Armenia and Azerbaijan reached an agreement on Monday to work together for the development of Nagorno-Karabakh — an ethnically Armenian region — which has been a major theatre in several conflicts, including the war the countries fought last year.
Russia brokered the talks that took place between Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the progress of the two sides, saying that a difficult ceasefire signed 10 November last year has been successfully implemented. The Wall Street Journal quoted Putin as saying the leaders had concluded that “the terms of this agreement are generally respected.”
There are outstanding issues, however, including the future of a 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping contingent, resettlement of people displaced by the conflict, and the fate of fighters captured during the conflict.
Nagorno-Karabakh, where the recent fighting took place, is an enclave in Azerbaijan near the Armenian border. Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan with an ethnically Armenian majority when Azerbaijan and Armenia were in the Soviet Union.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament, with an Armenian majority, voted to be part of Armenia. Since then, several clashes and wars have broken out between Azerbaijan and Armenia with tens of thousands of deaths and over a million persons displaced.
The ten million Azerbaijanis are predominantly Muslim, with armed support from Turkey in the recent war, while the majority of the 3 million Armenians are Christian. Ninety-seven per cent are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church and 200,000 are Catholics.
It is estimated that there are about 10 million Armenians outside Armenia.
At the time it was reached, Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan said the Russian-brokered November ceasefire agreement was “incredibly painful” for him and “for both our peoples.” Azerbaijan retained control of some areas it occupied during the fighting, and Russian troops are still monitoring observance of the ceasefire.
The Armenian Ambassador to the Holy See, Garen Nazarian, spoke with the Catholic Herald late last year to provide the Armenian view of the most recent war with Azerbaijan, which broke out last September. Nazarian was previously his country’s deputy foreign minister and has also been Armenia’s Ambassador to the United Nations and to Iran.
Mr. Ambassador. Why did the Armenian Prime Minister say that signing the agreement was so painful for him. And if it was so painful, why did he sign it?
G.N. The war has inflicted immeasurable sufferings to Artsakh [the historical Armenian name of Nagorno-Karabakh] people, the civilian population which has been intentionally targeted by the Azerbaijani armed forces and subjected to ethnic cleansings.
The existential threat to Armenians in Artsakh was more than obvious. The territory and peaceful population of Armenia were also targeted. In this situation, on 10 November 2020, the leaders of Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan signed the joint statement according to which the agreement was reached on establishing of the ceasefire and deploying the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. The joint statement has not been accepted unequivocally by the Armenian public since it doesn’t fully reflect the vital interests of the people of Artsakh.
It’s a painful, but also a crucial moment for our country; and the formation of unity is a matter of utmost priority at this time.
We must look at our nation’s building process as the greatest story of endurance and resilience. Each of us must partake now to the healing and rebuilding — a necessary process to support our affected population in Artsakh and Armenia. We owe this to our many heroes, those who have lost their lives, health, and their families․
Mr Ambassador. The Prime Minister said it was painful for both sides. Are there faults on both sides also? Each accuses the other of starting the conflict.
G.N. From Sept 27 to Nov 10 the international community witnessed an attempted ethnic cleansing. Throughout the 44 days of war the people of Artsakh were resisting the Turkish-Azerbaijani large- scale aggression aimed at annihilating the Armenians of Artsakh. In the process of planning and implementing the Azerbaijani military operations the open involvement of Turkey was continuously increasing which was expressed also in the transportation of thousands of terrorist fighters to the conflict zone and their direct participation in the military operations. There are undeniable facts that it is Azerbaijan who initiated this aggression.
For years Azerbaijan has consistently violated the 1994-1995 trilateral agreements on the establishment of a ceasefire regime, which have no time limitation, has been rejecting the proposals of the international mediators of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs on introducing investigation mechanisms of ceasefire violations and the strengthening of the ceasefire monitoring, thus retaining the possibilities of the use of force and instigating a “blame game.” The fact that on September 25, right before the war, Azerbaijan rejected the request of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office to monitor the line of contact is a case in point, which clearly revealed Azerbaijan’s objectives to cover up its plans to unleash a war.
Mr A . What can Christians outside Armenia do to help its Christians?
G.N. First, we should appreciate that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is not a religious one, it’s not either a territorial dispute as sometimes Azerbaijan and Turkey are trying to label it. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue is about the right of the people to self-determination and the international recognition of that inalienable right of Artsakh Armenians to live peacefully on their ancestral land, freely enjoy their economic, social, cultural and civil freedoms. Today, the members of the international community, the Christians and non-Christians, must not continue to passively ignore the threat Azerbaijan and Turkey pose to the stability of the region at large.
After the signing of the mentioned joint statement on a ceasefire, part of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is now under the military control of Azerbaijan. Deep-cut valleys and mountain ridges of Artsakh are dotted with more than 4000 monasteries, churches, distinctive Armenian khachkars (cross-stones) and gravestones. In addition to this Armenian Christian heritage, there is a wealth of pre-Christian sites which provide material evidence for the long history of Armenians in the region, as most of the monuments in Artsakh date as early as the fourth century CE when Armenia converted to Christianity. We have legitimate concerns regarding the fate of the rich historical Armenian cultural and religious heritage. the cultural monuments that will remain on the territories under the control of Azerbaijan.
