T152. Peaceworking in Armenia

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Peaceworking in Armenia

Project Save the World Podcast / Talk Show Episode Number: 152
Panelists: Jill Carr-Harris
Host: Metta Spencer
Date Aired: 4 January 2021
Date Transcribed: 10 March 2021
Transcription: Otter.ai
Transcription Review and Edits: David Millar

 

Metta Spencer

I’m Metta Spencer, and this is a great day for me because I get to talk to Jill Carr-Harris, a very dear friend who’s been off leading tracks across Asia. She was going to march from Delhi to Geneva, with a troupe of people following her. And she got as far as Armenia when COVID hit; she stayed there for a couple of… months, and then went back to India. And now she’s, she’s here in Toronto with me. I haven’t seen her because of COVID. But this is our first little get together in a while. Hello, dear Jill, how are you?

 

Jill Carr-Harris

Hello, Metta. What a pleasure to see you again.

 

Metta Spencer

It’s wonderful. Yeah, well, we have a great deal to do to get caught up, we need to actually skip a lot of your adventures this time. Or put them on hold for a while, so that we can talk about a serious global issue now, where I think you know more than most people. I’ve had some conversations lately about what has been going on in the Caucasus. And I know that you got stuck in Armenia. Since then Irakli has alarmed me with his prophecies — that serious human rights violations have been going on and may get worse. In, especially in Armenia, or with respect to the Armenian population,

 

Jill Carr-Harris

On this very, very important issue in the South Caucasus. It’s significant in terms of, in my view, global peace relations. So what happened is that, you know, Armenia… is an ancient civilization. It is one of the most ancient civilizations, and so many archaeologists and historians live in Armenia, and will tell you — as well, the 1000s of museums they have in their country will tell you — that Armenia was always in difficulty because it sat between what was once the Turkish Ottoman Empire [and] the Russian …(later the Soviet Union), and in early times the Iranian Empire. And so it was always squeezed. It’s a country that knows conquest… and yet ethnic Armenians have survived in this region, being mountain people… being really from this part of the world… the Turkish areas and the South Caucusus. They have a sacred relationship to their hereditary lands… There were many Armenians in the… Ottomans — living in Turkey. And at one point, and I don’t know the full story, but at one point, the, the Ottoman leaders really created a pogrom like our Jewish pogroms, and [in 1915-16] forced the Armenians to go on a long walk and many many died in what is known as the Armenian genocide . This was

 

Metta Spencer

about 100 years ago, right

 

Jill Carr-Harris

was about 100 years ago, it was over a period of about 10 or 11 years, from 1909 to 1921. that this happened, but they take usually the day of 1915… [or dates] in between to talk about it. But almost a million people were killed. And it what was very, very sad is that when the great powers after the first war, were trying to negotiate with a new Ataturk [regime] because, you know, at the end of the first war, the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, and the new Turkish country emerged. The Great Powers said to Turkey… even though they knew about the Armenian Genocide, everybody knew about it, they said, for the interests of the Turkish state, we will not make this Armenian genocide an issue — so that Turkey can… recover, you know, create its new statehood. And so as a result of that the Turks never acknowledged this genocide. And as time went on, they became harder and faster in their decision never to recognize it because if the Turks did recognize this genocide, they would have to pay reparations. So that was the first thing I want to record as as a very important historical moment. The second one, I believe it was under Stalin. Nagorno-Karabakh was part of ethnic Armenia. And when the Socialist Republics were being formed… getting a sense of their own boundaries. Stalin gave Nagorno-Karabakh to his Azerbaijan, but it was ethnic[ally] Armenia. And it was just willy nilly. He had maybe an, you know, an interest in Azerbaijan at that moment in time, but there was no logic to it. But that’s what happened. So at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union… starting in 1990, the Nagorno-Karabakh also like Azerbaijan, and Armenia, declared independence. Nagorno-Karabakh could as another… area, claim its independence, but that was not suitable — that was very welcomed by the former socialist state of Armenia, but unwelcomed by the former state of Azerbaijan, former Socialist Republic, so they went and had a war over Nagorno- Karabakh in 1991. It had been building up. As the dissolution of the Soviet Union happened, people in Nagorno-Karabakh felt very uncomfortable and the… nationalism that had been under the surface, during the whole period of the Soviet Union suddenly erupted. So there was in from… 1988. on there was.. Azeris were… killing and taking the homes of Armenians in Azerbaijan and Armenians were kicking out Azeris from their homeland.

 

Metta Spencer

Okay, we should stop it enough to say that the Azeris are the national group in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis would be the citizens of Azerbaijan, but Azeris would be the, the tribal identity or whatever you want to call it, a national identity of people, right.

