Hovhannes Virabyan,Armenian ambassador to Argentina: “In Nagorno Karabakh we have experienced a humanitarian catastrophe”


The Armenian ambassador to our country warned about the risk of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno Karabakh, a territory with an Armenian population located in neighboring Azerbaijan. In September last year, more than 100,000 Armenians left their homes after the military operation.

"The Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh is an indigenous population, which has lived uninterruptedly on those lands for at least 3,000 years. Stalin decided to hand over those territories to Azerbaijan" (Fernando Calzada)

"After having left the population isolated for a year, without food, heat or electricity, the Azerbaijani authorities cannot seriously claim that they have done nothing to make the Armenian population leave Nagorno-Karabakh," emphasized Ambassador Hovhannes Virabyan, in a long conversation with DEF at his country's diplomatic headquarters in Argentina.

In September of last year, Azerbaijan recovered the enclave through military means. The surrender of the authorities of the self-proclaimed Republic of Arstakh – which governed the destinies of the local Armenian population for three decades – unleashed the drama of the more than 100,000 Armenians who left Nagorno-Karabakh. Virabyan does not hesitate to describe the situation as a "humanitarian catastrophe", while clarifying that his country does not have any territorial claim on Azerbaijan.

"Azerbaijan evades the signing of a peace agreement and refuses to recognize the territorial integrity of Armenia," lamented the ambassador, who stated that, on the contrary, his country does recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. In addition, he expressed "immense gratitude" to Argentina for the humanitarian aid of the White Helmets to the displaced population that is currently taking refuge in Armenia. "They are pro-human rights gestures," he emphasized.

The origin of a historical conflict

-What is the historical origin of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh?

-The Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh is an indigenous population, which has lived uninterruptedly on those lands for at least 3,000 years. The evidence is in the territory: Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a national religion in the year 301, and in the territory there are hundreds of Armenian churches and monasteries that bear witness to this. During Soviet times, Joseph Stalin decided to give the territories of Nagorno Karabakh and Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh had never before been part of Azerbaijan, a very young state that has 105 years of history.

-What happened after the dissolution of the Soviet Union?

-The active phase of the conflict resurfaced in the late 1980s, when pogroms occurred against the Armenian population living in Baku, Sumgait and other cities in Azerbaijan. They burned people in the squares in broad daylight. This situation led to the intervention of the Soviet army to stop the killings. In the last years of the USSR, about 600,000 Armenian citizens lived in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, who had to escape to survive, and were received by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. The war started because Azerbaijan never respected the basic human rights of the Armenian population.

-Does Armenia have any territorial claim on Azerbaijan today?

-From the first day of its independence, Armenia never made territorial claims over other countries. That is, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is not a territorial conflict. What is happening is the violation of the human rights of the Armenian population. It is a conflict between democracy and dictatorship. Thus began the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, in which Armenia helped the population defend itself. The war ended in 1994 with the signing of a ceasefire agreement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh as part of the conflict. From that moment, for the next three decades, Armenia always tried to resolve the situation within the framework of international law, to have lasting peace for future generations. In contrast, Azerbaijan always had an "all or nothing" stance.

"Armenia does not build its foreign policy against anyone; it only takes into account its own interests, risks and needs" (Fernando Calzada)

The war of 2020 and the exodus of 2023

-What happened in September 2020 and how did we get to the current situation, which led to the exodus of the Armenian population from Nagorno Karabakh?

-In 2020, with direct involvement of Turkey, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale war and occupied large territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. Between 3,000 and 7,000 mercenaries from Syria and Libya participated in the conflict. Another Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement was signed, guaranteeing free transit through the five-kilometer-wide Lachin corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The presence of a contingent of Russian peacekeepers was established. That mission, unfortunately, failed. The government of Azerbaijan never respected the commitment and, at the end of 2022, the corridor was unilaterally closed and an illegal checkpoint was established, illegally blocking 120,000 Armenians residing in Nagorno-Karabakh.

-What was the humanitarian impact of the blockade of the Lachín corridor?

-The civilian population suffered greatly. It was not only the road blockade, but there was also the closure of gas pipelines and electricity networks in the middle of winter. Except for Azerbaijan, Turkey and a few other countries, the rest of the international community condemned these actions and called for opening the Lachin corridor. It was a humanitarian and psychological catastrophe. While the Lachin corridor was closed, there were two decisions by the UN International Court of Justice calling for its reopening, and recently there was a third resolution by the International Court urging Azerbaijan to guarantee the peaceful return of the Armenian population.

