Yuri, first of all, thank you for responding to our interview request. Let me ask you the first question. Why do you think the 30-year-long negotiations between Baku and Yerevan mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group failed to produce any progress?
You know, the authorities dragged out the resolution of the conflict, because they were busy with other things. The ceasefire in 1994 after the First Karabakh War coincided with the rise in oil prices. Azerbaijani oil became competitive, and Azerbaijan began to implement large-scale projects to supply energy resources to foreign markets, that is, it had a lot on its plate. Let us not forget that Karabakh was being sacralized, as if it were a holy place. In fact, this region should be viewed differently. I get it, stones, ruins, religious structures and all that, but let’s talk about Karabakh and the people living there. This is a rural area, not Baku or Yerevan. Not many want to live in Karabakh. Someone who lives in a city won’t go to the countryside. All these years, the Karabakh issue and the negotiations on it were handled by people who were not going to live in the countryside. This applies to both Azerbaijan and Armenia. So, look at Karabakh as a place where clinics, schools and so on should be built, not as something virtual. For example, Robert Kocharyan, who was first “President” of “NKR” (Editor’s quotation marks), and then the President of Armenia. This is a man who left that place, and this is a normal dynamic; all urban dwellers used to be villagers. This is the trend: everyone moves to the cities, and in this respect, it is absurd to think that Karabakh is a special region, more important than other places in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
All these years, the ruling elite in Karabakh was busy lining their personal pockets. And then, when the war started in Karabakh, it turned out that no one was ready for it.
While he was in the opposition, the current Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan accused the “Karabakh clan” of the failure to resolve the Karabakh conflict, but after coming to power he only brought the outbreak of war closer. I am referring to his infamous expression “Karabakh is Armenia, period”. Why this change in his views?
I’m not sure it’s a change of views. I cannot stand with the Prime Minister here. In general, a situation has arisen where even we, journalists, are constantly explaining the meaning of this or that official’s or politician’s statements. And they are guided by a particular agenda, it does not matter to me what ideological or religious ideas they have. It is important to me that they do their job, because no one delegated them to start a war.
The problem is that discussions on Karabakh were monopolized. Certain people, groups of people, of course, could meet, communicate, but all this took place in a closed setting.
Going back to 2018, to the days of the Velvet Revolution and Pashinyan’s rise to power: there was no nationalist order for war, that is, people took to the streets demanding social justice, not for the seizure of some virtual territories. The first and second year of the revolution showed that dispossessing the oligarchs was not so easy. It became clear that it would not be easy to return what they had looted from the budget, but we had to keep talking about something with pathos. And here comes the moment when you run out of specific programs and things to do, so you start talking about a “sore point”. In our case, Karabakh. Not only Armenian politicians are guilty of this. When an official fails to report on achievements or failures, they start talking nonsense.
When Nikol Pashinyan started talking about the Karabakh problem, he could no longer talk about the processes going on, maybe he was confronted with the underlying bureaucratic state, corruption in the army. At some point he went on the air very often and talked about some exposures, documents. And he often repeated that there were things he couldn’t talk about, i.e., it was a matter of national security. Perhaps he became aware of the blatant cases of corruption, of the enormous scale of theft. It is very important to understand that Pashinyan did not do military service. By the way, I don’t blame him for that, good for him. No one should do their military service in an army like this one. In other words, he had no idea what the institution of the army was. He was a journalist, and not the worst kind of journalist. The question is that we’re used to looking at the army through the lens of generals, ministers, the leadership, not from the soldier’s point of view. Meanwhile, we most often find ourselves in the status of a soldier. Nikol Pashinyan had no idea about the army and chose to trust not the most honest people. If the state is corrupt, we must realize that the military are more corrupt than the others because it is easy to get your hand in the military budget. Arms purchases mean a lot of money and exorbitant responsibility, and you are surrounded by a halo of patriotic protection and media protection, because journalists can accuse critics of the army leadership of serving enemy interests. This is the critical outlook that Nikol Pashinyan lacked, because those left over from the previous government are much more experienced manipulators in the political sense. They deceived him, whipping up all sorts of myths, and at some point he found himself captivated by the absurd idea that a military solution to the conflict was possible. This is absolutely normal behavior for government officials, but from a moral, religious point of view it is absolutely criminal. War is a failure, all those who contributed to it and did not put up any resistance, made a career and money out of it. It’s such a long list, and it includes journalists, politicians, MPs, democrats, liberals. This is the kind of liability I would impute to Nikol Pashinyan.
Why do all initiatives of the ruling Civil Contract party encounter strong resistance on the part of the opposition? What do you think is the reason for this hostility?
