Robert Aydabirian, is the co-founder of the European Union of Armenian Students and a historical defender of the Armenian cause in French and European political bodies. He has managed large French companies in the IT sector and in the last ten years he has coordinated the creation of three professional schools in Armenia and the relocation of the Mozian school from Shushi to Stepanakert. He is the initiator of the White Book.
Interview by Olivier Merlet
You compare the Karabakh conflict to the history of French-German relations. Could you explain what evokes such a parallel?
In the case of the Karabakh war, it was the time of the commemorations of the Paris Commune in 1870. I could not help but think back to Zola’s book “La débâcle”. The noise of boots and political agitation that we experienced in Armenia right after the war could have made us sink into civil war just like in France at that time. And there is no war worse than civil war, history has shown that many times. Thank God it hasn’t happened and I hope it won’t.
Nevertheless, I found in the Karabakh conflict many similarities with the events of 1870 in France, the motivations that pushed Bismarck to attack the France of Napoleon III and that led to this succession of wars until 1945.
The nationalistic, economic and territorial motivations of this Franco-German conflict, we find the same symptoms during the 1st and 2nd Karabakh wars, and before that with the history of the Armenian genocide.
The genocide is part of the permanent unconscious of Armenians up to my generation. During the Karabakh war, people talked about genocide and thought that genocide could happen again. When I was 12-13 years old, I went to the local school and they were still talking about German revanchism. All this suffering, all these ideas accumulated in people’s heads. In spite of all these vicissitudes and post-war apprehensions, we had sufficiently enlightened leaders, both in Germany and in France, and elsewhere as well, let us remember the mediating role of the Americans, who ensured that we have not experienced war for 75 years. Negative feelings have been replaced by feelings of cooperation, and well beyond that, to a true exemplary cooperation, whatever one may say. There is emulation, stimulation towards each other, transfer of knowledge, the European Union has been constituted and allows to share otherwise the European values and principles which from my point of view are far superior to anything we can see in the world in general.
According to you, the reconciliation between Armenians, Azeris and Turks would be achieved by enlightened elites. Are you advocating a change of elites?
No, we do not think or expect a change of elites, we expect a change of mentality, a change of methods in the way we deal with the two countries you are talking about and with the others as well. If tomorrow, someone a little more democratic, or a little more republican succeeds Erdogan or Aliyev, it will not change anything if everyone remains anchored and frozen in their ideologies, in their nationalism, in their retrograde ideas. That is part of the DNA. One should not let oneself be taken by one’s DNA but by one’s neurons. Our paper does not consist in drawing up plans to say that if so-and-so changes, things will get better. We are the ones who must change. We, the Armenians, must change. To live and adapt, or rather, to understand and navigate through the obstacles and difficulties that we perceive in our neighbors.
Attitudes are often difficult to change. How can this change take place?
There are several levels. Leaders, after all, are there to show the way and change attitudes at the grassroots level. I want to believe that if the example comes from the top, then it will change. The hatred that has developed in Turkish or Azeri society against Armenians comes from its leaders. It has been maintained or revived according to their interests or ulterior motives. I am thinking in particular of the rise of hatred in Azerbaijan, which was organized to prepare the population to fight against the Armenians.
I was told that in Baku in 2018, when the Velvet Revolution in Armenia took place, there was a positive feeling among the population towards the Armenians and Pashinyan because they too wanted a less corrupt and more democratic regime. There was a certain ideological complicity in people’s minds. Unfortunately, it did not last, the blunders committed after the revolution went against the Azeri national feelings.
Concerning Turkey it is different, hatred against the enemy, against minorities, Armenian, Kurdish or others, is maintained in order to flatter Turkish nationalism, itself exploited by the AKP and the MHP for electoral and political reasons in order to keep the power.
If by chance, and above all by hard work, we manage to convince the Turks and Azeris to sit down around a table and discuss an opening, the paths to take towards building a healthy cooperation, I think, as they say in France, that this will trickle down to the population in a positive way.
Is the Armenian side ready for this?
