Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's interview to POLITICO Europe
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan gave an interview to POLITICO Europe. The full transcript of the interview is presented below.
Question – Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for the interview. It’s a pleasure to be able to talk to you, despite the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves, and the global community looking at what is happening in Armenia, Azerbaijan and also Nagorno Karabakh. Over the last few days we have seen a large number of reports of both Azerbaijani and Armenian troops squaring off against each other across the border. There is talk of significant Azerbaijani build-up along the border with both Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, and I want to ask how close we are right now to a new conflict.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – Because Azerbaijan has started the accumulation of forces along the border of the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Armenia shall also take certain measures in order to defend itself. But I think that the EU civilian monitoring mission in the Republic of Armenia, which is conducting monitoring mission along the border, they can record that the Republic of Armenia has no intention for escalation, and it’s Azerbaijan that has started to bring its central forces towards the border with Armenia and also the entire line of contact with Nagorno Karabakh. In such a situation, unfortunately, it is not possible exclude the scenario of escalation, and the solution is that the forces that have been mobilized should be taken back to their bases. Armenia is ready to do it.
Question – But at the same time the involvement of Washington and Brussels as mediators gave hope that peace has never been closer. Do you think that peace has never been closer?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – As you know, indeed, in my opinion very serious developments have taken place in the negotiation process. If we try to understand the peak of the seriousness of these negotiations, I must say that it is the agreements achieved between Armenia and Azerbaijan that our countries do mutually recognize each other’s territorial integrity: 86.600 km² for Azerbaijan and 29.800 km² for Armenia. In fact, this agreement can be considered a cornerstone for peace, but the problem is that for example I, after this agreement, reconfirmed it publicly, and I reconfirm also now our commitment to this agreement, but Azerbaijani position in this regard is not very clear. And this situation may also demonstrate which party is interested in this military escalation. In the other hand, I have to say that the illegal blockade of the Lachin Corridor and the continuation of the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno Karabakh is having a very negative influence on the peace process, and the sincerity is becoming questionable. I am not even saying that in the context of the agreements that I mentioned, it is very important to consider the security and right of Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh and having an international mechanism for Baku-Stepanakert dialogue.
Question – There are a number of different interpretations of Armenia’s position. A question to clarify. Is your recognition of the international recognized entire territory of Azerbaijan contingent on a peace deal, or do you recognize Nagorno Karabakh even before a peace treaty is signed?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – Our agreement with Azerbaijan is that Armenia and Azerbaijan, as I said, mutually recognize each other’s territorial integrity: 29.800 km² and 86.600 km². After this agreement in a press conference in Yerevan I was asked by a journalist if the 86.600 km² of Azerbaijan includes Nagorno Karabakh, I answered yes, it includes also Nagorno Karabakh. But I also want to say that this does not mean at all that we give Azerbaijan the mandate to carry out ethnic cleansing or genocide against the people of Nagorno Karabakh. This is the reason that part of this agreement is establishing mechanisms to address the rights and security of Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, and especially to build a reliable and meaningful Baku-Stepanakert dialogue.
Question – Do you genuinely believe now that a negotiated settlement can ensure security and rights for the Karabakh Armenians, and are you facing any pressure from the international community to accept a deal that could lead to the exodus of the Karabakh Armenians?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – I know that such talks are being spread. I don’t know, or maybe I can guess who spread them, but talking about exiting Nagorno Karabakh means agreeing with what I said: ethnic cleansing or forced removal of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, because these people are living in their homes. When we are speaking about ethnic cleansing, the tool for that does not need to be physical extermination of people. Any genocide has two parts: one part is the massacre, the other part is forced exile. I have to say that there are some such talks, but there is no such agenda. Moreover, the representatives of the international community are very clear, they are saying that the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh should be able to stay in their homes in Nagorno Karabakh without fear or persecution, they should have the opportunity to live in dignity, security and welfare.
