Ruben Vardanyan

Ruben Vardanyan: No Matter What, There Will Be Resistance in Artsakh

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STEPANAKERT (Caucasus Watch) — Caucasus Watch’s Ilya Roubanis met with Ruben Vardanyan on two separate occasions, in July and August 2023 to speak with the former State Minister of Nagorno Karabakh about the blockade that has disrupted the sole existing transport link to Armenia.

Authorities report shortages in food and medicine, disruptions in electricity and water. While the ICRC was previously able to facilitate the coming through of some emergency supplies, this has not been allowed since the middle of June. The prospect of a resolution is bleak. Baku offers to supply the local population, but Armenians see Azerbaijani trucks as poisoned chalice or the first step to recognizing submission.

Despite electricity disruptions and even time-zone misunderstandings, Vardanyan greeted the visitors with good humor. He, like all people in Nagorno-Karabakh, is experiencing all the difficulties of the blockade, and as he says he smokes his last cigars. He appears cheerful, although he admits he misses his family.

He shows no rage. He “disagrees” not only with the Armenian leadership in Yerevan but also in Stepanakert. He openly shared his electoral preferences without hesitation. While he views Azerbaijan’s stance as “short-sighted,” he refrains from expressing any bitterness. Identifying as a national leader, he remains resolute in Karabakh.

You have an audience beyond Karabakh. Before we talked, I browsed the BBC, Reuters, DW, even France 24. Karabakh does not feature prominently. Why do you feel Karabakh is not front-page news?

Honestly, there are numerous crises. The flow of information is dense, and you cannot engage daily with a specific storyline. When the blockade started in December, there was great interest. So, there is a limit to how much people can engage with a storyline.

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When the Ottoman Empire orchestrated the Genocide and mass deportations of Armenians, numerous reports emerged in the USA, Europe, and Russia. This event was extensively documented, and major powers closely monitored the situation. Today, in Artsakh, we find ourselves in a state of complete informational isolation, with no international journalists permitted to visit and report on the situation on the ground. We exist in a phase of world history where indifference has become alarmingly prevalent. Despite having factual evidence of the blockade and the International Court’s decision, Azerbaijan continues to display complete disregard for international law.

It is essential to recognize that the central issue in Artsakh is not solely the humanitarian catastrophe, but rather the deliberate pursuit by Azerbaijan of ethnic cleansing and the genocide of the Armenian population residing in the Republic of Artsakh after November 9, 2020. The humanitarian disaster forms just a part of Azerbaijan’s strategy. Despite the immense challenges, the 120,000 people of Artsakh are steadfastly resisting with remarkable dignity. Through the creation of this humanitarian disaster, Azerbaijan aims to coerce those who have asserted their right to self-determination and proclaimed their independence even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, to acquiesce to a country with which they have never been associated.

Finally, our enemy also works quite well. They have channeled funds to companies and agencies that are quite effective in controlling public discourse and pushing their narrative worldwide.

What are we dealing with here with? Definitions are important. Azerbaijan calls us “terrorists” and “separatists,” a domestic non-issue that they handle in accordance with Azerbaijani law. The West call the current crisis a humanitarian crisis. We call it a continuous resistance movement that started not in 1988, but much earlier in 1920s when the USSR was established, and the boundaries drawn by Stalin and likes of him. The Genocide Watch and lately, Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first Prosecutor of the International Criminal Count call the blockade of the Lachin corridor a Genocide under Article II, (c) of the Genocide Convention: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.” This terrifying word has been overused and at times abused after it was coined in 1934 by Lemkin. As a descended of 1915 Genocide survivors, I do not use it lightly. We are dealing with Genocidal acts to cleanse Artsakh of its 120.000 Armenians as an ultimate solution desired by Aliyev and his government.

Yes, but the reason I am introducing this question is the now tangible threat that Azerbaijan could step in militarily. Is that threat credible, you feel?

