Foreign Minister David Babayan of the Artsakh Republic

New Artsakh Foreign Minister Babayan Declares Artsakh Republic Must Remain Geopolitical Actor

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STEPANAKERT – David (Davit) Babayan is a familiar figure to those interested in the Artsakh Republic or Nagorno Karabakh. He has held various Artsakh government positions since 2000 and since 2013 has often acted as a governmental spokesperson as he was head of the Central Information Department and Deputy Chief of Staff for the president. He was appointed as foreign minister this January, part of the cabinet changes in the aftermath of the recent Karabakh war. He spoke recently with the Mirror-Spectator about conditions in the country and region.

The losses of the recent war, including Shushi, the cultural center of Artsakh located in a strategic elevated position, were foremost on his mind. He declared, “Artsakh is like a wounded person who has lost one of its legs, one of its arms, and one of its eyes, and whose heart is wounded. We are in a kind of emergency department. Every day we get up and look at Shushi.”

He strongly opposed internal Armenian polarization and politicization of the situation, stating “a society divided into several pieces which detest each other cannot survive.”

He stressed that Artsakh must remain above internal political issues and must have a crucial political voice: “Artsakh is a value…If Artsakh says something it should be an imperative or at least a very strong message to the entire Armenian nation, both in Armenia and the diaspora. This is one of the key components for maintaining our status as a geopolitical player.”

Babayan said, “We have to be led by patriotism and our strong and unshakeable faith, our notion of friendship and mutual respect. These are the most important factors of our greatness…We always think of the material components of territories. These are important, but we have much more important things to do in order to survive.”

He said that the majority of Artsakh’s population has returned, yet around 1/3 of the population, some 45,000 citizens, remained in Yerevan still. Many of them used to live in Hadrut, Kashatagh, Karvachar, and areas of Martuni, Askeran and Martakert, regions which are now occupied by Azerbaijan. Babayan said that while Artsakh needs to bring them back, “we need some time to create appropriate conditions, construct houses for them and provide them with jobs and other opportunities for living.” At present, around half the population in Artsakh live in its capital of Stepanakert and half in the villages. In both cases, he noted, either old houses must be renovated or new ones constructed for them.

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The recovery process will require great resources and time but, he said, “We should not prolong it for years and years. The most important social and economic projects should be carried out within a relatively short period of time – several years.”

Babayan was direct and said that in order to realize the government’s plans, “We need assistance. It can be divided into two main categories, assistance from the Armenian Republic and the diaspora, representing our internal national potential, and humanitarian assistance from various countries, including Russia, and international organizations like the United Nations. We need very sophisticated and coordinated work.”

Captives and Hostages

While Armenians are returning to the Artsakh Republic, Babayan said there are none left living willingly in the Artsakh territories now occupied by Azerbaijan. He said, “We have Armenians who are hostages and prisoners of war but there is not a single person from Artsakh who is living in Azerbaijan or has any intention to live under Azerbaijani control because Azerbaijan is a country where Nazism is a state-building philosophy, because Armenophobia is the basis of its state-building philosophy.”

The Artsakh government, he said, is doing everything possible to bring back the captive Armenians. “Artsakh doesn’t have enough resources unfortunately to do it alone, but we are communicating with peacekeepers and international organizations. We are issuing various statements to somehow facilitate this process. Unfortunately, international law and institutions cannot guarantee the return of these people because Azerbaijan violates international laws, norms and conventions, including the Geneva Convention.”
Artsakh has a list of people whom it knows definitely have been captured, sometimes through video footage, and through other types of data, but, Babayan said, it is a very difficult situation because Azerbaijan denies such actions and refuses to reveal how many Armenians are in its control. There probably are many more missing Armenians whose ultimate fate remains unknown.

Babayan said, “It is a very difficult and sensitive problem. We encounter its consequences every hour of every day. We have to communicate with the relatives of these hostages or prisoners of war who are in very delicate physical conditions.”