 

Jill Carr-Harris

What I’m trying to say and to be quick about it… as we saw in the dissolution of Yugoslavia into ethnic struggles of different groups, the same thing happened in Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethno nationalism came up, and each side wanted to to see Nagorno-Karabak… the Azerbaijan government wanted to see it under Azerbaijan, and the Armenians wanted to see it under Armenia or leave it independent. So fast forward. Well, they fought a war for three year: 30,000 people were killed. It was an absolutely horrible war. After that war in 93, a particular Council was set up under the what they call, it’s called the OSCE… under Europe, a particular negotiating body was set up in order to resolve this dispute, right. So peace was created, there was a body set up to resolve this dispute. And the chairs of that body was the US, France and Russia.

 

Metta Spencer

The Minsk Group,

 

Jill Carr-Harris

it’s the Minsk Group, OSCE Minsk Group… that was set up to find peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now… they obviously over 20 years did not successfully find a way although there was… many meetings… and that was partly because in my view, Russia did not want to see (particularly when Putin came back into power, when Putin became the head of government in Russia)… they did not want to see it… this was part of my discussions in Armenia. Even though we tried to involve Azerbaijan, it was difficult. So it was mainly between Armenians and Georgians. But we spent a great deal of time talking to people and learning that, that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the region did not create horizontal linkages. They did not create cross country trade agreements and greater understanding and peace process — like [in] this Nagorno-Karabakh situation… the vertical, the vertical linkage to Moscow remained strong, right. In spite of their independent governments, and this was a great shame. But this had to do with the status-quo, governing groups in the different regions… the governing group in the 1990s in Armenia, was pro-Moscow, they saw the advantage of leaving that vertical link to Moscow (because don’t forget, they had Azerbaijan on one side, and they had Turkey on the other side). And they saw it in their best security interest to keep that vertical link of trade, of commerce, to the Soviet Union. They did build up commerce and trade with Iran. They did have a good relationship with Georgia. They could not sort out this with Azerbaijan. And Turkey kept its same adamant stance about the Armenian genocide. So… there was a bit of, a few skirmishes, in 2016 there was a skirmish and so on, between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but it was basically a frozen conflict. Now, what I understood, — and I’d like to give a little personal narrative here — I went to Nagorno-Karabakh in advance of our march, to try to understand the situation. And this was in July of 2019, so about a year and a half ago. I went by getting a visa, from the people in Nagorno-Karabakh, I knew that the Azerbaijan government would not really like it. But I went through the legal channels of getting a visa, and going and we… I was with a group of three people. But we went only on a weekend — not to just to observe, like an observer group — we didn’t go to have any formal meetings. We met some government people, but our main interest was to see how to set up a Gandhi center in Nagorno-Karabakh that could help build peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia. So this was our intention. And we met people at the university there, and we discussed it and there was a lot of interest. And we were moving in that direction. When we returned to India, in preparation for the march, thinking that we could bring the march to Nagorno-Karabakh, and we… were interested to talk to the Azerbaijan government because we were hoping to send another group through Azerbaijan. So this was, there was no favoritism to Armenia. As far as we were concerned, we were only trying to understand how this march could reinforce peace and not reinforce division. But when we got back to Delhi, we were called by the Azerbaijan government to sit down and have a cup of tea with them. So we went… two out of the three people who I was with, came to this meeting, and after a few nice formalities, the Azerbaijan ambassador to India said to us, you have been blacklisted by our government because you entered our territories without our permission, and you must sign something saying you apologize to our government, and then we will consider your peace march, and we will consider not blacklisting you. And you know, we were so taken aback — we had no idea what we were dealing with. What we were dealing with was an ambassador who was speaking directly for the senior foreign policy people… back home… maybe even at the President’s wish. And so we were shaken and said, “Well, sir, excuse me, but we did not in any way try to go into Nagorno-Karabakh without the Azerbaijan permission. We only did it because we were invited. We got a visa by the the government who is now governing that area.

 

Metta Spencer

The government that was running Nagorno-Karabakh was part officially of Azerbaijan, but must have not been seen as such by Azerbaijan, or else they wouldn’t mind having that government issue you a visa —

 

Jill Carr-Harris

No, no. So after the war of 93, and there was frozen peace, the Nagorno Karabakh people set up their own self government. And this self-government got the tacit support of the Armenians, but not of the Azerbaijan government, of course, because after… what the war did, was it flushed out large numbers of Azeri people, people of Azeri background, as you mentioned, from this region, and it was now predominantly ethnic Armenian-dominated and they set up that —

 

Metta Spencer

but if you look at the map or a lot of official documents, it looks like Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan.

