10, 2009

President Serzh Sargsyan answered questions posed by the editors of the Armenian Reporter

President Serzh Sargsyan on October 1 answered questions posed by the editors of the Armenian Reporter.

Armenian Reporter: Mr. President, there appear to be parallels between President Barack Obama and you in your approaches to longstanding, unresolved challenges facing the United States and Armenia respectively. In President Obama's case, he is choosing to deal simultaneously with the fiscal and economic crisis he inherited, while winding down the Iraq war, escalating the Afghanistan war, seeking fundamental changes in government oversight of financial institutions, and calling for massive changes to America's healthcare system.

In your case, you are also dealing with the global financial crisis via massive borrowing, while simultaneously moving ahead with the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations, and also taking on the equally complex subject of relations with Turkey. Both you and President Obama have been accused of taking on too much, too quickly. How do you respond to such criticism?

President Serge Sargsian: In serving as the leader of a country, you have your list of priorities, but you often have to address and resolve a host of issues that emerge independently of your will. Therein lies the challenge of leadership. The international economic crisis is, of course, one such issue. Addressing the consequences of the crisis has created similarities among leaders - whichever field they serve - political, economic, or public.

The crisis is having a significant effect on Armenia's economy, and we are trying to use credit to promote programs that will create new jobs and resolve the difficulties families face. For example, we are implementing a large construction project in northern Armenia, where the earthquake hit 20 years ago. Of course, it is better to be wealthy and healthy than poor and sick. However, we believe that any crisis offers new opportunities, and we must do all we can to implement the right reforms at this time.

Political consultations

AR: There is a great deal of concern in the Armenian-American community and throughout the diaspora about the agreement the Armenian government has negotiated with Turkey. You have met with leading political and media representatives in Armenia. You are now going to meet with leaders of Armenian communities in the diaspora. What message are you going to take to them?

President Sargsian: My main message is not directed to the diaspora but the world at large. Everyone must understand that the diaspora is an important part of Armenia's reality. Armenia has about 7 million ambassadors in various countries, connecting Armenia with the rest of the world with invisible strings.

We, Armenia and the diaspora, are one family. I simply want to speak to our brothers and sisters in the diaspora, hear their views and - why not? - consult them. From the beginning, when we talked about public discussion of the two protocols, it was unequivocally clear to me that discussions in the Armenian diaspora would be part of it. The normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey is only one part of the Armenian-Turkish reconciliation process, and there should be no misunderstandings or unspoken things in the Armenia-diaspora dialogue.

I must acknowledge, of course, that I am already familiar with the bulk of the ideas and views that are in circulation. They are not new, and have been part of the Armenian political debate for the last two decades.

Rewards and risks

AR: Based on your initial assessment and taking into account the views of a wide range of public opinion, what are the rewards and what are the risks of proceeding with ratification and implementation of the protocols between Armenia and Turkey? What can be done to mitigate the risks?

President Sargsian: The current generation of the Armenian and Turkish peoples, each in its own way, has inherited a difficult history. To overcome the wide chasm of mistrust between our two peoples, our societies have difficult issues to resolve. Armenians have been subjected to genocide, lost part of their historic homeland, been dispersed around the world, and continue to struggle for the recognition and condemnation of that history by the international community and Turkey. Our people would see that recognition and condemnation as a long-awaited victory for justice.

Turks of the current generation, in turn, need to come to terms with their own history. After all, the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian question have been taboo subjects in Turkey for decades, and those who have raised them have been subject to prosecution and social stigma. Add to that the developments of the last two decades, where Turkey has unequivocally supported Azerbaijan and frozen the development of any relations with Armenia, blockading Armenia and thus seriously damaging the economy of our newly independent state.

It is in this general context that we are trying to normalize relations between the two states. Of course, in both societies, not everyone is ready to go the route of normalization, and that is natural. The difficulties are also understandable, and the potential obstacles are foreseeable. All the same, the most important guarantee, I think, is the honesty of the intention of the two sides to pursue this route, and the determination not to leave the resolution of these issues to future generations. I want to believe that the Turkish side is truly honest in this process, that artificial obstacles will not emerge on the road to signing and ratifying the protocols, and that the two sides share a belief in the indispensability of opening a new page in their relations.

The greatest risk is that the protocols will not be implemented. Such a development will deepen the atmosphere of mistrust and enmity in the region. For a long time after that, no politician will be able to touch the issue of normalizing Armenia-Turkey relations.

Armenia and Azerbaijan

AR: One of the key points about the protocols is that Turkey agrees to open the border with no mention of Karabakh. But Turkey's prime minister constantly repeats his promise that the border will not open as long as Armenians occupy what he calls Azerbaijani territory. How can the written agreement and the verbal statements be reconciled? The U.S. undersecretary of state this week said he hoped to see "tangible results" come out of the summit in Moldova. Is there any chance you will sign a document on Karabakh there or anytime before the end of the year?

