"There are more positive elements in Armenia-Azeri dialog than reflected at U.N. session", says Foreign Minister of Armenia Vartan Oskanian
Interviewed by Edmond Y. Azadian
September 26,2002 issue of the Mirror-Spectator.
Following his speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Armenia's Foreign Minister, Mr. Vartan Oskanian, had a whirlwind tour of the East Coast, delivering lectures at Tufts University (Boston, MA), Yale (New Haven, CT) and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI).
During his stop in Detroit, Edmond Azadian had an in-depth interview with the Foreign Minister, dwelling mostly on Armenia's relations with the world and especially with outstanding issues with its immediate neighbors. Here below is the text of that interview.
EYA: Mr. Foreign Minister, I read your speech at the last session of the
U.N. and also the speeches of the Azeri and Turkish representatives concerning the issue of Karabagh. I see that there are a lot of differences and contradictory positions. I would like to know if that was mostly public posturing or there is something more to read into it?
Minister Oskanian: I spoke two hours after the Azerbaijani representative made his statement. And, it is obvious in my speech that, as a result, I introduced some new elements, particularly the more critical part. My speech was much more conciliatory and the modification came as a result of the unfounded accusations that were thrown in by the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister. I think the Azeri statement was not reflective of the mood ? does not reflect the nature and substance of the dialogue in which two presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are engaged. The most recent meeting of the two presidents at the Armenian/Azerbaijan border was a good meeting. It was assessed very positively by the two of them. They said that they made some progress and they were hopeful there would be continuation. So the mood was much better in that meeting than what was reflected in the Azeri Foreign Minister's statement. That leads us to conclude that either the foreign minister is not in the loop, or there was a deliberately devised division of roles to feed both their domestic needs and the international perceptions.
The problem with the statement ? the Azeri statement ? was that the Azeris tried to get on the bandwagon of what goes on in the international arena as they did right after September 11th when the international community's main concern was the fight against terrorism. Last year, Azerbaijanis tried to put the Karabagh issue within the context of terrorism and began to present the case as a terrorism issue. That particular policy came back to haunt the Azeris themselves as I made clear in my statement, because the international press made revelations about Azerbaijan's involvement in terrorism, and well-documented instances of harboring terrorist cells on Azerbaijani territory. Now, when the international community is talking about Iraq and its defiance of UN resolutions, suddenly we hear the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister talking about Armenia's noncompliance with UN resolutions on Nagorno-Karabagh. Obviously the Azeri representative has not read those resolutions very well. There is nothing that would obligate Armenia to do anything except to use its good offices with Nagorno-Karabagh to reach an agreement and a resolution through negotiations on this issue, and this is precisely what Armenia has been doing. So, this issue again will come to haunt the Azeris as those resolutions place more obligations on Azerbaijan than on Armenia.
Armenia's Conciliatory Tone
EYA: What is new in the negotiations about the Karabagh issue? The two Presidents have met many times ? mor
e than ten times, I guess ? and there are prospects for more meetings. Is there anything new on the table that you can reveal?
Minister Oskanian: Well, the presidents have met more than 18 times now, and I must say that these meetings were certainly not a waste of time. They made a lot of progress and at one point, as we made this very clear last year, we were very close to signing a peace deal with Azerbaijan. But things began to unravel as a result of some new demands that were put forward by the Azerbaijani side and they began to backtrack from the pinnacle that we had achieved. At this moment the presidents are trying to put the process back on track. There are very strong and promising elements on the table that the two sides have agreed to. There are still a lot of unresolved issues remaining but we think that there's more that the presidents have agreed to than those, which still remain to be decided. Now we have to wait and see what future meetings will produce. But, we think that there is a pretty strong foundation on which this process can be built and we continue to remain hopeful.
EYA: Recently, Baku-Ceyhan pipeline was inaugurated and official ceremonies were held where the Presidents of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey participated. What is the political impact of the construction of that pipeline? That pipeline needs stability in the area, so does the resolution of the conflict become more imminent or does it give more leverage to
Azerbaijan to be more intransigent?
Minister Oskanian: Well, the political implications of the pipeline ? the nature of it very much will depend on Azerbaijan's attitude during the construction period and afterwards, once the oil begins to flow through that pipeline. If Azerbaijan tries to use oil as an instrument of power to pressure Armenia to make unilateral concessions, then the political fallout will be very negative on the region' s stability. We hope that the pipeline will cement cooperation in the region and the presence of the pipeline will make the Azeris more careful about their war talk. That should also make them more hesitant to engage in any military activity considering that resumption of military operations in the region will impact negatively the pipeline and the economy and the countries of the region. So, this could be a double-edged sword and one simply would hope that Azeri oil policy would be such that the oil will become a stabilizing factor rather than a destabilizing factor. We have to wait and see how things evolve and what kind of a policy Azeris will adopt once the pipeline is in place.
