President of Armenia: We want Moscow to defend us against Turkey and Azerbaijan

We have signed three agreements with the Russian Federation, which specify that the Russian armed forces must intervene in the event of an attack on Armenia. But Russia has done nothing to keep its promises, says Wahagan Khachaturian.

TVP WEEKLY: We were supposed to talk about the economy and business, but after I landed in Armenia, it turned out that seven soldiers had just died on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. And during the opening gala of the European Weightlifting Championships in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the flag of Azerbaijan was burned. The war has been going on for 30 years and does not allow either of the two sides to develop. What role, as the president, should you play in this situation?

You have to be aware that we are a country with a parliamentary system, and the role of a president is more about representing the country than managing it. However, the president has an important task within the constitution: monitoring it, mediating, and supporting valuable ideas. And it is particularly important - in the era of fierce political battle - to balance the power.

It may seem that it is not so important, but during my one-year presidency, I have already realised that it is one of my key responsibilities. In the age of war with Azerbaijan, looking for allies for Armenia worldwide is essential. The role of presidential diplomacy in the international arena cannot be underestimated.

According to what I've been told, you live in Suwałki - several dozen kilometres away from the Lithuanian border. And just after our meeting, I am flying to Vilnius to sign a memorandum of cooperation in the field of technology and innovation.

I want to expose our country to the European Union and show it at its best; That we are implementing democratic reforms; That we are strongly committed to cooperation with the West; That Armenia today is a completely different country than it used to be in the 1990s.

What I mostly focus on today is supporting the elementary values: human rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law. And that the president is the guarantor of these values and their implementation.

The president must also be the guarantor of public trust in state institutions. Equally for all - citizens living in Armenia and our diaspora, as well as the people coming to our country.

Our diaspora, which I mentioned, is three times more numerous than its inhabitants living in Armenia today. So I must be a leader who inspires the confidence of all Armenians. Our emigrants invested over 5 billion dollars in our country only last year.

The Armenian diaspora is strongly connected to its homeland. Only in 1991-2001, every third of its citizens left Armenia. It is a phenomenon on a global scale. How does it affect the economy and development of the country? And most importantly, how do you encourage these people to come back when you're still at war?

If we were to realistically assess the scale of emigration you are asking about, it would be even higher. The collapse of the USSR and the 1990s were – as in Poland – an extremely difficult time for our emerging statehood. The total transformation of the economy has resulted in massive unemployment. In addition, there was a massive energy crisis, for which we were also unprepared. This caused a domino effect in the entire business sector.

If we enclose the real and tragic war to all of this, I am not surprised that hundreds of thousands of citizens want to change their destiny to live in peace and on a higher level. The Armenian diaspora today is gigantic. There are more Armenians in Russia alone than in Armenia. The Armenian community in the United States is also powerful.

But in this respect, our countries have a similar history. Do you remember the political changes in Poland? After the borders were opened, millions of Poles sought better life opportunities abroad to provide means of subsistence for their families. And very often, Poles and Armenians met on this emigration route. Besides, many of my compatriots came to Poland looking for a job.

Fortunately, this trend has reversed in recent years. We've learned an important lesson. Today, international investments are changing the face of our economy. I will not hide that the success of people who went abroad at that time also had a powerful influence on it. Because today they come back with their money and invest in their homeland. The patriotism of Armenians living abroad is a huge driving force in our country.

What exactly could Armenia offer to the European Union, Poland, or even entrepreneurs from Poland in terms of business? You are in a state of a permanent dispute with Azerbaijan. And this country is an attractive partner for Europe; it offers us oil and gas, thus independence from Russia. And mediation in the supply of raw materials from Kazakhstan.

You have a very straightforward and concrete approach to business.

Because international relations are based on the game of business and economic interests. If you want to reach the European elites, the world of EU finance – influential people – then you have to talk to them in the language of benefits. Ideas and lofty values disappear when real cash becomes visible. Why has the world failed to help the North Koreans for decades? Because there are no valuable deposits there. Who cares that Poland was morally right during World War II if we ended up with ruined Warsaw, and the Germans, who were the aggressors, with the Marshall Plan?

Armenia has learned this lesson as well. We are aware of our strengths and weaknesses. We know what we can offer to other partners. We will not extract oil and deliver it to Orlen because we do not have it. We focused on what we can win and what we can deliver to modern economies. Since this could not be the mineral deposits, let it be the assets of knowledge and human potential.

Today, we are already a powerful basin of the IT sector throughout Asia. We are much better, more professional and higher-educated than our competitors. And at the same time still relatively cheaper when compared to Western economies. Our IT specialists are highly valued all over the world. We also have companies that have achieved global success. Besides, Polish agencies and headhunting companies are eager to penetrate our market.

Our other advantage is the developed industry and agricultural processing. Our cuisine is one of the best in the world. Delivering high-quality food from Armenia to the West can be a real goldmine for our and your entrepreneurs.