The situation is undoubtedly very challenging, but I do not sense that Azerbaijan is preparing to initiate another large-scale military operation after Autumn 2020. Having said that, we need to understand that Azerbaijan is shooting civilians who work in the fields on a daily basis. Furthermore, they tend to prefer small-scale local operations, which help maintain a sense of tension and fear among the people regarding potential military actions.

The blockade is exerting both humanitarian and economic impacts. The military threat appears intended to affect us psychologically. However, I am not convinced that they are inclined towards an aggressive scenario. They employ various tactics to subdue us, waging a hybrid war on multiple fronts—informational, psychological, moral, economic, and involving numerous other factors. They use the humanitarian crisis as a weapon to reach political goals. The food issue is weaponized and used against us.

The 2020 move was well timed. There were elections in the United States, there was the pandemic, and Turkey was fully behind them. Today, we are in a different context.

Azerbaijan believes it already possesses Artsakh and is now seeking further expansion. They are under the impression that Karabakh already belongs to them (in Aliyev’s words the issue is resolved), and any incursion here given the fact that here live 30,000 children would escalate the situation. At the level of President Aliyev, territorial claims towards Armenia have been expressed. Those who believe that Azerbaijan only desires Nagorno-Karabakh are gravely mistaken; their recent aggressive actions towards Armenia proper have demonstrated the opposite. Aliyev is deeply convinced that he will always remain unpunished, leading him to resort to the use of force or threats of force. On a daily basis, their media prepares the groundwork for this. Their insatiable appetite for more will eventually turn against them, sooner or later.

We tend to forget that Azerbaijan is not the best run country in the world. The average Armenian lives better than the average Azerbaijani, despite the oil and gas wealth of that country. Nagorno-Karabakh provides Aliyev with a rallying point domestically that somehow solidifies his powerbase (similar to Crimean’s consensus in Russia after 2014). However, that calculation only pays if you hold in check significant variables, such as Iran. In sum, is something goes wrong it can go very wrong and that is not in their hand. I do not think Aliyev will take that risk.

Of course, they will keep up the pressure to maximize benefits not only vis-à-vis Artsakh but also Armenia. Maybe I am wrong, but that is what I think.

Many international analysts, certainly in the West, seem to believe that lake Sevan and Syunik are “pressure points” and that the real prize for Azerbaijan is Karabakh. You seem to feel that the opposite is true: Karabakh is the “pressure point” for concessions in the South Armenia.

Probably, many analysts in the West believe that Baku’s and Ankara’s main focus is on Nagorno-Karabakh. Ankara and Baku mistakenly believe they have gained control over NK; their strategic focus is on the so-called Zangezur Corridor. However, they underestimate the determination of the people living in Artsakh. They find it difficult to believe that the people will resist and demonstrate their strong will to reject their terms. At the same time, the Diaspora’s support for Artsakh should not be underestimated. We are not alone in this endeavor. Artsakh holds a special meaning for the Diaspora. The fact that the Diaspora has supported Artsakh through various means over the decades is proof of that.

So, is the question “where do you see Karabakh 20 years from now?” a stupid question to ask?

Not at all. We have established a movement that supports the “Artsakh 2035 Vision.” Of course, nothing will come easily. We aim to live in our own homeland, and there are several potential scenarios to achieve this goal. It is an arduous journey, replete with obstacles, but we draw inspiration from world history and analogous cases that demonstrate such movements can persist for decades. We are prepared to undertake this path with ample determination and resilience.

Our vision is to defend our homeland. From our side, I see a great determination for people to stay and take a stand. A change in the Armenian government could bring a greater political alignment between Armenia and Artsakh. There may also be greater involvement by international actors. Therefore, the first scenario we are considering as quite possible for the next 30-to-50 years is status quo maintenance.

This would be maintained by both sides: on the one hand, I do not see how the local population can accept to live as an Azerbaijani ethnic minority; on the other hand, a subdued Artsakh — that would wish to unite with Armenia — is a useful trigger of “perpetual national emergency” that is convenient for the Aliyev regime. Nevertheless, the dream for unification continues to persist. If these assumptions hold, the new normal will be periods of conflict with intervals of relative stability. We will maintain the status quo, dynamically.

