YEREVAN—Armenia’s President Serzh Sarkisian spoke in an exclusive interview with Armenia’s “Banadzev” (Formula) television program following his latest meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev over the weekend in Sochi, with the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The full transcript of the President’s interview with ArmNews TV’s Artak Alexanian is below.
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ARTAK ALEXANIAN: Mr. President, after a long pause — actually ten months — you met with your Azerbaijani counterpart. How do you assess the talks?
SERZH SARKISIAN: We generally proceed from the fact that there is no military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, and if so, then the problem should be resolved through negotiations. Therefore, without any formalities nor making ceremonies, we have always agreed to meet, especially in high-level meetings, and this one was no exception. We immediately responded to Russian’s invitation to meet in Sochi, and as you can see, the meeting took place.
A.A.: Will the agreements reached help maintain the ceasefire? In general, did you talk about the recent events?
S.S.: The latest incidents could not be bypassed for the prevention of incidents is an integral part of the negotiation process. But a separate agreement, as such, was not made based on the fact that it is automatically assumed. I do not think it makes sense to talk about a new agreement, because I cannot see the difference between the timings, the more so that in 1994 and 1995 two agreements were concluded and the parties are supposed to comply with the requirements of these agreements.
It would make difference, if there were new provisions based on which a new agreement could be signed on definitive non-use of military force. That is a higher level than the ceasefire agreement. In general, the issue has repeatedly been raised by the mediators and ourselves, but we still do not see Azerbaijan react positively.
A.A.: Is there a chance for the border incidents to continue with the same intensity?
S.S.: I do not think they will go on with the same intensity, because the first ones showed that the Armenian armed forces had full control over the situation, and all of Azerbaijan’s attempts surely failed: at some points much more quickly and dramatically, elsewhere – with some losses.
Generally, the most effective tool for preventing incidents is the creation of an international mechanism of investigations. If we could establish such a mechanism, I think it would be a major boost in many cases, because such a mechanism implies identification of perpetrators and informing the public, including the international community. So, we need to work in this direction.
A.A.: We will still talk about the border incidents. Let us turn to the negotiation process. Mr. President, there is a belief that the aforementioned protracted delays have set back the process of negotiations. Will the process continue, or you will there be a fresh start?
S.S.: Nothing is given a fresh start; setbacks and advances are relative concepts. We are holding talks around the document signed in Kazan in 2011, and this is the document given up by the President of Azerbaijani at the last minute. As you may know, the Kazan document is based on the Madrid principles and implies three basic principles: non-use of force or a threat of force, territorial integrity and self-determination.
A.A.: By the way, the arrival of peacekeepers in the Karabakh-Azerbaijani contact line has been talked about much in recent days, especially Russian peacekeepers. How do you feel about that prospect?
S.S.: It is the first time I have hear about only Russian peacekeepers, and, in general, the Madrid principles imply the deployment of peacekeepers along the whole length of the contact line, that is, between the conflicting sides.
But it is not the subject of these negotiations, because the mere principle itself has to be discussed, namely whether there will be peacekeepers or not. The document of Kazan envisages such a possibility. The composition of the peacekeeping forces and their powers will be specified in the Final Agreement that should follow the signing of the mentioned instrument.
A.A.: What kind of arrangement did you make? Will you have regular meetings attended by the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group or will you focus on trilateral meetings?
S.S.: No specific agreement is still available, but it is obvious that the problem is mainly handled by the Minsk Group co-chairs. But all the three countries spare time to address this key problem on a regular basis.
As much as I can understand, this meeting was important to the Russian President in a sense that he wanted to see whether the parties are willing to solve the problem, and if so, what expectations they have, and I think that the President of Russia achieved his goal.
A.A.: And now, let us take up the border incidents. As a matter of fact, they immediately preceded the Sochi meeting. What do you think was the objective of Azerbaijan?
S.S.: Various; there are different goals. Of course, the most important goal is to make the international community realize — and the leader of Azerbaijan has never concealed this fact — that the war is not over yet; behind is one of the stages of the war, and that the time has come to take most urgent measures to give a final solution to the problem.
We have all seen for ourselves that so it is. I cannot recall a time without escalation before or after an important meeting. Such an important meeting could not stand alone, of course.
The next goal set by the armed forces of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani leadership is “to give a little fright” to the Armenians. They want to show themselves and others that they are strong with armed forces capable of fighting and they can “punish” the Armenian armed forces. As you saw, that illusion took them to the wrong destination.
