Monday, September 1, 2008

Interview with Karabakh's Representative in U.S.

This was published in April 5 and 19 issues of the Armenian Reporter.

“Karabakh has things to do in Washington”

NKR Representative Vardan Barseghian discusses the challenges of leading Artsakh’s de-facto diplomatic mission in the U.S. in an interview with the Armenian Reporter’s Nareg Seferian.

Reporter: This representation, the Office of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in the United States, first of all, how did it come about? What is the story behind it?

Barseghian: The representation itself was established in 1997, when the U.S. became closely involved in Nagorno Karabakh peace negotiations.

So, when I arrived, the office had already been up and running. In 1999, we formally registered the representation with the U.S. government under a special law that allows such representations to work here.

This arrangement does not grant us diplomatic privileges that are given to embassies of states that are formally recognized by the U.S. We have this arrangement since the Nagorno Karabakh Republic is still in the process of acquiring international recognition.

We work with the U.S. Congress, educating its members about the situation in Karabakh and advocating for economic and political support.

And certainly, we work with the Department of State, analytical centers, academia and the media. A major part of our work is directed towards establishing and maintaining strong ties with the Armenian Diaspora in the U.S.

Reporter: And this work gives the advantage to the Armenian perspective on this conflict? This boosts the Armenian effort in that regard?

Barseghian: Certainly. The Nagorno- Karabakh Republic – Artsakh – is already functioning as a state with all the required attributes and it has its own representations throughout the world, including in Armenia, Russia, France, Lebanon, Australia and the United States.

It is only natural that we want to establish direct contacts, and we are thankful to the government of the United States for allowing us to be here, and represent and defend our interests, and to advocate for greater ties and support.

Reporter: Obviously, the Diaspora has a role in this office, seeing as how you are in the same office suite as the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA). How did it come about that the NKR Representation was not housed in the same building with the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia?

Barseghian: That would not be politically correct: Karabakh needed to have its own separate premises. Since Armenia has bilateral relations with the United States, the existence of another diplomatic entity within the Armenian Embassy was seen as improper.

NKR has its state structures and although we are the same Armenian people, politically we are two distinct entities in the region, the Republic of Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and that is communicated through our foreign relations efforts.

So the AAA stepped forward and offered technical and financial support to our mission and, using this opportunity, I would like to thank the AAA for their critical support over the years.

In recent years, as Artsakh’s financial situation improved, the NKR government has been providing more financial support for its diplomatic missions around the world, including most of the funding for our mission in Washington.

But we still need to rely on Diaspora support.

We very much appreciate the Assembly’s help, but Karabakh needs to have a separate office and continue to work effectively with all our counterparts. I would use this opportunity to call on our friends here, Armenian and non-Armenian, to continue standing by the Representation, to extend greater support as we work towards our common objectives.

Reporter: You said that you are separate entities with the Embassy, but you mentioned also that you are the same Armenian people. Do you work alongside with the Armenian Embassy staff here? Is there ever any co-ordination or consultations with them?

Barseghian: We have a very good working relationship with the Armenian Embassy, including with Ambassador Tatoul Markarian. As I said, Karabakh has its own, distinct foreign policy agenda, diplomatic goals. But, on a number of issues, a number of subjects, our aims are the same. So, we work very closely while maintaining our independence.

Reporter: Apart from Karabakh, there are no other representations here in Washington from post-Soviet unrecognized republics? No Abkhaz or Ossetians?

Barseghian: Abkhazia used to have a representative in New York. At least there was somebody who worked with the United Nations on their behalf.

But I know for sure that Kosovo has maintained a very strong representation here, as did Montenegro and East Timor, before becoming independent.

So, it is not unusual for states seeking international recognition to have representation in the United States, and those states, of course, are here to present their cause and to explain the situation first-hand, so, it is important for us to be here, and to continue our work and expand our outreach.

Reporter: What has been Azerbaijan’s reaction to this office through its Embassy here, its community here? Do they raise this issue? Do they object to this, have there been any incidents, over the years, against the functioning of this office?

Barseghian: We know for a fact that Azerbaijan is not happy with our presence here, because one of their goals is to spread disinformation about Karabakh, to allege, without any factual ground, that Karabakh is an uncontrollable zone, that nuclear waste is being dumped there, that there is narcotics trafficking and any other criminal activity that Azerbaijan can imagine.

But when there is an office that presents the real situation in Karabakh, then, of course, that is not to Azerbaijan’s liking. They do not like that because they want to spread their disinformation unhindered and I am sure they have raised this issue with the State Department.

