The Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Armenia to the French Republic and Monaco Hasmik Tolmajian gave an interview to the French CONFLITS periodical. We present the whole interview below.
Question - Just 30 years ago, Armenia proclaimed its independence. For the first time since 1375, this centuries-old Christian nation regained its attributes of a state, recognized by the international community. However, the terrible defeat of last autumn against Azerbaijan and Turkey plunged your country back into serious uncertainty. What are the main challenges Armenia must face to secure its future?
Answer - Indeed, 30 years ago, on September 21, 1991, realizing its right to self-determination and responding resolutely in favor of independence, Armenia proclaimed the rebirth of an independent state. Just a clarification in this regard: since 1375, Armenia had proclaimed its independence for the first time in May 1918 when the first Republic of Armenia, a parliamentary democratic republic, was created. This state, created after the humanitarian drama of 1915, the Armenian Genocide, has unfortunately only experienced a brief existence of only two and a half years. As for the proclamation of independence in 1991, this was the direct consequence of the Karabakh Movement started in 1988. It should be noted that the Karabakh Movement was one of the bases on which Armenian independence was built, and on which the identity of the Armenian state was built. And it is for this reason that the Azerbaijani-Turkish aggression of last fall and its consequences shocked the entire Armenian nation.
Nevertheless, despite this shock and the bitterness of the losses, Armenia and Artsakh remain standing, the independent Armenian state remaining true to the spirit of its Declaration of Independence. Even today, a year after the bloody war, the strengthening and development of a strong, viable, modern and democratic Armenian state remains the main challenge for Armenians around the world.
In this context, we attach particular importance to redefining the content of relations with the Diaspora as well as to a more active integration of its human potential in order to meet the challenges facing Armenia and Artsakh.
Question - Azerbaijan has not given up on its bellicose rhetoric that it puts into practice by violating the sovereignty of your country in Syunik and Gegharkunik. It practices a form of harassment on the civilian populations of the border areas on the pretext that the route of the border has not been the subject of an agreement between Baku and Yerevan. Where are we on this question of the Azerbaijani military presence on portions of Armenian territory and why Russia is not helping you to dislodge them under the mutual assistance agreements made?
Answer - On May 12 of this year, the armed forces of Azerbaijan, once again ignoring the fundamental principles of international law, penetrated a few kilometers inside the sovereign territory of Armenia, in the provinces of Syunik and Gegharkunik. This Azerbaijani incursion met with firm condemnation from the international community: the French president also spoke on the subject condemning these acts and calling on the Azerbaijani forces to leave the sovereign territory of Armenia.
However, the Azerbaijani forces still continue to occupy certain border areas of the sovereign territory of Armenia which is unacceptable. Armenia, faithful to its constructive approach, is trying, with the mediation of its strategic ally, Russia, to find a peaceful solution to the problem. We hope that Azerbaijan will also adopt a constructive position in the current negotiations, and, avoiding an armed confrontation, will evacuate its forces from the sovereign territory of Armenia to return to the positions established on May 11 of this year. This would ease the current tension and create favorable conditions for the initiation of the processes of demarcation and delimitation of borders.
Question - Baku is exerting strong pressure to obtain the application of point 9 of the cease-fire agreement, namely what it calls the ‘Zangezur corridor’, this ultra-strategic communication route which would link it to its exclave of Nakhitchevan, and by extension to Turkey. Your neighbor Iran is formally opposed to it. What can you tell us about this corridor issue? Is this a realistic option and to what extent does it represent a danger for Armenia?
Answer - This point relating to the unblocking of infrastructure in the region is clearly and unequivocally recorded in the trilateral statement of November 9, which also provides for the guarantee by the Armenian side of the exchanges and transfers of civilians, goods and means of transport between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan. Neither this document nor any other makes the slightest mention of the provision of a corridor crossing the territory of Armenia. Also, it vigorously rejects the entirely artificial question that Baku is trying to put on the agenda concerning a, so-called, "Zanguezur corridor" as well as any made available to any corridor through its territory and to the detriment of its sovereignty.
We are not surprised that Azerbaijan's non-constructive acts, in particular its statements on changes to the borders of the sovereign territory of Armenia, cause deep concern among regional powers, especially Iran. Iran plays an important role in defusing tensions and establishing stability in the region, and the latest manifestation of this is the position recently expressed by Iran on the inviolability of the borders of the Republic of Armenia. We are convinced that the expansion of Iran's involvement will have a positive impact on the prospects for peace and security in the region.