I know my Armenian compatriots well. I think that they are much more flexible, much more “adaptable” to this kind of situation. It is said that adaptation is one of the main forms of intelligence. If Armenians have existed for 3000 years, it is because they have been able to adapt. I think that Armenians will accept this. There is an important and not insignificant fringe of the Armenians who have maintained for 120 years and especially since the genocide a very important form of frustration with regard to the fate reserved to them in the Ottoman Empire. This does not make things easier.
The Dashnak party?
Yes, but not just the nationalists, I would say. Armenian nationalism is not conquering, it is not hatred of others, it is rather a patriotism. The Dashnak are rather patriots. They made the recognition of the genocide their leitmotiv, it was necessary to do so. But in the 90s and 91s, it would have been better to stop clinging to this branch of history and invest in building the Armenian state.
What is more important between the genocide and state building? Between history and the survival of Armenia? Because Armenia is at risk there, threatened by the flight of its population, threatened at its borders. For me, it is in the most terrible period perhaps of its history, it risks to disappear. It has started by losing territories, Karabakh, perhaps Syunik, their populations are leaving. If we are not intelligent, if we are not sufficiently vigilant, one day Armenia will end up as a “vilayet” lost between Gyumri and Yerevan, with a million Armenians reduced to an Armenian colony in the Caucasus. We have to make choices, courageous choices, even if we have to swallow our hats or go back on very strong convictions rooted in us.
Thirty years ago, we had two options on our agenda. Either to put all our energy, all our intelligence, into establishing and building the Armenian state, or to wage war in Karabakh. We fought a war in Karabagh, and 30 years later the result is worse than what we had, the Armenian state was never built. The ideal Armenian state, I mean, even just a normal, free and independent one, the one that I, my father and my grandfather dreamed of.
We immediately put ourselves in a defensive position, we lost 6,000 young people during the first war, a million Armenians left the country, 300,000 fled to Azerbaijan and 700,000 Azeris returned to Azerbaijan, with probably 10-20,000 dead on their side. This is what Armenia was built on. Armenia was built on this debris. You don’t build a state on war. This is what Bismarck did when he tried to build a German state on the conflict with France. It cost 3 wars, 2 of which were world wars.
Speaking of swallowing one’s hat, has Armenia not made a mistake in its expectations from France, Europe and the West in general?
In the mind, in the consciousness of Armenians, and this goes back to the 19th century, the world had its eyes turned towards the West. This feeling, this illusion of the West coming to the rescue of the Armenians, was first called, before the First World War, “the Armenian question”. There were the great speeches of Jaurès who spoke for the Armenians, or those of Charles Péguy. After the war, it was “the Armenian case”, that is to say what about the survivors of the genocide, the protection or the abandonment of this population, which was unfortunately the case? And then there was the whole question of the recognition of the genocide. Each time there were very positive attitudes, very favorable to the Armenians until the moment when there were agreements with Atatürk. After 80, 90, 100, 110 years, the recognition of the Armenian genocide was finally obtained, until the declaration of the United States and Joe Biden recently. The security of a country and the security of the Armenians cannot be based on this, not on this way of hearing or receiving the Armenophilic signs of some and others. I call this self-deception. We thought that we would be supported because we were Christians, because we were martyred, because we were under the yoke of a sultanic power, and each time we were disillusioned. Am I pointing the finger at the West? No. I am not being anti-Western, I am simply saying that we are the ones who made a mistake.
One has the impression today that there are two French foreign policies: that of the President of the Republic, openly pro-Armenian, and on the other hand, that of the Quai d’Orsay, very close to Azerbaijan. We are a bit lost, what do you think French diplomacy wants?
No, I am not lost. And I must say that the exercise of the white paper, thanks to the exchanges we had with each other, has enlightened me a little more. The pro-Armenian activists of France, of course, protest against this lack of discernment and sympathy on the part of the Quai d’Orsay. They also protest against the doctrine put in place in the 1990s and pursued since then, very actively by the way with Jean-Yves le Drian, that of economic diplomacy. I think that this term of economic diplomacy, this shocking term, is the one that qualifies today’s diplomacy, conducted by all the states of the world. I’m going to stroke the back of Saudi Arabia to sell him mirages… If you don’t understand that this is how the world works, if you think that by talking to Thales, they will stop selling arms to Baku, you’re just kidding yourself.