Several years ago, the late [Azerbaijani President] Heydar Aliyev was speaking at a public event in Washington, DC, and my colleague from the representation was present. He raised his hand to ask a question. Of course, as is customary at such events, when he stood up he introduced himself as working at the Karabakh Office…

The late Aliyev was very surprised, got very agitated and wondered how somebody from Karabakh could be allowed to be at that event, and even pose a question! The question itself almost did not matter.

This is just one example that they do not want us to be here.

Every time I or one of my colleagues gets up to speak in a public forum in presence of Azerbaijani officials, the reaction is always something like, ‘No, it cannot be, you cannot represent Karabakh, Nagorno Karabakh doesn’t exist, you are probably just a student here…”

Reporter: So, they are in denial…

Barseghian: Exactly. Or whenever there is a foreign visitor to Karabakh, and this visitor goes back and says NKR is a functioning country, they are not criminals, the situation is calm, people go about their daily business, Azerbaijan denies that, too, even from their own representatives. They even put one of their journalists in prison simply for visiting Karabakh and writing about it without the usual amount of bias.

Azerbaijan is awash in all these myths about evil Armenians, the evil Armenian lobby and even when the reality looks them straight in the eyes they would reject it to save their myths.

But since the U.S. is one of three lead mediators in the Karabakh conflict, and we do have representations in Russia and France, the other mediator countries, we really appreciate this opportunity to be here as well. And it is important for the U.S. government and the American public to hear our voice, because they are trying to mediate an issue that directly concerns us, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. So, despite these efforts by Azerbaijan, we are working within the limits of the status that we have.

Hopefully sometime soon these limits will be lifted, and Karabakh will be formally recognised by the international community, including the United States, and that is what we are working towards.

Reporter: You mentioned some of your activities, educating the Congress, informing various branches of the U.S. government, and ties with the Diaspora in America. Could you elaborate on that?

Barseghian: This Representation acts as any embassy in Washington, so we facilitate contacts between the United States and Karabakh, both on an official level, which includes regular visits by Karabakh officials here, and also at the public level. Any embassy in Washington is doing just that. The scope of activity differs, due to our specific situation, our ties with the executive branch are limited, but they exist. We have an ongoing dialogue. Our ties with the U.S. Congress are much wider.

Of course, information plays a major role, so we provide regular updates on developments in Karabakh. We maintain a web site and since 1999 we have been publishing the Artsakh Newsletter. This newsletter has covered the political situation, the peace process, economic situation in Karabakh, and other developments.

We used to have the newsletter both in print and electronic versions, but in 2007, we dropped the print format, to be able to issue it more frequently. The newsletter is now called the Artsakh News Digest and is issued electronically on a biweekly basis and it is distributed to the governments, think tanks, the media and throughout the Diaspora.

The Representation has just two staff members, including myself and to be effective we stay very focused on our work. [A third staff member was added recently. – Ed.]

Reporter: So, it’s just the two of you here… As I understand, this Representation has not had more than two or three people working at a time. Is this a problem? And is this because of financial constraints? You mentioned that your funding comes both from the government and Diaspora.

Barseghian: Yes, the Karabakh government provides the bulk of our funding. As I mentioned, the Assembly has provided office space since 1997, for which we are very grateful. Other organizations also support us on a limited scale, particularly the Cafesjian Family Foundation and the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). We also have a number of individual supporters.

We are truly thankful for all the support, but the challenges we face are huge. So, it is important that your readers, our compatriots understand that Karabakh has things to do in Washington, many things to do.

Of course, our office is understaffed and we have serious financial constraints. But Karabakh is the cornerstone of the Armenian national agenda today and we can help everyone who is willing to help us achieve our objectives to find a role for themselves.

Certainly, the representation needs to be much stronger, to have a bigger budget to be able to have at least five staff members. So, I’d like to use this opportunity to deliver this message that all our friends in U.S. need to stand by this representation, which has a very challenging task at hand.

Even with just two employees, we’ve been able to have a functioning representation, achieve increased awareness of the situation in Nagorno Karabakh, facilitate economic and cultural projects, doing whatever is within our limits.

But we have a new set of challenges in the region, to be able to counter Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s aggressive efforts, including in Washington, we need to appreciate what is happening now, and be able to continue our work not just in a reactive way, but also in a proactive way.

On the peace process and threats of war

Reporter: Over the past almost ten years now, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has been outside the Karabakh peace process. Is Karabakh’s participation in the talks necessary?

Or, do you think it’s appropriate to pull back on this in order to have more substantial talks, so that the content of the talks is more realistic and more in line with Armenian interests?