Different circles envision an alternative scenario that goes beyond maintaining the status quo – one involving the satellite-like integration of Artsakh into Russia. Russia is the West’s adversary today and that would affect how the West sees Artsakh in this scenario. But we are talking about 20 years from now. Do we believe that Russia will remain an adversary to the West? Most likely not. And in one way or another with that shift between Russia and the West, the fate of Artsakh will change as well. A third scenario entails an “international mandate” or intervention by external powers, providing certain security guarantees. South Caucuses was always viewed by the West and the rest as Russia’s domain. West delegated South Caucuses security to Russia. It could be changing now. Iran is highly likely to move in to balance Azerbaijani-Israeli alliance in the region. Reminding you, Iran has better relations today with Ankara (NATO member) than with Baku. If Iran becomes a security guarantor in the Caucasus… How would the West react to that?

However, it’s crucial for people to recognize that the future rests in our hands. We cannot merely stand by and debate others’ scenarios; we must formulate our own plan and narrative. I believe assuming responsibility and actively shaping our future is paramount. Important note. Armenia and Artsakh might be young democracies, but they are still democracies sandwiched between mighty Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran. I do not see Armenians being subjected to limitations of their human rights and freedoms willingly or submit to power without putting up dignified resistance.

But it is very important for people to realize that the future is in their hands. And with their own actions, they can have an impact on these scenarios; indeed, they can insist on and achieve the implementation of their own scenario.

To summarize, you see three scenarios: status quo maintenance with a view to eventual unification with Armenia, becoming a Russian satellite, or an international mandate, presumably like the status of Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel?

Yes.

There is another scenario you have not addressed. A blockade or siege is a form of violent resolution. Why not consider a forceful evacuation of Karabakh from the Armenian population?

We have deliberated on various scenarios, including genocide, forced deportation, and evacuation. Our duty is to exert every effort to avert these scenarios. Please understand that I am not an analyst, but rather a leader. Our aim is to rally people and resources around viable and achievable scenarios. We are readying ourselves for the worst while actively striving to prevent it. Instead, our focus is on implementing what is feasible for the people of Artsakh. Again, we are not alone, we have Diaspora’s support including lobbying, civic movements and other actions.

Having said that, what you say includes the presumption that you are preparing for resistance, even in a violent scenario.

Absolutely. Yes. There will be resistance, no matter what happens.

And there is a point worth making here. When your message of resistance is clear and the nation stands behind it, there is opportunity to draw unexpected support. As soon as we are clear on our intention to fight for our rights, I feel, we will be able to seize opportunities for support. We should not look only to the West or to Russia. We should work with all sides, including the East, and make these cooperative relations and alliances serve our interests as much as possible.

Once we are unequivocal about our intention to fight for our rights, I believe we will be capable of seizing opportunities for support. When your message of resistance is lucid and embraced by the nation, opportunities to secure unexpected support can arise. By being resolute about our intention to fight for our rights, I believe we can harness these opportunities for support. In certain circumstances, rivals might even cooperate, and we can endeavor to become such a place.

The use of brute force (and that is what Azerbaijan is doing) is very 19th – 20th century way of resolving the disputes. Perhaps I am wrong, and it’s a wishful thinking on my behalf, but the popular consensus in the West is solidifying (even more so in the light of war in Ukraine) and military force is archaic mean of conflict resolution. It’s not just legally, morally unacceptable, it’s also aesthetically obsolete. Just watch “All quiet on the western front” – is there a room for the trench war fare in the 21st century?

So, there are three elements that need to come together.

First, our desire to resist and fight for our rights needs to be more clearly articulated, both to consolidate our home front and to position ourselves more clearly in the world.

Secondly, we need to be preparing for the transformation of the current global status quo and ready to address new threats and seize new opportunities.