The premium brand spirits and the tobacco industry production sectors have also developed strongly in Poland. I must admit that we focus firmly on developing our financial sector. And it's also no secret that our economy benefits from Russia's problems.

The size and scale of the market may be a problem - Armenia has only 3 million inhabitants. It's like Warsaw with its suburban area.

Let us remember the 10 million Armenians living abroad. As I said before, these people are extremely emotionally attached to our country. It is, in practice, another "outlet market", as you would probably put it in your business jargon. But they are also our best ambassadors. If you come to California, you will find Armenian products and Armenian flavours everywhere. These people are incredibly committed to promoting all that comes from their homeland and promoting companies which cooperate with us. By entering the Armenian market, you are practically entering the global diaspora market.

Let's also not forget that in the Soviet Union, it was Armenia that produced goods of the highest possible quality at that time. After all, the entire industry of the Soviet bloc was based on our electronics, machines and know-how, as we would put it today.

Although, and I will say it once again, I am most proud of our human resources and the Armenian intellectual potential - these are our best high-end export products.

Recently, these minds have had some serious competition. Armenia, along with Georgia, has become the main destination for the migration of Russian programmers and IT specialists who try to escape the army recruitment.

I'll tell you more. Many experts from the IT sector flew to us from Ukraine and found shelter here. We are open to people who want to find their second home with us and, at the same time, bring to this home something valuable.
President Vahagn Khachaturyan and Karol Wasilewski. Photo from the author’s archive
There are more and more Indians who find employment in the global IT industry and are hired by our employers. We have substantially liberalised our market - you can set up a company in one day and immediately start operating worldwide.

Poles are certainly interested in your relations with Russia. And I know very well that considering such a sensitive topic, heads of state answer so as not to say anything. Still, I would like to know the real relations between Yerevan and Moscow.

(silence). Do you want an honest answer?

That's why I came here.

Currently, they are very complicated and extremely difficult. Last year, ruthlessly and with malice aforethought, we were attacked by Azerbaijan. The scale of the invader's cruelty was shocking. Lots of Armenians lost their lives. And although we have signed three agreements with the Russian Federation - which clearly state that the Russian armed forces must intervene in the event of an attack on Armenian grounds - Russia has done nothing to keep its promises.

We have provided a special place in our territory where we have built Russian military bases. Russian soldiers, stationed in those barracks, saw the cruel death of our citizens and did not take action. This situation creates a real problem; Because why bother and sign any alliance treaties if later they are not put into practice? We are holding talks at the highest level because we expect specific explanations. What was that supposed to mean? How are we to respond to this? Is it a denunciation of the treaties?

  I want to guarantee the security of my citizens. How can I do this if the international arrangements are not implemented? I understand that Russia's global situation is more complicated today than in those days when the safety guarantee documents were signed with us. And I understand that after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the position of Azerbaijan in the West [supported by Turkey, against Russia - ed.] changed in favour of this country. However, Russia's obligations towards our people should still be fulfilled.

It's obvious why Moscow didn't come to your aid. Because - having been waging war in Ukraine for a year – it’s looking for help itself. But in the current situation, does Armenia still want a strategic military alliance with Russia?

Yes! We want to continue cooperating with Russia, and we very much care about it. We want Russia to defend us against Turkey and Azerbaijan. Although, of course, we see a greater threat from Baku than from Ankara. Moscow's support is one of the reasons why in 1991 we decided to have the most solid economic, military and political relations with Russia. As my friend used to say - he unfortunately passed away - you cannot pursue international politics based on imaginary ideals instead of real actions.

How do you want to cooperate with Europe, since it is Russia that is the most crucial ally for Armenia?

I know that the approach to Russia in our country is quite different than in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. It’s just that we have such and no other geographical location. I am trying to find a happy medium for cooperation between the European Union and Russia at the same time. I think the EU countries, including Poland, want to have good relations with us on every level.

Moscow, however, does not hide its distaste towards Poland, and we fear that it will want to destroy our country, just as it’s destroying Ukraine now. And there, Russia kills civilians, shatters entire cities, and transports Ukrainian children deep inside its country. How do you want to cooperate with the European Union and the United States of America, having Putin as your crucial partner?

Armenia has nothing to do with this conflict! We have strong and friendly diplomatic relations with Kyiv. We never took sides. Moreover, as a peace-loving country, we firmly call for ending this military dispute.

One more issue is critical from our point of view. The fact that almost half a million Armenians live in Ukraine.

Azerbaijan claims that you are a hidden ally of Russia. You mediate in the supply of weapons and drones, e.g. from Iran.

Azerbaijan says many untrue things about us. I have already heard fake news that our soldiers, our citizens, are recruited into the Russian army and sent to Ukraine. I also heard that Russian troops defend the Armenian borders against the Azerbaijani invaders. And in this case, I would like this to be true.

