Past the Tipping Point: An Interview with Ara Papian

Nanore Barsoumian
In April, I conducted an interview with Ara Papian, former Ambassador of Armenia to Canada (2000-06) and president of the Modus Vivendi Center, at the Armenian Weekly offices in Watertown. A former diplomat, Papian’s perspective is that of a strategist with a long-term vision. During the interview, we discussed the current geopolitical situation in the Caucasus, including Armenia’s decision to join the Russian-led Customs Union, military ties with Russia, U.S.-Armenia relations, the Syrian crisis, the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
For Papian, Armenia has recently aligned itself dangerously close to Russia, subject to the whims of its politicians. He believes that Armenia’s independence is contingent on forging strong relations with many key world players. “I see our independence as interdependence on many powers,” he told me. “What I mean is, if we become dependent only on one power—like Russia or the U.S.—we will really become dependent on them. If we depend on many players—China, Russia, the West, and so on—we will be more or less independent.”
In regards to Russia’s military presence in Armenia, Papian argues that the settlement is in Russia’s favor, and closer economic ties with the European Union (EU) would not jeopardize that arrangement. “It’s not like if we were to sign an agreement with the EU the next day the Russians would withdraw their forces from Armenia,” he said. “They will never do that, even if we were to ask them to, because Russian presence in Armenia is not for Armenia, it’s for Russia. They are defending their southern border, not Armenia.”
Papian also warns that the close ties with Russia could backfire, as the Russians would need to pull Azerbaijan into their orbit—and Karabagh could serve as a bargaining chip. “Azerbaijan does not need any money. They have money, which means the only thing Russia can offer Azerbaijan is Karabagh. Then, we’ll come back to the situation we had in the late 80s, early 90s, when we were fighting both the Russians and Azeris,” he said, adding, “We have to show the Russians that we are allies, but that we are equal. We are not just a mean for them to solve their problems with their neighbors.”
Discussing Turkey, Papian stresses that U.S. policy towards Erdogan’s Turkey is “a policy of containment,” because evidence suggests that a stronger Turkey is less manageable. “I think it’s in the interests of the U.S. to have a stronger Armenia, because a stronger Armenia is less dependent on Russia.”
As for the approaching Centennial of the Armenian Genocide, Papian hopes to draft a legal framework on which to base Armenian demands. He argues that compensation must be given to Armenians on three levels: moral, in the form of a state issued apology; economic, to the families of those who lost their properties; and in the form of an acknowledgment that territories belonging to the Republic of Armenia (based on President Woodrow Wilson’s map) is currently occupied by Turkey.
In addition, Papian proposes that a territory be outlined in the Van area that will be under international control and part of the European Union—without the displacement of its current population—where Armenians are extended special privileges (for example, Armenia retains a right to invest while Armenian companies pay taxes in Armenia). Papian argues that such an arrangement would be in the interest of Turkey, as it is likely to lose parts of those territories to Kurdish aspirations for autonomy.
The full interview with Papian follows.