 

Jill Carr-Harris

Correct. And that’s what’s confusing. It’s, you know… may I clarify that, which is, the Azerbaijan government had gone to the United Nations, showed them Stalin’s declaration or whatever legitimacy they had, and the UN because of — whatever, I don’t, I haven’t studied the politics and who is behind it and who introduced it, but the UN agreed with Azerbaijan, the UN Security Council, or the General Assembly, I’m not sure which, I believe it was the Security Council, possibly, for whatever reason, maybe because (Azerbaijan) Baku had recently found oil, and that oil was controlled by Anglo- American interests. And so maybe that had a reason for them to make a deal. But this UN agreement was not accepted by either the people in Nagorno-Karabakh as they described it to me, nor to Armenia. It was a bilateral decision, as far as they were concerned. Okay.

 

Metta Spencer

bilateral meaning UN and Azerbaijan…

 

Jill Carr-Harris

Yeah. multilateral but negotiated bilaterally, possibly with Security Council country members. So that’s what was the situation as we were sitting in front of this ambassador in Delhi, being scolded for going into their territories. And we said frankly, “We never knew, because we just landed up in Armenia, and we applied for a visa to go to Nagorno-Karabakh to understand whether a Gandhi foundation could be set up, and we got our visas and went, so excuse me, sir, we didn’t know that that was not legitimate, from your point of view, excuse me, for that we regret our decision of not getting more information. But we cannot apologize for something where we got a visa and went, right? Because that would mean that we are guilty. Where when we cannot say we were guilty. We actually applied for a visa. Now, whether this had gone so far that, you know, visas were… the result of a frozen conflict….”

 

Metta Spencer

Well, had you applied to Azerbaijan for visa? Would you’ve been able to get it that way?

 

Jill Carr-Harris

No, because they didn’t allow people to go to —

 

Metta Spencer

Unable to go in at all, if you hadn’t got the visa from Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

 

Jill Carr-Harris

Correct. And we went and and I have to tell you, we had written… this was actually later but we wrote to both governments, you know, we never, we were not doing this to support Armenia. We we had written both governments, we were planning to put the peace tour through both countries… we had gone to the see the ambassador in good faith to figure out how we could… bring our peace people, our peace march through Azerbaijan. And he was the one who said, “If you apologize, then we’ll discuss your peace effort.” And so we said, “Excuse me, I don’t think we can apologize. But certainly we regret not understanding that we were hurting your sensibilities, and that, you know, this was a result of a frozen conflict” and blah, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, they… made us write a letter. We apologized and the letter was sent to the foreign minister in Baku, and it was rejected. And he said we needed to apologize — by that time we were on the march. And so we we couldn’t even communicate. So it it just got left —

 

Metta Spencer

1000s of people from who knows all over the world who, for one reason or another go into the Nagorno-Karabakh, without getting a reprimand from the Azerbaijan government. How did they do it in those days?

 

Jill Carr-Harris

Well, ours was a different situation, because we were bringing international attention through a peace arch. So maybe the Azerbaijan government are not as concerned with a few individuals or tourists or maybe that’s not, but in our case, they were concerned because we were taking the messages out to the media, to Geneva, and they wanted their rightful heritage to be properly reflected. And that’s understandable. Now, I must … add, that at the time that we went into Nagorno-Karabakh, there was no Indian ambassador in Armenia, to guide us. Normally, we would have checked with the Indian ambassador in Armenia and said, You know, we’re going to Nagorno-Karabakh and … had it been the present one, he would have said, Don’t you dare, because that’s Azerbaijan. The past one was not so strict, you know, so, but the present ambassador, because we talked to him later about it, he would have said, “Look, had I been here, I would have said don’t go,” but it was before his arrival. So … our efforts to bring peace was seen by the Azerbaijan government as pro-Armenian, which was very unfortunate, because they could have used it in another way. But actually, I think by the time our peace march was going, judging by the reactions of the Indian Embassy in Yerevan in Armenia, I think already they [Azerbaijan] were planning for some sort of —

 

Metta Spencer

invasion or

 

