Armenia’s foreign policy: an interview with Paruyir Hovhannisyan

The building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia (Credits: Photo: Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 24 Issue 10
Author: Silvia Boltuc

In the last two years, Armenia has faced several challenges (the pandemic, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, the 2021 parliamentary elections, and Azerbaijani military aggressions), which have influenced its foreign policy whose main purpose is to stabilise the regional situation, promote the naturalisation of relations with Turkey and avoid/contrast any Azerbaijani attack.

In September 2022, Armenia faced a military escalation with Azerbaijan at its border, which alarmed the international community regarding the stability of the South Caucasus. The country led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who took power in 2018 after the Velvet Revolution and was confirmed as the government leader after the 2021 Parliamentary elections, has faced several challenges linked to regional geopolitics, the necessity to boost the socio-economic development, especially after the pandemic, and the threat of Azerbaijani military aggression against its sovereign territory and the Republic of Artsakh (especially after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict).

SpecialEurasia met with Paruyr Hovhannisyan, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, with whom we discussed Yerevan’s regional and foreign policy and Armenia’s strategy to protect its sovereignty and citizens.

What is the current situation in Armenia after September’s military aggression?

The worst year for us was 2020. We had democratic changes in 2018 and then Covid, which affected all the dynamics and our efforts in the economic sphere. Following, we had the war in Karabakh, with terrible humanitarian consequences. We still have 33 prisoners of war confirmed and more than 20 unconfirmed, from whom we have horrifying videos and evidence from credible sources such as the Red Cross, NGOs, or diplomatic presences there.  

We have some stability now, but not at all, as Azerbaijan thinks the country’s situation is deteriorating due to the war in Ukraine. Baku tried to invade Armenia in May 2021 and took small parts of the territory on the border. There was again another attempt in November 2021, with similar results. Meanwhile, we had a few meetings as Armenia never rejected peace offers.

We have been engaged in all tracks with President of the European Council Charles Michel, Russia, the United States, and Georgia. We are also seeking normalisation with Turkey. Then there was the last meeting in Brussels in august 2022, with some concrete proposal, and then the September 2022 attack happened. Whatever you agree with Azerbaijan, they try to get more by pressure, also for domestic purposes. Indeed, Aliyev’s regime came to power thanks to the conflict. They always need enemies to strengthen the image of a strong leader who saves the nation.

The September attack came close to our high-density populated towns in three provinces. Videos started circulating with the cruellest scenes, as we have seen only with the Islamic State or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Very aggressive stances characterised the following days. The way Azerbaijan want to negotiate is “sign it or leave it, or another war”.

On the other side, there is the activation of diplomatic efforts. Among European states, France has been very active. The United States, which has long been absent during Trump’s administration, is now much more engaged. We were disappointed by the initial Russian reaction, but now Moscow is also trying to voice its concerns. We are happy that the European Union deployed the facts-finding observation union for the first time. Also, UNESCO is trying to check the cultural Armenian, but it continues to be blocked by Azerbaijan.

The situation is very explosive. Iran and Turkey are moving their forces along the borders. Iran opened a consulate in southern Armenia, and Turkey opened one in Shushi, part of the former Nagorno-Karabakh. It is a dangerous situation, and the escalation possibility is very high.

Nevertheless, negotiation efforts are underway. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, invited Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to Sochi on October 31st,2022.

The situation also depends on Ukraine. Every time Azerbaijan sees that situation escalate in Ukraine, Baku conduct another attack. They use gas and energy as strong tools to lobby their interest.“.

In the last decades, Russia’s help has been vital for Armenia. Currently, Yerevan is disappointed with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Russia because they did not intervene during the last aggression coming from Azerbaijan. Will Russia still play a prominent role in the Caucasus and ensure Armenia soon?

Immediately after the attack, we called UN Security Council, Russia and the CSTO. The CSTO commission of experts presented a report. During the aggression, there have been several ceasefires but not very successful. Of course, we would expect more.

Still, we know that Russia has traditional ties with countries of this region, so we cannot imagine that Russia can disappear in just one day. And you cannot make it disappear as someone would like to, as Russia is still a significant presence. In Nagorno-Karabakh, there are two thousand Russian peacekeepers; there is no other arrangement. Their presence is the only guarantee of Armenians’ physical existence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Furthermore, there is a Russian base on our border with Turkey. If we normalise relations with Turkey, this presence will also be important.

Moreover, Russian economic influence, gas, and regional investments are quite notable. So we think that Russia can have a constructive role in the region.“.