Armenian-Russian relations
 Nanore Barsoumian—Please discuss the historical context of Russian-Armenian relations as a backdrop to the Sarkisian Administration’s decision to join the Russian-led Customs Union (CU).
Ara Papian—Usually, it’s said that politics is defined by geography and history. We know our geography, our neighbors, and our relations with our neighbors. But relations largely depend on history, which can be politicized—depending on the times, the regime, the interpretation of history, and sometimes ideology. Armenian-Russian relations, as all relations between nations, have had their ups and downs. Unfortunately, our relations with Russia are not currently on the ups, because I don’t think the Customs Union is in favor of Armenia. Our taxes are much lower and our economic freedom in Armenia is much greater than in Russia, which means that if we join the Customs Union, prices—especially the price of consumer goods—will increase. We know that at least a third of the Armenian population is poor. They will become even poorer, and emigration, which is one of the main problems for Armenia now, will increase.
N.B.—The decision to join the CU came as a surprise to many. It was a 180-degree turn from the EU. Why did the Sarkisian Administration make the move? What does Armenia stand to gain, and what does it stand to lose?
A.P.—This was a surprise decision for everyone. Many members of the ruling party are now saying it was predictable that we were heading to the CU. But that is simply a lie. A couple of hours before [President Serge] Sarkisian announced that Armenia would join the CU [on Sept. 3, 2013], one of the leaders of the Republican Party, Galust Sahakyan, said that we were going the European direction. I think that something happened in Moscow. There was intensive pressure, perhaps even blackmail against Armenia.
Unfortunately, over these past 20 years, we have become totally dependent on Russia in our security issues, economy, and practically everything. These have given Russia very strong leverage over us, and they are misusing it. The decision [was to the benefit] of Russia—perhaps not from an economic point of view because Armenia has a small market, but as a political tool, mainly to show other countries, namely Ukraine, that some countries are succumbing to the Customs Union. However, after the events in Ukraine, it seems that Putin’s move had no real results.
N.B.—Do you think Armenia had a choice?
A.P.—Armenia must create choices. If we take the Sept. 3 announcement, at that time we had few choices. The problem is that we had to create choices beforehand. Years ago, I had several conversations with the political leadership—including then-President [Robert] Kocharian and Prime Minister at the time [Serge] Sarkisian—about finding alternative energy supply sources for Armenia. Back then, Armenia had options, but it soon became clear that we were going towards total dependence on Russia. Unfortunately, we did not do anything back then.
When people say that the Customs Union will open the Russian market to us, they are lying, because the Russian market is already open to us. We already have dozens of agreements, treaties, and free trade agreements with Russia. This will not add anything to our bilateral relations. Similarly, [trade] with other countries, for instance with Kazakhstan and Belarus, is done through bilateral relations. Creating this Union will further complicate matters.
Russia is not our first [trading] partner. Our first trading partner is the European Union. About 35 percent of Armenian trade is with Europe. We also have large trade deals with China and the United Arab Emirates. This means that the prices of all these goods that we are importing from these countries will increase. Furthermore, it will deprive us of any alternatives in the future.
N.B.—Some people highlight the military security offered by Russia. There are Russian bases in Armenia, and the Turkish border is manned by Russian troops. Many would argue that Armenia’s survival is significantly dependent on Russia. What is the alternative, speaking militarily, especially in case of renewed conflict with Azerbaijan?
A.P.—As Americans say, let’s not mix apples with oranges. Security issues with Russia are based on our participation in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), on bilateral defense treaties, on Russia having bases and forces in Armenia, and so on. It has nothing to do with the Customs Union. It’s not like if we were to sign an agreement with the EU the next day the Russians would withdraw their forces from Armenia. They will never do that, even if we were to ask them to, because Russian presence in Armenia is not for Armenia, it’s for Russia. They are defending their southern border, not Armenia. Meanwhile, yes, they are defending Armenia, but it’s in their favor. If one day they decide it’s not in their favor, they will withdraw their forces, as they did in 1917, as they did during the Karabagh War, and so on.
If Russians will link our membership in the Customs Union with their commitments to defend Armenia, it means that we do not have sincere relations with them, because that is not how one treats an ally—by blackmailing them…
What is the alternative? The presence of other countries.

N.B.—What do you mean by presence? Military bases?
A.P.—Yes, military bases. The Americans were negotiating with Armenia in the 1990’s to rent or lease a small airport in Armenia near Ardzni. We did not succeed in this. If we look at Kyrgyzstan, it has had both Russian and U.S. military bases for years. And both Russians and Americans are paying them rent. On the other hand, Russians do not pay the Armenian government a dime for the Russian base in Armenia. Furthermore, we cover a portion of their expenses, which is unacceptable. It’s unimaginable that Americans, for example, maintain a military base in Japan or Europe and the expense is covered by the local governments.
We have to create alternatives. Otherwise, Russia will continue blackmailing Armenia over relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and we have been witnessing that in the last four to five years in particular. Russians sold over $4 billion worth of weapons to Azerbaijan. Four billion dollars! That is a huge amount of weapons!
N.B.—That happened leading up to the Customs Union decision…
A.P.—It was before the decision, and even after Sarkisian’s announcement that we are ready to join the Customs Union. People were saying that once we join the CU, Russians would treat us better. We cannot see the evidence of that—things have continued the same way. I’m afraid that relations might even get worse, because now they totally control Armenia. Now, they want to have influence over Azerbaijan, and influence comes with a price. Azerbaijan does not need any money. They have money, which means the only thing Russia can offer Azerbaijan is Karabagh. Then, we’ll come back to the situation we had in the late 80s, early 90s, when we were fighting both the Russians and Azeris.
Today, many have forgotten that our main war from 1989-91 was against the Russians, not against Azerbaijan. And our two defeats in Karabagh— in Shahumian and Mardakert—were both fighting the Russians, not Azeris. How did we lose Shahumian? We lost because Russian forces—the special airborne division—were fighting Armenians. This is why I always look at today’s events through the lens of history. Because when you do not learn from history, you repeat it.
We have to show the Russians that we are allies, but that we are equal. We are not just a mean for them to solve their problems with their neighbors. They did that in the 1920’s. They tried to solve their problems with Turkey by giving them and Azerbaijan our lands. They would do that again.