Question – In the worst case scenario, if the international community fails to mediate a deal you would like to see, have you thought of, for example, humanitarian evacuation of the Karabakh Armenians? Is there any contingency planning your Government has done, if another conflict breaks out.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – We should do everything to avoid that conflict. I think that the international attention that is now focused Nagorno Karabakh, the presence of peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh, this should be able to become sufficient mechanisms in order for the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh to be able to live in their homes with dignity and security. Moreover, I consider the discussion of this topic useless and also dangerous, because those who circulate such talks they try to bring new agendas to the table that might mean internationally legitimating the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, whoever manages to escape from Nagorno Karabakh, good for them, whoever does not manage will be subjected to genocide. This type of ideas, the progress of such ideas, in my assessment, are indirectly encouraging the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh to be subjected to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Question – Over the last few days, maybe over the last week or week and a half, your government has taken extraordinary steps to build bridges with the West. You have sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine for the first time, as Russia steps up its strikes against the civilian infrastructure, your First Lady has been to Kyiv, who was received very well, you have recalled your representative from the CSTO, you have invited US soldiers to come and stage peacekeeping exercises with Armenian Armed Forces. Does this represent a step away from Russia, and is this a kind of “Yerevan’s spring”?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – Spring in Yerevan starts in March and ends in May. By the way, summer comes in Yerevan earlier than usual. Every year we have spring, summer, fall and winter like any other country in this climate zone. But you mentioned about building bridges with the West. We do not need to build bridges, because these bridges have always been there, starting with that we have launched a strategic dialogue with the United States, which started long ago, and we have had joint military exercises in the past as well. As for Ukraine, what happened is a humanitarian step, there is no need to politicize that, because if anyone thinks that at any point we have been indifferent to any human tragedy, or we had any political calculations to express sympathy for human tragedy, this is not the right approach. We have always discussed how we can react. In this case we had this occasion that the First Lady of Ukraine organized an event, which fits in the logic of the association of the First Ladies and Gentlemen. My wife has quite actively and quite a long time been involved in these processes. This was just a part of this working agenda.
When it comes to our relations with Russia and the CSTO, here we are fully transparent. What are the problems, what are the issues there? We have spoken about this and will continue to speak both publicly and at the working level. This conversation, of course, is contingent to the state interest of the Republic of Armenia. We are guided by the state interests of Armenia. Therefore, I do not want and it cannot be so that Armenia is viewed in the role of a proxy. Indeed, the Republic of Armenia has very serious security challenges, but we see the addressing of the security challenges through strengthening our sovereignty, our independence. And as in the past, today and also in the future we will do everything to ensure our sovereignty, our independence, our security.
But conceptually, I want to share an idea with you and your audience: in general, when it comes to geopolitical centers, our relations with them are very important and decisive. I reiterate, we have never declined and we will never decline any agenda of establishing relations with any geopolitical center based on our state interests. But on the other hand, I and my political team, or my political team and me, are in harmony in this regard, and I think that our society is more and more saying the following: if we want to have a lasting, eternal statehood, first of all we need to take very serious steps to settle our relations with our neighbors.
The model that we will have problems with our neighbors and will have to invite other to protect us in those problems, no matter who these others are, is a vulnerable model, because these others at any point, for objective or subjective reasons, very often not wanting, very often for solving their own issues, may not be here. Even if they want to, they may not be able to help us. Therefore, our strategy should be to try to maximum decrease this dependence on external help.
But this is a theory, the implementation of which particularly in our region is extremely difficult. We have social, psychological, historical, geopolitical issues in our environment, in our region. By the way, our region is a very complex region, it’s one of the most complicated regions, but in this regard, what is happening right now and what we are doing right now is work aimed at strengthening statehood, sovereignty, independence. And I also want to add to this trilogy our agenda of strengthening democracy, strengthening our security. These are interrelated, the culmination of which in the end of the day should be the freedom and happiness of the citizens. This is the agenda that right now is guiding us to take steps and measures that are not easy, are not easily understood, and which are by and large criticized. We are resolute to share this agenda with our citizens, so that they can understand all the motivations behind our actions.
Question – You talked about independence, you talked about statehood. But when you came to power, you inherited a country where Russia has a monopoly on the railways, you have Russian armed forces, Russian border guards, you have Gazprom with a monopoly of energy supply. Do you think that gaining real and lasting independence means moving away from that relationship, where Russia has a monopoly on your security, on your energy system, and many other aspects.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – In general, I think that today Gazprom is supplying energy not only to the Republic of Armenia. It is supplying gas also to several other countries. These are factors, the role of which, of course, should not be underestimated, but should not be overestimated either, because yes, gas is important for the economy, for everything. But again, independence, sovereignty and statehood are for the goal of not being dependent on one factor, be it gas or any other factor. And I think that when it comes to gas and independence, it’s not right to place these two on the same level.
