Artak Apitonian

Former Diplomat Apitonian Analyzes Armenian Foreign Policy and Crises

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By Tigran Yegavian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — Artak Apitonian is a former diplomat who heads the Future Armenian Development Foundation, created by Ruben Vardanyan and Nubar Afeyan as well as other personalities from the diaspora. In this interview he analyzes current events and shares his historical knowledge to better understand political and diplomatic choices.

Apitonian, born 1971 in the village of Alashkert (province of Armavir), is a former career Armenian diplomat. He served as Deputy Minister of Affairs Foreign Affairs of Armenia in 2018-2021, and Ambassador of Armenia in Sweden and Finland in 2013-2018. He has been executive director of the Future Armenian Development Foundation since February 2022.

“The first time history repeats itself as tragedy, the second time as farce,” said Marx. In the Armenian case, we are surprised by the troubling resemblance between the scenario of the war of autumn 2020 and that of autumn 1920, when Armenia lost its independence after Kemalist Turkey and Bolshevik Russia seized their prey. How far does this comparison go?

I have used this quotation on several occasions to compare the developments of 1920-1921 and of our days, although I prefer Hegel’s original version to Marx’s anti-establishment interpretation. And indeed, it might have been farcical, if it was not so tragic. For the last century and a half our homeland, our Armenian habitat, has continually shrunk. The developments of the previous three decades were reassuring us that we might have managed to stop or reverse this process, but alas! And you know what is the most tragic? During the twentieth century we managed to re-establish our independence twice, but we have never succeeded in resettling previously inhabited Armenian towns and villages once they were cleansed of their Armenian population.

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Coming to the comparison between the two wars and two strings of events separated by a century, at first glance, the differences are significant: a slightly different set of actors, particularly the central role of Azerbaijan, the somewhat less direct involvement of Turkey and more capacity and opportunity for resistance in Armenia. But the similarities are also obvious. In the first instance, we speak about the division of territories between the two regional powers (with some internal conditionalities of distribution). In the second case, we have division of spheres of influences by the same two regional powers (with some territorial restitutions back to the former century-old arrangements). Another striking similarity is the issue of legality of Moscow and Kars treaties as well as the tripartite agreement of 2020 from the international law perspective.

Apart from the legal dimension alone, what similarities can be drawn between the Moscow and Kars treaties of 1921 and the tripartite agreement of 2020?

I won’t go into historiological analyses but would like to stress two points.

First, on the Moscow and Kars treaties, I would like to draw a parallel with another agreement, very similar in nature, signed eighteen years later – the famous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The former was the division of the South Caucasus, the latter, the division of Central and Eastern Europe. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact has been denounced by almost all Eastern European nations. I don’t remember any Armenian official during the period of independence articulating condemnation or even regret for the 1921 agreements.

Second, it is astounding to see the soft and easy treatment towards the Armenian signatories by the Armenian people. The signatory of the Kars treaty, Askanaz Mravyan, still has many streets and schools named after him all over Armenia. Alexander Miasnikyan, the Soviet Armenian leader under whose control the Kars treaty was signed and Nagorno Karabakh was handed over to Azerbaijan, is almost revered as a national hero.

This leaves us a lot to think about concerning the moral side of the national assessment of our history.

How can we describe the evolution of Armenian foreign policy since November 2020? Can we speak of a pivot towards the West?

Frankly, I don’t see any coherent and systemic foreign policy, clearly articulated and implemented by the current administration. Two differing positions on relations with Russia and the West stated by the prime minister а week apart – one in his interview to Armenian Public Television and the other in the European Parliament – are evidence of that.

Yes, you might get an impression of a pivot towards the West if you follow some contacts and statements of the Armenian government. But how much of this turn is calculated? Are there behind-the-scenes understandings with the Western colleagues or is this wishful thinking? Are there enough guarantees received to fill the gap and to confront the challenges arising from possible Russian action or inaction? Is the government sincere in its dealing or is this another form of leverage to get more favorable attention from the Russians?

This said, I would like to stress my belief that the geopolitical shifts initiated by small countries are extremely rare, and usually have painful consequences, even if successful. What usually remains hidden from the public eyes are the backstage deals or understandings between the higher-level players.

More generally, is there any diplomacy in Armenia? Why or why not?

If you mean the diplomatic capacities of the nation, undoubtedly there are good diplomats, both in the Foreign Ministry and out of it. But good diplomacy requires coherent foreign policy, strategic goal setting and communication and promotion of these policies.

It has become customary, within the national lamenting tradition, to blame Armenian diplomacy for not achieving a peaceful settlement of the conflict, disregarding that Azerbaijan was never interested in compromise solutions. People opt to forget that Azerbaijan was the one who withdrew from the two closest-to-signing deals: in Key West and in Kazan (the role of various global players in these withdrawals is also overlooked). Even the so-called Lavrov plan has not been approved by Azerbaijan.

During the two decades we have managed to minimize the international pressure on us. When was the last time any global leadership country criticized Armenia for obstructing the faithful negotiations? During the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] Athens Ministerial [meeting], we even had the international community, including Azerbaijan and Turkey, approve the conflict resolution package in whole. What was it, if not good diplomacy? Of course, all that I have mentioned was before the 2020 war and its outcome.

And at the end of the day, diplomacy is only one of the tools of the foreign policy, in addition to security, defense, economic ones. With the blunders in other dimensions, it would be very difficult to correct or sometimes even minimize them by purely diplomatic means. Nevertheless, I am sure that Armenia could have avoided and still may avoid many mistakes and problems if diplomatic muscle is applied thoughtfully. Unfortunately, I don’t see this now.

