Davit K. Babayan (photo: Aram Arkun)

Artsakh President’s Spokesman Provides Overview of Recent Developments

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GLENDALE, Calif. – Davit K. Babayan, head of the Central Information Department of the Office of the Artsakh Republic President and deputy head of the Artsakh Republic President’s Office, and doctor of historical sciences, spoke about recent developments concerning the Artsakh Republic on November 19 during his visit to greater Los Angeles with President Bako Sahakyan of Artsakh.

Babayan revealed the purpose for his visit, saying: “We are here for the [Hayastan All-Armenian Fund Thanksgiving Day] telethon but we have many other unrelated meetings, as we want to keep close ties with all Armenian communities throughout the world. This telethon is dedicated to irrigation, solar energy and similar issues. This combination of traditional and modern technologies is very important.” He later added, “The telethons are very important events. And I think it is incorrect to value them exclusively in terms of the volume of donated money… The annual telethons are much more important from the perspective of cementing ties between the diaspora and the homeland, serving as a unique device for mutual charging with national energy, common destiny, hope and dedication between Artsakh, Armenia and the diaspora.”

One of the most dramatic developments this year is the change in regime in Armenia. Babayan said that Artsakh and the Republic of Armenia are “integrated—one common homeland but two different states.” The will of the people is the most important thing, and consequently in Artsakh, during the Velvet Revolution, he said, “We were just watching what was going on in Armenia, but with special interest. Artsakh could never interfere. We wished first of all that any change taking place would occur in a peaceful way, without bloodshed or tragedy. Thank God that this happened.”

Domestic change in Armenia can affect the Azerbaijani-Armenian relationship. Babayan related that “the Armenian government continues to see the situation as before, but now insists that Artsakh should participate in the negotiations and the full-fledged format of the Budapest Summit [of 1994] should be put into place.” This insistence is a change from the previous Armenian government, which stated the same thing in a less assertive manner.

On the other hand, Babayan said, “Azerbaijan has not changed its destructive policy toward the Artsakh state.” Domestically, he said, it remains totalitarian despite recent protests in Ganja at which two policemen were killed, which indicate the level of frustrations of the Azerbaijani populace with the Aliyev regime.

As far as changes in relations between Armenia and Artsakh itself, Babayan said that normally, any change in government requires time for new personnel to establish close contacts. Yet, despite the rapid changes in Armenia, Babayan pointed out that Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has already visited Artsakh five or six times while in office this year and contacts have been reinforced personally at the highest levels between the two states. Moreover, Pashinyan’s son is serving in the Artsakh Army, which itself is an eloquent demonstration of commitment to the relationship.

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When asked whether there is any attempt to promote a type of Velvet Revolution in Artsakh, Babayan declared, “In order for some change to happen, we need an objective basis of reality. If there is no objective basis, it is very difficult to export revolution. This means that external forces could have made attempts to somehow shackle the situation, but the new Armenian government said that it will not interfere in Artsakh politics.”
One year and three months ago, in July 2017, Artsakh’s National Assembly elected the current president and due to a constitutional referendum the same year, the president will be elected directly by the people henceforth. Babayan said that there is no legal basis for further changing this government. Sahakyan was, and still is, supported by three political parties, the Free Fatherland, Artsakh Democratic Party, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, he said.

Furthermore, President Sahakyan has declared he is not planning to run again for the presidency in 2020. Babayan stated that the people of Artsakh are very sensitive to violations of law and would not accept anyone’s attempts to usurp power.

A handful of people in the opposition were planning to accuse Sahakyan of this in order to distract the populace from their own problems, said Babayan. Instead, he said, now they have to run on their own vision and character.

When asked whether there were any changes in approaches to international politics in Armenia or Artsakh recently, Babayan declared, “We have seen that irrespective of who is in power in Armenia, there is one very important geopolitical imperative, derived from our political history. We must, I would underline, have and maintain good relations with Russia, the United States and Europe….We must pursue a balanced geopolitics in order to somehow secure our independence and safety.” This is because of the hostile attitude of both Azerbaijan and Turkey, he said. Most recently, Turkey sent terrorist groups to fight against Artsakh in the April 2016 war, he said, while it continues to blockade Armenia.

The statements of some individuals in the Armenian media recently about expelling the Russian troops which guard Armenia’s international borders, Babayan said, “cannot be taken seriously. If the Turkish army invades Armenia, the US will not have the time to do anything and Yerevan will just be taken by the Turks. We do not have the right to risk such adventures.” This is why, he said, the current (acting) prime minister always underlines that Russia is one of the strategic allies of Armenia, just as the US is, and why we maintain a balanced approach.

Babayan said that the diaspora helps Armenia and Artsakh to maintain good relations with these three important actors, and added, “It is not a zero sum game. Good relations with Russia, for example, are not directed against the US, and vice versa.”

He made an interesting point concerning the connection of economic systems of the great powers and their smaller allies or collaborators, when asked whether the connections between Armenia and the Russian oligarchic economic system might prevent changes in Armenia and Artsakh’s domestic economies, declaring, “I don’t think their economy dominates geopolitics.” He pointed out as a counterexample that Kosovo receives billions of dollars of Western investments while being a very corrupt and oligarchic state politically.

One recent American foreign policy change troubles Artsakh and Armenia greatly. Babayan said, “We are very much concerned about the US blockade of Iran. Iran is a country where we have a strong Armenian diasporan community. It is also a neighboring country. Iran plays to some extent a stabilizing role in the southern Caucasus because it does not side with any of the conflict parties. It also is one of the factors which stops Turkish aggressiveness in the region. This is why we have to seriously consider the possible consequences to changes in US-Iranian relations. We hope that relations between these two countries will somehow get better. The consequences for Armenia will be very, very negative in case of war or other clashes.”