The Azeris want to discredit us in the international arena. They want to draw us into the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. We perfectly understand what policy they pursue against us. But our position is clear: we did not take sides on the Kyiv-Moscow line. And as the president, I'm doing everything possible to help to end this dispute as quickly as possible.

After World War II, Poland lost historically and culturally important cities - Vilnius, Lviv, and the entire Eastern Borderlands. The Germans lost Szczecin, Wrocław. Austria-Hungary was the greatest power in Europe, and today the countries that used to make up this empire are tiny states. But no one in Europe - apart from Russia – has been thinking about changing borders. And you, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have been unable to reach an agreement on the Nagorno-Karabakh region for so many years.

If you ask me whether Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Armenia or Azerbaijan, I can clearly answer to whom! And indeed, you are also right that for several decades, practically it has not been regulated so that we could live peacefully and without problems for the civilian population.

I perfectly understand your comparison of our situation to Europe. But how can this problem be overcome in our case? Through the identity of the inhabitants of this region? Should it be solved by historical arguments or according to rules based on international laws? Or maybe other criteria? Everyone can interpret this to their own advantage. What should I say about Karabakh? That Azerbaijan officially occupies it?

The problem is that several hundred thousand Armenians have lived there for a long time. And they should have the right to live where they want to and how they want to. And above all, they should be safe there. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan cannot provide them with this security, and it has been that way for over four months. That's why we turned to independent international organisations to solve this problem.

But the president of Azerbaijan says precisely the same thing; the only thing is that he accuses you...

No, his position is different. He considers our compatriots to be ethnic citizens of Azerbaijan. It deprives the national minority that does not accept it and wants to be Armenians. Azerbaijanis say that if someone does not agree with this approach, they should leave "their" territory.

If they came up with a sensible idea to resettle our citizens, we might consider it. But the behaviour of the Azerbaijani authorities - and they make it impossible for ordinary, poor people to live there normally - means that today we must all strive for the existence of every inhabitant of Karabakh.

Just imagine that their government has led to a situation where for over four months the native citizens have been living there without electricity, without gas and the food supplies are rationed. What must these people feel like? Besides, could they leave their homeland just like that? Their land, which they have cultivated for generations? They don't accept it, and neither do we. And many of our partners don't agree with this either. I suggested that we sit at the table and talk about it, but Azerbaijan does not want to. In their opinion, the matter is solved – by means of war from last year.

So what is the real solution to this problem, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

The fundamental question is whether Azerbaijan really wants peace or rather plans an armed invasion of Armenia. Their politicians openly say that they consider our cities to be Azerbaijani. Therefore, they want to attach them to Azerbaijan. What should we do in such a situation? Should we present a thousand years old maps proving that Armenia is here?

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I am committed to a peaceful solution to this conflict, even against the majority of public opinion in Armenia. The only thing is that today - affairs have gone so far on the Azerbaijani side that - an agreement between us is practically impossible. I cannot imagine ending this conflict without mediation coming from outside.

Who would be the mediator?

It could be Russia. It could be the European Union, the United States or the United Nations. We need strong institutions that are neutral and take no sides. Above all, those who would like peace between both countries and life without bloodshed.

I know it's hard. Looking from the outside, it seems like each side has its own vision of truth. The mediator ought to find a compromise. But the World used to deal with more significant problems as well. The best examples are Egypt and Israel.

You could have been Heaven on Earth... Caucasus, excellent food, friendly people, unimaginable views, Mount Ararat, fabulous cognac - but the local conflict makes tourists avoid this region.

I feel sorry about that myself…

Finally, let me ask you, have you ever been to Poland?

Yes I have, but only for a few hours (laughs). I had a journey transfer at the Okęcie Airport in Warsaw when I was flying to Rome. I liked Warsaw. I didn't have much time to do considerable sightseeing, but I felt freedom, openness and hospitality. During his vacation, my brother spent two weeks in Poland and said it was a great place to live. I did not receive any official invitation from the Polish authorities, although I will privately tell you that I much prefer to travel as a tourist than as a head of state. That way I can decide for myself what I want to visit, where I will go, what I will see…

So I am officially inviting you to the Suwałki Region - probably there is no better place to rest from your hard work.

Poland seems to be a marvellous destination, so I do not rule out that we shall meet again soon.

– Interview by Karol Wasilewski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– translated by Katarzyna Chocian

Vahagn Garniki Khachaturyan (Orm. Վահագն Գառնիկի Խաչատուրյան), President of Armenia since 2022. Qualified economist, he served in the Soviet Army in 1980-82. He was the Mayor of Yerevan in 1992-96, a member of the Parliament of Armenia and the Minister of High-Tech Industry in 2021-2022. Until 2017, he was a member of the Armenian National Congress; later he had no party affiliation.
Main photo: Demonstration in Paris on April 24, 2023, the 108th anniversary of the slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In 1915-17, about a million Armenians were to die at the hands of the Turks. The flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan are burning. Photo. Xose Bouzas / Hans Lucas Agency / Forum
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