While running AYF Camp Shushi, our group stayed in the home of Saro and Hasmig Saryan. They were the most remarkable, friendly and hospitable couple you can imagine. Hasmig was always the a mother to our group, she nearly cried when Adrienne fell and needed stitches, she always asked what we ate and what we wanted her to prepare for us, and she made sure our beds were always comfortable. Saro, who works as an officer, was always full of incredible stories from the liberation war, and was always curious to improve his nearly-fluent English. He is also the Chairman of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Refugee Organization. Below is an interview with Saro that gives us some great insight.
Sarasar (Saro) Saryan was born in 1962, in Baku. He graduated from the Pedagogic Institute of Krupskaya in Yoshakr, Ola (USSR). Saryan arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988 with his family after the well-known events in the Azerbaijani SSR. He established the Committee of Refugees in 1989 and later the state agency Department of Work with IDPs, and also taught Geography in local school. After the armed hostilities began, Saryan joined the army in 1991. After the end of the hostilities he was asked to serve as Chief of Staff of the Civil Defense in Shushi city. In August 2004 refugee organizations were reestablished across NKR under the “NKR Refugee Organization”, and Saryan was twice re-elected as its Chairman.
Can you summarize your overall position on the Karabakh conflict and the conflict resolution process:
First of all, from the very outset our organization joined an association formed by International Alert in 2005. Thus we have restated our peaceful stance on the conflict settlement. Up until now we have taken part in many seminars and workshops to facilitate this process. However, we have our own view on the process – we are for the international recognition of NKR. On the social track we are working hard on refugee issues, to make the government help the refugees, their families, and to compensate all their sufferings after they were deported from various parts of Azerbaijan. So far we have observed small victories in this, primarily in 2005 when we campaigned for and supported the Law on Refugees, which the National Assembly adopted and the Government is now implementing. Above everything else, this Law saw the government compensate the refugees and introduce financial assistance to refugees for their moral, physical and financial losses in late 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, this was the first and last time, so far, that the government has give financial assistance to refugees. In meetings and workshops abroad we have consistently advocated the granting of an “international” status for Armenian refugees, which Azerbaijani refugees already have.
Turning back to the settlement issue, the fact that we (Armenians) were killed, suppressed and expelled from Azerbaijan, and, despite this, were able to protect ourselves in Nagorno-Karabakh and since the end of the independence war we have been building our statehood, I believe our statehood – the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic – should be recognized internationally. However, the way to obtaining international recognition should be peaceful. The international community should take the whole snapshot of the situation here on the ground, and the civil society in Azerbaijan should be developed in order to accept the situation here on the ground. In all our meetings and workshops I have continuously voiced an idea that, perhaps, Azerbaijan needs more international donor assistance, grants for developing their democracy, in order for them to realize that peaceful coexistence with NKR is the right way to go.
In the long term do you want to see Nagorno-Karabakh (a) as an independent state; (b) as part of Armenia (c) as part of Azerbaijan; (d) none of the above but in as yet undefined status. Comment on your choice:
In my perspective, in the long term (I don’t know what period your “long term” is though) I see NKR as an integral part of Armenia. In the mid-term however I appreciate NKR building its independent status. First of all, in a historic perspective (this is the topic which we try to escape talking about during our meetings with our Azeri colleagues in third countries) the ownership of Karabakh – both the Highland and Lower parts – was Armenian. Now I don’t want to comment further on this, and can guess they (Azeris) have their own versions of history.
Second, the economy of NKR and Armenia is tightly connected and NKR will always remain attached to Armenia in trade and economic terms.
Third, if we consider the historical perspective, let’s remember the case of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom, which was unable to develop in a sustainable manner since it was disconnected from historical parts of Armenia. Now I believe that in the long run it will be “defective” to have two separate Armenian states, though I am not opposed to the present situation where we have an independent Armenia and NKR due to political reasons. What I mean, is perhaps we may climb towards the re-unification stage by stage. However it is, in my perspective I see these countries re-united. We are one and the same nation.
What is your biggest objection/concern to Nagorno-Karabakh being part of Azerbaijan?
First of all, an expulsion of the population will kick off immediately. If this ever happens (Nagorno-Karabakh becoming part of Azerbaijan) this will only be by force. Any attempt of inclusion of NKR into Azerbaijan will be by force and against all universal norms of international relations and the law. This will cause huge damage to the Armenian psychology and ideology. The utmost result of this may be a Karabakh without a single Armenian.
In my perspective I want to see the triumph of historical justice at the end of the day. However, I don’t think that international recognition of NKR will bring the “Armenian issue” to its final destination. With an independent Artsakh today paving its own way to happiness, we still have Western Armenia in Turkey and Javakhk still under the repression of the Georgian government. The way the Jews have established their statehood on their historical lands, the same way we must on our lands. However we shouldn’t use force and wage wars to achieve this, that would negatively shadow (affect) our national goals. This is an issue for another interview, let’s move forward.
