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Stepanakert today resembles German towns during WWII. President Armen Sarkissian’s interview to Bild

World Press

President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian gave an interview to the German Bild  periodical.

BILD: Mr. President, we have just come from Stepanakert, the capital of the region Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been shelled by the Azerbaijani army for two weeks now. However, the Armenian army is also attacking civilian targets in the neighboring country, for example recently in Ganja. People died there.

Armen Sarkissian: „First of all, there is an announcement by the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Armenia on this issue. I’ve got the assurances from my Minister of Defense and the Foreign Minister that Armenia was not instrumental in doing that.“

But independent journalists were on the ground and have documented the extent of the destruction.

Armen Sarkissian: „No, Armenia was not involved in that. I mean the Republic of Armenia, and I’m the President of the Republic of Armenia. You’re coming from Stepanakert. That is the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Republic Artsakh. You witnessed huge shellings there. How many days were you in Stepanakert?“

Almost one week.

Armen Sarkissian: „Did you see many shellings or was it just once?“

We were in a basement every night.

Armen Sarkissian: „That basically answers your question. This war was started by the Azeri side. From the first day, instead of all going to the negotiation table together, Azerbaijan decided that they have the right to start a war. To start a war and to not only kill young soldiers at the frontline and to bomb left and right, but also to bomb civilians. Civilians in villages. In many cities of Nagorno-Karabakh.

If you are starting a war like that, you feel free to shell all the civilians and to use all possible types of weapons, including the air force, terrorists from Syria, Turkish military equipment, Turkish drones, and all of that. Do you expect that the other side will politely do nothing or that it will use the hunting knife?“

But there is a difference between military and civil targets, after all!

Armen Sarkissian: „Were you in Stepanakert? Is it a military target or a civilian target?“

Yes, Stepanakert was attacked.

Sarkissian: „So why doesn’t the international community condemn what the other side, together with Turkey, is doing? For more than two weeks now, they have been shelling civilians and killing civilians.“

Chancellor Merkel calls for „both sides” to deescalate. Are you disappointed by the German reaction?

Sarkissian: „Any tougher reaction in this case from anyone – from the international community, including Germany and the European Union, or from NATO – should, first of all, be towards Turkey. Because I think – as do a lot of other people – that the Turkish presence and activities in the war against Nagorno-Karabakh have dramatically changed the whole picture.

If, as before, only Azerbaijan were involved, we would probably have seen a couple of days of fighting, and then it would have been stopped. The international community pleading to both sides for a ceasefire would have meant something for both sides.

By „international community”, I mean not only Chancellor Merkel or President Macron or the European Union or something that we would have expected from NATO. But in the conflict, there is now a third party – which is Turkey. It is not part of the conflict. There is nothing for Turkey to fight for.

Of course, they put forward excuses. Sometimes they say that the Azeris are ethnic brothers. I’m sorry, but their ethnic brothers go far beyond Central Asia, to Mongolia, to the north of China – will they also get involved in any problem there? Second, they are playing the old usual card about PKK fighters, which is complete nonsense. Third, they pretend to protect the energy resources and the pipeline, which is also nonsense. If the Armenians wanted to shoot that pipeline, they could have done so twenty years ago to prevent Azerbaijan from making billions.“

Why does the Chancellor call for both sides to deescalate, in your view?

Sarkissian: „It’s not my business to comment on what Chancellor Merkel is doing.“

What would you want Germany to do?

Sarkissian: „That’s a different story. I wish Germany would realize that the situation we’re now facing in Caucasus is very dangerous. It’s not only dangerous for the people in Nagorno-Karabakh, the people in Artsakh, who fought in the first war for several years. Everybody was saying: how on earth does this small country want to win the war against Azerbaijan that was supported by Turkey? But they won.“

What could Germany do?

Sarkissian: „The situation has become much more geopolitically complex. Because now Turkey is on the ground in Azerbaijan. It’s there with military forces, with drones, with airplanes, and many other things. And some analysts think that it is there to stay. Not in order to protect the pipelines, but to control them. If that is the case, if we look at the future geopolitically, we will see a very unstable Caucasus – which is not good for anyone in the region and beyond. Turkey will control the energy resources, not only in Azerbaijan, but also at the Caspian Sea and in Central Asia. In some sense, Europe is then also a hostage of Turkey, because Turkey will control the oil and the gas that comes from the Caspian Sea to the European Union.“

What could that mean for Germany?

Sarkissian: „Germany and part of the European Union are getting oil and gas from that source. If you then have a country that has already created centres of political instability all around itself … Look at what’s happening in Libya. What is Turkey doing in Libya? They were in Egypt before. When they are talking about the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, then what about them crossing the border to Iraq? Or the border to Syria? What about them having conflicts with Cyprus and Greece? What about now entering Armenia?“

Let’s become more concrete! Do you expect EU/NATO sanctions against Turkey?

Sarkissian: „I’m not the one to expect Germany, the European Union, NATO to do something. But expect them to use all of their possible means of putting pressure on Turkey.“

Would you prefer sanctions?

Sarkissian: „Let’s not do „ifs.” That’s wishful thinking: would you prefer this or that? I would prefer anything that the European Union, Germany, NATO or other EU countries will find suitable for putting pressure on Turkey in order to stop its intervention in this conflict concerning Nagorno-Karabakh.“

How do you assess the so-called “ceasefire” that, in principle, has been in place since Saturday?

Sarkissian: „First of all, the ceasefire is partly kept, but not fully. As you have said yourself: immediately after the ceasefire, there was shelling from the Azeri side.“

Are you concerned that the war might escalate into a large-scale proxy war?