Meanwhile, search efforts continue to be carried out jointly by the Rescue Service of Artsakh, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Russian peacekeepers and an Azerbaijani unit, he said.

When asked whether Artsakh would accept the return of any Azerbaijanis who lived there in Soviet times, Babayan said, “We don’t have any hatred towards the ordinary Azerbaijani people. The return of people however should be on a mutual basis. If Armenians have the right to return to Baku and other places [in Azerbaijan], then we can talk about return to Nagorno Karabakh. It should be mutual.” He said that first the most important political issues must be settled and then the humanitarian sphere can be discussed so that people are not put at risk. Many questions remain to be answered, he continued, such as whether people would return as citizens of Artsakh.

Compensation and Preservation

Azerbaijan is threatening various types of legal measures against Armenians for economic losses over the last several decades on lands that it claims as its own. Babayan said that the Artsakh foreign ministry must work to do everything possible to rebuff such measures. When asked whether there was any hope, on the other hand, of compensation for owners of properties and businesses in Artsakh that are now controlled by Azerbaijan, he replied, “We have to be realists. I don’t think Azerbaijan will compensate anything.”

As far as Armenian monuments, churches and museums in the lost regions, Babayan said that the Azerbaijanis “are destroying our culture and heritage. We are going to struggle to preserve our heritage, which has been destroyed systematically.” The Artsakh Foreign Ministry issued some statements and appeals recently about this. Babayan said that action is what it hopes for, not just responses and words.

One action was taken by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, who, Babayan said, became the main guarantor of the medieval Armenian monastery of Dadivank. He said, “It is due to him that this monastery has not been destroyed by the Azeri side, but other parts of our heritage are still at serious risk. We need the actions also of international organizations, the United Nations and its appropriate structures. We need to do a lot of work, and we also have to use the potential of our diaspora in this process.”

Russian Peacekeepers

Babayan spoke positively about the Russian peacekeeping forces in Artsakh, declaring, “We have almost daily contacts. We have quite an effective cooperation. This is a very positive thing.”

While the Russians have a rescue service and representatives of their health ministry, they primarily act through the peacekeeping force, he said. The latter has both a purely military part and a humanitarian one. Among the humanitarian projects being conducted is the reconstruction of damaged houses and buildings, he said, and the provision of medical care. Babayan said, “We feel it is a very palpable assistance and we hope that it will continue.” Sometimes, he said, the Russians provide materials and sometimes they themselves engage in these activities.

The Artsakh government and its security forces are kept aware of the activities of the peacekeepers, Babayan said, as a matter of “political politeness.” While Artsakh’s armed forces are not required to inform the Russians of their own actions, Babayan said that there is close cooperation. He remarked, “Acting as the guarantor of peace and stability in the region, via their mediation the war was stopped, so they also bear responsibility for maintaining the peace and stability. This means we have to cooperate with them but it does not mean that they are interfering in our defense policy or army process.”

The situation in the Kashatagh or Lachin corridor leading to Artsakh from Armenia is an example Babayan brought up of cooperation. He said, “We have been developing or making more appropriate the system of entrance to Artsakh because of the new situation. There are many international terrorists who are still on the territory of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan brought many of them from the Middle East to fight against our people and state. They may somehow enter our territory illegally by using passports of different states or come as tourists, so we need to make our security system appropriate for these kinds of challenges.”

This is why, he continued, the Artsakh state is collaborating with the Russian side to not allow terrorists access to Artsakh territory, but it does not mean denying people of various nationalities or citizenships access to Artsakh. Instead, he said, they can apply for visas and if they receive them, wait for one day before permission to come.

In other parts of occupied Artsakh, such as Karvachar, Azerbaijanis must pass through Martakert region to reach it, but they are accompanied by Russian peacekeeping forces, who again control the situation, Babayan said. He declared, “There is a theoretical possibility for terrorists to penetrate our territory but Russian peacekeeping forces and our own forces always follow this type of transportation. There are peacekeepers almost everywhere around the perimeters of our borders and also some areas are controlled by our own army. We have increased the level of security everywhere.”

