Interview by Marietta Khachatryan
Interviewer’s note: The Nagorno Karabakh or Artsakh Republic marked its 21st anniversary of independence this year. Throwing off the Azerbaijani rule imposed during the Stalin era, and acquiring the right to independence and statehood in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it went on to proclaim its sovereignty, notwithstanding the diplomatic obstacles of both international recognition and a lasting guarantee for peace that is still to come since its 1992-1994 conflict with Azerbaijan.
Historically, Artsakh was one of the provinces of Greater Armenia (also known as “Mets Hayk” or the Armenian Highlands), and etymologically means “Aran’s Garden.” Aran was the minister-governor of Greater Armenia’s northeastern provinces, which included Artsakh. Its Turkish and Iranian usurpers later gave the land the name “Karabakh,” which means “black garden” and is a simplified form of the word Artsakh. The root form “Ar” in Armenian means “of masculine nature” and is found in many toponymic names such as Ararat, Aragats, Artsakh, etc.
Since its independence, Artsakh has been governed by three presidents: Robert Kocharian, Arkady Ghukasyan and current president Bako Sahakyan. Observers of the 2012 July presidential election positively commented on the entire process. They stressed that the elections were the free expression of the people’s will and evaluated them as the most democratic in the region.
Artsakh has its own coat of arms, flag, parliament, government and all other attributes of statehood. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, comprised of France, Russia and the United States, are the mediators assisting in finding a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict.
In response to our request to address some of the country’s challenges and problems, as well as achievements, during the last two decades, the recently re-elected Artsakh president agreed to grant an exclusive interview for AGBU News Magazine.
Marietta Khachatryan (MK): Mr. President, is it difficult to be the actual president of a de facto independent, but de jure unrecognized republic?
Artsakh President Bako Sahakyan (President): I have often been asked this question. What is the difference between being the president of a recognized country and that of an unrecognized one? I have always answered that the president of an unrecognized country tries to direct all his activities and the potential of its country toward its recognition.
MK: It seems that a new turn of events has occurred in the negotiation process of the Karabakh conflict after the extradition to Azerbaijan of the criminal Ramil Safarov and his heroic welcome there. More and more viewpoints are expressed on the Armenian side indicating that we have to either stop negotiating and recognize the Nagorno Karabakh Republic immediately, or else make every effort to gain international recognition. What scenarios can be predicted for the future of the negotiation process and what steps at this point are more advantageous and logical for Karabakh?
(Hungary recently extradited a convicted killer, Ramil Safarov, who had brutally axed to death Armenian Lt. Gourgen Markaryan in his sleep. Both were participating in NATO-sponsored English language courses in Budapest eight years ago. In Azerbaijan, the murderer was not only pardoned before arrival, but given a promotion to Major, an apartment and eight years’ back salary.)
President: Ever since this brokered agreement with Azerbaijan, Hungary has been trying to convince the international community that the extradition had been carried out according to international norms. It has even apologized for the agreement with Azerbaijan taking such a turn. This is not the first time that we see such an issue; because of its policy, Azerbaijan still has many problems to solve.
On several occasions and even during my meetings with representatives of international organizations, I have stressed the fact that the policy carried out by Azerbaijan is dangerous, not only for Armenia and Artsakh, but for the international community and the entire civilized world in general, because downright lies are at the bottom of all Azerbaijani political figures’ manner of operating, and those falsifications are further enhanced by such actions as the one we witnessed in the Ramil Safarov case.
I believe the international community feels and understands the potential danger of Azerbaijan’s actions and will be obliged to evaluate them accordingly. Adequate measures will naturally follow to restrain the country and even implement some sanctions against it because such cases themselves present a real danger for the entire civilized world.
We have also given our own interpretation of the usual, recurring Azeri actions, which contradict all human values.
The National Assembly and the Security Council of Artsakh have convened special meetings to decide what equivalent measures should be taken. Meanwhile we remain faithful to the viewpoint that our relations should be settled solely through dialogue within the framework of peaceful negotiations.
