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Armenia Under Siege

A conversation with Ruben Vardanyan, state minister of the embattled Artsakh region, on the conflict with Azerbaijan.

2022 Aurora Prize - Day 3
Ruben Vardanyan (Photo by Victor Boyko/Getty Images for Aurora Humanitarian Initiative)

Armenians—the world’s oldest Christian nation and the victims of the first modern genocide—are under attack. With Russia, their historical if mercurial protector, bogged down in Ukraine, Armenians have in recent months come under pressure from an increasingly aggressive Azerbaijan. Buoyed by oil and gas wealth, and promoted by lobbyists in Washington and Brussels as an ally against Iran, Azerbaijan’s kleptocratic ruler, Ilham Aliyev, sees an opportunity to retake the disputed and heavily Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region—and to humiliate the Armenian state.

In September, Azerbaijani forces launched an invasion of Armenia proper. More recently, the regime in Baku has imposed a blockade against Karabakh, which the Armenians call Artsakh. The so-called Lachin Corridor, the single road connecting Karabakh to Armenia proper, has been closed by Azerbaijani environmental protesters (don’t chuckle), while the Azerbaijani government has threatened to shoot down aircraft delivering aid. As the blockade stretches into its second month, rights groups are warning of an impending humanitarian catastrophe.

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On Friday, I spoke with Artsakh’s state minister, Ruben Vardanyan, via Zoom to discuss the latest on the blockade, Azerbaijan’s endgame, and prospects for peace. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sohrab Ahmari: The blockade began on December 12. Has anything changed lately?

Ruben Vardanyan: Unfortunately, nothing has changed. We are continuing under blockade. We have shortages of food, medication, and gasoline. We continue to have separated families who cannot rejoin each other, including kids in Artsakh whose parents are in Armenia, and kids in Armenia whose parents are in Artsakh. It’s quite a challenging situation. It’s been 26 days, and it’s really tough.

S.A.: So 120,000 Armenians are trapped?

R.V.: That includes 30,000 kids.

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S.A.: This began as an Azerbaijani environmental protest?

R.V.: It began as a protest by Azerbaijani ecological activists, who blocked the road. But if you follow the past 10 years of Azerbaijan’s history, you will not find any other ecological protests anywhere in Azerbaijan. It’s a little bit surprising, given how big the oil and gas industry in Azerbaijan is. It’s curious that they suddenly now care about the environment and why they chose to hold their first protest here.

From the beginning, we said, “There is no problem with sending international experts to monitor our mining business.“ We have high standards. The Artsakh government has placed high standards for any industry here. So we said, “No problem, let’s check not only how we mine, but also the quality of mining in Azerbaijan,” because we also care about how our Azeri neighbors treat the environment. But they refused. Plus, a lot of these “protesters” are special forces, military people.... Others are just students hired by the government and are paid to protest.

S.A.: Isn’t the Lachin Corridor supervised by Russian peacekeepers? Why are the Russians not helping?

R.V.: Well, if you follow the history of peacekeepers in any part of the world, you’ll find a similar story. Because usually there’s a very limited number of peacekeepers. They don’t have a right to use their weapons. And they usually try to avoid conflict. And if a conflict happens, they have a limited chance to do something more active.... And it’s not easy to [overcome the blockade] without some violence.

S.A.: I should have started by wishing you a Merry Christmas. Today is the Armenian Christmas, isn’t it? How is the blockade impacting the holy days?

R.V.: We are the oldest Christian nation in the world, and in our church we celebrate Christmas and Jesus’ baptism on the same day, always on January 6.

It’s tough under blockade this time around. Like many Christian communities, on Christmas we eat fish. We don’t have fish now. We have some rice with dried fruit. Most of the people don’t have the foodstuffs they would normally expect at Christmas. But people are in a good mood. I was today in a church, it was packed with thousands of people. And most of them are supportive. They understand what’s happening. They appreciate that this blockade isn’t about ecology, it’s about our right to live in our homeland. And this is why most people say, we aren’t budging—we are here to stay.

S.A.: Is there a risk of starvation? How much supplies do you have left? How long can this go on?

R.V.: We have reserves that we have been planning for many years. And don’t forget that Artsakh is a rich land. We have some good meat and some grain. So there are some basic foods, and starvation hasn’t started, but not everything. We don’t have vegetables. Kids aren’t getting normal food, it’s bad for their development. Medicines, the Red Cross is helping us to some extent, but of course we have problems that continue....

Azerbaijani “activists” do allow the Red Cross through. Now the Azeris play this game, saying, “Look, the road is open, the Red Cross is getting through.” But with others, they check your passport now, asking, “Why are you going where you’re going?“ But the [international] agreement is that the road should be free and clear. This is unacceptable from our side.

S.A.: How much is the government in Yerevan able to help?

R.V.: It’s tough. Armenia is facing its own challenges with Azerbaijan. The Armenian government and Armenian society have limited resources.

