Armenia’s Panorama.am news agency interviewed Member of the UK Parliament Stephen Pound recently, discussing the latest developments in the region regarding the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and the recent escalation of violence there spurred by aggressive attacks from Azerbaijani forces at the border. Pound, a Labour party member of the House of Commons representing London’s Ealing North constituency, also co-chairs the British-Armenian All-Party Parliamentary Group and has visited Armenia and Artsakh on several occasions. The full interview with Stephen Pound, conducted by Panorama.am’s Nvard Chalikyan is below.
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NVARD CHALIKYAN: Mr. Pound, you are a member of the British-Armenian Inter-Parliamentary Group and you have been an advocate of closer relations between Armenia and Britain. I wonder how you, as a British person, became interested in Armenia and in Armenian issues in the first place.
STEPHEN POUND: I have been interested in Armenia long before I became a member of the British-Armenian parliamentary friendship group. One has to look at the map of the world to see the strategic significance of Armenia as a beacon of stability in the South Caucasus. Also, my first interest in Armenia comes from rather more historical reasons, partly because Armenia in 301 AD was the first country in the world that declared itself a Christian country and secondly, because the literature and the theology of Armenia is some of the oldest and most respected in the world. This is an extraordinary country – even when Armenia was subsumed in other empires it still managed to maintain its original and unique qualities. Armenia is not like anywhere on earth. Everything is different in Armenia, usually better. Also, as a human being, particularly as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Genocide in April 2015, how can anyone look at Armenia without feeling kinship and friendship and a tear in the eyes?
N.C.: You have actually raised the question of recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the UK in the British Parliament and have been advocating for this cause for a long time. What are the main challenges in this process at present?
S.P.: I have raised the question in the UK Parliament two or three times and I will continue to do that. I had a recent debate in Parliament on the Nagorno Karabakh issue, but it also touched the issue of Genocide. First time we had a debate it was pointed out that the word Genocide wasn’t coined until 1946, but that argument to me is an absurdity. I use the word Genocide because it was a systematic attempt by the Ottoman Empire to destroy all Armenian people and it destroyed virtually all of Western Armenia – the entire Western Armenian culture was destroyed. We know that and we know that the reverberations of that have been felt to this day. So the fact that there wasn’t a particular word at a particular time is completely tendentious. Genocide means slaughter of a people, it means to kill an entire race and what happened in 1915 was probably the third Armenian Genocide, at least the third. In the late 19th century there were two specific attempts by the Ottoman Empire, mostly because of the fact that Armenians were very successful. If you look at places like Van, you will find that all the doctors by 1890s were Armenian; also most of the successful businessmen, traders, book sellers and publishers were Armenian.
N.C.: Apart from the argument that has to do with the coining of the term Genocide as such, what are the main political obstacles preventing Britain from recognizing the Armenian Genocide?
S.P.: In the UK there is opposition towards recognition also because UK and Turkey are a part of NATO and Turkey is becoming even more significant, taking into account what’s happening in Iraq now. Another reason for the reluctance to admit the Armenian Genocide took place is that England will then have to admit, for example, the Irish genocide which took place in 1854 and also other genocides of the world. However, recognition is important because to kill a people is cruel enough but to deny that you’ve done it is a double cruelty and I see this pain with many Armenian friends.
But there is some hope. Certainly in Ealing, my constituency in West London, we commemorate the Genocide every year – we have a service, we have a garden of remembrance, we have an apricot tree. Every time I go to the Genocide museum in Yerevan I see another series of letters from the US, from cities of the United Kingdom, from countries like France, commemorating and recognizing the Genocide. My work will not be over until the United Kingdom recognizes what was the first genocide of the 20th century, a genocide which allowed other genocides to happen.
N.C.: Mr. Pound, recently there has been a marked escalation of tensions in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict zone, involving human losses, as Azerbaijan has intensified attacks, shelling not only the borders of Nagorno Karabakh but also the bordering regions of the Republic of Armenia. Could you comment on these developments and particularly on the stance of Azerbaijan that they supposedly have the right to take back lands by military means?