Are you satisfied with the policy of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic authorities towards the conflict and its resolution?
First and foremost, I am not satisfied as far as the incumbent government is away from the ongoing negotiations process, it doesn’t play a satisfactory role. This is to say that for today our country is not a full power party in the peace process, doesn’t directly take part in the talks, and perhaps one of the reasons to blame is the weak diplomacy of NKR officials.
Of course, during the wartime before 1994 and also until 1998 NKR high-level officials were directly involved into the peace negotiations with Azerbaijan. I know that many people blame Robert Kocharian for removing NKR from the table. In this regard our leadership here in Stepanakert should be blamed. However, I know and I can see that the incumbent authorities in NKR try their best now to be again included in the negotiations as a full party, this is positive. The President of NKR repeatedly speaks on this, this is positive. However maybe they need to be much stronger on this, I don’t know.
Were you directly involved in armed hostilities between 1989-94?
We began our fight of self-defense in Stepanakert, in Berdadzor and the Hadrut subdistrict and other settlement areas that were under direct fire of Azerbaijani army and militia. We protected the population here, but at a certain moment before 1994 we stopped our fight and gave an opportunity to the Azerbaijani leadership to consider a peaceful settlement. We used to believe that after we stopped the war and pulled back, the army of the aggressor would sit down at a table and begin negotiating a peaceful settlement, even though we might march forward and place them under harder conditions. But our leadership chose a path of peaceful settlement. However, the Azerbaijani side fails to pursue this opportunity now.
How do you evaluate the work of the OSCE Minsk Process?
First of all, I assess this OSCE Minsk Group mission as a deterrent to Azerbaijani’s alleged readiness to wage a new war against NKR. In this aspect the job is very much positive. I believe that it’s better to have the Minsk Group working, to prevent a new war. This is my perception.
But sometimes the Minsk Group assembles some monitoring missions to the NKR territories. This was the second monitoring mission, and I do welcome the mentioning of refugee issues in the report, whom they met in the NKR regions. However I am not completely satisfied as the monitoring was again, for the second time, a one-sided mission, covering only the Karabakh territories.
The mission report indicated that there are refugees living in the NKR border regions without IDs and other documents. Of course, this is a matter of fact, I do confirm that they live in such conditions. I do welcome that the report indicated the poor conditions that the refugees live in, and the government of NKR should improve their life. This is very important. However, I am a bit suspicious that the Minsk Group for the second time undertook a field assessment mission only in the NKR territories, but the Karabakh lands that are under Azerbaijani army control since 1994 – Shahumyan, Getashen, etc. –escaped assessment. We are well aware what is happening in those areas of Karabakh, and we would like the Minsk Group to acknowledge all the facts on the ground.
But all in all, of course, as I mentioned earlier, I am positive towards the Minsk Group.
Do you have a publicly expressed a position on the Madrid Principles?
I have previously, of course, expressed my position, my concerns over this Madrid Document, and especially I am worried about the so-called Additional Principles to the Document.
I would say that that document was veiled, and when the co-Chairs unveiled them, I would claim that even if Azerbaijan and Armenia signed it, I am 100% sure that the Karabakh side would never sign it. Those principles do not fit our interests. They don’t take into account the real things on the ground. Just because of the unrecognized status of NKR it did not participate, as I understand it, in the negotiations, and the Madrid Document was therefore not enriched with the official position of Stepanakert, and therefore I don’t think we would ever sign it.
For example, I always criticized the point on the refugee return, since it considered only the return of Azeri refugees, disregarding Armenian refugees.
Do you think it is important/appropriate that the de facto authorities of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic be part of the peace process facilitated by the Minsk Group? If yes should they be there instead of the Armenian Government?
No, not “instead” of Armenia, but as the third side. It’s very dangerous to replace the well established diplomacy of Armenia, which knows all the nuances of the conflict, with only the NKR side. In this regard, as Armenia has always been a security guarantor for NKR and its citizens, it shall remain in this capacity.
Besides, the conflict has also breached the national interests of Armenia – the issue of Artsvashen, for example, or the continuous air and land bombardments of Armenian’s border regions by Azerbaijani troops. In this regard, Armenia just logically cannot be put outside the scope of the peace process.
I don’t think that the NKR authorities plan to replace Armenia when they voice the need of their inclusion in the negotiations.
Sometimes the possibility is mentioned that the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian control since 1994 should be returned to Azerbaijan as part of an interim peace arrangement, leaving the issue of the status of nagorno-Karabakh to a later date. Do you have an opinion on this issue?
There is no logic in this, it is simply illogical. Moreover, considering the incumbent authorities in Azerbaijan, I don’t think that any such thing has ever happened in world history before. There are no logics in this.
