal to the whole budget of Armenia. Armenia alerted its partners to the increasing military rhetoric of Azerbaijan. The same family holds the country since the 60s, from father to son and from husband to wife (the vice president is the wife of the president).

In 2020, there was a 44-day attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. Both sides suffered losses but Armenia lost many thousands of soldiers and many territories. in fact, the aggression hasn’t stopped yet : since December 2022, the only route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to the rest of Armenia, the Lachin corridor, is intentionally blocked by Azerbaijani forces despite two decisions of the International Court of Justice. The last decision taken on July 6 reiterated that this blockade was illegal. But Azerbaijan is ignoring it as well as the legally binding treaties. So the question not only concerns the political negotiations between the two countries, but also Azerbaijan’s will to abide by international law. Despite Armenian authorities declaring in 2020 that there was no alternative to a peaceful resolution, Azerbaijan attacked again in September 2021. Azerbaijani forces advanced into the sovereign territory of Armenia, where they are still occupying some areas and claiming more. Naturally, these claims are baseless, but this is a real threat to the territorial integrity of Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed territory in the eyes of the international community, but the invasion of its sovereign territory is a huge challenge for Armenia itself. Personally, I think the international reaction is insufficient. In comparison with other conflicts in which people are suffering and are killed, the reaction is slow.

AARTI TIKOO: You mean for example in Ukraine, there is a lot of support from the West.

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: Yes. I don’t want to say it, but being realistic, without support to Armenia, we are really close to having the same scenario as we had in the past. As we speak, 120 000 people are blocked without food, without any road access. There are systematic attacks in nearby cities and on civilians. The setup of a European Union monitoring group in Armenian territory should be welcomed. It will observe the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the mandate is insufficient to take any action.

AARTI TIKOO: Do you think that the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is primarily a territorial dispute, or is there something more to it ?

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: This dispute has several factors. I would mention the expansionism of Azerbaijan in Armenian territories. They are trying to erase all traces of Armenian settlement in these regions. For example, the first Armenian monastery schools are located in Nagorno-Karabakh, so Azerbaijan by all means tries to erase the evidences of Armenian cultural heritage there. In the region of Nakhchivan, which was also given to Azerbaijan during the Soviet era, all Armenian cemeteries were destroyed. The same is happening now in the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. There are proofs and the international community is aware that they are destroying the main cemeteries and churches. On the contrary, Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh kept the mosques and other religious places intact. Armenians over the world have been living peacefully in different Muslim countries. Actually, this is not a conflict of religions. There is a continuity with the genocide committed in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. The Armenian identity is at stake here.

AARTI TIKOO: Why do you see a continuity ? Where is the connection ? This happened in the Ottoman Empire and today Azerbaijan is a separate state.

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: It’s an independent state but it’s backed by Turkey. In the 2020 war, Turkey provided weapons, training and military leadership to Azerbaijan. These countries have no diplomatic relations with Armenia. Nowadays the objective remains the same – to eliminate Armenians on their place of birth – but the approach is different. For example, it involves the blockade and the falsification of history with modern means. We have to recognize the advancements in Azerbaijani politics achieved through ‘caviar diplomacy’. Some members of the European Parliament or high ranking officials were implicated in corruption cases. Azerbaijan keeps trying to influence public or political opinions in different countries.

AARTI TIKOO: But Turkey on the other hand has a good relationship with Europe, it is part of NATO and in fact wants to be part of the European Union as well. So on one hand, it seems that Turkey has these allies in the West, but on the other hand it is backing Azerbaijani forces against Armenia. What is really going on here?

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: To answer your question, one should have a look at the geography. The roots of the genocide were also related to expansionism. From Constantinople (today Istanbul) to Central Asia, the expansion movement under Turkish leadership in the Ottoman Empire (and currently as well) reflects the project of a Great Turan. But Armenia lies in the middle of the passage between the different regions of this project. Today the claims of Azerbaijan are very alarming : they are interested in the southern region of Armenia because they want a land access to the enclave of Nakhchivan, which would provide a direct passage to Turkey. The main part of Azerbaijan indeed doesn’t have a border with Turkey.

AARTI TIKOO: Let’s go back to the 1915 genocide. Do you think that it had anything to do with religion or do you think it was purely political ?

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: It was a mixture. There was a religious component, it would be very naive to exclude it. We observe now that in the western part of Armenia, currently in Turkish territory, the heritage and the churches are being degraded. Turkey is renovating one church for public relations, but that’s not the real picture. Azerbaijan does the same by showcasing its tolerance and multicultural character. But thanks to satellite imagery, we can see the reality on the field which is very different. Azerbaijan is a country filled with hatred. In the schools, the children are taught to hate Armenians – it is a specific state policy.

AARTI TIKOO: Like Pakistan teaches its children to hate India.

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: There is a parallel, and Pakistan is one of the countries in line with Azerbaijan and Turkey. It doesn’t recognize Armenia.

AARTI TIKOO: So you are essentially saying that they do see themselves as Islamic nations and they do see that the surrounding non-muslim nations are targets.

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: Even if they are considered secular countries, the religious manipulation is at the core of their politics. For Armenians though it is not a religious issue.

AARTI TIKOO: But it is for Turkey and Azerbaijan ?

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: It is ethnic and to some extent religious as well. For them these two aspects are not separated when they look at Armenians. Otherwise, why destroy all traces of Armenian culture ?

AARTI TIKOO: So if Armenia was completely Muslim, if Armenian Christians had converted to Islam, do you think there would have been any conflict ?

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: I cannot say what would have happened. But during the genocide, some Armenians were forcibly converted. Now in 2023, the signature and the objectives are the same, but the means are different. Unfortunately the response of the International Community should be more impacting, more to the point. I understand that there are economic ties and interests at stake, but I suppose that human life is the highest value, be it Muslim, Christian or from other religions.

AARTI TIKOO: It took a lot of time for the West to recognize the Armenian genocide. Now the West hesitates to support Armenia through the conflict. Why do you think that is happening?

VANER HARUTYUNYAN: The recognition of the genocide was a long process, even with a diaspora of 2 million Armenians in the US, because it was countered by Turkish lobbies. But the US and many countries in Europe had the courage to do so even if there were sabotage and blackmail from the Turkish state. After the war in 2020, the reaction came late, I agree. But there are some important issue in the South Caucasus. Let’s be objective, Armenia is an ally of Russia since independence, so the Western world saw Russian influence behind the events. The 44-day war was also stopped following intimidations from the Russian leadership. So sometimes the West sees the matter as coming under the Russian influence sphere. Personally, I think it’s a question of seeing the region as a whole and to have an objective, a long lasting resolution. Since independence, Armenia has been suffering from repeated military aggressions by Azerbaijan. There will be a call for more engagement from the international community, be it from Asia or from Europe. I think that when there is a conflict, different actors should be involved to resolve it practically. It’s the same for the issue between India and Pakistan. We need more commitment by international actors and the members of the Security Council.

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