Friday, July 18, 2008

Interview with Serge Sargsian

First published in October 27 2007 Armenian Reporter

Serge Sargsian: “External challenges cannot bring us to our knees”
In an interview with the Reporter, Armenia’s prime minister discusses security threats and domestic problems
by Emil Sanamyan

WASHINGTON – U.S. and Armenian officials held biannual talks on economic cooperation as Prime Minister Serge Sargsian wrapped up a visit to the United States with meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senate leaders Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) and Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.), National Democratic Institute president Kenneth Wollack, and leaders of Armenian American organizations.

On October 23, Mr. Sargsian and Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs Jeffrey Reuben signed an agreement on civil aviation security and safety, a key step in the effort to open a direct air link between the United States and Armenia. Later that day, the prime minister’s delegation flew to France for an official visit there.

In an interview with The Associated Press the previous day, Mr. Sargsian said that while Armenia hopes the Armenian Genocide resolution would eventually pass the U.S. Congress, he did not lobby U.S. officials on his visit, with their talks focusing on economic and security issues.

Asked about cooperation in intelligence sharing, Mr. Sargsian recalled that his first official visit to the United States was in 1996 in the capacity of Armenia’s national security minister on an invitation from his counterparts from the Central Intelligence Agency. He said that both security and military cooperation between the two countries have picked up since 2000.

Also on October 22 Mr. Sargsian talked with the Armenian Reporter’s Washington editor Emil Sanamyan about Turkey’s genocide denial, ways to deal with Azerbaijan’s threats over Karabakh, relations with Iran, and concerns over Armenia’s domestic developments.

A translation of that conversation follows.

Does Turkey want Armenia to demand territory?

Reporter: In your interview with the Los Angeles Times on Friday [October 19] you mentioned that the campaign for Armenian Genocide affirmation has two dimensions: one has to do with historical justice and the other with Armenia’s security today. Could you elaborate on how you see the link between this process and Armenia’s security challenges? Does this process also relate to the Karabakh conflict?

Sargsian: The unresolved nature of the Karabakh conflict is indeed the biggest challenge to Armenia’s security. And Turkey is certainly playing a role in that conflict. Denial of the fact of the Genocide is already a danger. The only way to achieve reconciliation is through admission of mistakes.

We are not blaming today’s Turkey, the modern-day Turkish government for the genocide. Therefore, the nonadmission by the Turkish government of today of mistakes of past rulers contains an element of danger for us.

In a way, the [postwar] Turkish government was on a right track, having condemned [the Young Turks] and having sentenced them to severe punishments.

Why would the [Turkish] government of today forget about that? Do they have certain hidden motives? That tells me that there is a problem.

I am also surprised by conclusions of certain second-tier Turkish officials that [recognition of the Genocide] would lead to some other claims. This is surprising, because it is unclear how one would lead to the other. How can any territorial or other claims be realized anyway?

Reporter: The latest issue of the Economist [October 20] suggested that “Over the past few months the Americans have been working on a proposal calling for Turkey to establish formal ties with Armenia and to end its blockade. In return, Armenia would recognize its existing border with Turkey and publicly disavow any territorial claims, including the claim to Mount Ararat, its national symbol. A deal of that sort might have helped the Bush administration head off the genocide resolution, and could possibly have squashed it for good.” Are you familiar with such a proposal?

Sargsian: No. And I would be surprised by something like this, because for years our policy has been establishment of diplomatic relations without any preconditions. Doesn’t that already mean that we have no further claims? Establishment of diplomatic relations is a form of mutual recognition. What else might anyone want?

Last April I was at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where we discussed the progress of Armenia’s Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO. Naturally, Turkey’s
ambassador was there as well, and he hinted at this issue. In my response I said that I am getting an impression that Turkey wants us to have claims against it.

In reality, we have no claims and [Turkey] is saying, “No, they have them.” This is hard to understand.

Keeping peace through economic development and reliable defense

Reporter: Both Azerbaijan’s threats of war and Armenia’s defense capabilities are well known by now. At the same time, aggressive steps from the other side cannot be ruled out. What should Armenia do to further raise the cost of any potential aggression for Azerbaijan and, thus, decrease its likelihood?

Sargsian: The only way is to further develop Armenia’s economy and continue to care for the battlereadiness of the Armenian armed forces. It is no secret that should Azerbaijan launch provocations over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia would not remain indifferent.

It is in fact the case that today Azerbaijan has more funds than we do. But money alone cannot produce a battle-ready army, especially in a relatively short period of time. And we too are now forced and are able to spend considerable sums on defense. I do not believe that a difference of half a billion dollars can result in Azerbaijan’s superiority over Armenia.

The experience of the early 1990s shows that Azerbaijan’s considerable superiority over us, in terms of funds, manpower, and weapons, could not be translated into superiority on the battlefield.

Reporter: Are you worried by recent acquisition of more advanced weapons systems by Azerbaijan, be that aircraft or long-range artillery? Could that tip the scales in a
potential war?

Sargsian: I don’t believe so. We have serious air defense systems that are capable of preventing Azerbaijani air forces, including the newly-acquired MiG-29s, from
reaching the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Our objective is to use fewer resources to maintain parity with Azerbaijan and everyone knows that a jet costs much more than an air defense system.

Reporter: But doesn’t that provide the other side with tactical opportunities that Armenian armed forces, with their reliance on defense systems, do not have? Doesn’t that leave the initiative in their hands?

Sargsian: That is not so much about initiative as it is about an arms race, and we would prefer not to engage in such a race and really cannot afford one. Indeed, we do not have aggressive intentions, but if we are forced to defend ourselves this would not be a static, but dynamic and active defense.