S.A.: Seems like the Azerbaijanis are determined to squeeze and squeeze until the 120,000 Karabakhi Armenians feel compelled to leave.

R.V.: Look, this has been going for 35 years. In 1988, when Armenians in Karabakh under the Soviet Union demanded independence from the Azerbaijan Soviet republic, they [the Azeris] started a war, they lost the first war. But the goal was to do an ethnic cleansing of Armenians on this whole territory, where we have been living for thousands of years. There are fantastic monasteries that attest to our presence here, villages where people have lived for tens of generations. But they want to clear this territory for Azerbaijani people.

S.A.: Are you prepared to leave? Would Karabakhi Armenians ever leave this land?

R.V.: Ha! On December 25, we had a big meeting, 50,000 people gathered. It was a mutual decision: Despite all the difficulties and all the dangers for us, this is our homeland. We will die, but we will stay in our homeland. Azerbaijan faces a difficult choice: They will have to kill 120,000 people, including 30,000 kids. Azerbaijan would face a huge price for this, not only their own soldiers but the fact that the world wouldn’t accept such an operation. Anyway, we have made up our minds: We are not leaving our homes.

S.A.: What the Azerbaijani government says is that, “We have a region, Karabakh, where there are Azerbaijani citizens of Armenian heritage. And they can live among us.“ Why is that not acceptable to you?

R.V.: Look, you’re living there in the United States. It’s a democracy. The Azerbaijani state is not a democracy. It’s an autocratic state. Just ask yourself: What kinds of rights do ordinary Azerbaijani people have? They don’t have any rights. There is no opposition, no real elections, no real democracy. It’s one family controlling the country. So we say, "How do you want us to live as citizens of a country where violations of human rights against their own people are so routine, let alone national minorities?"

So it’s not about hate. It’s not that we can’t live together. We Armenians and Azerbaijanis had been living together like neighbors for hundreds of years. But now, we have a democracy. We’ve had five presidents elected in the time [since independence]. We have an opposition, we have a civil society. So they’re asking us to become part of a state that is just completely different. It really isn’t about religion, it isn’t about nationality. It’s about a way of life.

S.A.: When I was in Yerevan in October, some officials that I interviewed said they’re prepared to contemplate some final-status negotiation over this frozen conflict. What they’re worried about is you being ethnically overwhelmed and imagining what it would mean for Karabakhi Armenians to live with Azerbaijanis who’ve been pumped for 30 years with extreme anti-Armenian propaganda. Can you imagine any kind of reintegration of Azerbaijanis into the territory, especially those who, we must note, lost their homes and were expelled in the earlier wars? Can they come back to your mind?

R.V.: If you really want to make peace and have a long-term strategy where we can live next to each other like neighbors, he [Aliyev] needs to do something differently. You can’t use your power to push people around. He needs to sit down and discuss.... Thirty years ago, they lost a war. More recently, Armenians lost a war. And it can go on forever. And the power balance may change, because in the future the price of oil and gas may go down. The conflict could be forever....

The leaders of Azerbaijan need to understand: If you really want to make peace in the region, they need to come up with suggestions that would be acceptable to both sides. And the solution is very simple: They need to accept that Artsakh and its people are used to living independently, and they will not just become ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan.... They need to find a way to accept this. They need to be wise enough to recognize this, not only to overcome the current conflict, but so as not to impose the conflict on the next generation. You need to sit and talk with the people. It will take a lot of time, and a lot of will from both sides to talk to each other, to bring the hatred down to the point where we can live next to each, like it has taken place between Britain and France, between Germany and France. If we don’t try, we will never find the solution.

S.A.: But right now they’re trying to impose it?

R.V.: They’re trying to use their momentum. They don’t understand—it’s funny—it’s not right to use your momentum and power in a one-sided way. Because it’s not a long-term solution.

S.A.: Parts of the American foreign-policy establishment have become very pro-Azerbaijan over the last few years. Because of oil and gas. Because they see Baku as a spearhead against Iran. And Azerbaijan has sold itself as a reliable ally to the West. Americans may not understand that some of our foreign-policy elites would be prepared to harm another indigenous Christian community on the basis of this calculation. Why should Americans, and especially American Christians, care about Armenians in their historic lands?

R.V.: You can’t live with double standards. If you, as Americans, care about democracy, human rights, and the right of peoples to live in their own homes, this cannot just be applied unevenly, or allowed to be overwhelmed by realpolitik.... The United States being one of the strongest countries in the world, and the key provider of democracy in the world and [a lynchpin of] Western civilization, needs to understand: Armenian civilization is one of the oldest in this region and the world. We’ve been here and built a heritage for the world. And if they allow us to be subjected to ethnic cleansing, it will hurt not just this region, but the world, especially the Christian world. It’s the first Christian civilization, and it shaped Christianity for the whole world. Americans, especially Christians, this is the sort of thing you can ignore, saying, “It’s too far,“ it will hurt [if Armenians lose their homeland].

S.A.: Thank you, merry Christmas.

R.V.: Merry Christmas to you!

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