Jill Carr-Harris

— because by the time… there was a big difference between June 2019 and February 2020, there was a very big difference in attitudes that I could see. So I suspect that Azerbaijan was already gearing up. And maybe because people like us were confusing their territory with Armenia, but as far as the Armenians are concerned — when Nikol Pashinian became prime minister in 2018. He had been formerly a journalist, and he was very interested in peace. It was one of the driving things that drove him to politics was we need to solve this, even if we need to really compromise with the Azerbaijan government. And he sat down two or three times you can see it on the in the Youtube with… in American universities primarily, different places. They sat down and they negotiate and they talked. And basically, you saw this democratically elected Nikol Pashinian. Talking to you know, Aliev [of Azerbaijan]… who is more seen as an authoritarian leader, saying, look, we really want to get this peace process on the ground and Aliev basically said, “It’s all of Nagorno-Karabakh to us, or nothing.” So there was no ground — what you had during — when you saw the war start on the 27th of September, for the 16-17 days that it raged. What you saw is Turkey had really backed up Aliev’s government with the military capacity which they needed to win over Armenia. Had they had their own military capacity [only], against which is what Armenia was gauging, that they had enough military in case there was an Azerbaijan attack, they were about equal. But Turkey came along and gave it modern drones and gave it some mercenary fighters and gave Aliev what he needed to make a brutal attack… on the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and that is what you saw. So as they were attacking, you could see the women and children of Nagorno-Karabakh receding back into Armenian territory, and the men stayed and fought, thousands died. You know, it’s a big part of their population. And Armenia… sent troops to help them, send military equipment to help them but they were, the Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic Armenians were leading because… there had been a recently elected new prime minister in Nagorno-Karabakh. So he was leading the fight. And, and with this Turkish military…, Pashinian either had to see complete massacre of the fighters (because they were not going to give up) of Nagorno-Karabakh, or he was going to step in and call for a ceasefire, if… I would have imagined that the Armenians would have thought that Russia was going to defend them at that point, precisely, because all these years they’ve had this… you have to see that Nikol Pashinian is a democrat, he pushed what, why he led a nonviolent revolution… the oligarchs were displaced by his mass movement and coming into power. And those oligarchs were Russian-backed oligarchs. Right? So suddenly, you see Russia is not so interested in jumping in, because they would like to see Nikol Pashinian out.

 

Metta Spencer

Okay, got it.

 

Jill Carr-Harris

So they delayed and delayed and delayed and delayed. And all of us were so surprised because they had agreements — from the perceptions of the people who I spoke with in Georgia and Armenia. So it may be biased, but their perception is that Putin did not come in on the basis of saying this is Nagorno-Karabakh… Only if Armenia is attacked, do we have any military responsibility. So that was the basis of their claim, which was a little stretched, I think… it’s not just about the the different political party, which they want to see back in power, but it’s also they want to see those vertical linkages. Back to Moscow. They didn’t want to see Nikol Pashinian , kind of wooing the West, the European Union, United States — that was not so comfortable. Yeah, they want that vertical, you know, Yerevan-Moscow, highway of trade, of commerce. They want the resources. So this democrat, of course, who came in in 2018, became a darling of the West, because he was a democrat — he was democratically elected, you know… that was another irritating part of this. And so now, Nikol Pashinian has called for elections next year. I mean, this coming January, February [2020], and he may well be pushed out of office. He says, I’m not holding on to power. but I want to see elections, I don’t want a coup. Yeah. So that’s the situation, as it stands now that Russia basically lined itself up with Turkey, very strange bedfellows because they had complementary interests in this region. Turkey wants to build a Turkic kind of, I wouldn’t say Empire, but a federation, across Azerbaijan to Central Asia, and right over to Indonesia, you know… and Russia wants the vertical link to Moscow, from Yervan. And also this way —

 

Metta Spencer

I’m trying to think of — because the Armenians are Christian. That would be a wart on the, on the skin of this new coalition or Turkic Empire, so to speak, that that would be a problem. Right? Is that the the main reason that?

 

Jill Carr-Harris

No, I don’t think so. You know, I have been to this region for many, many years. And there has never been a religious problem between Azerbaijan and Armenia. It’s not been religious. It’s been ethnic. Right. And that’s a bit different. So the religion can play into the ethnic, but it was not a religious issue. But Turkey, of course, wanted to make it a religious issue. So you have to see it’s kind of a Turkic Muslim. Yeah. And you realize that Central Asia are Turkic-related (historically) people. Now, Aliev in Azerbaijan has no interest in being under a Turkic Empire, that that is not really his interest. So he has to walk a very fine line, to keep everyone happy, but not to fall too deep into that trap. So that’s why he called on his Russian friends. And in fact, the way they tracked, they trapped Pashinian , it was Aliev who trapped Pashinian… during the war, went, sent a message to the Azerbaijan people and said: Let’s forget Turkey and Russia and sit down and talk piece, and we’ll sort out this ceasefire, and we don’t need Russia.

 

Metta Spencer

And he was rebuffed.