Thirdly, we need to start talking even if not negotiating with Azerbaijan. We need to communicate to Azerbaijan that they are overplaying their strong hand. {President} Aliyev is trying to maximize his short-term benefits, not thinking long term. Who knows what comes 20 years down the line? A country singularly dependent on oil and gas revenue may soon find itself dealing with a multifaceted crisis. Without dwelling too much on this topic, I think he is not using wisely his current power.

There are now three negotiating tables: in Washington, in Brussels, and in Moscow. Given the phrasing of the November 9, 2020, Trilateral Statement, do you see Karabakh has a place on the table in any of the existing formats?

There are two different elements in your question.

First, the question is whether Artsakh can become a party to the negotiations. We need to be back to the negotiation table as it was after the ceasefire of 1994. When we were left out in 1998. But all the developments show that our fate cannot be decided without us.

The second element is geographic and has no substance. The agenda is of substance and Artsakh has no input. Azerbaijan in substance does not want to negotiate over the future of Artsakh. They want to consolidate the status quo and turn a page. They say ‘this is our domestic agenda,’ take it or leave it. So, it is irrelevant which ‘big player’ tables the discussion with Azerbaijan because for Baku there is no Artsakh issue.

In this context, Armenia does not stand in for Artsakh. When Yerevan says Artsakh is part of Azerbaijan, this makes my statement a non-controversial position. Armenia’s position today is that ‘we do not represent Artsakh,’ and that is a weak position. This creates a vacuum begging the question ‘who represents Artsakh”. The answer is that Artsakh should be able to present itself. This is the only way.

And, if I understand the substance of your argument, you also claim that this is a problem for Azerbaijan, because Baku claims they want to live with “their citizens.” Do I understand that correctly?

Yes, ultimately, we need to come to an agreement with a guarantor, that will allow us — those of us living in Artsakh — to live with a certain amount of certainty that whatever is agreed will be respected. Without a guarantor this agreement would be irrelevant because the other side may not really care about what has been signed. But we should also realize the guarantors can do nothing, when you are not strong enough to stand up for your own rights.

Yes, but given the context of the war in Ukraine, what would see as a satisfactory guarantee? Ukraine was given a guarantee on the basis of which its nuclear arsenal was removed. Is there such a thing as a satisfactory international guarantee?

That is a good point. There was a Minsk agreement for Ukraine that all parties violated in one way or another. So, a guarantee is a tricky proposition, even when it comes. The guarantor could be a country, a conglomerate of countries, an international institution. The difficulty is finding that third party and getting mechanism in place. If that is not done in time, the genocide will perpetrate despite the state’s that are the parties of the Genocide Convention assumed duty to prevent and push Genocide. Remind you, the International Court of Justice ruled that state parties should “not wait until the perpetration of Genocide commences” and “the whole point of the obligation is to prevent or attempt to prevent the occurrence of the act”.

This brings me back to a domestic issue. After your departure from the leadership in Stepanakert, you embraced the man who formally fired you. Did he fire you? The sequence of events suggests a separate visit to Moscow by you, then by Arayik Harutyunyan, and then you are fired. The optics of this leave room for speculation.

From the very first day I came to Artsakh I told the people and him (Arayik Harutyunyan) that I am one of them and I will be like a soldier. I did not come to Artsakh to become a State Minister: I served my homeland during a dangerous period. I said that I would continue to do what I do in office as I did before coming to office and are doing after I leave office. I am not a political party leader. It was his decision. There was pressure from Baku, Ankara… everyone.

There are some people attributing the current crisis to me coming here {in Stepanakert}. I did not want to become the cause of a war. And as you can see, I left my post in February 2023, but the blockade was not lifted. If anything, things became even worse for the Armenians of Artsakh. I told him “You are the leader, you see what’s better for the country, and I will do what’s better for the nation.” To be clear, I disagreed. I did not want to step down and did not think this was the right decision. That is not because of my personal ambition but because of its effect. In any event, I made clear that it was his decision to make and his responsibility to bare.

