BY RUPEN JANBAZIAN
From the Armenian Weekly
Today, nearly 24 years after declaring independence, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is home to a thriving democracy; holds regular free and fair elections (both presidential and parliamentary); is determined to attract foreign investment; and most recently, served as a safe refuge for a growing number of Syrian-Armenian refugees. Yet, according to analysts, 2014 was the deadliest year for the Karabakh conflict since the ceasefire with Azerbaijan in 1994, with 33 Armenian and 39 Azeri casualties.
“The troops serve with the understanding that they are protecting their homeland and that the entire Armenian nation stands with them in support—not only the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh [Karabakh], but the diaspora too,” Artak Beglaryan, spokesperson for NKR Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan, told the Armenian Weekly.
Beglaryan has been with the office of the prime minister since August 2012, and has joined Harutyunyan on multiple tours of the front lines. He has also worked as a political analyst and columnist for several Armenian newspapers and journals, commenting on the latest development in the republic and the South Caucasus.
The Armenian Weekly sat down with Beglaryan on Jan. 30, to discuss the current situation in Artsakh and what he expects for its future. Below is the full interview.
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RUPEN JANBAZIAN: According to reports, 2014 was the deadliest year in the Karabakh conflict since the 1990’s. What do you think contributed to the escalation in violence, and is this trend likely to continue?
ARTAK BEGLARYAN: Unfortunately, 2014 was quite a bloody year for the conflict. Azerbaijan continues to take small yet aggressive steps to escalate the violence. Considering how this year began, we can already assume that the bloodshed will likely continue. Throughout January, the Azerbaijani Army made several attempts to breach the border at different points of the contact line, but were held back by Armenian troops. Azerbaijani troops have also been attacking points on the internationally recognized and protected border of the Republic of Armenia. In doing so, Azerbaijan continues to try to draw Armenia into the conflict, as they do not recognize NKR.
Given that 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Azerbaijan has been working closely with Turkey to counter Centennial commemorations. It is evident that Turkey supports Azerbaijan and continues to encourage the escalation of violence in order to distract Armenians and turn international attention away from the commemoration and onto the Karabakh conflict.
It is safe to assume that this will not be an easy year; Azerbaijan will continue its policy of provocation. What is important to note, however, is that the Armenian side is fully prepared to respond accordingly when necessary, and do its best to ensure that the conflict does not escalate any further.
R.J.: On Aug. 2-4 last year, you joined Prime Minister Harutyunyan on an overnight tour of the front lines. The visit came after a string of attacks from Azerbaijan that started on July 28, and left 5 Armenian and 13 Azeri servicemen dead, according to official figures provided by the defense ministries of both sides. What was the morale of the NKR troops at the time and how do such visits affect the soldiers?
A.B.: I have actually joined the prime minister on multiple tours. Most recently, we visited the front lines on Dec. 31, to bring moral support to the troops and to wish them a happy New Year. A few weeks later, I led a group of journalists and spokesmen from Yerevan on a tour to the contact line. After multiple visits, I am convinced that both our soldiers and commanders are in high spirits. There is a real sense of family in our army, and that has only increased in the last few years. The troops serve with the understanding that they are protecting their homeland and that the entire Armenian nation stands with them—not only the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh, but the diaspora too. They understand their responsibility and are willing to carry out the important task of protecting the Armenian homeland.
A part of Azerbaijan’s policy is to intimidate both our troops and the Armenian people, to try to show that they are stronger, more capable and better prepared than the Armenian side. They continue to threaten that they will attack and take control of Artsakh, but these threats are baseless. Our troops and commanders are ready to protect Artsakh. As we saw in recent months, we were not only able to protect our lands, but also retaliate as necessary. Moreover, society is also ready to mobilize its potential for the same purpose.
In this sense, the moral support extended to the troops by the public and authorities is an important component of our strength. Personal visits from the prime minister have a direct and substantial effect on the soldiers; they are able to communicate face to face and stand at the front lines together, which is very encouraging to them. When such a high-ranking official stands with the troops—and even spends nights there—it proves to the soldiers that the leaders of the country fully support, encourage, and commend their efforts.
R.J.: The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group—Ambassadors Igor Popov of Russia, James Warlick of the United States, and Pierre Andrieu of France—met with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov in Krakow on Jan. 27. In their statement, the co-chairs called on Azerbaijan to observe its commitments to a peaceful resolution of the conflict and also urged Armenia to take all measures to reduce tensions. Has the stance of the OSCE Minsk Group changed over the past year? How fair have they been in their assessments of the conflict?