Question - Armenia has lost its status as guarantor of the integrity and above all of the security of the population of Artsakh in favor of Russia. What can it do at this point?
Answer - Russia played a key role in halting military operations against Artsakh last year. At present, the Russian peacekeeping forces are carrying out their mission in Nagorno-Karabakh contributing to the physical security of the population of Artsakh and the re-establishment of the conditions for a return to normal life. The presence of Russian peacekeeping forces is a crucial security factor. Armenia, for its part, ensures all the conditions necessary for this mission to unfold without hindrance, unlike Azerbaijan, which does not hesitate to seize every opportunity to question the relevance and effectiveness of the peacekeeping mission.
At the same time, Armenia continues and will continue to be the guarantor of the security of the people of Artsakh and to defend the fundamental rights of the people of Artsakh. The Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army ensures the security of Artsakh. The government of Armenia in turn spares no efforts to mitigate the effects of the last war. In close collaboration with the government of Nagorno-Karabakh, social programs for the return to normal life and the restoration of economic activity are thus being carried out in Artsakh now.
Question - Do you think it opportune to continue the fight for the international recognition of Artsakh (taking inspiration from the previous Kosovan or East Timor) in the current situation?
Answer - For now, we are focused on resolving the urgent humanitarian issues that arose in the aftermath of the last war. What is especially pressing is the question of the rapid return of prisoners of war and other Armenian persons illegally detained in Azerbaijan. Baku, in violation of the trilateral statement of November 9 and in defiance of recognized norms of international humanitarian law, refuses to hand over to the Armenian side, making no secret of its intention, including publicly, to use it as a political bargaining chip. The fate of these people is of great concern to us and the daily tortures practiced against them, due to their ethnic origin, are well documented.
To come back to your question, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been and remains one of the crucial issues in the settlement of the conflict and it remains unresolved to this day. Armenia will resolutely continue its efforts towards the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh status issue under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship and tirelessly promote the need for the realization of the right of the people to Artsakh to self-determination and his right to an existence in peace and dignity in his ancestral Homeland.
In this context, I would like to remind you that the historic resolution of the French Senate "relating to the need for recognition of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh" will soon be one year old. This resolution, as well as the similar resolution adopted by the French National Assembly, as well as the wishes adopted by dozens of French towns, regions and departments, have shown that France and the French people do not wish to remain indifferent to the aggression of the Azerbaijani-Turkish forces against the Armenian people and defend a just and peaceful way to resolve the conflict. These resolutions are of great importance for the recognition of the right to self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and the definition of the internationally recognized final status for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Question - Your Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan exchanged “positive messages” with President Erdogan aimed at normalizing Armenian-Turkish relations. Has Armenia issued any preconditions for this normalization (recognition of the genocide of 1915 for example)? Why?
Answer - Since the beginning of its independence, Armenia has never laid down conditions for the normalization of relations with Turkey, insisting on the need for the establishment without preconditions of diplomatic relations and the opening of the borders between the two countries. Contrary to this constructive position of Armenia, Turkey adopted and pursued for decades a policy of preconditions, which is why these relations are not normalized to this day. Even today, Armenia's position remains unchanged: despite Turkey's direct involvement in the recent war and its destabilizing role in the region, we are still ready for a normalization of relations with Turkey without preconditions, which would meet the security and economic development interests of the entire region.
As for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, we consider this question in another dimension, apart from the question of the normalization of Armenian-Turkish diplomatic relations. This year, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the United States of America gave new impetus and gave a new dimension to the process of recognizing this genocide. We can say it with certainty: most of the main international players, as well as the international scientific community, unequivocally qualify as genocide the events which took place in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. So, in this matter, the ball is in the court of the Turkish state. We are confident that the agenda of international recognition of the Armenian Genocide will only contribute to easing tensions in the region and strengthening the security system.
Question - Armenia assumes the rotating presidency of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The latter did not hasten to help your country while Azerbaijan has been stepping up military incursions into your internationally recognized sovereign territory since May… Why?
Answer - Armenia sees the CSTO as one of the essential pillars of its security architecture. Consequently, Armenia will continue to actively integrate into the activities of this organization, while highlighting the problems related in particular to the strengthening of its own security. Armenia will take the opportunity of its next CSTO presidency to insist on strengthening the institutions of the organization for the benefit of consolidating the security systems of its member states.
Question - The Minsk Group is seen as dying, as it failed to avoid war. Azerbaijan and Turkey no longer want to hear about it. However, it continues its activities. What assessment can we make of its action?
