Vahagn Khachaturyan, president of Armenia: “Russia was the guarantor of our security but did not do what it should have done”

Vahagn Khachaturyan, president of Armenia (Photo: Diego Barbatto)

2023 was marked by high tension in the South Caucasus due to the intermittent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, which has been without a definitive resolution for more than three decades. A conflict that was mediated by Russia. In November 2020, Vladimir Putin’s government signed an agreement in which it committed to deploying peacekeepers to guarantee stability in the area. Three years after the signing of that pact, the result of that mediation speaks for itself: deaths on both sides, advance of Azeri troops into Armenian territory, and exodus of thousands of Armenians who had to leave their homes in the middle of the siege by Azeri troops and after several months of suffering a suffocating humanitarian crisis.

As part of his trip to Buenos Aires to attend the inauguration of Javier Mileithe president of Armenia, Vahagn Khachaturyanreceived Infobae at the embassy of your country.

The president referred to the current situation of the conflict, recognizing that the recent exchange of prisoners between the parties could be taken as “a first step” towards an eventual peace agreement, although he made clear his country’s position so that this long-awaited agreement can be achieved. be sealed.

He also recognized that Russia’s mediation did not yield the expected resultswhich is why Armenia in recent months has moved even closer to the West, particularly to the United States and the European Union (EU), and even to India, a country with which it sealed an important military agreement.

Regarding the future relationship with the Milei government, he hoped that both countries could “expand” their close ties, and reiterated his gratitude to the outgoing government of Argentina for its support during the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a prisoner exchange (Europa Press)
Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a prisoner exchange (Europa Press) (AZERBAI MINISTRY OF DEFENSE/)

-The year of greatest tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the 2020 war is ending. In these 12 months there were sporadic armed clashes, advance of Azeri troops, blockade of the Lachin corridor on the border, and a siege on the population of Nagorno Karabakh, which led to the exodus of thousands of Armenians. Despite this context, the international community celebrated the agreement reached in recent days for an exchange of prisoners of war. What is the current situation of the conflict?

-The most important thing is that the situation is governable, stable. After Azerbaijan’s attack on September 19 this year, more than 100,000 Armenians were displaced from their lands and found refuge in Armenia. The dispute lay in the fact that these people had to be received, housing found for them. Now we try to evaluate everyone’s needs and be able to give them their answers. We are talking about people who left their homes with practically nothing, who managed to travel a 70 kilometer journey for almost 30 hours with many difficulties. It was the only way they had to Armenia. The State did everything possible to mitigate the situation in which these compatriots found themselves. Now they are installed in hotels, in sports centers, in the homes of relatives and friends. Little by little they adapt to the new situation; many are looking for work. All children have access to education, the health system; The elderly also collect their pensions in Armenia. We are also giving them some social assistance because there are people who are renting homes, so that they can pay because they do not yet have purchasing power. Now we are preparing to solve an even bigger problem, which is the question of their homes, their permanent homes. We also hope for economic assistance from our partner countries.

-Armenia has been asking for help from the international community for some time. After the exodus, was there any type of external collaboration to address this situation?

-The assistance is there, we have to see if it is the amount that is needed, but in itself we notice the support of international organizations, of our partner countries. We notice that they are concerned about the issue. From Argentina we also received humanitarian assistance, about 25 tons of humanitarian assistance, which was also combined with the resources of the Armenian community in Argentina. For us it is something important and we greatly appreciate that you have helped us in these difficult times. They were also essential products. But to make everything more effective, we first need to assess needs: assess what we need, disseminate it, and then start providing assistance. We hope that both countries and international institutions will support us in this project. Our biggest concern is finding them a permanent place to live.

-Can that prisoner exchange that I mentioned be taken as a first step towards a possible peace agreement?

-Yes, it can be assessed that way, because it is an agreement that was reached through direct conversations and negotiations between the cabinets of the heads of both States. The agreement basically is that 32 prisoners who are in Azerbaijan will be returned, in the same way that Armenia agrees to hand over two Azeris. Another point is about the climate change summit: Azerbaijan had proposed its presidency, and Armenia is not going to oppose that. Those are the two points of this agreement. Not even a week has passed since we reached that agreement and we hope that this will be implemented. Once it is implemented it will be the beginning of us being able to reach an agreement, because if we agree to something and comply with it it would be a good sign, but of course we also always remember the partner countries that helped us negotiate, and we will always be grateful to them. that’s why.

-What should a peace agreement for Armenia include? Did the conditions change anything compared to months ago after this prisoner exchange?