The third goal, I think, is relevant to domestic policy. Azerbaijan’s leadership is trying to justify its harsh policies within the country by speculating over a fact that the war still goes on.
Other goals and reasons could be cited, too, but I think these are the three main goals.
A.A.: In the context of said “little fright,” how would you assess our soldiers’ posture and actions on the frontline? Can we state that the Army, in fact, lived up to the task, kept the border safe and is able to continue to do so?
S.S.: I have never been of two opinions. I am very well aware of our armed forces. I know the skills and capabilities of our armed forces. Most probably, many were skeptical about my statements that we have efficient armed forces, but the recent events showed how far our armed forces have gone in improving their professional skills.
We have highly organized armed forces with almost flawless military management. It is a very significant factor — very important. If unit commander is unable to manage his subordinates, then the troops or the unit itself will never succeed.
We saw that our squad chiefs, corps commanders and army commanders can skillfully manage their troops, the servicemen under their command, which is a very significant factor. Our guys are heroes.
A.A.: Mr. President, the battles were not only at the border, but also in the media and social networks. Moreover, during all this time the experts were pointing out that the Armenian media managed professional services and avoided spreading panic; on the contrary, they managed to give balanced information preventing Azerbaijani propaganda from getting through to the Armenian readers. In general, we can say that we as a society are prepared to stand by our troops, and if necessary, make new victories.
S.S.: I have always been convinced in that, too, Artak. When I said that the problems and issues that arise are the price we pay to move from a closed society to an open one, I just meant this. Unlike our neighbor, which advocates medieval public relations, we are an open society, and our press is free. As much as we are blamed for handling the media, at least most of media representatives know that they are free.
Of course, we had some problems in the initial stage. I closely watched and could see that some of the media and, especially, some individuals even tried to represent our opponents’ information as the truth. Though that did not last too long, and thank God, without “instructions from above,” without any coercion whatsoever, they were able to mobilize and express the correct position.
Even the toughest opposition, our political opponents found a positive response to the strength of our military operations, which does them credit.
But there is one thing that we should never forget. It is obvious that our victory in the 90s were due not only to the fact that we were defending our home, not only because our soldiers and officers showed heroism and the people endurance, but also to some confusion in the Azerbaijani society.
We were getting a lot of information from the Azerbaijani leadership positions (this does not mean that they were our agents or we had a special relationship with them), we were able to derive information about their actions, their beliefs, abilities.
No one has forgotten this factor, neither the Azeris. And when the leadership of Azerbaijan, the President of Azerbaijan says that almost no people are left in Armenia, our country is on the verge of collapse and so on, in many cases he repeats the view of some of our opposition figures. I want to say that such an attitude is an inspiration to Azerbaijan. I am just asking our political opponents to be more restrained in some cases, and about some issues.
I do not call on them to refrain from political campaigns against us, but when we are facing a “no war, no peace” situation with increased border skirmishes, it is unwise to inspire the enemy.
A.A.: I would like to refer to the enemy’s hysteria. During this period President Aliyev posted some 60 comments on Twitter within an hour’s time. An unprecedented war was declared against Armenia. Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov came up with just as much ill-balanced statement saying that his troops were ready to raze Yerevan to the ground. Do you feel we should retaliate?
S.S.: Responding to everything is not our style, I have a deep conviction that a country’s president, the defense minister or other officials are not supposed to make emotional speeches. Emotional statements may be a must in other instances. What would be the point in Seyran Ohanian’s responding to every such statement?
Who needs wrangle? Should I respond every time to Azeri President’s personal insults? If my reply could be seen from a different angle, or his remarks would have been considered as truth, of course, I would have to retaliate, but need I respond to Azerbaijani President’s allegations that the Armenian government is corrupt, criminal, we are a military junta and things to that effect? Aliyev himself is blamed for corruption all over the world, instead he is redirecting those accusations to us.
What should I answer? I do not see here any problem both for our society and the international community. Indeed, there are times when we have to answer, and we do so.
As to the Defense Minister’s boastful remarks, I would like to cite the president of Azerbaijan who said a very good thing, which in the meantime was not connected with his Defense Minister’s allegations: he said that the conflicting sides are well aware of their opportunities. Indeed, we are well aware of the potential of the armed forces of Azerbaijan, while the leadership of Azerbaijan is well aware of our opportunities.