Macron and Le Drian are both in their roles. Macron has said on several occasions that he had difficulty getting the Quai d’Orsay to do what he wanted. He called them neocons [editor’s note: neo-conservatism, a current of political thought of American origin that emerged at the end of the 20th century]. Pun aside, the term refers to people who are very attached to the doctrines of NATO, the United States or Israel, and who, in a general and very traditional way, defend existing alliances. This causes them a lot of problems.
Macron is an intelligent guy, who has a number of values, culture and a developed sensitivity. Erdogan’s aggressive, imperialist behavior is not acceptable.
So, re-establishment of the communication channels and trade relations with Azerbaijan, Turkey and the whole region?
Yes. Let’s end the self-delusion, let’s try to face the facts. There is a lot of talk about geostrategy… Geostrategy is about war… We should talk about geo-economic relations. They are much more important than geostrategy.
What do we see today? China is going to become the first economic power in the world and India will soon overtake China in terms of population, demography is an important element of development potential. Then there is the scarcity and increase in the price of raw materials and hydrocarbons that greatly influence the behavior of leaders and their populations. Look at the yellow vests in France. Third element: global warming and the impact of transport, whether by sea or air, which pollutes enormously. I would venture to say that all this can have an impact on the question of means and routes of transport and therefore their shortening. The proposals made by India and Iran to cross the Persian Gulf to bring Eastern and Asian products, Iranian oil and gas, to Europe, via Meghri, through Armenia and Georgia, is an intelligent and interesting scenario.
Finally, in the economic stakes, there are the intellectual and technological capacities through which the populations of very small countries manage to influence many things at the political and economic levels. The high-tech sector is a leading industry in Armenia and is of interest to the whole world.
The geo-economic relations are very important. In his book “The New Silk Roads” Peter Frankopan talks about the axis of rotation of the world which connects Europe to the Pacific. Where is this axis? It’s over there, through the Caucasus. My vision is a federation of the states of the South Caucasus, a zone where we would stop beating each other up and where we would be intelligent enough to cooperate with each other according to our abilities and means.
An old friend of mine used to say “today’s utopias are tomorrow’s realities”. Why shouldn’t we have such a union one day, why shouldn’t we manage, by aligning the interests of each other, to agree on a joint operation?
So how to do it?
Relations with Baku, Turkey, Russia and Georgia, Iran and India, etc., is a subject that requires a major increase in the level of understanding of international relations, a well-organized diplomacy with an extremely relevant Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which does not allow itself to be influenced by changes in the behavior or moods of the Prime Minister or the President. That is to say, it should not be in permanent reactive mode, but rather build the strategy of international relations step by step, and then execute it.
This implies that we discuss with each other, and perhaps even above all, with the Russians, but also with the Azeris, the Turks, the Georgians and the Iranians. It is the neighbors, the “near abroad” as the Russians say, who are most likely to solve the problems.
Could France, in a preliminary phase, have a real role in helping, for example, to restore a balance between Russia and Armenia?
France can and should get closer to Russia. It would be good for both countries, it would be good for Europe. The French could very well have a coherent policy towards Russia, a little bit different from that of the Americans. They should stop bugging us about Ossetia or Crimea. The Ukrainian case is a monumental stupidity of the European Union. In 2014, we went to Ukraine like an elephant in a china store and it did not solve its problems. Ukraine was at that time almost bankrupt. We angered the Russians who were supporting it at arm’s length and we went to the armed conflict between Ukrainians supported by the Europeans and the Russians. If France were to get closer to Russia in a more deliberate and voluntary way, I think that one of the collateral effects would be the improvement and a better balance of Armenian-Russian relations. At least there would be someone to whisper in the Russians’ ear and perhaps make them listen to reason so that they would stop their hegemonic and opportunistic behavior toward Armenia.
