Interview with Richard Giragosian about Nagorno Karabakh war

Last year in April the conflict of Nagorno Karabakh, which in fact is a war that started in the eighties and is still ongoing, suffered the major escalation after the ceasefire agreement in 1994. This is an interview held before the Armenian elections, on the 22nd of march, with Richard Giragosian, the director of the Think Tank Regional Studies Center from Yerevan, also a specialist in the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict.

Author: Carles Revenga Bagés

22nd of March  2017, Yerevan, Armenia

—Last year in April there was a massive escalation of violence in the line of contact in NK with heavy casualties in both sides, could you explain what happened?

Last year there was a violation of cease fire from Azerbaijani side and this was, at the end, the biggest escalation of violence since the end of the war hostilities and the Bishkek Protocol in 1994, moreover it was the first military success for Azerbaijan since the nineties gaining some territories in their advance. There was no motivation for such an action from Armenian side, no deterrence and there was a clear military objective to secure territories, and they did. But Armenia didn’t over react and Armenian President stopped the army from retaking territory. After this escalation presidents Sargsyan from Armenia and Aliev from Azerbaidan met twice, in Vienna and in Sant Petersburg, and they did an oral agreement of cease fire, a new agreement that broke the agreement of 1994 but this time was not signed.

—What were the main lines of this agreement?

To keep the new “status quo” and no return to hostilities. Also a special mission for OSCE with some requirements in both sides to enable OSCE mission to detect violations of cease fire because both sides were accusing each other of this violations, so the agreement was to deploy observers. This oral agreement didn’t include NK authorities but it banned them to retake territories.

—After this agreement, what happened in the line of contact up to this point?

The Azerbaijanis did not fulfill their promises and OSCE personnel was not allowed to do the inspections which left the situation as it was before. Regarding this issue and in December 2016 there was another escalation of violence from Azerbaijani side and they were repulsed by Armenian forces effectively but it succeed in checking Armenian capabilities. Also another escalation less important in February for example. This actions were not significant but under my opinion it seems that the Azerbaijani side is testing the Armenian defenses this time without a major threat to any position.

—This seems a return of the hostilities, what’s next?

I think first of all that Aliev with all this escalation tries to distract from problems back home. But then in a military terms it is possible to see a strategy in this actions and the last hostilities can be understood as an actions of distraction with a no real determined actions in terms of taking territories, but puts Armenia under constant threat. At the same time this pattern of actions can create a kind of confidence in the Armenian side and also a pattern in response to this actions and catch them not ready with a major offensive in the coming future.

In any case Azerbaijan will not attack before the elections because it will be a present for Sargsyan and at the same time they are waiting for a new shipment of weapons from Russia and Israel that it will be deployed in April or May, this information is well-known and public. So it is possible that the next big escalation of hostilities it will be at the end of April or in May.

—Do you think is there an escalation in the security dilemma?

Indeed. In the last years there has been an escalation of the security dilemma and both sides were rearming their armies with Azerbaijani side buying more and newer military equipment to Russia and Israel meanwhile Armenia, despite buys cheaper because its agreement with Russia, had to buy more and more, this can drive to a more dreadful conflict bearing in mind that both sides are fully armed with new weapons. But after the escalation in April 2016, what we have here is a “new scenario”. After last year and the last clashes in military terms it is clear that Armenian army is ready to repeal any attack from Azerbaijani side and also cautious in not falling to the provocations that can drive to a major escalation. This is the real danger in the situation: “war by accident”, the danger is that mistakes in both sides, from politics to army and soldiers, the whole chain of orders and the activity on the ground can create an “escalation of mistakes” that can drive to really major conflict and have a real war out of control in which other parts can be involved in a serious and a big conflict, even among them, Russia, Turkey and Iran.

—Let’s talk about the other parts in this “new scenario”. Let’s talk about Russia and Turkey relations that were in crises last year, now are better and renewed because of mutual interests. Also Turkey had many changes at home, how this context affects the Nagorno Karabakh conflict?