When asked about attempts by Azerbaijan to place conditions on entry to Artsakh via the Kashatagh corridor, he said, “It would like to do so, but I don’t think it will succeed. No permission is needed from Azerbaijan for entry to Artsakh. This is totally unacceptable.”

While much of the Armenian population has left the corridor, Babayan said that the people of the village of Aghavno continue to live there. In general, the situation is quite stable, he said. Several incidents of shootings have taken place, but not along this road. Also, a number of Armenians who unknowingly crossed the line of contact were taken hostage by Azerbaijani forces. The Russian peacekeepers intervened and some were returned.

Artsakh is not the scene of attempts to delineate its borders through GPS and maps, as in the case of the borders of the republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Babayan said, “Our present-day borders are the result of war – the line of contact or the frontline. So the situation and the approaches are different here.”

Babayan touched upon the possibility of Artsakh citizens receiving Russian passports and citizenship, explaining that this has no connection with the presence of the peacekeepers. Russia, he said, has a very liberal procedure for those who were born in the Soviet Union to obtain Russian citizenship. At present, however, the numbers of such dual citizens is not that great, he said.

Babayan as Foreign Minister and Conservative Party Leader

Babayan commented on what policies he would implement as a new minister, stating: “I am a proponent of continuation. I dislike any revolution, any destruction or denying of the past, because if you fight with your past, you cannot create a firm present or future. In this case, I am a proponent of evolution, not revolution. Revolution is one of the greatest disasters of humanity.”

Foreign Minister David Babayan

Consequently, he said, “Some of the traditions should definitely be maintained and we are going to bring some fresh ideas too.”

For Babayan, a realistic foreign policy is a must. He said, “We have to maintain the most important thing: Artsakh should remain a geopolitical actor. This is not only the key task for foreign policy but for the state-building process.” Among the traditional goals to be maintained, he said, are the peaceful settlement of the Azerbaijani-Karabakh conflict, the international recognition of Artsakh, and the strengthening of inter-Armenian ties.

He declared, “We are very much interested in the Artsakh, Armenia and diaspora trinity. If this trinity will be shackled we will have great problems in the future.” He said that Armenians from the diaspora are already directly engaged in the reconstruction process and that this needed to continue.

He said that he thought the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group will remain as the only platform for peaceful settlement of the Azerbaijani-Karabakh conflict, and this has been articulated by Russian, US and French leaders. Meanwhile, he said that Artsakh was doing everything possible to again become a direct party to peace negotiations.

However, at present there was no direct line of communications with the state or government of Azerbaijan due to the policy of the latter. He said that there were some local contacts. For example, when the rescue service is carrying out search operations it has to be done together with the Azerbaijani side.

There was also no direct contact with the Turkish government at present, he said. The only contact has been with Turkish troops fighting Artsakh during the recent war. He raised the question of how a NATO member state could be engaged in such a war and bring in mercenaries. A conversation, he said, needed to be had about whether Turkey informed other NATO allies about this. If it did so but did not receive a green light, how could it ignore its allies. If it did get the go-ahead, does NATO actually consider Artsakh a threat to his existence, he wondered.

He added that the Turkish side together with Azerbaijan allowed the terrorist Grey Wolves organization to found a school in Shushi, but there has been no response from the international community. He said that this too generates question marks.

Concerning possible new elections for Artsakh, Babayan said that though it was a democratic country, the situation was precarious, and there were some issues with the constitution. If the president resigned, the assembly or parliament would also have to terminate its activities, but this would not be desirable. Babayan said he brought up this matter during the most recent election campaign.

Babayan is the founder and leader of the Artsakh Conservative Party, and was a candidate for president during the last election, but he said that at present party activities and his own participation have been frozen. He noted that a number of young members of the party perished in defense of the homeland. When asked whether he might run again in the next elections, he said that it was too early to say, but his party would definitely play an active part in the life of the country.

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