Sarkissian: „I’m definitely very worried that this conflict could get out of hand. I’m concerned, first of all, because there is a third player. If this only concerned Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, I would be much more hopeful that the conflict can be contained. But with Turkey involved and with the Turkish attitude that we can see in the whole region, I am very uncomfortable with this situation. There is another component, which is Turkey bringing mujahidin or militant Islamists into the conflict.

This makes everything completely unstable. These are my concerns and I’m saying to all of our friends that just appealing to the sides for a ceasefire is not enough. We cannot close our eyes before the involvement of Turkey. You were there, you’ve probably seen with your own eyes how Turkish drones are used in Stepanakert and other places. They are using their aircrafts. They are using their artillery, which is stopping the anti-aircraft systems.“

How could Erdogan be stopped?

Sarkissian: „There is only one way: by putting pressure on him. Involving a third party and then a fourth party will increase the escalation level even further. Armenia is very careful here. To this day, when there is a full-scale war, Armenia has not announced its recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh. Do you know why? In all of these years, Armenia decided not to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh in order not to disturb the process of peace talks – to give peace talks a chance and to come up with a final solution that is acceptable for all. This is why Armenia didn’t want to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh.“

According to the UN, in terms of international law, Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan. Why has Armenia never acknowledged that?

Sarkissian: „At the moment, there is a war. As to international law – the Armenian side is saying: what about the right of people who are living on their own land? Armenians have not occupied Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians have been living there for thousands of years. You were there: there are monasteries from the 4th and 5th century. Where was Azerbaijan back then or the Turks? There were not even in Anatolia those days.

So this is their (the Armenians’) native land. What they are fighting for is to protect their homes, their history, their dignity, their religion, and many other things. To say that Armenians are invaders and that the Azeris are there in order to free Karabakh from the Armenians is, in my vocabulary – and in that of international law – called ethnic cleansing. Not territorial integrity. Don’t forget that the only time when Azerbaijan had some jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh was under the Soviet Union.

If we consider the laws of the Soviet Union to be the laws that the international community has to obey, then tell me please! It is only 65 years ago that Azerbaijan was given Nagorno-Karabakh by Comrade Stalin. If international law recognizes what Comrade Stalin has created or designed, then tell me! So when we are talking about international law, about integrity, and even human rights, the basic value is the right of these people. Ask an elderly grandmother and a young boy in Nagorno-Karabakh: do they trust the Azerbaijanis?

65 years ago, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region of Azerbaijan. Even under Soviet rule, they were trying everything to carry out the ethnic cleansing, to get rid of the Armenians on their ethnic land. Do they trust the Azeris? No. Is there a solution or security for them? Can they accept anything less than their independence? The answer is no. For a simple reason: they had the highest level of autonomy in the Soviet Union, in Soviet Azerbaijan. Because the guarantor of that autonomy was the government of the Soviet Union. But even under that high guarantee of security, Azerbaijan did everything: closing Armenian schools, forcing people out, and a lot of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh left Azerbaijan.“

Currently, weapons, including drones, are also delivered to Azerbaijan by Israel. Are you hopeful that these deliveries will be stopped?

Sarkissian: „It is always good to have hope. I spoke to the President of Israel. This was a couple of days ago. Of course, Israel is a parliamentary republic. The President is not in charge of these arms deliveries, but the government. I made it clear that I have three points to make.

Number one: the contract between Israel and Azerbaijan says that Israel will supply defensive systems. What we have seen in Nagorno-Karabakh is that the Israeli systems are used offensively. So it’s either a breach of contract, or offensive systems were supplied, not defensive systems. Number two: these systems are used against the civilian population. That is a violation of international law. Number three: under such circumstances, there is always an “act of God” for every contract. So if there is an uncontrollable situation, the contract stops until the situation is resolved.

Supplying weapons to one of the parties during a war is against international law. I made that clear to my colleague, the President of Israel. We in Armenia believe that this is an unfortunate situation. I asked him: please, Mr. President, I need answers to my three questions. Why on earth are defensive weapons becoming offensive weapons? Why are these weapons used against the civilian population? Why does the Israeli government not stop the deliveries during a war? They can deliver whatever is in the contract after the war is over.

Unfortunately, I have not received an answer yet. I know – because worldwide, we have a lot of friends, Jewish friends – that a lot of people are unhappy about what the Israeli government is doing. A government that represents a nation that suffered the Holocaust – against a nation that suffered a genocide. I think this is morally unacceptable. Again: it’s the government, not the people.“

There is a stream of refugees from Karabakh.

Sarkissian: „I’m not going to give a number, and when you speak of half the population, this is basically children and elderly people. They are in Yerevan, they are well taken care of, they are in houses. People are very organized, very disciplined. They are self-organized. Even before the government and the Ministry of Social Affairs they started … Generally, the population started doing everything in order to take care of these people. But they are here temporarily, they will go back.“

Do you need any help from the international community?

Sarkissian: „Of course! We need help to stop this bloody war. Because who is suffering under it? The children. Because why would you, for example, leave your children and the elderly in Stepanakert when the enemy is bombing Stepanakert? If the enemy were more humane and would just fight on the frontline, everyone would stay in Stepanakert. Why should they leave the city?

But they left because of the shelling of civilians. And it wasn’t just one bomb that killed people, and not two bombs. There is shelling every day! Look at Stepanakert from the air. You are German. It looks like German cities during the Second World War. It is going to be something like that.

So how on earth can it be that, in the 21st century, in 2020, we are allowing Turkey – together with Azerbaijan – to commit this crime? All of these people will go back, because it is their homeland. When they see something happening to their fathers, husbands, they will go back. I know these women. Maybe they leave their children, but they will go back. Because they are there in order to win.“

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