 

Jill Carr-Harris

And Aliev went to Putin and said, This guy is too close to the west, and is trying to go around Russia. Don’t forget Aliev trained in Russia. He’s a former — his father was the head of the Socialist Republic. He’s got good ties with Moscow. And it was because of that, that Moscow said, Okay, we’ll come in as a peace force.

 

Metta Spencer

Yeah. Irakli sounded quite alarmed about the possibility of genocide. I mean, that’s the word you used. Certainly. I hear he said that. There are atrocities going on now. I don’t know what’s what’s Russia’s position on that. What are these Russian peacekeepers there to do and and who’s doing what to whom know,

 

Jill Carr-Harris

The Georgians are at war with Russia over Abkhazia. So there’s another frozen conflict, in their country. Right. And they have kept Russia — because of their closeness to NATO and US, Europe — they’ve been able to keep Russia at bay. This [N-K] has given Russia entry into the Caucusus in a way they didn’t have before… they did have some troops on the border with Turkey in Armenia before, but this puts their troop levels up several thousands. And so they’re now in the region, and they can control a lot more. This makes the Georgians very afraid. So hints, some of the hype, Irakli does talk of genocide, I think it’s hyperbolic because genocide is a big word for what’s going on there now. Yeah. But with all with great respect to Irakli, what he’s trying to convey is a sentiment, which is that they’re losing — the South Caucasus is affected by this Russian, Russian entry, Russian peacekeepers — and it’s very dangerous for Georgia and the South Caucasus. And that is what he’s trying to say without saying that, I would say because you have to be careful in in that part of the world, how you say things. So now the genocide issue is the Armenians feel that what Azerbaijan with Turkey — mainly Turkey and mercenary support — did was to extend their genocide on Armenian people. So they see it in that in that regard, and that continues because… don’t forget, two thirds of the country… of Nagorno-Karabakh has now been taken over and now they’re trying to bring… Azerbaijan people there and flush out the Armenians there. So naturally, there’s human rights abuses. They’re all shifting around… and they’re giving up their houses in Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s not like the Azeri government, Azerbaijan government is saying, you stay in your houses, Armenians, we’ll look after you We just want — they’re pushing them out. So that is where the genocide idea comes. But I would say it’s it’s it doesn’t help to to see it as genocide just yet, I think but Armenians in their heart feel it is genocide. So —

 

Metta Spencer

What would you like to have happen?

 

Jill Carr-Harris

— So remember, I talked about these vertical linkages, when we heard about all these vertical linkages from your event, and this new desire to have… Armenia, more independent, and Georgia more independent… within this Russian Federation just be more independent. We set up a meeting on an old idea, which has been in that region, which is to set up a peace zone in the South Caucasus. Now, this sounded very, sounds very crazy now, because there’s just been a war. But this was pre-war. And what we were trying to say is that there’s a whole history of people who’ve been pushing for a peace zone in this region, why don’t we reconsider it so we can build greater horizontal linkages and not demonize Armenia, Azerbaijan, you know, by each other’s populations, but to find areas of collaboration. And similarly, just as we have in Nagorno Karabakh, we have a similar problem in Georgia, so to try to bring together this region, so it’s not divided against each other, and that we talked about a lot and it would have been still being discussed, but for the consequences of the events that came up. And so how do we, again, reintroduce this it’s going to take some time to let the dust To settle, it will depend on to some extent on the elections in Armenia next year, it will depend on how many Armenians are flushed out of Nagorno-Karabakh. So we have to let the dust settle before we can really see things. But in the meantime, there is a bit of a sense of victory, not only to the Azerbaijan government, but to the Turks and to the Russians.

 

Metta Spencer

You know, what I’m gathering from this is that for the time being, the reality is that this peace agreement, as basically dictated by Russia, is is the name of the game that one lives… within the framework of that. There is no intention of challenging that at the moment, or maybe ever. Even though Armenia wouldn’t like it, is how much wiggle room is there within that framework? For some kind of change?

 

Jill Carr-Harris

I think you need to talk to people more knowledgeable than I but I would just suggest that if the OSCE Minsk Group got reactivated… they could have an influence. And that has France and the US. So we’ve been waiting for the US to stabilize, I think to see whether that could happen.

 

Metta Spencer

Okay, so it might change under under Biden’s influence. Although I don’t I don’t think the US has shown any interest in the region for so long that I don’t think they have much influence.

 

Jill Carr-Harris

It’s possible. It’s possible but it’s also possible that they may have more interest in the Trump government.

 

Metta Spencer

Thank you, my dear.

 

Jill Carr-Harris

Thank you so much. Happy New Year.

 

Metta Spencer

Happy New Year.

 

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