Considering September’s Azerbaijani military aggression, is there a possibility that western countries will militarily support Yerevan? Will Azerbaijan be sanctioned as Russia because of its military operation in Ukraine?

There should not be a double approach. If Karabakh was disputed, this time, Baku attacked a sovereign country. It was not some border village; high-density cities were evacuated.

The strongest voice was raised by Iran, which stated that it would not tolerate changes in the borders or the territorial integrity of Armenia. The opening of the consulate in Kapan proved the seriousness of their statements. US reaction was stronger than before, but we still think it was not enough, and this encouraged the other side to be more aggressive.

On June 18th, 2023, Turkey is going to have presidential elections. If Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, loses power, do you think Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, will lose support and become weaker?

It depends on who will come after. The alternative is not clear. Notably, Erdogan became more nationalistic and assertive because of the pre-election period. Consequently, positions toward the South Caucasus have become more radical and aggressive, which does not help the normalisation process with Azerbaijan.

We had the first meeting between Pashinyan and Erdogan in Prague, and at least formally, they said they would continue with normalisation. Nevertheless, Turkey’s Foreign Minister stated that Ankara would agree on everything only if Azerbaijan would, so whatever we talk about, it doesn’t matter if Azerbaijan disapproves.

We decided that citizens of third countries could cross the Armenia-Turkey borders. Unfortunately, this has not been implemented. They say it needs time. We asked at least people from small villages living along the borders, but they said no. Then we asked for people who hold diplomatic passports, and they said no again, but then they agreed on people from third countries and air cargo. No one of these two agreements has been implemented.“.

Turkey and Armenia officially agreed that the normalisation of relations would be implemented without preconditions. So there is no request from the Azerbaijani side, for example, about extra-territorial corridors?

Turkey didn’t put these conditions directly, but the fact that they need Azerbaijani approval puts an indirect condition. We know that we have a very unpredictable neighbour, but we will continue to put all our efforts into the normalisation and peace process. Undeniably, this pre-election period is not helping our efforts.“.

Looking at what happened recently among CSTO members, do you think that this organisation doesn’t fit the current geopolitical scenario anymore?

The raised points are valid. Armenia didn’t block the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan for only one reason, because we thought that if it happened to Armenia, everyone would have done the same for Yerevan. Then we had the September 2022 attacks.

We do not understand very well what is going on in CSTO. It should be underlined that the organisation is not in good shape anyway. Kyrgyzstan suspended its membership in the organisation because of border issues with Tajikistan. Kazakhstan stated publicly that he would never send something to Armenia because of its cooperation with Azerbaijan in the Caspian region, its membership in the Turkish Council, and being both Islamic states.”.

So this means that Armenia will not participate in other military drills such as Rubezh 2022?

Some voices say we should leave the organisations immediately, but do we have a perspective now to join another structure? And what will we gain? Will these countries become more friendly?

The organisation now has a restrained role. Before, it was possible to buy armaments, but now not because they were redirected to Ukraine. It is not that this organisation is useless, but its effectiveness, in this case, was not working. We should now consider the next step, not our unhappiness about CSTO’s reaction.”.

The meeting between SpecialEurasia team and Paruyr Hovhannisyan, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia (Credits: SpecialEurasia)

Iran made many statements about current dynamics. Tehran stated it would not tolerate a change in the borders with Armenia. Did you discuss an Iranian eventual military intervention in case of another attack?

At least they are expressing their position. They said that changing in Armenia-Iran borders is, for them, a red line. The opening of the consulate is a step that proves that they are serious. Statements on all levels have been made, including a straightforward message in the face of Putin and Erdogan, and this was never the case before. For Iran, Armenia losing its southern part would be unacceptable, so I would expect any possible reaction.

Furthermore, we discussed many corridors and infrastructure projects, such as the Persian Gulf-Black Sea one, which involved Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Bulgaria and Greece. Iran is interested in different alternatives. Of course, they also engaged with Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia. But for Tehran, transportation routes are essential, and Armenia tried to promote this interconnectivity role.

Also, security-wise, the Iranians are not happy with the provocative Azerbaijani claims towards the Azeri minority in Iran. They further claim that the cultural heritage would be Azeri. For example, at the beginning of the year, two Azerbaijani members of parliament came to Yerevan for an event, went to a mosque built at the time when Armenia was under Iranian rule, and was also reconstructed thanks to their support. They took a picture and wrote, ” it is a jewel of Azerbaijani monuments”. Following this event, the Iranian embassy released a clear statement. Iran is very sensitive when it comes to cultural heritage issues.

