Armen Sargsyan, Tatev Sukiasyan and Astghik Saribekyan (left to right)

Armenian Ambassador to Germany Viktor Yengibaryan, left, with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier

New Armenia Ambassador to Berlin in Dialogue on War and Peace

by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Armenian Mirror Spectator

BERLIN, DECEMBER 1, 2022— On November 26 the French Senate voted 295-1 in favor of a resolution calling for sanctions on Azerbaijan in response to its attacks against Armenia and aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh. It demanded Baku pull its troops out of Armenia, and reaffirmed a resolution the Senate had passed in 2020 in favor of French government recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The immediate question posed by the French move is: how will the rest of Europe respond? First and foremost, how will Germany respond? That question was at the center of a dialogue in Berlin between Dr. Raffi Kantian, president of the Deutsch-Armenische-Gesellschaft, and Viktor Yengibaryan, the Armenian ambassador in Berlin. Broadcast live via Zoom, the discussion was part of a series of events organized by the DAG known as the Berliner Reihe. Ashot Smbatyan, Yengibaryan’s predecessor who is now serving in Georgia, had also been a special guest.

The Berlin event, titled, “After the 44-Day War and Azerbaijan’s Aggression: Growing Awareness, Competing Interests,” took place on the same day the French Senate opened its debate. As Kantian noted in his welcoming remarks, both US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s explicit identification of Azerbaijan as the aggressor in its mid-September attacks, and the French Senate’s debate demonstrated such growing international awareness.

Yengibaryan said the French resolution was “good news,” and expressed his gratitude for the support. He would “welcome such a resolution from Germany;” acknowledging the considerable understanding and sympathy expressed in Foreign Ministry and Bundestag (Parliament) circles, he mentioned statements by the SPD (Social Democratic Party) for Azerbaijani troop withdrawal, and a resolution the party passed for a negotiated peace. Although certainly important, as the SPD is a member of the three-party coalition federal government led by SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the resolution was passed not by the Bundestag but by the SPD parliamentary faction. As for the government’s position, “the situation is a bit different.” Yengibaryan pointed to the October European Union meeting in Prague, and expressed his gratitude for the subsequent foreign ministers’ decision to send an observer mission to the Azerbaijan-Armenian border.

Kantian spoke against the “deafening silence” emanating from the German foreign ministry, especially from Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who “found words talk about the suffering women in Iran — and rightly so,” but has said nothing about the “massive crimes” committed against Armenian soldiers, including female combatants. Surprising, he noted, for someone who pledged to follow a “feminist foreign policy.”

In contrast, the US appears to be actively engaged. Kantian stressed the importance of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit, followed by other American lawmakers, and direct phone contact between Blinken and Armenian president Nikol Pashinyan. Yengibaryan agreed that the US, already involved in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group process, has become very active. He emphasized the fact that Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia also constitutes a violation of international law which, in the current fragile security situation, constitutes a setback for Europe and the world order. Such aggression elsewhere in Europe or in the Caucasus cannot be allowed. He identified manifold geopolitical interests in the crisis, not only for America, but also Russia, Iran, Turkey and the EU, and applauded the will on the part of western nations, including Germany, to stop the aggression. Most important for Armenia, he said, is that “the biggest players have an interest in establishing stability in our region.”

The dialogue partners also considered the economic dimension, for instance with respect to a controversial deal the EU signed with Azerbaijan for natural gas supplies.

Yengibaryan, who explained the EU’s interest in stabilizing the region in terms of a common European identity and shared values, expressed no objection to the gas deal per se, considering the current energy supply crisis, but raised the possibility of attaching conditionalities. Citing a law in Germany and EU regulations on human rights in trade and supply lines, which should go into effect in 2023, he suggested something similar might be applied in the energy sector: one could forbid energy contracts if the revenue were used for anti-humanitarian purposes or for territorial aggression. Beyond this, he proposed enhanced cooperation with Europe, through the Caspian Sea and Central Asia, including Armenia. Though blockaded for decades, “we don’t have to be isolated,” he said, and “are interested in opening communications,” including energy pipelines through Armenia.

Kantian interjected that such projects could succeed only if Azerbaijani aggression were overcome, and asked whether Yengibaryan thought that pressure from the American government could be effective. The ambassador said that Azerbaijan was “not an easy partner,” and not only with regard to his country; Baku has ambitions for a “Greater Azerbaijan” and seeks to exploit the current fragile situation for its own purposes. But international law does exist and is respected, he said. As for negotiations with Azerbaijan, he explained the difference between press reports and reality, noting that the “not easy” partner would make agreements during talks, but then issue public statements to the contrary shortly thereafter.

To clarify Armenia’s position, Yengibaryan defined four pillars: 1) Nagorno Karabakh, contrary to Baku’s view, does exist, and the conflict exists; 2) the Republic of Armenia government wants to open communications and borders; 3) the Armenian/Azerbaijani border must be defined and respected, which means Azerbaijani troops occupying 150 square kilometers of Armenian territory must withdraw; and 4) the humanitarian issue must be solved, with regard to Armenian hostages, missing and killed. Though there are opposing views, the two sides must enter direct negotiations, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh.

But are these demands feasible? Regarding the occupied 150 square kilometers, Kantian asked point blank whether, considering that even Blinken’s demands for troop withdrawal had been in vain, it might be necessary to “deal with Aliyev differently,” to make him understand, he cannot renege on negotiated agreements. He cited the trilateral meeting on August 31 among Pashinyan, Aliyev and European Council president Charles Michel, where decisions were made, only to be ignored three weeks later when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia. Doesn’t he have a deaf ear? Kantian asked. Are there alternatives? Yengibaryan said he thought sanctions should be considered, including those that “play a preventive role.” In addition, Armenia needs more support. He recalled the immense multifaceted support that Turkey had provided Azerbaijan in the 2020 war. In this respect, he said Turkey had a “special responsibility,” and expressed hopes it would play a constructive role.

Kantian believes that Armenia also needs to become stronger militarily. Aliyev had boasted that Armenia “had no army,” because he had destroyed it in 2020. If, in Kantian’s view, even pressure made by the American Secretary of State did not suffice to force Aliyev to withdraw his troops, wouldn’t it be better to enhance Armenia’s capabilities? Perhaps India could supply weaponry. The ambassador assured his host that Armenia is making reforms, also differentiating its arms suppliers, including domestic production. He underlined the importance of defense readiness, remarking that Armenia, in its long history, has never attacked another country. For the immediate future, he said, the government’s three priorities are education and research (including in the defense sector), peaceful neighborly relations, and defense capabilities. As for Aliyev’s claim that Armenia had no army, Yengibaryan wondered why the Azerbaijani leader would demand that that army must leave Karabakh. In truth, Aliyev must have been referring to the Nagorno Karabakh self-defense forces. He closed with the observation that such rhetoric is deployed also for internal consumption. Some layers of the population are not pro-government.