Question – What I am saying is that countries like Moldova, which is comparable to your country, they have taken a course, which Russia sees as pro-Western. Russia has used energy supplies to blackmail them, I am talking more generally about Russia’s unparalleled influence on your country, in terms of the Russian peacekeepers…
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – Such a situation has emerged as a result of the assessment of the security needs of Armenia. I do not want to underestimate any factor you mentioned. But I already said that I think our task is to settle the relations in our region in a way to minimize the need for any external support. We need to agree that this is not an easy task, but on the other hand, by defining this issue we have reached a point where we need to answer ourselves if we want to have an independent country.
If we want to have an independent, sovereign country, and we do want, we need to have ways, solutions and developments over those issues. I reiterate, by maximally avoiding finding ourselves in the center of West-East, North-South clashes. You mentioned the monopoly of Russian influence, in this period, since our independence, we have developed very serious and natural relations with the United States, which have gained a nature of strategic dialogue since 2019.
We have the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU, we have always had deep relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, with Georgia. And now we want to settle our relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. And here we are facing challenges, because the entire burden of the previous period is a problem that now we need to manage. We need flexibility, wisdom, we need to be sober for this. We also need to understand that this process contains very serious risks, and this is exactly what we are trying to do. But again, it is very important for us to define our goal. There are things that we are doing, but some of the citizens of the Republic of Armenia may perceive it as treason, others consider it as the correct policy, a third group of citizens may be still following us to be able to clarify their position, attitude towards us. Our policy is for the sake of having an independent state, according to the rules known to the real, modern world.
Question – Do you feel that you are getting the support you would like from the EU, from the US, for supporting Armenia to increase its sovereignty, its independence? Is there anything you would like to receive from the EU, from the US that you are not receiving, such as military exports, security guarantees?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – Of course, support and assistance is never to much, especially for countries like Armenia. But on the other hand, I do not want and cannot act like an ungrateful. Because I consider, for example, the deployment of the civilian mission by the EU along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border quite a serious support, for which I constantly thank our partners. The EU and the United States support us also in addressing the democratic reform agenda. But again, I cannot say that the support and help we are receiving are sufficient to serve our tasks and agendas. But on the other hand, we are actively working with all our partners to make our positions more clear for them and get more support as a result.
Question – When you sit down across the table with president Aliyev in Brussels, in Washington or in Moscow, do you feel like this is a man negotiating with you in good faith?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – You know I would not like to publicly discuss the negotiation atmosphere. The fact is that we do not have yet an atmosphere of confidence, because had we have this atmosphere of confidence, a lot of issues would not be in the situation they are now. But what is my reaction to that? To continue to work, to continue to work more consistently, try to find solutions, try to find ways for progress. All in all, what’s the main problem without delving into details? The main problem is as in the past, Azerbaijan continues to apply the policy of force or threat to use force. This is greatly complicating the situation and I think it is the main obstacle for ensuring future progress. And in this regard, I think that the international community and the forces that are interested in peace and stability in our region, should exactly support the Republic of Armenia in this matter, support the efforts to establish peace in our region.
Question – Do you think the Western mediators, when they talk about effective negotiations, and at the same time it seems that nothing is really good, the military situation continues to evolve, firefights continue. Do you think there is naivety around the talks? Do you think the talks and reality are on different tracks?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – In the negotiation process the mediators usually say that they should be neutral. My response to this is the following: I say when one of the parties is exercising force or the threat to use force, and the other party is vulnerable when it comes to security, then neutrality is encouraging the party which uses force or the threat to use force. Therefore, in this situation, neutrality in its full meaning is not really neutrality, it encourages the party that uses force or use of force. And in this regard, in such a situation the mediators who are acting in this logic, the mediation of these mediators is not effective. Because the objective and constructive function of the mediator should be to form an environment in the negotiation process in which the interest for peace would be equal for both parties.
Question – You talked about neutrality. After the 2020 war, Russia made a power attempt to come and become a security guarantor. There is a Russian-Turkish monitoring center, I don't know what happened to that. Today I was talking to a young woman from Stepanakert, who said that her brother is serving in the Defense Army, who says that they are in the trenches, facing the Azerbaijani troops. She asked where are the Russian peacekeepers, he said behind us. Do you feel let down by Russia? Do you think Russia has done not enough to uphold the 2020 agreements, when it has undertaken to keep Lachin Corridor open, to maintain the contact line that existed. Do you think Russia has failed as a security guarantor?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – You know it is obvious that after November 9, 2020, the security situation has sharply changed in Nagorno Karabakh: violations of the line of contact, invasions into the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. We have had a case when a person doing agricultural work was killed by an Azerbaijani sniper in the presence of a Russian peacekeeper. There are obstacles for agricultural work, and finally the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, and the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno Karabakh.