So I think they are much more engaged than before. Of course, we hope there will be an agreement on the nuclear deal. Increasing Iranian involvement in the Armenian economy would be a significant contribution energy-wise and stability-wise. Iran has the potential to play a stabilising role in the region.

Now we mostly buy gas from Russia. We will be interested in exchanging more energy with IranThirty per cent of our energy production is from the nuclear power plant. We have one build during the Soviet era, which we updated. One month ago came the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and they were satisfied with the situation of our nuclear station. Moreover, we have hydro resources, the rest with gas, thermos stations and other alternative sources. We try to develop alternative sources and diversify. Of course, we are very conscious of sanctions; this is why our trade with Iran is always the same.

Nevertheless, even the Americans have been very understanding, and there was flexibility towards this issue. Of course, we hope for Iran to sign the new nuclear deal since our borders are closed on the Turkish and Azerbaijani sides. The border between Russia and Georgia is also close, so our country’s transportation and energy situation are very limited.”.

Some analysts pointed out that the sudden US interest in Armenia might be an attempt to fill Russia’s vacuum and contrast Moscow. Do you agree? And is the US engagement affecting your relations with Russia?

You might have these feelings. During Trump’s administration, there was nothing at all, which also didn’t help. It was left to Turkey and Russia to discuss between themselves, and the EU was divided and weak. But we do not need to push on one side or the other.

What we want is more international engagement. This is why it was ideal for us when there was the Minsk group: there were the United States, Russia and France. We never wanted it to be dominated by one actor, to have one player. We want internationalisation and more players. So the United States is important from this point of you. How much they will be engaged, of course, is an issue. But it is always better to have someone. For example, the 70 prisoners after the September 2022 attack were released thanks to US efforts. They very strongly insisted. In which form the engagement will take plays is an issue, but again, for Armenia, it is essential to have more international attention.

Engagement with the United States did not start with Ukraine. Of course, we know the current dynamics between the West and Russia. The first time the Armenian genocide was pronounced was by Ronald Regan. Even after the first world war, Woodrow Wilson, US president at that time, had the mandate to draw the map of Armenia. After the genocide, the United States gave Armenia the most considerable support; many Armenian children were taken to the United States.

In the United States, we have one of the most extensive diasporas. So I wouldn’t put our relations only in the context of recent development. The Minsk group was one occasion in which Russia and the United States cooperated effectively without disagreements. We would never want to be seen in the light of confrontation between the two, nor be pushed to choose between them; we do not want to choose.

Not only Biden’s administration recognised the Armenian genocide, but the American Congress also recognised it under Trump in the spring of 2020. Washington has always been one of the biggest providers of assistance. We never saw an issue with Russia on this. Moscow was important militarily and strategically as Washington in assisting and developing democracy. We want to continue this way and continue to cooperate with specific partners.

This war is about ensuring the human rights, existence, and security of people living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan is continuously trying to force them to leave. We had a severe winter in Karabakh. First, they blow the pipelines, so people remain without gas for too long. Then it was shootings, then loudspeakers continuously threatening the inhabitants or the Islamic prayer during the night. Then when the Conflict in Ukraine started, they invaded some villages.

Nevertheless, nobody left, and we didn’t have any exodus. Pressure and intimidation were their strategies. For now, the first step should be to acknowledge that there is a problem which Azerbaijan do not see. For them, we lost the war, and that’s it. But human beings are living there. We try not to provoke them and give them an excuse for starting the war again.“.

What about bilateral meetings between Pashinyan and Aliyev?

On October 31st, 2022, they will meet in Sochi after Putin’s invitation and then in Brussels in the future. Our foreign ministers also planned to meet to discuss peace treaties. We never declined invitations of mediation from whatever it comes, be it Russia, the United States, Georgia or the EU. Ideally, we would have the Minsk group back, as we believe that long-lasting peace can be achieved only under the guarantee of big players. Nevertheless, we use each helpful format.“.

Several analysts underlined a gap between the Armenian armaments and the Azerbaijani ones. How do you cope with these differences?

The superiority sometimes comes from the allies. So the differences are not necessarily between us and Azerbaijan, but maybe between us and Azerbaijan plus Turkey. The level of cooperation between them is reaching the point of confederation, more than Russia and Belarus’ union. The involvement of Pakistan is also very dangerous.

We use diplomatic efforts. We try to recover our military differences with India. We try to restore our capacities. Our approach is that for lasting peace, there are no military solutions. During the 90′ Azerbaijan was defeated by Armenia without the help of anyone, and this might be the case again.”.