U.S.-Armenia relations, Turkey, and the Syrian crisis 
N.B.— There is the perception that the U.S. will not compromise its interests with Turkey, and that these are more closely aligned than Russian interests with Turkey.
A.P.—Relations between Turkey and the U.S. are not so simple. The policy of the U.S. towards Turkey is a policy of containment for now. They understand and they see the evidence that when Turkey becomes stronger, it becomes less and less manageable. That means that Armenian issues—the genocide and the Karabagh issue—serve as leverage against Turkey. If Turkey increases in strength—with its neo-Ottoman ambitions—it will become a regional power. Regional powers are less manageable. I think it’s in the interests of the U.S. to have a stronger Armenia, because a stronger Armenia is less dependent on Russia. Generally, U.S. interests are to have Russia’s neighbors be less dependent on it.
After Ukraine, there will be big changes in U.S. policy. They understood that if you want to have a friendlier Russia, Russia must be weaker. Otherwise, it becomes more aggressive. The U.S. is seeing the unification of old Soviet republics in one union by another name. What is the Eurasian Union? It’s the same Soviet Union, but worse. In the old Soviet Union all 15 republics were legally equal. In this new union, there will be some gradations.
If we become a CU member, we will become dependent on Russia as much as during Soviet times. However, during Soviet times, Russia had some obligations towards Armenia and Armenians. It could not have allowed for different wages, say, for engineers in Moscow and yerevan. For now, Russia has no obligations; they only have rights in Armenia. They need their [military] base and they need anti-Turkish feelings in Armenia, because anti-Turkish feelings bring Armenia closer to Russia. This is why the Kessab events were misrepresented in the Russian mass media. Armenians have been looking at Russia with a more critical eye. That is why they brought up the issue of the genocide, reminding Armenians that they were slaughtered by Turks and that Kessab might be a warning.
N.B.—So you’re seeing this as a propaganda war.
A.P.—Yes, it is a dirty war because your interpretation can be different, but what was done in Russian mass media, on the level even of the Foreign Affairs Ministry—the Deputy Minister spoke—it was a total lie that 80 Armenians were slaughtered there, and so on. It is really unfortunate Armenians had to become refugees again. We know that some 20 people were missing, but 80 people were not slaughtered.
There is another detail there, as to why Kessab became a target for Turks or Turkish-supported rebels. Two years ago Russia opened their radar station near Kessab, and with this, the town became a target for rebels. The main target was not the Armenian village, the main target was the Russian military unit there.
This is in response to Russia for Crimea, because one of the reasons why Russia took Crimea was the military seaport there—Sevastopol. But Sevastopol without Tarsus, the port on the Mediterranean Sea, is nothing. They would need to refuel. Tarsus was refueling Russian military ships, which means that Russia took Crimea; now the West will do everything to topple Assad not because the people who will gain power are better than Assad (they know that they’re worse) but because Russia will remain without military refueling in the Mediterranean, which means all these gains of Russia in Ukraine will be worth nothing.
The problem with Syria and Armenians in Syria is that we are again becoming part of a big game… To punish Russia, [the West] will punish Russia’s allies and supporters: Syria, Armenia, and others. This is one of the dangers of becoming too close to Russia. We have become much too close with Russia. Look at the votes in the UN—11 countries supported Russia, countries like Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Belarus. It’s a really strong message to others. Russia can overcome all these problems much easier than Armenia. 
N.B.—You mean they can deal better with isolation…
A.P.—They can deal and survive. In the next 15 years, Russia is likely to lose lots of territories—like parts of Siberia. Even with losing some territories, Russia will be the largest country in Europe. But we do not have anything to lose. We have already lost everything. This is the problem. Russia can afford to go against the West. Armenia cannot. The path to survival is to keep a balance between West and East. When I was an active diplomat, what we were doing was just this—closer military relations with Russia, but closer economic and cultural relations with the West, to counter-balance one another. Now, we lost that balance.
 N.B.—You said that it’s in the interest of the U.S. to have a strong Armenia. What has the U.S. been doing towards that goal?
A.P.—The U.S. is the country with largest donations and grants to Armenia—over $2 billion. It’s much more than what comes from Russia and others. Even private donations—through All Armenia Fund and others—are tax-deductible, supported with U.S. taxpayers’ money. It shows a positive attitude on the part of the U.S. government. The problem with Armenia is that the U.S. cannot help Armenia if Armenia does not want to be helped. It’s impossible. [The U.S.] was suggesting a lot of things for Armenia, without results.
N.B.—You mean economic reforms…
A.P.— Economic reforms, as well as many other investment policies. The West was trying to support Armenia, but Armenia’s not Ukraine. It’s not as important for the West for it to go against Russia. Putin is trying to create this “Soviet Union Lights.” [The West] understands that Russia will lose Ukraine, and Russia without Ukraine can never be a light version of the “Soviet Union”—like the light version of regular cigarettes. It might be possible without the Baltics, or some other countries, but not without Ukraine. The fight over Ukraine is the biggest geopolitical fight of today. Unfortunately for Russia, it made a big mistake—confronting the West and trying to become the second power center of the world. Russia does not have the capability to do that. It’s unfortunate for Armenia because Russia will become weaker—if not within two years, than in five—and a weaker Russia means a stronger Turkey in the Caucasus, and in the Black Sea. This is time for Armenia to at least predict that and try to find the counterbalance of Turkish influence. I see that [effort] in the West; I see that in Iran. These signs of improved Iranian-Western relations give us some hope.