Barseghian: The current format of talks certainly does not reflect the reality on the ground and the division of decision authority. I would not say that Karabakh has been excluded from the talks, the top leadership of Karabakh is consulted on a regular basis and is informed about the specifics of the negotiations, and the current level of dialogue between the authorities in Karabakh and Armenia allows an exchange of information and certain level of co-ordination of actions, of steps.

But, naturally, talks should be first of all between Karabakh and Azerbaijan, with Armenia present as an interested party. When this whole conflict began, Azerbaijan
attacked Karabakh, and it was Karabakh that defended itself and Armenia stepped in to help its brethren in Karabakh.

Azerbaijan is trying to portray this conflict as a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the reality is that this is a national liberation movement for the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh. And only the people of Karabakh can decide their own future.

Of course, we trust Armenia, we are the same people, but, as I said, politically, we are separate. And the people of Karabakh need to be represented at the talks and, eventually, this is inevitable since no major issue can be decided without the explicit endorsement of the people of Karabakh directly or through their elected representatives.

The main reason there has been no progress in talks is because Azerbaijan is not really interested in accepting the reality, Azerbaijan wants to go back to the status quo of 1988, when the Soviet Union was still around. That is not possible.

Karabakh has been able to defend itself, and has been able to establish a line of defense, the Line of Contact that has been stable for about fourteen years without
a peacekeeping force and which needs to become an international border, which it is already de-facto.

Once this reality is recognized, Azerbaijan will sit down to talk with Karabakh about the future of our relations. About building bridges so that we, as citizens of this region can live in peace and go about our daily lives and take care of our economies and social needs of our respective populations.

For now, as long as Azerbaijan wishes to talk to Armenia about a peace deal that corresponds to our vision, we are fine with that. But Azerbaijan by refusing to talk to Karabakh also tries to create an illusion for itself and for the international community that this conflict is not about self-determination or liberation of the people, that it is a territorial dispute.

When somebody looks at a map and sees the current configuration of conflict, it is easy to buy that claim since what used to be Soviet Azerbaijan is now controlled by somebody else.

But it is crucial to realize that in 1992, when Karabakh was on the verge of extinction, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh were obliged to break out of the encirclement, go outside their former Soviet administrative borders in order to defend their people, homes and way of life.

In 1992, Azerbaijan occupied nearly half of Nagorno Karabakh Soviet-era territory, with all of its Armenian population expelled. But we were able to regroup, reorganize
our self-defense, and push back the Azerbaijani forces and create a buffer zone around Karabakh.

But this history of the conflict tends to be forgotten when we discuss territories, refugees, communications…

We need to continue to educate the international community, and everybody involved,
about the cause of this conflict, as well as the consequences. The cause was the illegal annexation of Nagorno Karabakh, a historic Armenian land, by Azerbaijan with the help from the Bolsheviks. Stalin just gave it to Azerbaijan.

The people of Karabakh were never happy with that decision. Last twenty years provided an opportunity to us to deal with this illegal occupation and liberate ourselves.

So, when this reality is appreciated, recognized, then it is easy to deal with consequences. So, when Azerbaijan advocates for a return to 1988, everyone needs to realize that it was that exact status quo that caused this conflict and that we do not need to continue with the same vicious cycle.

I think there is that appreciation internationally, we simply need to work, everybody needs to work with Azerbaijan in explaining the new reality, that there is no going back to the situation of 1988 or 1921.

The people of Karabakh have managed to realize their right to live in freedom, they defended that right on the battlefield, and the NKR has been successful in building a functioning country. When this is recognized, we will be able to come to a solution sooner rather than later.

Reporter: Is there a real threat that the conflict may re-ignite into war?

Barseghian: Yes, the war, the Azerbaijani aggression is still a very recent history for us and we are not forgetting it. And Azerbaijan’s top government officials continue to threaten us with a new war, and we consider our history and we see the military build-up by Azerbaijan and we understand that a new war cannot be ruled out.

Having said that, we also know that Azerbaijan recognizes our ability to defend ourselves and we have been keeping our defense capability up-to-date, in line with demands of a modern war, and that is why the Line of Contact has been generally stable.

A certain balance of power has been established in this region, which paved the way for the ceasefire.

Once this balance of power shifts, a new war may become more likely. Of course, we are not interested in starting a new war, we basically got what we wanted; we wanted to be able to live securely on the lands of our ancestors. We were able to reach that goal.

Unfortunately, our people paid a very heavy price for that, and because of this war that Azerbaijan initiated, that price was inevitable as we were left without alternate options. Our heroes, who sacrificed their lives and health, did so knowingly, to ensure the life and freedom of their families.