The border with Iran remained closed to Artsakh, Babayan said, because Iran wants to keep neutrality in this conflict and opening the border would be considered a sign of interference. Artsakh thus cannot directly trade with Iran but it does import commodities from Iran on an individual level through a sort of shuttle business. Babayan hoped that there may be some exemptions to the blockade for Armenia, similar to what Turkey has received.

The process of mediation in the Karabakh conflict continues through the Minsk Group of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), cochaired by Russia, the US and France. In addition, periodically additional mediation efforts take place by various configurations of countries and international organizations.

According to a report by Amnesty International of July, in 2017, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed in principle to increase the number of conflict observers of the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office from 6 to 13, but this has not occurred yet. Babayan explained that it was because Azerbaijan wants to deploy the additional staff in Baku and not along the borders or contact lines to ease tensions, contrary to the desire of the Armenian sides.

On September 28, Pashinyan and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan met for the first time publicly in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and agreed to open a direct line of communications between the two as part of an attempt to reduce tensions on the frontlines between Karabakh and Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Babayan acknowledged this verbal agreement as a positive one for the time being. He said, “From the quantitative point of view, the number of incidents or violations of the ceasefire have decreased, but the quality and intentions of Azerbaijan have not changed.” It continues to issue statements that it will liberate Artsakh, and even that Yerevan is the capital of Western Azerbaijan, while protesting aggressively when the Artsakh president visits the US or France. Babayan concluded, “That is why we always have to be ready to rebuff any possible attack. As a totalitarian and terrorist state, Azerbaijan can violate the ceasefire regime at any inconvenient moment.”

He also stated that the intentions of Armenia’s prime minister were sincere in reducing the tension, whereas in Aliyev’s case, “I don’t think there was outside pressure, but rather some calculations. The true calculations or basis of his action will be evident after Azerbaijan starts violating the ceasefire agreement again.”

While the direct line of communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been established, Stepanakert’s proposal to restore a so-called hot line communication between commanders of units located along the borders, which operated effectively for several years after the end of the war in 1994, has not been accepted by Baku so far, according to Babayan.

Domestic Changes in Artsakh
Babayan revealed that the population of Artsakh has increased by 12,000 people when compared to 2008. This only includes a small number of Armenians from Syria, approximately 100, who are scattered in different parts of Artsakh. Babayan said, “They are very hardworking people, and some Syrian Armenian farmers have actually changed agriculture in Artsakh. They are cultivating new crops and also introduced a ‘new’ way of farm management and work that is actually the traditional Armenian way. Agriculture in Artsakh and Armenia were influenced by Soviet methods. When the Armenians came to Syria from historical Armenia [after the Genocide], they brought their traditional ways of agriculture with them, which they preserved and now brought to Artsakh.”

The arrival of Armenians from various parts of the world, Babayan said, makes monoethnic Artsakh multicultural. He said, “Our compatriots from many corners of the world bring different visions and different ways of solving problems.”

He noted other indicators of change in Kashatagh, which only relatively recently had been turned again into a majority Armenian region. Kashatagh now leads the country in terms of grain harvests, and at its traditional agricultural fair held every year on the second Sunday of October, Babayan said, “Kashatagh occupies first place in terms of quality and quantity.”

Babayan then said that he would like to mention an indicator which on the surface might strike some as strange, but which he finds quite meaningful. He said: “When you go to Berdzor and other places there, you can see cemeteries, which is something tragic. But when people bury members of their families and their ancestors in this soil, it means that their roots are literally going deeper and deeper. They don’t bring the dead to their places of origin. This means that they consider this to be their homes and it is a substantial evolution and important thing. Any time I see these cemeteries, I have this kind of feeling that from the point of view of the state building process, it is a great sign.”

Nonetheless, Babayan said, to keep people in Karabakh is a long term project. He said, “First of all, we need security. We have to develop more agriculture and infrastructure, a health care network, and much more, including modern assets like high tech. Without our diaspora, this will be impossible.”

The value of high tech and the internet, Babayan said, is that it allows people to stay in their own country while working for global markets. To encourage this, he said, “We train kids. We make them technologically oriented from a young age. We established the Tumo [Center for Creative Technologies] in Artsakh. Then we attract high tech companies, creating favorable tax environments for them and giving them economic privileges.”

When asked whether the state controls the economy in Artsakh, Babayan replied, “The state has a strong influence in the economy, but I would say that it is a strong social economy, not a state economy.” The reason, he said, is that there are many socially vulnerable strata, including veterans of the Artsakh war, relatives of perished soldiers and others, and the poor. Nonetheless, he said, it is a market economy. He said, “there are possible threats of monopoly creation but the state tries to struggle against this. Economic integration is also close with Armenia.”
Babayan gave the example of Karabakh Telecom, the local operator of communications and mobile phones, which is the only company wanting to participate in this field. The problem is that Artsakh is a small market and not a recognized state.

While many economic advances are being made, work on demining and repairing the damages from the Karabakh battles of the 1990s also continues, sometimes with heavy costs and consequences. In March 2018, three staff members of the humanitarian landmine clearing organization HALO Trust were killed and two injured due to the accidental detonation of an anti-tank landmine in Artsakh. Babayan praised the HALO Trust and all the dedicated people who risk their own lives to save those of tens of thousands. He said that several meetings were held with the HALO representative and Artsakh’s government will do everything possible for the families of those killed. He explained that as they were not servicemen in the army, their families are not at present legally entitled to assistance from the state, so it has to be addressed at present on a case to case basis. However, Babayan said, “The process has started to make appropriate changes for the future.”

 

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