Proposed question, if you agree: So, you claim there have been no major diplomatic mistakes?

Far from that. I could name many tactical ones, but they were corrigible, and some have been corrected in time. But it will take us very far from our subject. As for the strategic one, I would name the failure to assess the depth of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement adequately, and the failure to correct our diplomatic, military, security policies accordingly.

Do you think that Israel’s current situation is an exportable model for Armenia?

Considering the ongoing developments in Gaza and in the larger region, this question might sound tricky. The security concerns of Israel and the gross violations of fundamental human rights both before and during the recent eruption in Palestine as well as in Israel, leave little room for looking for a role model in that conflict.

But I am certain that Israeli model of state-building still may be exportable in many aspects: effective governance and military build-up, ideological motivation within the society, relations with the diaspora. Of course, one must avoid the excesses.

Armenia is walking on a tightrope; every time it takes a false step, its entire existence is at stake. Yet this struggle for survival has not been accompanied by a search for credible alternatives to its security architecture. Why do you think this is so?

You know, I don’t think the independence of Armenia is at stake. Russia does not aim at swallowing up Armenia, nor is Azerbaijan or Turkey pursuing the goal of total elimination of its statehood. This narrative of independence is excessively used by the Armenian government supporters to justify failures in security or diplomatic areas.

What is at stake is the quality of that sovereignty. Would it be able to exercise control of all of its sovereign territory? Would it be able to exercise sovereign foreign or military policy? Of course, there is no such thing as full sovereignty, and small and even middle range countries are bound to adjust their positions with the international political poles. But to align those positions with your adversaries or enemies, call them whatever you like, is barely normal for a sovereign state!

How do you see the role of diaspora political forces in the face of ethnic cleansing in Artsakh?

The current situation dictates the reformatting and regeneration of all political actors and organizations in the diaspora. The inability to somehow create significant deterrence against the Azerbaijani aggression and to halt ethnic cleansing in Artsakh was shocking. What was even more appalling was that the decades-long campaign for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide hasn’t led to any significant restraint on Turkey to refrain from such blatant and unashamed participation in the military campaign of Azerbaijan, let alone from leading and directing it, as several sources point out.

Thus comes the need to reformat those organizations, to reformulate their missions and define/redefine their goals, among which the first should be pursuing the right of the people of Artsakh to return to their homes with international guarantees of their security, safety and rights. And that’s even more significant in the face of inability or unwillingness of the Armenian government to pursue a “Return to Artsakh” project in the international arena.

You’ve been coordinating The Future Armenian project for several years. What are your conclusions on the political participation of the diaspora in the affairs of the Armenian state? Is it a failure? Why or why not?

We explored this subject thoroughly, particularly in preparation for and during our first Citizens Assembly – the Convention of the Future Armenian which took place this spring. I would refrain from making a black-and-white assessment of the situation. We have very positive examples of government office holders from the diaspora, and very miserable ones, and many, many in-between.

The issue is complex, and it’s impossible to find a single recommendation to address it, even more to solve it. One thing goes without saying: there are many legal obstacles that should be removed. Our compatriots should get a chance to fully participate in the social life and administration of their homeland. But, in my opinion, there should be also a requirement for those who want to enter the security and defense areas, and, in general, positions which require high-level secrecy access. They should be able to do so only after acquiring Armenian citizenship and, in many instances, after revoking their other citizenships as well.

Do you consider realistic the scenario of Azerbaijani military aggression to seize the Syunik corridor and other territories, and the establishment of a “pax Russica” upon the fall of the Pachinyan government?

I would have divided your question into two parts.

On Azerbaijani plans and a subsequent “pax Russica,” the chances are really high, and those who convince themselves otherwise, prefer to stay in comfortable numbness. As long as Azerbaijan senses weakness on the Armenian side and a favorable international setting, the chances are high that it will happen sooner or later. We should have a military and infrastructure buildup in Syunik, because mere diplomatic means might not always be sufficient to prevent this scenario from happening.

But I won’t tie it to the fall of the Pashinyan government. Vice-versa, the presence of the Pashinyan government allowed this scenario to happen in Artsakh. Why it should not be the case in Syunik?

In general, Azerbaijan follows international developments more adequately than the Armenian administration. Now it’s a time of big reshuffles, some even call it the new world war, and during such periods, accumulation of assets is one of the best things to do, regardless of legal limitations and in preparation to later big trade-offs, global or regional. Our government, still stuck in the liberal ideology of the 1990s, fails to grasp this notion.

The strategic vision you are trying to put in place has been turned upside down by the annihilation of Artsakh and the appalling news of the captivity of your leader Ruben Vardanyan. But isn’t this the starting point for the regeneration of the Armenian nation in the face of all these setbacks?

Yes, some of the things we undertook remind us of the Sisyphean curse. But there is no other option, we need to stand up and face our problems ourselves. Had we more time, I would say we need to change our education, not in the sense of learning, but the upbringing of a model citizen, which would lead also to a change in social culture, where a lot of things are still obstacles for the development of effective state. But I am afraid we must hurry. Able forces of the nation must cooperate to overcome the tremendous challenges we face. Otherwise, we will be remembered as a cursed generation in history.

(A French-language version of this article has been published in the print version of France-Arménie.)

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