Armenia is guided by its own national interests in the region
EYA: Armenia has a politically very intriguing role or position balancing its foreign policy and it is always questioned ? how can Armenia be a recipient of United States assistance and at the same time, be on good terms with its neighbors, especially the ones that are listed on the list of the "axis of evil", meaning Iran and Iraq. We also learned from the news media that Armenia has had a rapprochement with the Iraqi regime in this tense situation. How does that affect our relations and the aid that we receive from the United States?
Minister Oskanian: Well, first Iraq. We have good relations with all Arab countries. One should not forget that we have Armenian communities throughout the Arab world including Iraq. So, Armenia has the obligation to be present wherever we have Armenian communities so that we can also address their concerns and their problems and be helpful as much as we can.
Iran is a different matter. Our relations with Iran are very extensive. Ira
n is our neighbor and good relations between Iran and Armenia are very important and critical for Caucasus peace and stability. Armenia is the country that engages Iran in our region and Iran's contribution to peace and stability to the region during these past ten years has been very instrumental. They have been playing a very visible role in balancing between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is very important, especially juxtaposed to Turkey's policy of unilateral support for Azerbaijan which creates a tremendous imbalance in the Caucasus. So Iran's role has been positive. The United States has been very understanding of Armenia's relations with Iran and our relations with Iran do not in any way impact or endanger or threaten US interests in the region. There is no conflict of interest in terms of going against American security interests in the region. The US also understands that for Armenia, good relations with Iran are critical for Armenia's security and economic development. Armenia is guided by its own national interests while being considerate also of the security concerns and interests of other countries who are engaged in the Caucasus.
The U.S. clearly understands our relations with Russia
EYA: Does the Russian military presence in Armenia present a sore point between Armenia's relations with the United States?
Minister Oskanian: Not at all. I think that's one other issue that the United States clearly understands. Armenia is extremely security-conscious given our unfriendly relations with two of our four neighbors and given the fact that the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict has not been resolved yet. Turkey has always been prepared to engage itself militarily in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict and this makes our security concerns very real and one of the ways to provide additional security to Armenia is the presence of Russian bases on our territory. However, that does not affect in any way our policy of complementarity, which we've been applying to develop equally good relations with Russia and the United States. We've done this very successfully as we've attempted and succeeded in reconciling the competition of these two powers in the region and particularly in Armenia by providing equal opportunity for both for engagement in our country and in the Caucasus. So, we do not see any conflict of interest particularly now, after the suspension of 907, a new dimension has been added to our cooperation with the United States. That is military cooperation -- something that was missing in our relations with the United States because of 907. Now that dimension even makes the complementarity policy a more viable policy as we demonstrate that we can cooperate -- politically, economically and militarily ? with all powers with interests in the region.
The plight of Javakhk Armenians and Armenian-Georgian relations
EYA: What is the plight of the Armenians in Javakhk and what will be the future of the Russian military presence in Georgia and also the recent deterioration between Georgia and Russia? How does that impact Armenians in Javakhk and Georgian- Armenian relations in general?
Minister Oskanian: The fate of Russian bases in Georgia, of course, must be decided between the Russians and Georgians themselves. The Armenian population in the Javakheti region economically relies on the presence of the Russian bases, so they will be affected by the withdrawal of those bases, but eventually that decision has to be taken by the Georgians and Russians. With regard to the fate and the state of Armenians in Georgia, but particularly in Javakheti, that is under the attention of the Armenian government because th
e Armenian government considers the fate and state of our compatriots in Georgia or in any country within the realm of our responsibilities and obligations. Every time a problem arises, the Government of Armenia has worked it out with the central government, trying to address those problems and trying to find solutions to them. We're also working with the government of Georgia to provide direct assistance to the Armenians of Javakheti such as providing electricity, textbooks for the schools, doing construction, improving the schools in the regions. These are all done in cooperation and with the knowledge of the Government of Georgia. As to Georgian-Russian relations, Armenia is very concerned about the recent developments because Georgian stability and peace in that region is critical to Armenia's security and also economic development. We follow it very closely, and we are prepared to use our good offices if we're asked, to work with both sides in any way possible if we could, to avoid any further deterioration and particularly any military engagement by both sides. We hope that this issue will be resolved peacefully and we hope that the issue should not become a point of contention between the two. Rather we think this provides a good opportunity so that Georgia and Russia work together on this issue by fighting terrorism in that region together.
EYA: Is the situation in Georgia leading towards a federal system -- Southern Ossetia is challenging the central government, Ajaria is challenging the central government, Abkhazia has broken away, and not least, the Armenians in the Javakhk region are in unrest. Is the federal system really in the cards and will Armenians figure in that mosaic if a federal system is adopted?