First, the Armenian opposition consists of former presidents and oligarchs attached to them, serving their interests. These people, according to various sources, are billionaires. And Armenia is not a rich enough country to normally digest dollar millionaires within its borders, so a person with that much money, business, and media empire runs the show. They have a lot of money, and the rich always have a lot of people around them who are willing to serve them and even compete for the job. This includes journalists, politicians, and parties. They will oppose everything that Nikol Pashinyan and his party will advocate.
Second, they are trying to promote the old talking points; they have no other program. We have to understand their natural fears. These people are journalists, businessmen, and politicians, who became established in an environment of blockades and closed borders. They feel comfortable doing business in this environment; they represent the party of war, and they welcome the monopoly. They know no other way, they claim to be monopolists.
Here is an example from my personal experience. I have a friend who is an IT specialist, he tried to open a business in the center of Yerevan, but it turned out to be impossible. You can’t open an office in Yerevan without paying Robert Kocharyan’s family first. The latter have all bases covered: cooperation with his banks, lease of offices in his building, his complex, or use of his mobile operators, purchase of cars from his son’s company. Over the years their tentacles have reached into every sector, which determined their influence. That is why they are the opposition, they still buy all the loyalty they have, that is, they have no reputational support. This is their agenda, they are comfortable with the blockade, the threat of war, the control of all sectors, including the media. All of their media, schooled by them, also easily take money, support him, and criticize whoever he wants them to.
This does not mean that the current government should not be criticized. On the contrary, there is much to criticize it for, but in this general noise fueled by the oligarchic media, other important voices, including those talking about the war, are very often drowned out, since the market is divided between the pro-Russian Kocharyan media and the pro-Western Pashinyan media.
Will Turkey and Armenia be able to normalize relations?
Of course, they will. I can’t imagine what has to happen for them not to be able to come to an agreement. It would take some kind of shock, a brutal intervention, a big war, for them not to be able to do that. People cannot travel to earn money when the borders are closed, and that’s why we need the borders to be opened as much as we need air, so that the border areas of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey could be turned into crossroads. If the borders were open, there might not have been a war.
The opening of the borders is necessary for the people of the dead-end isolated villages so that these places can breathe. It is time to stop delegating power to people with guns in their hands. Let politicians and diplomats finally get to their direct duties, it is their job to establish connections, to open the borders. That is, in the matter of normalization and opening of borders, of course, I am an optimist.
Do you believe that Azerbaijan and Armenia can come to an agreement without mediation by the EU and Russia?
You know, mediation by third countries is something those third countries need. Any middleman at some point begins to take advantage of the fact that we have no direct communication with each other. We communicate easily with intermediaries, but not with each other. It is not right to form an opinion about one’s neighbor through intermediaries; it is better to have direct communication. We have too many intermediaries, not only in the form of third countries, but also in the media. Intermediaries are everywhere; I don’t know who needs them. If we will be at each other’s throats without them, then fine, let’s have them. Many people in Azerbaijan and Armenia can meet and agree on things, talk about everything. People are the same everywhere and since when did it become difficult to come to an agreement? We, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, have known how to come to an agreement all our lives.
Will Azerbaijanis travel to Armenia and Armenians to Azerbaijan, as they did in Soviet times?
Let’s not try to run before we learn to walk; obviously, it will not be like the Soviet Union. There is no going back to how things used to be, it will be something we can’t imagine yet. Traveling between our countries? I don’t know, is that something anyone wants to do right now? It’s one thing to go on a tourist trip, and quite another to move countries.
Looking ahead, I would say that probably Armenians and Azerbaijanis will be able to visit each other. You know, I was in Tbilisi during the Sevilla-Barcelona Champions League game. There were a lot of people there from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Egypt, Georgia. Everyone who came there brought their national flags with them. At one point, the Azerbaijani and Armenian flags started flying together, and everyone was wearing a Barcelona or a Sevilla jersey.
Of course, some nationalists on either side of the border will continue to sow discord.
What should be done to reconcile the two peoples?
I think the best thing to do is to focus on the current issues, it is not normal to meet and discuss the past. For example, say there is some border area in Azerbaijan or Armenia that has a problem of drinking water, roads or mine clearance. We should set up joint groups on mine clearance, help each other in the solution of humanitarian problems. This is what we should be doing instead of discussing historical mistakes. I am for peaceful coexistence. People with guns don’t build, they destroy. We should focus on humanitarian projects, on post-war reconstruction, because many people lost their loved ones during the war. People who survived the war and can talk about it easily, they are the ones who should meet in the first place.
Translated from Caliber.Az