-The most important point of the peace agreement is to mutually recognize territorial integrity, but explicitly mentioning the extent of the territory; independence and sovereignty be recognized; sovereignty within the framework of the territory mentioned; open the borders; the possibility of their circulation without restrictions. These are the points of the peace treaty. About ten days ago we conveyed to Azerbaijan our proposals on the peace treaty, which they are still studying. The most important thing is that Azerbaijan demonstrates will and predisposition, and that it complies with these obligations, and not as on previous occasions, when on two occasions within the framework of the European Union it did not participate in different summits whose objective was to advance the negotiations.

Armenians displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh arrive at a registration center of the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, near the border town of Kornidzor, Armenia, on September 25, 2023. EFE/EPA/NAREK ALEKSANYAN
More than 100,000 Armenians escaped from Nagorno Karabakh after the siege by Azerbaijani troops (EFE/EPA/NAREK ALEKSANYAN) (NAREK ALEKSANYAN/)

-After the massive exodus of Armenians, and the arrest of several senior officials, the authorities of Nagorno Karabakh announced that they will dissolve all their institutions from January 1, 2024. What will happen to that region starting next year? Is there hope that people can return?

-In order to return, the most important thing is the question of guarantees. Before September 19, while they were in Nagorno Karabakh, we always addressed the issue of guarantees. We talked about their right to life, and security guarantees. We understood very well that Azerbaijan could not give such guarantees; We understood that they had to be international organizations or different States. Unfortunately we did not receive support, that decision was not made. Because that decision was not made, people were forced to leave their homes, and what happened happened. Azerbaijan declares that people can return, but it has only been two months since the people left Nagorno Karabakh, where they lived for ten months without electricity, without gas, and without being able to eat well, and now, distrusting the words of the Azeri authorities, I do not believe that come back This is the key of the issue. We are going to do everything possible to ensure that they stay in our country, or rather, so that they feel comfortable in our country, because in the end they are the ones who make the decision. We know that they lived in those lands for thousands of years, it is their homeland, it is their ancient lands, where they lived for unmemorable centuries. Of course they will need and want to return. We also have to understand in these negotiations with Azerbaijan how much real possibility there is that these people can return. Today no one can say. It’s more of a no than a yes, because there are no guarantees. But we will see how the situation develops because we may be able to reach additional agreements.

-Armenia has been denouncing for months that Aliyev’s objective is not only Nagorno Karabakh, but also Armenian territory. In fact, there have even been warnings about a possible second genocide. Does that fear persist, beyond the recent rapprochements?

-In the conditions in which the treaty is not celebrated, there is always that fear. That is why we want a treaty that specifically mentions the extent of the territory, in figures. If we mutually recognize that fact, then we can also start talking about the disputed territories. Because they have problems, and we have those problems too. That is, there are mutual demands, and we believe that we can find solutions through negotiations. These solutions will be acceptable or satisfactory to both parties. I trust you that the existing problems in the territory are not very big. If there is a will, it can be solved. But of course in case there is no will, there can be many problems. Let’s hope that the rational part prevails and other problems do not arise. The important thing is that a war does not start again, and Azerbaijan must be deprived of that possibility. If Azerbaijan has alleged suspicions about the territory of Armenia, those suspicions must be made to disappear. Let us not forget that there is still a climate of mistrust between the parties, and we must not ignore the possibility that extreme measures can also be taken. I can say that such measures will not be taken on Armenia’s part, we have the will to solve the problems constructively within the framework of the principles that I mentioned.

A soldier of the Russian peacekeeping forces patrols the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan (REUTERS/Francesco Brembati)
A soldier of the Russian peacekeeping forces patrols the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan (REUTERS/Francesco Brembati) (FRANCESCO BREMBATI/)

-This year I had the opportunity to travel to Armenia, and the vast majority of people I spoke with, in addition to expressing their concern about what was happening in Nagorno Karabakh, were very upset with Russia’s mediation. The prime minister himself on several occasions implied that, from his point of view, Moscow worked more in favor of Azerbaijan. Do you agree with this? Do you feel that Russia failed the Armenian people in its commitment to achieving stability and peace?