A.B.: The latest statement was quite interesting. Over the years, there have been both official and non-official criticisms in the Armenian media of the Minsk Group, stating that they have been wrongfully neutral in their assessments of the conflict. During times of escalated violence, the co-chairs would urge both sides to respect the ceasefire, ignoring the fact that the aggression came from one side. This was the case in the statement released [in November 2014] regarding the shooting down of an unarmed Armenian helicopter. Even after Azerbaijan admitted to the attack, the Minsk Group’s statement failed to condemn one side and chose to approach the situation with a blinded sense of “neutrality.”
The Jan. 27 statement is different, however, since it targets mostly one side. I believe this is an important step in the right direction. Perhaps the co-chairs realize that their watered-down and often unclear statements rooted in neutrality only encourage the Azerbaijani side to continue its aggression. By not calling a spade a spade, they are indirectly telling the aggressor that their policy of provocation and belligerence is fine, that they can carry on. But when they call out Azerbaijan’s aggression, as they have done in the mentioned statement, it helps decrease the probability and intensiveness of future attacks.
However, it is important for the co-chairs to voice these concerns during their regular meetings with the Azerbaijani authorities. While these are good first steps, we will have to see if there are any real changes in their approach in future statements.
R.J.: Talk about the situation in the border villages, and some of the challenges they face. What are some of the efforts that the government is engaged in to address their needs?
A.B.: While there are only a few villages in Artsakh that are situated directly on the border, the government believes that it is important for them to be economically and socially strong. Although both the government and the diaspora have helped these villages over the years financially, the time has come for there to be real investment, so that villagers can have sustainable incomes and proper progress. If the border villages are able to grow and evolve in an efficient and effective manner, then the population will stay there and naturally increase.
It seems as though important steps are being taken in this direction. Over the past year, a number of new business projects have begun in Talish and Chartar, particularly in the agricultural and recycling sectors. Just a few weeks ago, the first advanced irrigation system was implemented on a hundred-hectare [0.386-sq mi] plot of land, which was given to the people of Talish and is ready for cultivation. This came after an irrigation system was installed on a thousand-hectare plot of land in the same village. In January, the first agricultural cooperative of Artsakh was established in Chartar, which aims to mobilize its members’ resources and develop agricultural and recycling capabilities in the town. We expect these projects to bear fruit in the coming years.
In this context, I believe it is important to have similar projects throughout the country. Proper investment is key so that villagers can have work and prosper.
R.J.: A growing number of Syrian Armenians are fleeing the violence in Syria and resettling in Armenia and Artsakh. How many have settled in Artsakh so far, and what are some of the challenges in their resettlement?
A.B.: It’s tough to give a concrete number, but around 35-40 Syrian-Armenian families have moved to Artsakh so far. They have predominantly settled in the southern regions of the country; most of them live in the city of Kovsakan, since the climate and terrain are similar to Kamishli’s, where most of the settlers are from.
The NKR government has provided them with special dwellings, as well as plots of land and agricultural equipment, all free of charge, so that they will be able to live off the land. The government has not spared any effort in ensuring that the Syrian-Armenian families settle in a comfortable environment with every possible opportunity given to them. There have been at least a couple of examples of families who, over the past two years, have created viable, thriving businesses in Artsakh as a result.
The main challenge that the Syrian Armenians face in Artsakh is the problem of social integration. For example, the kids have an especially difficult time adjusting to the Eastern Armenian dialect. Luckily, there haven’t been many problems regarding finding work and employment, because of the assistance granted by the government.
R.J.: What is the role of the Armenian Diaspora in the future of Artsakh? Where does the diaspora fit in this discussion?
A.B.: We are all aware of the large amount of donations that come from the diaspora every year, both on organizational and individual levels. Artsakh and its people are forever grateful for this assistance. However, I believe that the time has come for the diaspora to shift its focus mostly to investing in Artsakh, rather than direct assistance. Artsakh is developing at a rapid rate and has now entered a new stage of progress. Direct assistance can cause certain problems of misspending or mismanagement of funds. We need people to invest in Artsakh’s future. For example, the development of a factory can be much more fruitful than a single large donation—factories create jobs and allow people to earn their own wages and make a comfortable living.
I can think of a few examples of how investments from the diaspora have been both beneficial for the country and its people, while being profitable for investors. Yes, there may be some risks involved in such investments, but they pay large dividends and are far more effective in the long run when compared to benevolence.
R.J.: Armenians throughout the world will commemorate the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide in 2015. What are some of the ways the 100th anniversary will be commemorated in Artsakh?
A.B.: Artsakh and its people will be joining Armenians across the world in commemoration of the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide. There has been work on erecting a monument in memory of the genocide victims in Stepanakert [the capital of NKR]. There will also be several commemorative events taking place in the country on a state level, including exhibitions, conferences, and concerts. Artsakh’s population is part of the Armenian world; it will join the commemorative initiatives and efforts around the globe.