Yes, I say it without any fear, from Nakhichevan Azerbaijan’s armed forces could “reach” Yerevan, if hostilities begin, but such things cannot remain unpunished, and the Azerbaijani leadership knows very well what resources the Armenian armed forces have in stock. They are very well aware that we have ballistic missiles with an effective range of over 300 km, and that they are capable of turning into ruins any flourishing settlement in a glimpse, like the ruins of Aghdam.
It is a question of choice. If these people are so reckless as to resort to full-scale hostilities and even make a target of non-border inland settlements of Armenia, then I would advise them to think of their responsibility.
Sometimes it seems to me that some people in Baku enjoy playing computer war games in the evenings after work, but they need to understand that virtual reality is one thing, while the actual reality is another thing. One should never manipulate bare figures to compare the respective GDPs, the amount of tanks and declare having the upper hand in military operations.
I do not mean that GDP or the amount of tanks does not matter at all. I am not saying that; they are important indeed, but it is not enough. The recent operations are a vivid illustration of what I say. What did we witness after all?
Those in Azerbaijan keep saying that the hostilities caused greater losses on the Armenian side than on their side, and that we are concealing our losses. I do not think that anybody in our society thinks that way. It is impossible to conceal the loss of a soldier, especially in our society.
I do not think it feasible. On the other hand, they are trying to hide their losses from their people, and from time to time they succeed in doing so.
They are trying to drag out their losses in time, and if they have had, say, ten people killed in battle, they do not make a statement to that effect. They declare having ten victims within a week’s time. In order not to give rise to unnecessary conversations, I have ordered the Defense Minister to have published in the home media both the names of Armenian and Azeri killed soldiers so that people could see more objectively whose losses are greater and how many times. Of course, it is not because we rejoice at that.
Personally, I do not feel great joy at Azerbaijan’s losses, but I do feel great pride for our guys. The most important thing for me is that we avoid suffering losses. I do not mind too much about their losses. In the meantime, their society ought to be aware of the adverse consequences of such a callous attitude to warfare or hostilities. War is a bad thing.
These incidents are bad, so we have to be very careful and, of course, we should always keep focus on our brave boys, their friends, relatives, children, parents who have given their lives to ensure both in the past and now that our people have trust in our armed forces.
When we talk about hide or not to hide, we should bear in mind that it is too difficult to keep control and conceal the truth constantly. I suggest our media representatives to read very carefully both Aliyev’s and their Defense Minister’s statements of the last ten days made also during the meetings. If you do so, you will see that, for example, during the meeting in Aghdam at first everyone was saying that they had very few losses, but one of the speakers said that they had had 12 victims. Thus, whatever you do, you cannot feed everybody with lies.
A.A.: Mr. President, the latest incident, which aroused great public resentment in Armenia, was the captivity and subsequent death of Chinar village resident 32-year-old Karen Petrosyan. Can we assert that Karen’s case is a war crime considering that there is a breach of international norms since a civilian was subjected to violence, forced to give testimony that he was a saboteur and was tortured to death.
S.S.: In any case, his death is on the conscience of the Azerbaijanis. Earlier today in the presence of the President of Russia, I told the President of Azerbaijan that it was a shame to kill people like Karen. He said, “We do not kill.” I said, “Why should a 31-year old man cross the border under the influence of alcohol and die. He said, “He might have been scared to death.”
But we have to be restrained. War does not accept a frivolous attitude. I understand that it is impossible to monitor all of them. I understand that there are different circumstances, and it does not justify the actions of the Azerbaijanis, but our citizens in border settlements should understand very well that they deal with an angry and furious enemy.
A.A.: Experts point to the silence kept by the CSTO during the recent border incidents. The point is that the incidents took place not only at the contact line, but also on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Why did the CSTO not react anyway?
S.S.: I think there was no need for it. The CSTO always follows up on the actions taken by the applicant country.
Of course, the CSTO might well respond and this could be due to purely technical problems. As far as I am aware, the Secretary-General is due to arrive in Armenia in the near future. It is already an attitude in itself. And secondly, you will have the opportunity to address to him these questions.
I am in fact convinced that there was no need for it. I think it would be erroneous to believe that if the CSTO had reacted, Azerbaijan would have immediately given up the provocations.
In general, as regards the position taken by the CSTO, it is stipulated in the 2012 document, and the given document is still effective. The position of the CSTO is absolutely clear.
A.A.: Mr. President, how do you asses Turkey’s reaction to the recent incidents when at the highest level sympathy was only being offered to Azerbaijan. Turkey is today electing a man who in his public speeches described the allegations of his being an Armenian as an insult.