Iranian nuclear negotiations and Armenia 
N.B.—That leads us to another question. What are the implications of the Iranian nuclear negotiations for Armenia?
A.P.—Improvement in Iranian-Western relations will be good for Armenia. First, Iran will be a substitute for Turkey. Actually, Turkey gained much after the Iranian revolution. The Shah was the closest ally of the U.S. Once the West lost Iran, they had to find another country, and the only country was Turkey. Turkey gained membership to NATO; bilateral relations with the U.S. also improved; and lots of investment went there instead of Iran. From a security point of view, improvement in relations with Iran will also be good as Iran will become a stronger player in the region.
Actually, before the 18th century, the main players for several hundred years were Turks and Iranians, and they were always counterbalancing each other. It seems we are going back to that period. The Russian border is in the North Caucasus now, and they have problems there. They are losing their influence over neighboring countries. It’s normal. Each empire has its period, and it seems that the time for the Russian Empire is already over. They now have to be a normal regional power—nothing more. For Armenians, it’s geopolitics. We have to see what’s coming. We’d like to be totally independent, but that’s impossible for Armenians. I see our independence as interdependence on many powers. What I mean is if we become dependent only on one power—like Russia or the U.S.—we will really become dependent on them. If we depend on many players—China, Russia, the West , and so on—we will be more or less independent.

The Crimean referendum and Karabagh 
N.B.—I want to go back to the Crimean referendum. Armenia was quick to support it, there was a celebration held in Karabagh, and President Sarkisian viewed this as “yet another realization of peoples’ right to self-determination.” How do you assess this reaction and what might be the implications for Karabagh?
A.P.—To assess any referendum, we have to take into consideration at least two main factors: legal and political. Russian Special Forces were already in Crimea before the referendum took place. They were the ones who decided the date of the referendum, even moved it up to an earlier date—March 16. From a legal point of view, this is not an expression of free will. In Karabagh, the situation was different. There were no armed men from Armenia, I’m not even speaking about the armed forces from Karabagh. What took place there in February 1988, during Soviet times, was a peaceful self-determination. People expressed their will, including the Azeris living in Karabagh, and because of that Azerbaijan launched a war against the Armenians there, which escalated into a bigger war. In Crimea, there was no free will. From a political point of view, if we Armenians recognize the Crimean referendum, and we justify it by saying that it was a case of self-determination and Armenia has always supported self-determination—no, we did not recognize the independence of Kosovo, Abkhazia, Ossetia, and so on. This is the first case that Armenia has supported a peoples’ self-determination. We have to assess the negative and positive implications of this. We should have at least tried to abstain during the voting. With this vote, we became part of a very small club of countries, and now there are tensions with the West. How will this work out, I don’t know. Politics are largely based on the personal feelings of politicians. If they view us as part of some evil group of people, they will treat us the same way they treated the “evil” nations—like [Belarus’s Alexander] Lukashenko…
Armenia needs the West for investments. Without the West, there will not be any investments—technological or otherwise—in Armenia. Russia is not capable of doing it. We know that. Seven or eight years ago, we gave Russia the best factories in Armenia: Mars, Mergelyan, and so on. There were lots of promises—they were going to revive and reopen them. During these 8-10 years nothing has been done. It’s not like they don’t want to do anything, just that they are incapable of it. They do not have the funds or the technology for it. Russia itself has so many closed factories, they lack the funds even for those. The state budget of Russia is half of the budget of the Pentagon—can you compare?
N.B.—But the West is not really willing to invest in Armenia…
A.P.—Yes. But for that you have to create the right conditions. There are people who are illegally deprived of their businesses, who face legal obstacles, like higher Customs duties and taxes. Money likes going places where conditions allow it to multiply. If we create the conditions, money will come. Otherwise, nobody will invest—not even Armenians.