During meetings and in declarations we have indications this several times, and today we continue asserting that our relations can be settled only through peaceful means. We can foresee such a scenario, and through Armenia’s diplomatic channels, as well as those of the Diaspora, we will achieve our purpose. Notwithstanding these brutal manifestations, we believe we can realize, together with the international community, such activities that will first restore Artsakh’s participation in the negotiation process and then reach a final peace settlement.
MK: Let us turn to Artsakh’s present economy and its development in general. What are the urgent issues facing the country’s economy? What has been achieved and what are your future plans?
President: There is not a single sector that is not important for the country’s development. Agriculture, industry, education, culture—all are vital. Since we adhere to the proportional development of our country, all of these sectors require due attention.
On the topic of agricultural development, we should mention that Artsakh has always been an agrarian country. We are most interested in the development of this sphere and have carried out considerable work toward it as a result. Other industries, such as energy, mining and construction are also among our vital projects, and I believe proportional development is the most optimal choice. Fortunately, all our activities and plans have been in keeping with this and have contributed accordingly.
MK: It is not a secret that the Diaspora participates in the reconstruction of Artsakh through the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund, as well as through the sponsorship of individuals and various organizations; this is very encouraging and a reason for pride. I would like you to refer to some instances of this participation, especially to the most significant ones carried out so far.
President: Ever since the beginning of the liberation movement, and later during the military activities or post-war years, the Diaspora has always participated in all aspects of Artsakh’s daily life. When the wounds of war-torn Artsakh needed healing, that was when Diasporan help was most required. And the Diaspora responded readily.
Today as well, the Diaspora plays an active role in the development and prospering of the country. It is an open secret that all our achievements are connected, one way or another, through Diasporan participation. The projects are many. Our compatriots willingly input their financial means and mental abilities in different sectors. I would like to single out the education sphere, where dozens of schools and pre-school establishments have been built or renovated through their help. They have also reconstructed our infrastructures. We attach much importance to our future plans, as well.
AGBU was one of the first Diasporan organizations to begin implementing projects in Artsakh. I am fully aware that AGBU has ongoing projects in all parts of the world where Armenians reside. On several occasions I have had the opportunity to commend and praise the activities of this pan-Armenian organization and the significant endowments of its generous benefactors.
At present, we also have general plans and projects directed to the development and prosperity of our country. AGBU has built villages in the Hadrut region, but the problem of housing still remains one of the most vital issues. AGBU has built homes in districts where the need was most essential. It has fulfilled many educational projects, taken part in Hayastan All-Armenian Fund projects. With the participation of Louise Manoogian Simone, the Yeghishe Charents School, one of the greatest in Artsakh, has been fully reconstructed, and one the biggest districts in Stepanakert has been put in good order. This district was later named after Alex Manoogian. AGBU has also reconstructed a huge residential complex, inherited from Soviet times, where most freedom fighters and their families, along with several lieutenants of the Armed forces, have since been accommodated.
AGBU is continuing its sponsorship of the Karabakh Chamber Orchestra, which has imparted a new quality to the cultural atmosphere of the country.
MK: When you met with AGBU President Berge Setrakian last year, there were talks that future projects would be directed mostly toward more specific purposes. Your comments on this, please.
President: I received great satisfaction from my meeting with Berge Setrakian because, being one of our greatest benefactors, and after getting acquainted with Artsakh’s priorities and my suggestions, he agreed to participate in our educational projects.
We attach great importance to the development of our education system, and AGBU has considerable experience in the field. We believe that, through our mutual efforts, we will be able to have a contemporary educational system, which will train qualified, state-of-the-art specialists corresponding to the needs and demands of our economy. We are preparing to conduct further discussions with AGBU representatives and are hopeful that the decisions we make and the conclusions we come to will most certainly contribute to Artsakh’s progress.
MK: As a recently re-elected president do you get together with former presidents to discuss further plans and steps to be taken?
President: Very often. Whatever we have achieved so far is also the outcome of the work carried out in previous years. Whenever we get together, and we do get together quite frequently, we discuss questions of our country’s development.
MK: Considering the fact that Artsakh is geographically a tiny, fascinating nook, can we hope to see tourism become one of the country’s key industries in the future?