This concern is raised by the fact that for decades Azerbaijan has been responsible for systematic cultural genocide, which involves acts and measures undertaken to annihilate every trace of the civilizational presence of Armenians in the territories currently under its jurisdiction. The barbaric destruction of the rich Armenian Christian heritage in Nakhijevan, in total 28,000 churches and cross-stones, is the most notorious of the acts of cultural vandalism committed by Azerbaijani authorities.
(Nakhijevan is an enclave which had been Armenia until the Soviet Union transferred it to Azerbaijan. As The Guardian reported in 2019, in peacetime thousands of distinctive commemorative engraved steles decorated with Christian crosses, called cross-stones and usually found in cemeteries, were bulldozed by the Azerbaijani army and scores of mediaeval churches were destroyed in Nakhijevan which is distant from Nagorno-Karabakh.)
Portraying itself as a country that adopted multiculturalism as a national policy, Azerbaijan has long tried to whitewash its policy of cultural genocide by financing various international projects related to the preservation of cultural heritage and supporting “tolerance and interfaith harmony.”
Therefore, we would appreciate if our Christian brothers and sisters in many countries raise their voice for the necessity to preserve Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territories recently transferred to Azerbaijan. Their voices, their calls made to UNESCO and the government of Azerbaijan will complement our efforts and contribute to the preservation of a unique millennia-old heritage that belongs to the Christian world and to the whole of humanity.
Mr A. The United States was one of the three countries in the international peacekeeping group, along with Russia and France. But Russia alone brokered the agreement. Did America and France abandon the issue?
G.N. During the war three times agreements on the ceasefire were made through the initiative of all three OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries’ leaders and with the direct participation of their foreign Ministers. Before the signing of the Russian-brokered joint statement, the last attempt was made in Washington D.C. on October 25 but Azerbaijan has violated those agreements without consequences. Today, three co-chairs continue to be fully engaged in the process. It’s an international agreed format fully capable of advancing the peace process. Russia succeeded in influencing Azerbaijan and Turkey but we also see that France and U.S. are working tirelessly to move the process towards the comprehensive resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
We should note that the joint statement signed on November 10 is a document on the establishment of the ceasefire and implementation of the security measures. Although the document encompasses some elements of the conflict resolution, it can’t be considered as a comprehensive resolution document as it doesn’t include such an important element as the status of Artsakh.
Mr A. In the agreement, did Russia assume its historic role of protector of Christians in the Caucasus-Middle East or its Soviet role as the dominant power in the region?
G.N. By brokering the joint statement of November 9, Russia first of all acted as a responsible member of the international community in line with its important regional role played as one of the Co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Historically our relations with Russia have been very strong and they have been based on common Christian values. Today, we enjoy allied relations with Moscow that have substantial content. Our relations are characterized as special strategic partnership and our bilateral ties in political, economic and humanitarian areas are growing. For example, it is gratifying to see the growing interest from Russian tourists in Armenia as one of the most popular destinations for them. This means that people are not only interested, but that Russians are well received and feel at home in Armenia. This emphasizes the depth of our relations: not only political and economic, but also on a people-to-people level — and this is very important in the current context of the Russian peacekeepers being deployed in Artsakh.
Mr A: John Paul II visited Armenia in 2001 and Pope Francis in 2016. How were those visits arranged – did the Armenian embassy to the Vatican initiate them? Exactly how? What was their effect? Is the Vatican doing anything now to foster peace in the zone? Pope Francis condemned the ‘genocide’ by Turks against Armenian Christians in 1915 and the indifference of major powers. Do Armenians fear something similar in the newly occupied areas in Nagorno-Karabakh?
G.N. A vivid testimony of the fruitful Armenia – Holy See dialogue is the high-level reciprocal visits and meetings. The momentous visit of St. John Paul II in 2001 on the occasion of the 1700th anniversary of the Armenia’s embrace of Christianity as a state religion and the memorable visit of Pope Francis to the first Christian nation will always remain vivid in our minds and hearts. Both the Embassy of Armenia to the Holy See and the Apostolic Nunciature in our country have played an important role in organizing those historical visits.
They are the result of the Supreme Pontiff’s commitment to deepen our relations, which we highly appreciate and are grateful for. These visits were also significant contributions to the development of our relations and international cooperation furthering both our interstate bilateral dialogue and enhancing centuries-old relations between the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church. I should also add that our close relationship is based not only on the Christian system of values, but also on the common historic heritage and widely similar approaches to the challenges facing the modern world.
One of those challenges is the negation of history that alienates nations.
In that context we are grateful for the Holy Father’s and the Vatican’s unequivօcal stance on the Armenian Genocide and appreciate the unwavering support in our fight against denial and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide and prevention of that heinous crime anywhere in the world. We also value the Vatican’s consistent position on fostering peace and reconciliation as well as maintaining stability in the region. Pope Francis himself made continuous appeals to end the war, and particularly on November 1 His Holiness asked the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s square on the occasion of All Saints’ Day not to forget what was happening in Nagorno Karabakh, and condemned the tragic increase in the number of victims, the destruction of homes, civilian infrastructures and places of worship attacked by the Azerbaijani armed forces.
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