All of these were supposed to be in the sphere of responsibility of the Russian peacekeepers under the trilateral declaration of November 9, 2020, and in this regard, as far as these issues exist, yes, the Russian peacekeepers have failed their mission. But on the other hand, I cannot say that if the Russian peacekeepers had not been in Nagorno Karabakh, the situation in Nagorno Karabakh now would have been better. I want to be clear on this nuance that I want us to understand well and very correctly, I think both of the approaches are correct.
Question – Why do you think the Russian peacekeeping mission has failed? Is it incompetence on the one hand, preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, or is this a deliberate decision to avoid angering Azerbaijan and Turkey? Has Russia chosen to remain aside, or it has just failed?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – You know I think both factors could have certain role, because as a result of the events in Ukraine the capabilities of Russia have changed, but on the other hand I think that there is the second factor that you mentioned. In my assessment, both factors exist.
Question – Over the short time you were in office, you woke up to the news that a war has started in your country. You sent young boys to the battle to defend their country. Many world leaders have alive shared experience, and one of them is president Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. I want to ask if you have any message to share with him?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – You know, when I meet with Zelenskyy, I will personally share with him. I don’t think it’s a good idea for leaders of countries to send messages to each other through interviews.
Question – I understand, that’s fair enough…
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – By the way, Zelenskyy was present at the last meeting of the European Political Community in Chişinău, Moldova, and I was there too. We exchanged some ideas, and we do have occasions to exchange messages. And really, I do not think it’s a good way to send messages in distance. We also send messages to each other on different occasions. Recently, I congratulated him on Independence Day of Ukraine.
You know, one thing in general can be said on that topic: war is a very bad thing, and when in 2020 the war started, there was a lot of talk about what I should have done to avoid the war, which is a very correct and legitimate question, after which the war in Ukraine started. And I was looking at that situation and asking myself, what should the leaders of Russia and Ukraine have done to avoid war? Everyone knows that war is a very bad thing, everyone without exception.
In all cases, everything must be done to avoid war, and this is also the reason why, regardless of all the complications, regardless of the lack of optimism, we have adopted and continue to adhere to the peace agenda, we continue to adhere to the agreements, and we hope that Azerbaijan, in turn, will finally express its commitment to the agreements reached at international platforms.
Question – You have had undoubted success in reducing corruption, strengthening institutions. This is the freest country for press, freedom of speech in the region. Could this lead Armenia to the point where Armenia might have the same aspirations as for example Georgia, to join the EU, to have closer relations with NATO. Do you think this is the course you would like to see for your country?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – Peace is first, first and most important is peace, because peace is both a goal and means. I spoke about the sovereignty of states, I spoke about democracy, but democracy, sovereignty and peace are in the end of the day to serve the welfare, security and happiness of the people. This is my perception that we need to do everything so that the Republic of Armenia is in peace, is a country of welfare, where people can build their welfare with their creative work and feel happy.
Question – Is this a one way trip for Armenia towards democracy and peace, or you have the concern that if the crisis around Nagorno Karabakh worsens, the opposition could find more support for the idea that in this situation it would be correct to go after Russia, to join the union state in order to get security guarantees? Have you concerns that if West and democracy are perceived failed, Armenia may go back to where it was before?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – I think in general the question whether democracy is able to ensure security is hanging in the skies, in the political skies of Armenia. A lot of things depend on the answer to this question. I really hope and I am convinced that we should do everything to ensure a positive answer to this question and this is one of the most important components of the peace agenda.
Question – And the final question. In 2020 you went through the war, you saw large number of young people buried, you spoke with their families. Shortly after the war, your father died, I am sorry about that. How has this constant fear of a new war affect you, your mental health, your well-being, your job?
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – It is very difficult not to get emotionally burnt out, because very often when I communicate with the relatives of the fallen soldiers, it’s clear that those conversations are not easy, but it’s not easy not only for them, but also for myself, because a couple of times I had the occasion to get sincere with them and tell them about my own perception, I have told them that each of them has lost one relative, a son, a soldier, but I have lost thousands. And there is no exaggeration in what I am saying. But on the other hand, if we are unable to act beyond emotions in public administration, managing the country in these high state positions, no one will benefit from this. It will not be better for the country, it will not be better for the fallen soldiers, who, in my perception, fell for the Republic of Armenia to live, and the Republic of Armenia shall live, shall develop, shall be democratic, prosperous and peaceful.
Question – Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – Thank you.