Today, we cannot rule out a new war, but we are not afraid of it either. We know that we need to be prepared for another war in order to make it less likely. Azerbaijan knows about our determination to defend ourselves, our lives.

But the day that we give Azerbaijan a reason to doubt our determination, will be the day when the war would undoubtedly begin. But we are not going to give Azerbaijan that reason.

Reporter: But Azerbaijan is increasing its military spending, they have made their intentions clear. Does this not mean that Karabakh may be faced with more daunting challenges?

Barseghian: We are aware of Azerbaijan’s increased military spending, but we also keep up in defense capabilities, improving, modernizing, and training our soldiers and officers to be ready for a new war.

The war of 1991-1994 was very hard for the people of Karabakh, for all Armenians who came to support us. In that war, Azerbaijan had an upper hand in personnel and equipment. Perhaps ten times more military hardware, at least 3-4 times more ground forces. Nevertheless, faced with such difficult odds, Artsakh was able to prevail.

Azerbaijan knows the facts of that war, and even the biggest army will not help them, because our soldiers will be fighting for their families, their homes. And certainly in addition to that motivation, we now have the type of defense capabilities that we never had before.

The NKR Office: how to get involved

Reporter: Back to Washington issues. Do you often get people coming in, Armenians or not, who want to help out, or who have done things for the NKR Representation here?

Barseghian: Over the years there have been many such cases, but I of course wish we had even more. For several years now, we have had an internship program, so that plays a part. Using this opportunity, I would like to thank the volunteers who have helped us all these years.

All of this support has been great, but the central issue for the office is to be able to have a bigger staff and for sure, a bigger budget.

I would also like to mention a lot of day-to-day support from organizations, especially the Armenian Assembly of America, the Armenian National Committee, the
U.S.-Armenia Public Affairs Office and others that work in Washington and throughout the U.S. That’s where our strength comes from, and we are really lucky in this regard
to have the support of those organizations.

But our co-operation needs to reach a new level that will correspond to current realities and challenges.

It’s been sixteen years since Karabakh’s independence. We have to recognize that the world has changed, that our opponents are working very hard against us internationally and that we need to be up to the new challenges to achieve our goals.

Reporter: Finally, can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you end up representing the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the U.S.?

Barseghian: In 1999, while working at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Karabakh, I got a call from then President Arkady Ghoukasian, with whom I previously worked at the Foreign Ministry. He said that he wanted me to accept this position, which I did and a month later I arrived in Washington.

But there is a pre-history to that of course. Back in 1993 I just graduated from university in Moscow and was preparing to go back to Karabakh. I was in the metro, and as I was making a transfer from one metro line to another, I walked by a vendor who held a book in his hand titled “English in Three Months.”

I noticed the title as I was passing, then stopped, came back and bought that book.

Prior to that my foreign language was German and I did not study English at school or university. But I always liked English, I liked the way it sounded, I liked the Beatles and other bands, and I always wanted to learn it, so I bought that book.

Back in Karabakh, there was no electricity, no heat, shortage of water and everything else, and the war… But I really wanted to learn English. There was this drive inside me, I had just graduated and, you know, I still had that urge to keep learning.

So, at night, I would sit down and learn English by candle-light. I even built a candle chandelier myself!

I studied diligently. My mother – God bless her soul – would wake up at night at four or five o’clock and see me still studying by candlelight, and would say, ‘What are you doing?! Go, get some rest!’

But I had this motivation that I could not stop. And later, working for international relief organizations in Stepanakert and at the Foreign Ministry I had a chance to practice the language. And eventually, that played a major role in getting me to where I am. But at that Moscow metro stop, I never thought I would end up in Washington.

And in spite of all challenges, it is definitely a great privilege and honor to be Artsakh’s envoy to the United States.

About Vardan Barseghian

Prior to his appointment as the Permanent Representative of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic to the United States in August 1999, Mr. Barseghian helped manage the Stepanakert office of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and earlier worked at the NKR Foreign Ministry.

Born in 1970 in Stepanakert, Mr. Barseghian finished a local high school and then enrolled at the Moscow Civil Engineering University. After compulsory military service in the Soviet Army and graduation from the university in 1993, Mr. Barseghian
returned to Karabakh. There, he first served in an NKR Defense Army unit that repaired armored vehicles damaged in combat and then joined the Karabakh office of the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), one of the foreign humanitarian organizations that provided medical aid in Karabakh during the war.

Mr. Barseghian and his wife Lusine have two sons, Robert and Thomas.

For more information about the NKR Office visit htt://

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