President Sargsian: Turkey, indeed, may have a problem reconciling these statements and its actual actions. I have said repeatedly: the normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations cannot be conditioned on the resolution of the Artsakh issue or on any other precondition. Any attempt to link the two processes endangers both of them. On one occasion I told the Turkish side: "The only way Turkey can help the resolution of the Karabakh conflict is by not interfering."

It would be less than candid to claim that the two issues are completely unrelated. After all, the Turks and Azerbaijanis claim they are one people. On the relationship between the two issues, I would say the following: the resolution of one issue - the normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations and the end of the blockade of Armenia - can, of course, create favorable conditions for the resolution of the other - the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. That is so because mutual trust in the region will increase, and that will create the positive atmosphere necessary for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict.

On the second part of your question: No, I do not expect to sign any document in Moldova. Let me go further: in view of the limited progress we have made on agreeing to very few of the Madrid Document, we are quite far from signing any document at this stage. It will require from both sides long negotiations and, of course, political will.

AR: It has been Armenian's long standing to stress the "nonsubordination" of Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Armenian officials recently have spoken of Karabakh's "right to self-determination," and we know that Azerbaijan says it would agree to "self-determination" within its borders. Is the nonsubordination of Karabakh to Azerbaijan still the policy of the Republic of Armenia?

President Sargsian: The key issue in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict is the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Karabakh Movement began with the issue of status, and only the resolution of this issue can bring an end to the conflict. Armenia has said repeatedly that the people of Karabakh must have the opportunity to determine that status. That is the red line, beyond which the Armenian sides cannot go. It is not subject to negotiation.

The hypothetical subordination of Karabakh to Azerbaijan is possible only if the people of Karabakh, through a referendum, choose such a thing. Just how likely that is everyone knows, including the Azerbaijanis.

AR: When Iran tries to buy weapons systems the United States objects publicly and seeks sanctions against the supplier. Does Armenia quietly raise concerns about Azerbaijan's purchase of missile systems that can hit Yerevan and other Armenian towns? Is disarmament on the agenda of talks with Azerbaijan's leadership?

President Sargsian: Azerbaijan's purchase of weapons systems and the arms race in the region are, of course, ongoing concerns for us. Azerbaijan continues to exceed the limitations of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in practically all categories. We have raised this issue repeatedly on various levels. Unfortunately, the international community is silent. Armenia raises the issue of Azerbaijan's arms purchases.

We believe countries that buy oil from Azerbaijan should think about this matter, because the sums they pay are spent in violation of one of the cornerstones of the European security.

Armenia meanwhile continues to raise its own level of preparedness, implementing military technology that corresponds to the contemporary threats we face; we have also increased our involvement in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and deepened cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As far as the process of militarization of Azerbaijan is concerned in the context of the possible settlement of the Karabakh conflict, it goes without saying that there can be no change in current system of security guarantees without precise measures on limitation of certain types and dislocations of weapons around Karabagh.

The Armenian Genocide

AR: The Turkish government takes the position that the demand for international recognition of the Armenian Genocide comes from the Armenian diaspora, and is a priority for the Armenian diaspora, not shared by Armenia. That view is echoed by the International Crisis Group and other influential opinion formers. However, Armenia's National Security Strategy - developed while you were secretary of the National Security Council - specifically calls for the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and our reading of public opinion in Armenia is that this is a priority for the Armenian people. What is your view of the matter?

President Sargsian: The process of international recognition of the Armenian Genocide cannot be removed from our agenda. Supporting the international recognition of the Genocide is part of our National Security Strategy. How can any Armenian renounce his or her past, or the desire to see the victory of justice? The recognition of the Genocide is not exclusively our issue, as Armenians. It is an issue for all humanity.

But I would like to point to one issue in this context: the overarching purpose of the process for the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide is to see the Turkish people and Turkey follow the lead of numerous civilized countries and recognize the fact of the Genocide. Never before has the issue of the Armenian Genocide been discussed as broadly in Turkey as it is discussed today. In the last decade, a segment of the people have begun to raise their voice, and their representatives are prepared to look at the dark pages of history with an alert and responsible gaze - notwithstanding decades of state propaganda. We must help that process along. The issue is not limited to Armenian-Turkish reconciliation; I repeat, there is the current generation of Turks, who must come to terms with their own history. I think our present initiative is opening doors for this internal discussion, this internal reconciliation.

AR: There is substantial concern in Armenia and throughout the diaspora about the sub-commission on the historical dimension outlined in the protocols. The concern is that the existence of a bilateral commission gives credence to the Turkish position that the answer to the question, "Was there a genocide?" is not yet known. What can you say to allay this concern and the fears of those who assert that the commission undermines ongoing international efforts to secure universal affirmation of the fact and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide?

