Heiko Langner: “Armenian territorial claims are the basis of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”

Heiko Langner: “Armenian territorial claims are the basis of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”

Interview by Orkhan Sattarov, head of the European Bureau of Vestnik Kavkaza

Heiko Langner, a German political analyst, specialist on the post-Soviet space and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, has expressed his point of view on the conflict in an interview with Vestnik Kavkaza.

- Mr. Langner, what has brought you to such intensive research of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

- The conflict drew my attention in the late 1980s when the situation in the South Caucasus became tense. State mass media in the GDR was actively describing the events, taking the political side of Moscow and the Azerbaijani Soviet authorities. Actions of the Karabakh Armenians were pictured as anti-Soviet and nationalistic-separatistic. That time, I, as many other young people in the GDR, was having big hopes for the persona and politics of Mikhail Gorbachev, so I was shocked by the conflict in the Caucasus. It would not fit into the image of the Soviet Union formed by the state education system of the GDR. According to this image, the USSR was a voluntary state union of interconnected Soviet nations. A violent conflict spoke about the contrary.

After the unification of Germany and the collapse of real socialism, the mass media of the FRG was dominated by a pro-Armenian outlook on the conflict for a long time. So in early 1990s, I supposed that mass media of the GDR gave false descriptions of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In late 1990s, however, article with a pro-Azerbaijani approach to the problem were initiated again.

Now, I cannot recall for sure when it happened but after a some meetings with Armenians in Germany, I noticed that they were telling the very same story very coherently. It seemed somewhat memorized and even learnt by heart. It was always noted that Armenian were only victims of the conflict but, nonetheless, they managed to win the war. It gave me a sense of distrust because it cannot happen practically. In the reality of war, the ones who fight actively cannot be only the victims, they regularly get in situations where they are the offensive side. And so the one who does not fight and always remains a victim cannot win the war. I noticed that something just was not adding up, so I got down to more intensive research of the conflict about 15 years ago. Since then, I got into details of the Karabakh problem. Whether a person is an expert in this case or not is eventually decided by others. This should be decided by readers of the interview, I will accept that.

- What reasons for the conflict do you see?

- I can assure you that the first reason is not a competition between different principles of the international law like territorial integrity or the right for self-determination. These two principles are in no way mutually exclusive and can instead complement each other within the framework of a decision on granting autonomy from the central government, on condition of will of the sides. There are many examples in the world for this. The conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh is based, in my opinion, first of all, on contradictory images of the historic appurtenance of the region. Armenians consider it their part of the ‘historic Armenia.’ It should be noted that the huge space, which includes, besides Armenia, large territories of modern Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and in maximum version even Syria and Lebanon, has never seen Armenian statehood in over 700 years and the Armenian population lived under domination of other states. We should add that the Armenian population in its historic reality of settlement has never been a majority, and was forced to share the territory with numerous other groups of the population that, doubtlessly, had and have the same fundamental right to live there. Throughout history, the Armenian population has been facing situations of mass threat for its existence and banishment throughout history, starting with the Mongol invasion, and this has deeply anchored in the memory of the nation. For this reason, earlier strives for ‘national rebirth’ and own statehood was closely connected to understanding of ethnic homogenous state. Ethnic uniformity became a determinant for existence of the Armenian, equally with the desire to consolidate all territories inhabited by Armenians in a national state. No wonder the Armenian SSR, which like other USSR republics, was founded as a nationally-determined territory (because the socialist policy was supposed to be presented in a national form), had a constant decline of the non-Armenian population.

With all understanding of the tough history and sufferings of Armenian people under domination of foreign states, there cannot be any excuse for exile and displacement of other population groups. Today, Armenia with its 98% of ethnic Armenian population is the only mono-ethnic states in the South Caucasus. This can be explained by natural development, especially in such historically multi-ethnic region as the South Caucasus. The situation has become a result of focused policy, realized with a different level of intensity for decades, even despite communist dominance. And the goal of this policy is to form an ethnically homogenous state.

- How do you think this policy has affected the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh?

- From 1918 to 1920, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh belonged to the first independent Azerbaijani Republic, though even then, there were disputes about the ownership of the region. After sovietization of both states, the ‘Caucasian Bureau’ decided to finally leave Nagorno-Karabakh as an Armenian autonomous region, as part of the Azerbaijani SSR, in 1921. Although three Armenian representatives took part in the vote, Armenia has never given up its claims for the territory. In the 1960s, a petition campaign was initiated for the Moscow center to have the autonomous region transferred from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR. Moscow was consistently against it, rightly considering such pretensions as a precedent threatening the existence of the Soviet Empire. I have an impression that many young people of Azerbaijan do not know about this and often think that Moscow has always been on Armenia’s side. But this is wrong. Armenia initiated attempts to expand its national territory by merging compact territories inhabited by Armenians beyond the republic. This way, they tried to realize their national dream to form the united ‘Great Armenia.’

The same happened in the late 1980s. Back then, interethnic tensions with violent acts and pogroms erupted, resulting in both nations getting hurt. The current conflict has a long background rooting from realization of Armenian territorial pretensions, for which the principle of the right of people for self-determination is being instrumentalized today. Perhaps, even now, the majority of Karabakh Armenians, despite 20 years of de facto separation, do not want their own state and would prefer joining Armenia.

In the Soviet times, Azerbaijan was territorially happy and interested in protection of the then status quo, while Armenia wanted to fundamentally change it for its benefit. This is why it is clear who has more responsibility for escalation of the conflict. This can even be seen from the chronology of events. The National Supreme Council in Baku deprived Nagorno-Karabakh of the status of autonomy in November 1991, two years after Nagorno-Karabakh had unilaterally proclaimed its ‘independence.’ Moscow has always been the judge in this conflict. In reality, the conflict has lived throughout all the time of USSR’s existence, and Moscow only ‘froze’ it for some time. During Perestroika, it was unfrozen again and after the collapse of the USSR, it quickly grew into an interstate war. The burden of history should not be underestimated. The key to settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict lies in the hands of the Kremlin

To be continued