On the other hand, the Americans could influence Turkey, and in my opinion will do so, to get them to cooperate with Armenia. I remind you of the history of the protocols on which they were very much in the forefront. I remind you of the history of the protocols on which they were very much at the forefront. [Editor’s note: double protocol of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement signed in Zurich in 2009 but never ratified] What caused the protocol to fail? The precondition set by the Turks was to settle the Karabakh question. The protocols never took place, the Karabakh issue was not resolved and we paid for the 44-day war.
In the end, what do we have today? A state of Armenia that is not really a normal state, and a Karabagh that is considered by the entire international community and by France as Azeri territory. This is the only way to ensure that the people of Karabagh are not only able to live in a normal state, but that they are also able to live in a country that is not a part of the European Union. In the case of the latter, it is not possible to say that it is an independent state; even Google and other geo-localization systems have never indicated that this territory is not in Azerbaijan.
Does this mean that the case of Karabakh is settled and endorsed from the point of view of international diplomacy?
Everyone, the entire international community agrees with the outcome of the war. Everyone agrees with the agreement of November 9, everyone is happy, no one disputes what is in there. What irritates the French and the Americans, both co-chairs of the Minsk group, is that all this was done behind their backs. They are happy with the result but unhappy not to be part of it. The Turkish-Russian sponsorship, in the Italian sense of the word if I may say so, that of two clan leaders who have temporarily agreed to settle this problem in their own interests, leaves everyone else out. Putin was clever, he said: “the Minsk group will have its say on all this”. So he left the window open to air the room. And to come back to it, we are going to go round and round.
The French and the Americans are sending signals that the conflict is not over, that everything is not clear, that the status of Karabakh has not yet been determined… From there, to develop illusions about the West, such as those mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, is to put one’s finger in the eye. There is no need to delude ourselves. The Americans are not going to arrive with their F-16s or the French with their Rafales to defend their Karabakh. No, they will not come, they have other things to worry about, for them this issue is resolved.
If we have money and want to buy it, they will sell it to us. But they are not going to come to the rescue of Armenia. Maybe we will see them in the region if it explodes, if there is a war of Israel and Azerbaijan against Iran, which I fear for a long time and which I hope will not happen. The Russians would get involved, chain reaction, it would be the 3rd world war. But unless something like that happens, we will never see the Americans or the Westerners appear on the scene.
The real question to ask them, quite directly, is: when you say you are interested in the Karabakh issue, in the Minsk group, what do you mean by that, what do you have in mind? Be precise, clear and rigorous, the Armenians do not need any more illusions. The French and Americans want to be given a “pass” to be there because there are going to be business opportunities, geopolitical and geostrategic stakes, they want to have a say in what is going to happen and participate in the discussions and the final feast.
The authors of the White Paper state the following: Karabakh will not be independent. This is why it is so important to have a good understanding of the role of the state in the development of the region. This is why it is so important to have a good understanding of what is happening in the region and how it can be achieved. We did not follow the Lavrov plan, we did not let go of the 7 territories, we got caught in the carpet like children, and I do not say this by chance. Today Aliyev does not say that anymore. But when we look at his interest and ours, I mean the Armenians’ interest, I want to believe that by discussing with him, face to face and directly, we can obtain, through the term of autonomy, that is to say, self-administration, important possibilities. To have our own administration, to have a ministry of education, our own police force, to have what is necessary to make things work and to have a situation similar to that of other states. The Basque Country, Catalonia or Scotland, for example, which aspire to full independence, are doing very well in this respect. Who distributes taxes in Catalonia? Who manages education policy in Scotland? That’s their own parliament and their own administrations. Why can’t we have that in Karabakh? Why not discuss this now instead of waiting 4 years for the Russian armies to leave? That Aliyev, so exasperated, threatens them militarily and that the Russians finally say that a war with Azerbaijan would not be worth it, that they have too many common interests. Rather than waiting for that, we would do well to discuss now and find ways out, otherwise we will find ourselves completely helpless.
That’s what we think and I’m very happy that we worked with Taline, Gerard, and these 45 experts on these issues, which allowed us to be a little more aware and a little more intelligent than we were before.