President Sargsian: I would like to emphasize that this is not the historians' commission proposed years ago. This is a subcommission of an intergovernmental commission, which was suggested by the Armenian side in its response to that proposal. The purpose of the subcommission is to generate a dialogue on history, in order to increase mutual trust.

This is a long-term process, which encompass a broad range of issues: issues of the Armenian heritage in Turkey, issues of restoring and preserving that heritage, issues of the heirs of the victims of the Genocide. It is not possible to establish relations with a country without having dialogue about issues of mutual interest. And historical research should scare only those who falsify history. The agenda of the commission and its subcommissions will be set by the two sides, Armenia and Turkey. Those who are concerned should realize that the representatives of the government of Armenia will never allow issues to be formulated in a way that could be insulting to the Armenian people.

Perhaps in some countries and in some circumstances, the Armenian lobby will face certain difficulties, but it must also be understood that there are bound to be certain complications in such a difficult process.

I have repeated on various occasions that it is naïve to think that in countries like the United States, Great Britain, or Germany, the decision to affirm the Genocide can be predetermined by steps being taken, or evidence being presented, by other countries. These countries have enormous troves of evidence confirming the Armenian Genocide. It is a matter of making a political decision. Of course, the efforts of the Armenian lobby help bring about such a decision, but the political strength of that lobby alone is not enough. I am confident that all the countries that have not yet recognized the Armenian Genocide will do so sooner or later.

Our biggest advantage in this matter should be the great scholars who work on genocide issues, legal conclusions that have been reached, and the inclusion of the matter in the school texts of many countries.

Negotiating with Turkey

AR: Despite years of direct and indirect contact between Armenia and Turkey, your predecessors were unable to reach an agreement. An agreement has been reached under you. What do you think is the reason for that? Do you credit certain changes in the international situation? Is it because Turkey recognizes that its blockade of Armenia has failed and is now ready to pursue its own self-interest despite Azerbaijan's concerns? Has Armenia become more flexible in its negotiating position? Is it some combination of these factors?

President Sargsian: I think, yes, it is a combination of the factors you listed.
The war in South Ossetia truly changed the atmosphere in our region. It showed that the use of force in response to struggles for national self-determination is not prudent.

There have also been changes in Turkey's perception. Of course, the idea of the blockade, that Armenia will come to its knees economically and will surrender to the Azerbaijani-Turkish tandem, did not work out in reality. Whether Armenia is blockaded or not, it will not accept a resolution of the Karabakh conflict that would endanger the existence of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

As for whether we are more concession-prone, I will say that our position remains unchanged: the establishment of relations and the end of the blockade are necessary to both sides, and Armenia needs not concede anything to move in that direction. The very fact that we are ready to cooperate with Turkey even before it recognizes the Genocide is incontrovertible evidence of our constructive approach.

AR: In talking about Armenia, Turkey has consistently raised three concerns: the borders, the campaign for universal affirmation of the Armenian Genocide, and Karabakh. What are Armenia's concerns? Beyond the lack of diplomatic relations and the closed overland border, what other Turkish policies vis-à-vis Armenian interests do you find most problematic and want to see changed?

President Sargsian: What you call "concerns" Turkey has for years treated as preconditions. We did not put forward any preconditions, but that did not mean we did not or do not have concerns. They are numerous. You noted two of them already: the absence of diplomatic relations and the blockade of Armenia.

Let me list a few more:

• The denial of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey, which for Armenians means the continued absence of historical justice and a lack of security.
• The unconstrained support of Azerbaijan by Turkey, including military support, which does not help the strengthening of trust in the region.
• The tragic state of Armenian monuments and generally of the Armenian heritage in Turkey.
• And a series of other concerns that perhaps have not been raised formally, but exist and surely have been considered in making our decision to pursue normalization.

Consequences of an open border

AR: Please comment on the economic benefits for Armenia if Turkey opens the last closed border in Europe. How do you envision Armenia competing in this competitive regional environment?

President Sargsian: Much has been said about the economic consequences of opening of the border. Of course the opening of the border creates some competition, which I think is entirely healthy competition for our economy. Concerns about competition were also raised in the first years of our independence with regard to Iranian goods. Time showed that the concerns were overstated. I think this is a complex that small countries with large neighbors suffer from.

After all, a potential market with a population of 70 million opens before our producers. I don't even doubt that our entrepreneurs will succeed in that competition. Let me go further: I have not heard from any serious businessperson in Armenia that he has doubts of the economic benefit of opening the border.

As for the protection of local producers and especially small businesses, that must be a matter for the government's attention. Many of them have difficulty competing even within our domestic market. In a market economy, the government has leverage through anti-dumping and anti-monopoly laws, and the like, to protect local producers and small and medium businesses. It is a matter of doing the work and doing it right.

Anyway, I have the fewest concerns in this matter.

AR: Thank you, Mr. President.

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