Does this provide grounds to assert that all those speculations about Turkey’s possible mediation in the talks will definitively cease.
S.S.: But why are you surprised at the attitude of Turkey? Was there a time when Turkey abode by a neutral position, Turkey is a country that strongly supports Azerbaijan in any matter, and I would have been really surprised, if Erdogan had offered sympathy to the Armenian side, too.
As for his approach, I think there is nothing surprising there and I do think that it would be offensive for us, if we suddenly found out that he is Armenian. So, we should not be surprised. Here’s another point, namely people of such a high public standing need to be restrained, while they have shown no restraint. Turkey’s position is very clear; we happened to make sure of it several times, including the protocol talks.
That is why we were too mindful not to overlook any such clause in the protocols as might limit us in the Karabakh talks. So, everything is clear and distinct.
And one more thing, many people think that by setting itself the task of becoming a regional leader, Turkey might assume a balanced stance, a balanced approach. This is a simple-minded belief not only with regard to us, but also to others.
I do not see such trends and actions on the part of Turkey’s ruling political party. There should be more open-minded manifestations in order we can ever reach such a situation.
A.A.: In addition to the trilateral format, you had a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin at which you talked about Armenia’s joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Have you touched upon any deadlines; why are the dates being moved?
S.S.: We have had a bilateral meeting, much longer in duration than the present one and talked about every key issue of bilateral agenda of great concern to our society, including the timing and structure of the loan necessary for extending the operations of the NPP considering that quite an important 15 percent grant element is expected, the terms and conditions for accession to the Eurasian Economic Union and, finally, issues related to the military-technical cooperation. Here I must express satisfaction at the outcome of our meetings. The results will be seen over time, but the content was very important to us. I think we will see the results in the near future.
A.A.: No membership this year?
S.S.: We never assumed that the membership would be possible this year. Do you mean the signing?
S.S.: I do not think of impossibility of signing by this yearend. I think we will sign it, and maybe before the fall. Let us wait and see.
A.A.: Mr. President, did you discuss with Vladimir Putin the arrest of Russian-Armenian businessman Levon Hayrapetyan and the ensuing criminal case? He is known to have health problems, but he has not so far been taken to hospital, nor have they changed his terms of punishment.
S.S.: As I said, we discussed every issue, including that question. Russia’s President promised to study the issue; he was not aware of the criminal case and did not even know of Levon Hayrapetyan, at least by name. Nevertheless, he promised to look into the matter and inform us about Hayrapetyan’s health problems.
A.A.: And the last question, Mr. President, Armenia’s economy is adapting to two changes: the new regulations arising from Georgia’s euro-integration and the sanctions against Russia. Which way are these two processes going to influence Armenia’s economy? Have we any scenarios in stock to mitigate the negative consequences?
S.S.: There is a general belief that the sanctions against Russia could have a negative impact on Armenia’s economy. The advocates of this viewpoint proceed from the assumption that if the Russian economy boasts little growth or proves at standstill at all, Armenia’s economy will suffer because our economy is closely linked to the Russian economy. I cannot refute that scenario, although it is just an assumption, nothing but a very likely hypothesis.
Topics like that always give rise to heated debate. Perhaps it is true, but on the other hand, they cannot be perceived as a simple truth, and we are not supposed to believe that there will surely be negative consequences.
As regards the preventive measures, I should note that the program of the Government of Armenia envisages actions to that effect. You may remember that the Prime Minister dwelt on it during the National Assembly debate of the Government Program. We have anticipated such figures as rule out adverse consequences. Only we should abide by sound macroeconomic policies over both the short and the long run, providing incentives for economic growth.
I am glad that the other parameters are subject to lesser concern today. No one is talking about inflation, high inflation, etc. Now they say the growth is small, too low. I understand that it is low. I would rather have it 30% instead of the actual 3%, but not all wishes come true. I think what matters most is to have a growth and take advantage of the emerging opportunities.
On the one hand, we say that sanctions have been imposed against Russia, and this could hurt the Russian economy, but we forget that Russia in turn has imposed sanctions against other countries. This means that many new opportunities have opened up in the Russian market to benefit our agricultural producers. Let us catch up.
We will encourage people to produce more food. We will provide all the necessary conditions for the domestic output to be realized in the Russian Federation, but this is not enough. We need to understand that work is a source of well-being. There is no other way.
Everything is very important: open society is important, research is important, healthcare is important, competition is important – everything is important – but work is the most important thing. If we all come to realize that work is the source of our well-being, many problems will be solved.