Reporter: Following your visit to Moscow in late September, Azerbaijani media claimed that the Russian military presence in Armenia would be expanded to include a new base near Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan and Georgia. Is there any truth to this?

Sargsian: None at all. We already have a defense agreement with Russia [concluded in 1995], which is very well respected there. That agreement governs the location and size of Russian forces in Armenia. More importantly, we rely on our own armed forces.

Reporter: You mentioned to the Los Angeles Times that estimates show that Armenians
around the world hold somewhere between $100 and $300 billion in assets and cash. How much of that can support Armenia’s security needs in order to counter Azerbaijan’s military spending with its government-estimated oil revenue of more than $120 billion over the next decade?

Sargsian: When we talk about such large funds, we talk about “clean money,” and it is understandably difficult for diaspora- Armenians to contribute for the benefit of the armed forces of a foreign country, even if it is their homeland. So, I have never allowed myself to discuss this subject with our major [Diaspora] businesspeople. Nevertheless, they are participating indirectly.

For example, earlier today I met a businessperson who has launched a high-tech company in Armenia. If this company operates successfully, employing local specialists, this will mean that the well being of their families in Armenia would be secured, that they would be paying their income taxes, and in the end some of this revenue would be used for our defense.

But certainly I do not rule out a possibility that should we ever reach a critical point we would turn to our compatriots for their help to ensure that we are successful.

Reporter: With the return of Armenia’s former President Levon Ter- Petrossian to active politics, the debate on whether Armenia is capable of developing without serious compromises to Turkey and Azerbaijan is likely to be rekindled. What is your argument today vis-à-vis this thesis voiced by the ex-president in 1997–98 and one that he appears to continue to endorse today?

Sargsian: I don’t want to build my case on disputing views of others. And I view presidential elections as an opportunity to present to the electorate my vision and my plans.

But how can this thesis hold true if to this day Armenia has not fallen behind either Azerbaijan or Georgia in economic terms? This means that we do have development opportunities.

I am not one of those to argue that it doesn’t matter if relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain unresolved and borders closed and that the [status quo] does not interfere with our development. Of course it does and this has been my view for 15 years.

At the same time, I believe that these challenges cannot bring us to our knees. I don’t want to sound pretentious but this is the heart of the matter.

Certainly we should continue to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Azerbaijan. We should seek to establish normal relations with Turkey and resolve our outstanding issues directly rather than through statements for mass media.

But such efforts cannot mean that we just give up on our core interests. Our opponents’ impressive economic figures cannot result in our capitulation. Any such capitulation would be truly devastating for Armenians and may even seal the fate of our nation.

Armenia must maintain Iran relations

Reporter: The issues related to Iran continue to dominate international headlines. I would imagine the issue came up during your meetings in Washington, which overlapped with the Iranian president’s visit to Yerevan. How can Armenia strike the right balance between concerns raised by the United States and others and the fact that Iran is a very important neighbor?

Sargsian: I think that Americans understand our situation. For Armenia, Iran is a very important country. For us, it is one of just two countries that serve as conduits to the rest of the world. Iran is an energy-rich country and that helps
us address our economic security challenges.

For these reasons, we are not ready for any other approaches. And I believe we will continue our relations with Iran. No one in Armenia is above the law

Reporter: Earlier this year, the Financial Times reported that your government “will put economic development ahead of human rights improvements.” Is this accurate and do you think greater democracy might somehow hinder economic development?

Sargsian: This is not what I told the Financial Times. What I told them is that when [a government] is unable to provide its citizens with normal economic opportunities, it is hard to talk about other rights.

This certainly does not mean that economics trump democracy, not at all. I don’t think the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, with whom we are implementing Poverty Reduction programs, are disinterested in democracy. But it is simply the case that the right to a decent life is the most inalienable right for any individual.

Reporter: The president just fired Judge Pargev Ohanian. That came after he ruled unfavorably in a case brought by the government. Do you not see a contradiction between this decision and the government’s stated goal of strengthening judicial independence?

Sargsian: How can a firing of a single judge lead you to such conclusions? God forbid. We are advised to be strict with our judges [when they violate the law]. So, why is the official motivation behind this decision being questioned? I absolutely disagree with such an approach.

Reporter: Also, it appears that last year and earlier this year there was a spike in criminal activity in Armenia. Do you share the perception that the situation with crime in Armenia is getting worse?

Sargsian: I completely disagree that there has been an increase in crime in Armenia. There are official statistics readily available that contradict such views. Anything
else is just political spin.

My good acquaintance in California asked me why the Armenian Public TV satellite transmissions into the United States include [the Armenian version of the Most Wanted] program. It leaves people with an impression that there is a major crime problem in Armenia, which is not at all the case.

Sure, we are not capable of resolving every single crime. But show me a country which is. In fact there has been an overall decline in crime, and there are no forces in Armenia that can act with impunity.

Reporter: But there is widespread perception that certain figures in government and in business can do exactly that.

Sargsian: There is a difference between perception and reality. I state with all responsibility that today in Armenia there are no individuals or groups that are above the law.

The tax collection targets that our government has set for 2008 will also help dispel such perceptions. If we are able to meet our targets it will become clear to everyone that no so-called oligarch is above the law.

We have a complex approach to corruption that includes introduction of stricter legal punishments for economic crimes, such as tax evasion; higher salaries for state officials; more transparent administrative mechanisms. Perhaps in this issue we are lacking a public relations campaign that would showcase punishments for corrupt officials.

That is not to say that we do not have shortcomings, we have plenty of them. And I appreciate all criticism of such shortcomings. It is criticism for the sake of criticism that I reject.

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