-We have to confirm the fact without disguising it that, in fact, the Russian peace mission could not fulfill the mission for which it was called. If he couldn’t, or didn’t want to, is a separate issue. The fact is that they were there, and Karabakh was emptied. In fact, they were there on December 12, 2022, when the Lachín corridor was blocked. They rebuked measures to reopen it. These are facts that no one can deny. There was another fact. In May 2022 when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia, we expected assistance from Russia to arrive but we did not receive it. That is why this position of Armenian society derives from those events. Because not all of us, as the guarantor of our security, thought that this guarantor was Russia, but that did not work. What you noticed in people corresponds to reality. The important thing is that this is not an assessment of politicians, but something that the people believe, it is the opinion of the people. I am very sorry that that was the case, because we imagined it in a different way. When a ceasefire agreement was signed between the authorities of Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan in November 2020, Russia assumed responsibility for peacekeeping, everyone expected, especially our compatriots from Nagorno-Karabakh, that after the war , thanks to the Russian peacekeepers, they would be able to live, work and continue with their normal lives in those lands. After that agreement was signed on November 9, 2020, 20,000 people returned to Nagorno Karabakh. The government of Armenia and the authorities of Nagorno Karabakh were beginning to carry out large-scale construction in Nagorno Karabakh. Social and economic programs began to be carried out so that people returning to Nagorno Karabakh had access to housing and could find employment. This shows that people did not think it was something temporary, they had the intention of living there permanently. But it happened differently. When the war started, the peacekeeping forces did not participate in any way. The war only lasted one day. And then the authorities of Nagorno Karabakh asked everyone and also the government of Armenia to take all measures to urgently end the war. As a consequence of that, those statements about the future of Nagorno Karabakh were born.

-Is that why in recent months Armenia has gotten closer to Western powers, such as the US and France, and distanced itself a little from Russia? There was also a military rapprochement with India. Can India play an important role in the future?

-We had a guarantor of our safety, but he did not do what he should have done. That’s why I think it’s very logical that we look for alternatives. The European Union extended its hand to us: the first step was sending the observation mission, which at first consisted of 30 people and now there are 130. They are not armed, they are simply located on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, they take note of the situation . These people have been there for a year and it is already noticeable that the conflicts we had on the border have decreased. This is a fact. The EU authorities decided that the mission must begin to consist of 209 people. This means that they are interested in ensuring that there are no incidents at the border. The same regarding weapons. Everything we expected from Russia did not come true, so we had to look in other countries. We have been able to reach a specific agreement with India: we buy weapons, but they are not attack weapons, they are defense weapons. And we continue to look for international partners to reach similar agreements. With France we already have an agreement for armored vehicles. We also want anti-aircraft protection systems. There is an important factor here. Azerbaijan manipulates with the fact that Armenia is arming itself, we have the obligation to increase the defense of our country. Like any country in the world we have to get the weapons to achieve this, but not to start or provoke a war, but to defend ourselves. Because it is evident that if one is not well defended one is very vulnerable, there is no need to explain this to anyone. Azerbaijan manipulates this, but we have much more evidence of the militarization of Azerbaijan, but we simply do not want that to become an object of discussion. We hope that Azerbaijan realizes that we have no limitations in ensuring the defense capabilities of our country and our borders.

President of Armenia Vahagn Khachaturian
The president of Armenia highlighted his country’s close relationship with Argentina (Photo: Diego Barbatto) (Diego Barbatto/)

-Finally, your trip to the country is due to the recent inauguration of Javier Milei. At the beginning of the talk, the support of the Argentine government during the conflict with Azerbaijan stood out to me. What do you expect from this new government, and what were you able to discuss with President Milei?

-Coming was very important from the point of view of highlighting once again the importance of relations between Armenia and Argentina, to highlight the importance of our friendly relations. He demonstrated that there are no obstacles in the relations between our countries. We must always do everything possible to develop and renew our relations in different areas, such as political, economic, bilateral, and multilateral. The decision to come to participate in the inauguration ceremony had been made some time ago. Of course he didn’t know who was going to win. But we have to preserve the continuity of relations. I also met with the outgoing president [Alberto Fernández], I thanked him for Argentina’s position and for speaking out in support of Armenia on these very difficult issues. Argentina is a country that expressed its support for Armenia and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh both at the presidential level, as well as at the parliamentary level and local authorities, and that support was very important for us. With the president-elect we talked about the possibility of expanding cooperation, of course using all state instruments, but also without forgetting the Armenian community in Argentina, the warmth that the Armenian and Argentine people feel for each other. I hope that my visit in that sense also has its positive influence. In all my contacts I felt a lot of warmth. The most important thing I want to express is to tell the Argentine people, and also the authorities, that the economic difficulties can be overcome very soon, and everything is to work towards the empowerment of Argentina. In that sense, as friendly countries, this will be for the benefit of both peoples. We also have to do everything to strengthen ourselves and be stronger, and it will also benefit Argentine-Armenian relations, as well as those of both peoples.