Armenia-Turkey relations, the Genocide Centennial, and a vision for the future
N.B.—Could you talk about Turkey-Armenia relations as we approach the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide?
A.P.—Unfortunately, there haven’t been success stories here either. I was trying to at least prepare for the Centennial by creating a legal package on which we can base our demands. For me the genocide is not a simple matter of recognition. Genocide is a crime; and we cannot punish the criminals because they are all dead. We have to at least get some compensation. This must be done on three levels: moral, which means acknowledgement and apology on the state level; economic compensation to the families and people who lost properties; and on the level of territory, acknowledgement that part of the territory of the Republic of Armenia—I must underline that not Armenian territories, but territories of Wilsonian Armenia—is occupied by Turkey. There must at least be acknowledgement of that fact and then negotiations on how we can find a solution that can satisfy Armenians, Turks, and also Kurds.
My suggestion was to create a territory that will be a part of the European Union, which would mean free movement of capital and people. It would also mean that Armenia can invest in Van, perhaps build a hotel there, but pay taxes in Armenia as an Armenian company. The plan would see the borders opened. In history, we do have cases of so-called “condominiums” where two or three countries govern one territory. I do understand that there are around 7 million people living in Wilsonian Armenia—and we cannot force them out. My idea is to have special privileges based on international law there, which means that this territory can become for Armenia a way to prosperity. The territory would be demilitarized and under international control, which would pose less of a military danger towards Armenia. War in Karabagh will also be less of a possibility, because Azerbaijan will always look towards its big brother Turkey, and I doubt they will risk waging a war against Armenia. We would still keep some forces on our Western border.
Unfortunately, we haven’t done any of this. The Centennial is important but it doesn’t seem to be principally different [than previous years]—exhibitions, publishing or republishing books, lectures, even concerts, and so on. What’s different? We’ve been doing these for 40-50 years. For me 100 years is a symbolic date. At least we have to present our vision—how we envision a solution to the problem. And then let’s negotiate. This must be done by the Armenian state.
N.B.—What would Turkey gain from this? What would prompt them to make such concessions?
A.P.—Look at the demographics. Turks can see that sooner or later they will lose these territories because the growth rate for Kurds in Turkey is much higher than that of Turks. This is the most important factor—they have to make a strategic choice. What is in their favor: to have a big Kurdistan, with mainly people who will always fight on their border, or to have a territory over which they will have control, supported by Armenians, Europeans, and Americans—which means they will share rights and duties over that territory? The choice is between total loss of a territory and keeping something. Which of these is to their benefit? 
N.B.— Could it be that doing one won’t prevent the other from happening? In other words, what would prevent Kurds from wanting their autonomy?
A.P.—I’m sure you have been reading a lot of information about Hamshen Armenians and Islamized Armenians in Turkey. There is a revival of Armenian feelings in Western Armenia. What’s going on? These are efforts by Turks and the Turkish government. It is not as simple as one day [the Hamshen and Islamized Armenians] said, ‘OK, we are Armenians,’ and that groups from Armenia just happened to visit, dance, and sing there. [The Turkish government] could completely close off the area within 24 hours. But creating an Armenian presence there is a counterbalance against Kurdish presence. Not in the short term, but in the long term—in 25-50 years—it will be in their favor to have my solution towards that territory. Many Turks—high officials—told me during private conversations that it was their strategic mistake to kill the Armenians. They were not speaking from a moral point of view, but from a strategic one. They said that tactically they gained, because they cleaned Turkey from Armenians. But strategically, they lost, because Armenians were counterbalancing the Kurds in those territories—around 40 percent were Armenians, 40 Kurds, and 20 Turks. Neither the Armenians nor the Kurds could gain independence. By killing the Armenians, they opened the door for Kurdish independence. They are realizing that now after 100 years.
In politics, sometimes it may seem that you are gaining a lot, but in the long term, you will find that you are losing. The same happened between Russia and Ukraine. In the short term they gained Crimea, but in the long term they lost Ukraine, the largest European country. Politics is actually based on keeping balances. If we show that Armenian presence in the Middle East and a bigger Armenia is in favor of many nations, they will support us. For now, however, that will not be the case, because now they will think that if Armenia were to become bigger, Russian influence will become stronger in the Middle East. That was the case in 1945-46 when the Russians were trying to take Turkey and the West was against it—not because they were against Armenians—but because they saw that if Russia occupied or liberated Western Armenia, it would not be Armenia, but Russia. The same is happening now. Many see Armenian aspirations in Karabagh, Nakhichevan, and so on, as a product of Russian politics.

"The Armenian Weekly," May 18, 2014

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