President: When I mentioned that we are working toward proportionate development, I also had in mind the tourism sector. You are right. Our country has specific qualities that make it attractive for tourists. We have achieved some good results. If numbers say anything, I can tell you that, according to statistical data, we had 11,362 tourists last year. During the first six months of this year, as compared with the same period in 2011, the number of tourists visiting Artsakh has increased on an average of 50 percent. But Statistical Service experts believe the number to be higher, considering the unique features of our country and its underlying integration with Armenia.
MK: Is Artsakh infrastructure ready to welcome more tourists?
President: At present they are far better than what they used to be. Our possibilities and conditions have improved considerably. A number of new hotels have been built in Stepanakert and Shushi. Thanks to a newly erected hotel, we can now accommodate tourists in Hadrut as well. With the assistance of Levon Hayrapetyan, hotels have been built in Martakert. Most tourists also want to visit Gandzasar and the Vank village. We can now accommodate them there.
MK: Can the mission of revitalizing Shushi’s status as a cultural center enhance tourism?
(During the second half of the 19th century, Shushi was one of the famous cultural centers of the South Caucasus region with its technical secondary and girls’ schools, famous resident artist Hakob Gyurdjian and the various cultural functions of wealthy Armenian art lovers.)
President: It has already made a great impact. With the assistance of Diaspora Armenians, a number of buildings of vital importance, such as health clinics, libraries and other infrastructures have been erected in Shushi.
MK: Despite being unrecognized as a sovereign state, Artsakh is a country with all the necessary attributes of a state: corresponding structures, different branches of state power and a well-organized presidential election process.
Not possessing all of the above, Kosovo was immediately recognized as a sovereign state. Artsakh also has a mechanism to carry out global investing. I am referring to the construction of the Sarsang hydroelectric power plant, which served as a very good example for the possibility to offer shares to the general public, which in turn, stimulated the country’s economy.
President: Yes, we were successful in carrying out this project. Today the Artsakh HPP Corporation is issuing bonds. This is our first attempt and international experts consider it a success. It encourages us because we believe favorable conditions have also been created for investments.
We have several other similar examples in both the energy and mining industries. We are interested in making use of the opportunity to grant certain privileges to investors. This will make them see that, in comparison with others, our conditions are far better and sometimes surprisingly more profitable for them. They have themselves confessed that only a few countries offer the income and profit tax rate of just five percent. They have also cited other privileges.
All this, of course, enhances investments, which we are interested in getting. From time to time the government reviews the possibilities and tries to offer more incentives to attract more investments.
MK: Who are the shareholders?
President: The geography of their origins is quite vast, and that is very encouraging. We have shareholders from European countries, Armenia and the United States. It is pleasant because it is a new experience for our economy. Even Artsakh citizens are involved in the process. Representatives of the energy sector have asserted that, along with Diasporan Armenians, several members of our community have expressed the desire to become shareholders.
MK: Is the general citizen of Artsakh satisfied with his president?
President: You have to ask the citizens themselves. Alongside the above-mentioned success stories, we still have quite a number of problems. The citizens naturally expect that the government and the president himself will at least minimize, if not solve, them.
We have various large social groups that affect the normal life of our country. There are the pensioners and those needing welfare. There are also the families of martyred freedom fighters, the disabled and the orphans. We try to do everything within our power to solve our social problems. When we succeed, we are satisfied. But I must admit that, because of our limited possibilities, solutions are not always found on a timely basis.
MK: This interview will be read mainly by Diaspora Armenians, but not only them.
President: I know. We consider Artsakh to be a country for all Armenians. Taking this fact into account, the country’s population is doing everything for Armenians living in different corners of the world to feel proud that their compatriots in Artsakh can overcome hardships and difficulties, and are now involved in creative and constructive work.
I believe that by joining our efforts, we are able to build the country we have been dreaming about. We are now going along that path.
As for recognition of our country’s independence, not a single person in Artsakh doubts that it will come sooner or later because it is an inevitable process. We will continue to work hard for that day to come sooner than it seems possible.