S.P.: We have to establish one point here. I have been to Artsakh two or three times; anyone who sets foot on that part of the world, anyone who goes from Shushi to Stepanakert and gets to know the area will see that the very air is Armenian air, the soil, the churches, the cross-stones are all Armenian and they have been there for thousands and thousands years. Trying to claim that this is actually a suburb of Baku is ludicrous.
However, there is a problem of sniping across the border and the hostilities on the border are getting worse, partly because of the interesting tactic by Azerbaijan to demonstrate that the conflict is ongoing. If you go to Stepanakert you will see brand new houses and villages being built all around the city – all the displaced people have been provided an accommodation. If you go to Azerbaijan you will see that there are still tents and refugee camps and it almost makes you think they actually want to keep that sense of grievance. To be completely honest, Azerbaijan is a failed state, which is a byword for corruption; Azerbaijan has completely no political legitimacy whatsoever and is utterly corrupt at every level. In these circumstances anything which distracts attention from the Aliyev administration and his family, such as unrest on the border, can almost be seen as an advantage – this is the tactic of pointing the blame outside.
But we have to do our best to solve this conflict. When we look at nightmare situations happening in Palestine, Gaza, Israel, northern Iraq and all over the world, how can we not resolve this problem which is one of the last relics of Stalinism? We know that Stalin was drawing lines on the map back in the 1920s and 1930s. We can put this right just as other boundaries have been changed, and this has to be recognized. It is not just about Nagorno Karabakh; there are other parts of Armenia which are still claimed by Azerbaijan. We have to resolve this once and for all. It has to be done through the Minsk process because nobody wants to go to war.
N.C.: Azerbaijan’s actions prior to the war, during the war and after the war (Safarov case, anti-Armenianism, bellicose rhetoric, blockade, etc.) come to prove that Azerbaijan is to this day posing an existential threat to the people of Nagorno Karabakh. How do you think this question should be resolved even if a peace deal is signed?
S.P.: Let’s get one thing absolutely clear and put it on the record once and forth. If the Armenian army had wanted to, it could have occupied Baku at the end of the war. There was nothing standing in the way of the army. So there is no threat from Armenia to Azerbaijan. It is interesting actually to take a look at the success of what was originally a very poorly-provided army fighting a country which had, I think, two armored divisions of Russian equipment that had been left behind. They managed to win in a short time, but they did not move forward to Baku when they did have the chance… If Armenia had territorial ambitions the Armenians would have been in Baku today. So there is no threat from Armenia to Azerbaijan. However, there is an existential threat to Nagorno Karabakh from Azerbaijan. Stepanakert airport would be opened tomorrow and the whole area would be opened up for development if it wasn’t for the threat of the missiles. I have been to Stepanakert and I have seen missiles sticking out of the walls. I have seen the monasteries in Artsakh and I saw that the rockets fired from Azerbaijan were still there.
This is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Yet if you want to go from Yerevan to Stepanakert it takes you the best part of the day to travel. We’d prefer to fly to Stepanakert and even have a railroad built up to Shushi, but that can’t happen at the moment because of Azerbaijan’s threat. The economic development has thus been prevented in this way. As we know economic warfare is another aspect of warfare and we have to halt this urgently!
N.C.: We know that Azerbaijan blacklists those foreigners who travel to Nagorno Karabakh through Armenia, and you have been blacklisted as well. What is your opinion about this?
S.P.: Yes, I have been blacklisted twice. Actually I have never been more honored to be on any other list. For me being on that black list is like getting a Nobel Prize. I have no overpowering ambition to visit Baku and the fact that I will not be allowed to is something I will have to live with. I am quite happy to go to Gyumri, to Stepanakert and to Yerevan.
N.C.: Speaking of Gyumri, as far as I know you are also interested in establishing ties between Lord Byron School in Gyumri and schools in Ealing, London. Can you say a couple of words about this?
S.P.: In Gyumri, after the dreadful earthquake, the Lord Byron School was opened in 1990 and we have actually been raising quite a bit of money locally because we have a lot of Armenian teachers here. I am still trying to set up an exchange where people from Lord Byron School could come to the UK and teachers from the UK could go there. That is in the working process. That’s something I will not allow myself to retire until I have achieved.