Regarding to the Turkish side I think they do not want an escalation of this conflict also because the relation with Russia now it’s good and they don’t want to jeopardize it after diplomatic efforts to strengthen it. At the same time Turkey is frustrated because does not control the situation although they want to control authorities from Baku. I think Turkish message is sincere and significant about the serious danger that Azerbaijan now represents for the “status quo” because of the self confidence in its forces. Turkey doesn’t want a confrontation now with Russia because of this conflict but also at the same time after what happened last summer in Turkey, the most pro-Azerbaijanis in Turkey were “pro-Gulen” and they have been detained or expelled from the army and this diminished the link and the influence between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Russia has no clear position in this case, they want to improve relations with Azerbaijan in one hand because of their interests among them as a weapons buyer that’s why until April 2016 was the best for them. On the other hand is possible that people around Putin may want a new change in the “status quo” and to have the chance to deploy Russian peace keepers in the area, which in fact nobody wants, neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia or Nagorno Karabakh authorities.

At the same time United States and France don’t want more involvement in this situation and leave Russia to play the major role in it and even after Trump’s victory this can mean a hands off in this conflict and may lead Russia to a more prominence to develop their strategy.

—What about the Minsk Group? After the escalation in 2016 you said that the diplomatic path was over, what do you think after almost one year?

I defended Minsk Group as the only way to solve the conflict but the standpoints are static and the process do not move forward because the positions are crystalized and there is no political will to change them. But at least the Minsk Group is the only framework where the parts can meet, is the only bridge of communication and must be open necessarily. But in the way that works creates mistrust among the parts involved and also mistrust in the citizenship.

But under my opinion the Nagorno Karabakh authorities are not there and this is a deficiency of this framework. This talks have then the risk that whatever agreement they can reach, the NKR authorities can disagree. They should be there for the sake of the process and there is a way to put them in, for instance at least as a neutral engagement. Is not necessary to recognize NKR but they can be there as observers. At the same time you can put an Azerbaijani refugees from Karabakh delegation also as a neutral part.

—Is this a possibility? Was this idea ever on the table?

It was in the past, but unfortunately the NKR authorities didn’t want the Azerbaijani refugees from Karabakh delegation in it, and it failed.

—So let me ask you about authorities of NKR. Last week David Babayan deputy and head of the central information office of the NKR President, has said that they are ready for a “Great Return” of Azerbaijanis to Karabakh, they will give them passports and citizenship and they will live in a democratic country as it is NKR, what do you think about this idea?

It’s a good thing. NKR really want them inside to secure their territory. But the problem regarding the talks is that positions are so isolated that they even didn’t talk about the “right to return” because the peace process is not even open. It could be other solutions on the table like pay the refugees or others, but the thing is that none of this things are discussed.

—So what conclusions can we get from the Minsk Group and how this situation can be loosen, bearing in mind the hardening of positions that block any improvement?

For me firstly there is no hope for diplomatic aspirations to resolve the situation until a real democracy is achieved in both sides. And secondly, both sides are so far away from each other that unfortunately perhaps it may require more war and this will drive to be more serious at the table and start a real peace process with a clear understanding that both sides are going to have “half win and half loss” in this issue. But right now there is more a strategy in the parts to save its face and still the process is not in a position for that.

—What about the paper of the OSCE in this? What about their observers?

The oral agreement tried to solve the misinformation and the accusations from both sides of violations of the cease fire to try to have clear and trustable information about this vital aspect, but it was impossible to deploy observers in the Azerbaijani side, moreover unlike Ukraine, in the line of contact OSCE has to agree visits on the ground with the parts in conflict, which is not a good way to get a real and reliable information and allows parts to move freely and as an effect, the world outside has not clear information.

—Recently you have participated in a book called The Great Game in West Asia from Georgetown University and published by Oxfort Press. Let me be a dreamer, let me imagine a future and extraordinary struggle of the human race for peace in the Middle East and West Asia with the whole world and multilateral institutions involved, like it was in Europe after the Second World War. Could be the conflict of Nagorno Karabakh be included in such a new framework for peace in the region?

Theoretically yes, although this reality is separated from the reality further in the south. But the situation is dynamic and we do not have to underestimate the paper of other actors in it, like China for example. China is having an increasingly paper in the region because its own interests. But up to this point the Minsk Group is the only framework and the parts who have a major role after the countries involved, are the triad of Russia, Turkey and Iran, and this last actor after the nuclear deal, gained preponderance and uses its influence.