The difficult construction of peace

-Currently, is there any instance of mediation?

-Legally, there is the Minsk Group, formed in 1994 within the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OCSE), co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States. We know that today the relations between them are not the same. top. For its part, Azerbaijan maintains that the Minsk Group is finished and says that there is no conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. He rejected the mediation of France, Germany and the United States, considering them "pro-Armenian." In truth, Azerbaijan's problem is that it is not in its interest to hold negotiations in countries where human rights are respected.

-Are there guarantees from the Azerbaijani authorities about the territorial integrity of Armenia?

-Azerbaijan does not have Nagorno Karabakh as its final objective, but Armenia itself. Every day we face the danger of the start of a new war because Azerbaijan does not want to sign peace. President Ilhan Aliyev himself declared that Yerevan – the capital of Armenia, which celebrated 2805 years of history – is a historical city of Azerbaijan. Their government claims sovereign Armenian territories, such as the entire southern region, which they call "Western Zangezur."

-Does Azerbaijan claim a corridor that passes through the Zangezur region?

-Azerbaijan claims an "extraterritorial corridor" to connect with Turkey through sovereign Armenian territory, which is unacceptable. What Armenia offers is an initiative, known as "Crossroads of Peace", which means the recognition of the territorial integrity of all countries and the unblocking of all communications and border crossings. Our government guarantees free transit and safe transportation of people and goods. We are interested in opening communications according to the rules of international law.

"The Nagorno Karabakh conflict is not a territorial conflict. The conflict occurs due to the violation of the human rights of the Armenian population. It is a conflict between democracy and dictatorship" (Fernando Calzada)

The Caucasus, a complicated neighborhood

-Armenia is a historical political partner and military ally of Russia. Do you think there was passivity on the part of Russian troops during the armed attacks by Azerbaijan?

-The Armenian people have historically had very good relations with the Russian people and we hope to continue having them in the future. However, we see that Russian politicians today have other priorities. Armenia is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and also has a mutual defense agreement with Russia against military aggression by a third state. That, of course, could not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh because it is not a territory under Armenian sovereignty. However, after 2020 Azerbaijan invaded internationally recognized territory of the Republic of Armenia and continues to occupy it to this day. Neither the CSTO nor Russia have done anything about it, as was their obligation.

-Russia still has a military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri. Will that agreement be maintained?

-Russia was a vital and very important ally for Armenia since the independence of our country. At the same time, we have had good relations with the US and, ten years ago, we signed a Comprehensive Association Agreement with the European Union (EU). We are also members of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

-How do you explain your country's accession to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which some interpreted as an unfriendly gesture against Russia given the process opened by the ICC against Vladimir Putin?

-It was not a decision taken against Russia. Armenia plans its policy taking into account its own interests, risks and needs. It is not a decision against Russia. We suffer from the violation of human rights and war crimes committed by Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh. We have more than 1000 missing people, hostages and prisoners of war in Azerbaijan.

Ties with Türkiye and Iran

-Another very important neighbor is Turkey, which has kept its border with Armenia closed for more than 30 years. Is the recognition of responsibility for the Armenian genocide a precondition for the Armenian side to advance the establishment of bilateral ties?

-We know perfectly well what happened in 1915 and we are not going to forget it because the tragedy of the Armenian genocide is part of the life of each of our families. However, from the first day of its independence, Armenia attempted to maintain formal relations with Turkey, open borders and establish trade ties. The border was unilaterally closed by Turkey in support of Azerbaijan and remains closed to this day. Armenia has since maintained negotiations with the Turkish authorities without establishing preconditions. Instead, Turkey has set unacceptable preconditions, such as the absurd claim that the Armenian government used its influence to get Armenian communities around the world to stop talking about the genocide.

-Finally, what are Armenia's ties with Iran?

-You have to see the map of Armenia. We have four neighbors, with two of which - Turkey and Azerbaijan - we have closed borders. The third is Georgia, a country very friendly to Armenia; All our communications pass through its territory. Unfortunately, in winter the road between the two countries is also closed due to snow. Therefore, we have to have relations with Iran, which is another very important neighbor. We respect all sanctions: we do not commercialize technology or weapons; only vital foods and basic goods. The US and the European Union (EU) are aware and understand perfectly that we need this vital way to connect with the outside world. Of course, having relations with a country does not mean supporting all of its government's decisions.

By: Mariano Roca - Font: DEF