You run a business empire much bigger than Artsakh’s economy and comparable perhaps to the Armenian economy. I imagine the business side of this has several difficulties. But how does it feel? Do you have something positive you would keep from this experience?

I miss my family, of course, very much. However, it is also one of the best periods of my life because I feel I serve my nation, my people. I live with people who are simple but not naïve; they are authentic: they say what they think, they act in accordance with their set of values and beliefs. They are free people, dignified and resilient. They will not submit to injustice and brute force. I get a lot of love and appreciation. Embraces are common. People appreciate that I share with them the will to be there. We share hope, a sense of togetherness, a group feeling that is addictive and exhilarating. And there is a sense that one wants to give back more than you are getting. It’s an honor for me to be serving them in every way I can.

Given the situation along the Lachin corridor and the developing situation in Karabakh, do you feel that peace is being kept? I understand the will to pay tribute to the role of peacekeepers. Perhaps, it is a matter of mandate — they are there to peace-keep not to peace-make – but do you feel they are doing what they should be doing?

My own angle into this is that the context of operating in the 2021 context is not the same as operating in 2023.

The threat of war and the issue of physical security are present. Our expectations from the peacekeeping mission are greater, but due to a limited mandate and other issues, we find ourselves in this situation. They are peacekeepers, not peacemakers, remind you.

From my perspective, the context of operating in 2021 is not the same as operating in 2023. The situation has evolved. The line of contact is extensive, and the situation is rather complex. While 2,000 soldiers may not be sufficient to alter the situation on the ground significantly, they do possess a substantial force that can have a tangible impact on the humanitarian situation. They might not be able to bring about peace, but their presence does create a difference. In addition, they are on the ground, and they see the situation first-hand. While there are no independent journalists here among us, their eye-witness accounts are invaluable. Quite similar to the memoirs of German officers in the Ottoman empire during the Genocide of 1915.

You keep saying you are not a politician and the very term “politics” is a “bad word,” it seems. However, you do talk of leadership.

No, politics is not a bad word.

It’s a matter of role. Politicians have power ambitions within the context of a specific political system. I see my role is that of a national leader.

In the 20th century there seems to be a perception of leadership that matches industrial conceptions of specialization. My worldview is somewhat more akin to a more “classical” approach to leadership. It follows that when you receive a lot you need to give back a lot. And people who have wealth and good education and readiness to be responsible for their own nation and make bold decisions.

The reason I am here is not to out of a sense of entitlement to lead the Armenian nation but out of a sense of urgency, as our nation is facing an existential threat.

I believe I am part of a new national leadership. I am not a 20th century leader, but I do commit to the nation.

So, you don’t have political ambitions, but you do have national objectives.

Yes, I want to represent my nation. I want to represent my nation to the world. Public office will not change my attitude to leadership. I will assume my share of responsibility irrespectively of whether I hold public office or not. But I will take office if that is necessary as a mean to an end. It’s not about status. The office does not determine the degree of my responsibility.

If you have read Nune Alekyan’s and my book At the Crossroads, I think I have held my ideas before now. I have been caring and working with my partners and friends about Armenia, Artsakh and the Armenian World for more than two decades and we implemented hundreds of projects. I do not want a nation of victims or survivors; I want a nation that thrives, and I have dedicated myself to this objective.

There are forthcoming mayoral elections in Armenia. Around the world, these kinds of electoral encounters are treated as a sneak preview of a broader national sentiment or the political current. I am wondering whether these elections are or should be regarded as a message to the Armenian government and, if so, what should that message be.  

That is the right question. There are two options. The first is the election of a mayor without a ‘national agenda,’ or Armenians may decide to take the first step towards something more nationally significant, which is often the case in many countries. I expect and I hope that the people will take the second option and the electorate will not simply support the best manager for their city – based on skills or values – but will look at the national significance of this electoral encounter. I am hoping that these elections will allow us to air a number of points of contention with national significance. And that process would make these elections more significant than picking a mayor.

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