Minister Oskanian: What kind of a structure will evolve, whether a change will indeed eventually take place, all that is up to the people of Georgia who inhabit that territory and it is up to the people of Georgia to decide. We recognize Georgia's central government, we work with the authorities on all issues pertaining to Georgian-Armenian relations. For Armenia, what is important is to have a stable Georgia and stable relations with Armenia. That is very critical not only for our individual countries but also for peace and stability in the entire Caucasus.
"Most of the Islamic countries are guided by their strategic interests rather than religion in dealing with Karabagh issue."
EYA: How do you characterize Armenia's relations with the Arab countries and the Muslim world ? the Muslims being more sympathetic or in tune with Muslim Azerbaijan and Armenians living in Arab countries have some kind of balancing act to do. In what context do you see Armenian relations with the Arab world and with the Muslim world in general?
Minister Oskanian: Our relations are very good with Arab countries and also with Muslim countries. Iran is an excellent example, and our relations with Arab countries, which are Muslim, is another example of the good relations between Armenia and the Arab and Islamic world. In addition we have big communities in almost every Arab country, which plays a very positive role in advancing and developing our bilateral ties with those countries at a governmental level. We understand that there are certain sympathies by certain Islamic countries toward Azerbaijan ?
EYA: --- especially Pakistan ---
Minister Oskanian: --- yes, purely on the basis of religious affiliation. But, we do not think that the position and policies of those few countries is widespread, and that does not in any way impact negatively on the peace process. The records of these countries when it comes to voting
on Nagorno-Karabagh matters at the UN or in other international organizations is clear evidence that they try to look into this issue more objectively and try to transcend their religious affiliation. They look at it from a strategic point of view and that has produced very balanced results in terms of their engagement and their positions on the Nagorno-Karabagh issue. What are the dividends of Armenia's relations with the Far East?
EYA: We read in the news media that you travel extensively to the Far East, and Armenia has invested a lot of time and resources to develop relations with the far eastern countries ? Japan, China, and major powers. How much of that investment is justified in terms of economic development and political benefit?
Minister Oskanian: Well, such efforts with the countries you mention are definitely justified. We have excellent relations with China. We trade with them. There's Chinese investment in Armenia, and joint ventures. We also receive a lot of Chinese aid. The same is true with Japan. Japanese companies have interests in Armenia in the mining sector. There are Japanese grants and loans being provided to Armenia. Japan is the third largest contributor to our region and to Armenia. China is a major power ? it's a growing power and in the next decade China will rival other super powers in the Caucasus in terms of its economic presence and involvement. So those are highly justified investments of time and energy and effort. If we talk about other countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and other far places such as Mexico, Cuba, which I recently visited ? we think that those visits are also justified. Our main interest, of course, is in our immediate region and our main focus must be on the region and also on the countries with which we have extensive economic and political ties. But as we advance that track we cannot just simply sit down and do nothing with other countries. Each year we need to expand the network of our bilateral ties as much as we can. There's a dividend in relations with every single country in the world. If there's no dividend in trade or economy, there's a dividend in the political aspect of it, such as cooperation in international organizations, such as getting their votes on Nagorno-Karabagh, or other important matters for Armenia. So, expanding our network of bilateral relations is a critical part of our diplomacy and we need to do that each year, and we need to come to a point where Armenia will have extensive contact with as many countries as possible.
Long-term perspective of future Armenia-Russia relations
EYA: I hesitate to formulate my question about Armenian/Russian relations ?looking at those relations in future perspective ? how reliable Russian military presence is in Armenia in light of the Russian impotence vis-à-vis the Balkan war ? the destruction of Yugoslavia. Also, Russia initially was very protective of "near abroad" countries, former Soviet republics, now that sense seems to have dissipated with U.S. presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Also some warming up with the Ankara government has developed and even military hardware was supplied ? or sold ? to Turkey. In that context, can you comment on Armenia/Russia relations the long term?
Minister Oskanian: Our relations with Russia are very extensive ? military security, economic, social, cultural - I mean they're very diversified relations but the military and the security aspect is extremely important and critical for Armenia. We think that is a serious deterrent for any possible encroachment by an outside power into Armenia. That already served its purpose in 1993 at the height of the Karabagh conflict when Turkish f
orces were posturing along the Armenian border and were threatening to encroach on Armenia. The Russians very clearly stated that would mean the beginning of a third world war. After that particular statement the Turks hesitated to make any moves. So, that was clear evidence of the fact that the Russian presence in Armenia could become a serious deterrent for any possible encroachment by any outside power. We are tied to Russia in a very substantial security agreement ? an agreement that provides for mutual military assistance in case of attack on one or the other countries. We are also linked with Russia through the collective security agreement, which has a similar provision which provides direct military assistance in case of attack on any members of the alliance. So, those are two extremely important components of Armenia's security policy.
EYA: Thank you very much. I wish you good luck. You have a very difficult task to represent Armenia and its interests vis-à-vis the rest of the world.