Answer - It is true that despite the efforts of the Minsk Group co-chair for a ceasefire, it failed to prevent or quickly end the war against Artsakh by Azerbaijan, with the participation of Turkey and the employment of international terrorists. Notwithstanding this fact, favorable conditions exist today for a full resumption of the action of the co-presidency in its current format, which Armenia welcomes.
The co-chairs of the Minsk Group are mandated by the international community to find a settlement to the Karabakh conflict and one of the crucial subjects of this settlement remains the question of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an issue which has not yet been resolved. The co-presidency therefore still has an important role to play in this regard. The encounter, under the auspices of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in New York in September was a first step towards a full restoration of the conflict settlement process. Armenia welcomes the holding of this meeting and hopes that the contacts, with the participation of the Co-Chairs, will continue.
Question - What are the strengths of the bilateral Franco-Armenian relationship outside of culture? What are the areas with great potential?
Answer - Relations between France and Armenia are based on a close and intense political dialogue which is nourished by the cultural ties and a centuries-old friendship which unite our peoples, founded on deep affinities and on a community of values. At the same time, we are clearly aware that the full potential of these bilateral relations has not been fully exploited in recent years. Especially after the war of last year we are in a situation where real opportunities exist today to direct the positive energy of Franco-Armenian relations towards the implementation of concrete projects. It is above all a matter of deepening economic relations. On this level, both the French side and the Armenian side expressed themselves in favor of the implementation of vast economic projects and the increase of French investments in Armenia. We welcome any project that will help to strengthen and make more substantial the economic presence of France in Armenia, including in the field of construction of dedicated transport infrastructure.
In this context, we must remember the € 2.6 billion subsidy program offered to Armenia by the European Union and we hope that France will actively participate in the implementation of some of its components, including in the field of construction of dedicated transport infrastructure.
Beyond the economic programs, I think that real opportunities exist to further deepen decentralized cooperation, already with around thirty cooperation projects underway between the French and Armenian communities. The 4th conference of Armenian-French decentralized cooperation to be held next year will open new horizons for cooperation projects.
The bilateral cooperation agenda includes a number of new programs in the fields of education and culture. Steps are also being taken to speed up cooperation in the fields of defense and military education.
In summary, I could say that Armenia is determined to give new impetus and better quality to bilateral Franco-Armenian relations. In this regard, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that for the first time, the five-year plan of the Armenian government, recently adopted, defines as a priority the strengthening of privileged relations with France by emphasizing the need to deepen the economic aspect of these relationships.
Question - Can Paris play a role in easing tension outside the framework of the Minsk group of which France is co-chair?
Answer - I think it would be wiser for our French partners to answer this question. I would content myself with stressing the importance that Armenia attaches to France's participation in the co-chairing of the Minsk Group. In this format, France has a particularly constructive and balanced position in the process of settling the Karabakh conflict, which is very important to us.
Question - A year after the war, the tension is still at its height. Do you think a third war is imminent as many observers predict?
Answer - I don't want to make predictions. But I can say, on the other hand, that the situation in our region remains extremely tense, even explosive. Under these conditions, while the authorities of Azerbaijan refuse any discussion of peace, even after the bloody war of last year, do not renounce the bellicose and expansionist policy and continue to exacerbate an anti-Armenian hatred in the Azerbaijani society, talking about a rapid stabilization of the situation in our region seems difficult to me. Armenia is taking all necessary measures to promote peace in the region. Moreover, in order to put an end to the extreme manifestations of anti-Armenian hatred on the part of the Azerbaijani authorities, Armenia was obliged to use international judicial mechanisms.
Thus, Armenia has seized the International Court of Justice of the United Nations for violation by Azerbaijan of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, pointing to the blatant manifestations of hatred perpetrated by Azerbaijan within decades against Armenia and Armenians. The alarm bells against these protests are sounded by both Armenia and the community of international experts who are unanimous in their conclusions and claim that a whole generation of Azerbaijanis grew up with hate speech against Armenians.
The manifestations of this hatred are audible and evident both in almost all speeches and in the actions of the Azerbaijani authorities. It suffices to mention the illegal detention in Baku of prisoners of war and other Armenian civilians for almost a year, or the cases of execution of prisoners of war and the murder and beheading of Armenian civilians during the war. I believe you will agree that one of the essential means of achieving peace in the region and avoiding a new war there remains the firm and definitive renunciation of protests and hate speech as well as the pursuit of peace as an objective. Unfortunately, our neighbor does not show the slightest desire for it for the moment.