On the other issue, if you changed the wording to “territories vs. sincere words to recognize our status”, this would create conditions where Karabakhis could be more flexible on the issues of Shahumyan, Mardakert etc., if Azerbaijan recognized the independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic first, in accordance with the status as it is today. However in the situation that we have today, what you suggest is too dangerous, and it is even more dangerous for Azerbaijan itself. If the armed hostilities began again, huge damage would be done to Azerbaijan as well. Whatever is done wrong towards NKR, the echoes would be heard in Azerbaijan as well, its population, which, by the way, is absolutely innocent. They also suffered from their own government’s decision to wage an aggressive war against NKR and its people. This is yet another story, which I voiced on various occasions in Vienna, Brussels and elsewhere. I am sure that Azeri refugees have their rights, and are due an even greater compensation from their own government which placed them under threat then and in such a poor condition now.
What is your opinion with regards to the role of Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States, the European Union or any other country or international organisation, or the international community in general, with regards to the Karabakh conflict and its settlement:
Traditionally, since even the times of Alexander the Great, great powers have tried to put the world in order. In our case, third countries need to participate in the efforts to help the parties reach a compromise, but those third parties should not have their direct national interests at stake. In any case, those interests should be “remote” interests, as Europe or the United States or Russia has today. I believe that these states are able to help us. Of course, I wish that the interests of Russia match with the interests of Europe and the United States with regards to Karabakh’s democratic reform and development, etc.
Of course, if I would now say that I strongly oppose any Turkish role in this process, but let Iran take part – this will be illogical. Maybe this is why we need to exclude these small powers, which were once great empires previously, so that they forget about their revanchist policies. Turkey “does its best” to be included in the peace process, and Iran “offers”. I guess we should ask Iran not to interfere so as to minimize Turkey’s ambitions of active participation. In order to be impartial mediators, Turkey and Iran need to transform on a long way to democracy. Turkey needs to be excluded from this peace process, since during the war in the early 1990s it was a direct side to the conflict, actively supporting Azerbaijan diplomatically and with manpower and weapons.
How do you evaluate the role of informal, NGO-level contributions to the peace process? Do you believe that informal contacts have a useful role to play prior to or after a formal agreement?
Unconditionally yes and as positive. I do believe in this. Both before the final settlement and after. I can bring our own example – as soon as our trips to Turkey or Tbilisi began, though it was hard to discuss these issues before, now it is much easier. We have done a great job in this regard. We were the ones to amend (erase) the “enemy image” from here.
However it was hard at the beginning – between 2005 and 2007. It was hard to share it here that we were going to Tbilisi or elsewhere to talk to Azerbaijanis. But that job is very important. These informal meetings that proceed under such hard conditions at first, now are doing a good job – I think this is thanks to those engaged in the debates. This will bring these two wise nations – Armenians and Azerbaijanis – to a mutual understanding.
Do you have a position on the desirability or not of free movement of Armenians and Azeris between their two countries before a final peace agreement?
First of all, do you mean NKR and Azerbaijan by saying “their two countries”? In this regard I guess you need to ask about three countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan and NKR to get the full picture.
I know many people in our elite that passed through all the horrors of war, and they now represent the intelligentsia of Karabakh. All of them used to say that the Azeri nation is a nice nation, that it was very easy for them to deal with Azeris, to trade with them. They used to say that Azeris might have been the best neighbors for us among all others in the region. But not in co-habitation. That’s why I said “neighbors”. Our society is ready to normalize its relations with Azeris (if they will have better authorities) as a neighboring nation. Let them come here, live in our hotels, we will invite them into our houses, they can open up a border bazaar – but no mass settlement on our lands. We may have better relations with Azeris as neighbors, rather than with any form of co-habitation under a single roof.
Do you think that Armenian and Azerbaijanis will ever be able to live together peacefully in Karabakh again in the future?
As I said earlier, I don’t think these two nations can live “together”, this is a no-go, but I believe they can live peacefully as neighbors. We have lost so many Armenian cities, such as Baku and Sumgayit, which were built by Armenians. There is no single Armenian living there now as a result of known policies of their leadership, which have continued ever since. By the way, I would like to stress that I am not talking about the common people, I talk about the leadership of Azerbaijan.
In short, we say “yes” to neighborhood, but a clear cut “no” to co-habitation.
We have suffered enough – just remember Western Armenia, and recently in Nakhijevan. They “fight” even against our cultural heritage, they destroy our khachkars and everything. We cannot trust them now, not now.
What is your opinion on the issue of return of refugees/IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh
I don’t see any logic in this. We had “switched” not only territories, but also “switched” apartments and other property. Those refugees could settle in the houses that Armenians left in the Azerbaijani capital and other cities. We have left so much property in Azerbaijan that they need to compensate us for many years. I don’t believe that under present conditions Armenians or Azerbaijanis will be able to return to their houses on either side of the frontier.