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Serzh Sargsyan: Armenia’s former president rails at ‘madness’ of Nagorno-Karabakh war

Borzou Daragahi
·5-min read
Serzh Sargsyan in a televised meeting with anti-government protest leader Nikol Pashinyan (VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Serzh Sargsyan in a televised meeting with anti-government protest leader Nikol Pashinyan (VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Armenia's former longtime president has warned of a worsening conflict in the Caucasus where armed forces loyal to his country are battling Azerbaijani soldiers in a rare modern war pitting two nations against each other.

Serzh Sargsyan spoke to The Independent as the two countries’ foreign ministers were set to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on Friday, in a desperate effort to end the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, the deadliest since the 1990s.

That potential diplomatic breakthrough comes after claims on Tuesday from the breakaway region’s defence ministry that almost 800 people have died in the current fighting which erupted last month.

Sargsyan, a deeply controversial figure, called the ongoing war “madness,” blaming Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev for being the driving force behind the conflict.

“Strategically, this war is madness and civilians are paying for Aliyev’s insane dream,” he told The Independent via email.

Armenia claims the mostly ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave as part of its homeland even as it is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory. The region and surrounding districts also considered part of Azerbaijan have been under the control of Armenian forces and a puppet government loyal to Yerevan since an early 1990s war.

Azerbaijan, rich with gas money and backed by regional power Turkey, has the military hardware edge over Armenia and has made small gains since fighting began 27 September. But Mr Sargsyan said Azerbaijan’s gains have come at a tremendous cost.

"The President of Azerbaijan has repeatedly promised to his people that his army can conquer Nagorno-Karabakh very quickly,” he said. “Now they are using all weapons at their disposal, including drones and mercenaries sent by Turkey. Yet in three weeks of fighting, they could progress only in one district and this does not mean the end of the war.”

In response, a top Azerbaijani official dismissed Mr Sargysan as a “war criminal” who he said was involved in the mass murder of at least 161 civilians in the town of Khojaly in 1992.

“He was directly engaged in killing Azerbaijani civilians,” Hikmet Hajiyev, an adviser to Mr Aliyev, told The Independent. “Now he tries to depict himself as an angel and peace lover. For Azerbaijan, he’s a war criminal and killer of kids.”

Videos posted to the internet over the last 48 hours showed train cars and trucks loaded with military equipment purportedly heading from Russia and Iran to Armenia.

Mr Sargsyan has been a major figure in Armenia since its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. He has served as a prime minister, defence minister, and minister of national security and, from 2008 to 2018 president, taking over for a week as prime minister in an attempt to increase his power following constitutional changes.

During his years as president he sought to reach out to both Azerbaijan and Turkey in an effort to normalise ties. In a grand gesture of diplomacy, he invited then Turkish president Abdullah Gul to watch a football match between the two countries in Armenia, while Mr Sargasyan traveled to Turkey for a subsequent game.

But many Armenians consider him corrupt, autocratic and a pawn of the Kremlin. They drove him from power in widespread street protests that launched a new era of politics in Armenia in 2018 under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, a populist journalist who, following a brief period of hope and renewed dialogue, came to be described by some as more chauvinistic and less conciliatory in his approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Mr Sargsyan has fallen out of favour in Yerevan. Mr Hajiyev described him as the “most hated person” in Armenia. He now faces embezzlement charges relating to allegations of pilfering approximately £800,000 from a state fuel subsidy programme.

He said he and other former Armenian officials and opposition figures had sought to advise the new government but had mostly been ignored. Still, he pointedly declined to criticise his successor or the Armenian commanders leading the war effort. Azerbaijani officials in the months preceding the war voiced alarm at what they called the aggressive military posture of Armenia’s defence minister David Tonoyan.

“In my opinion, a doctrine of pre-emptive action is not appropriate for our case,” said Mr Sargysan, who has served as Armenia’s defence minister for two lengthy stints.

In the midst of the conflict, the government in Yerevan sacked its intelligence chief, in a possible sign of discontent at the direction of the war effort.

“My successor didn’t take the path we have been successfully following for a considerable time and decided, as he has put it, to start the negotiations from his own point of view,” he said.

Mr Hajiyev said Mr Sargysan had repeatedly undermined any peace efforts with intransigence aimed at prolonging the occupation of Azerbaijani land.

Azerbaijan ArmeniaAzerbaijan's Defense Ministry
Azerbaijan ArmeniaAzerbaijan's Defense Ministry

“For us he was a gambler,” he said. “He was also a person you can’t have any confidence or trust.”

But Mr Sargysan blamed Azerbaijan for sabotaging any hope of peace. “This conflict was never really a frozen conflict, even though we managed to guarantee the security of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said. “On a smaller scale, Azerbaijan kept attacking us throughout these years.”

The boisterous support of Azerbaijan by Turkey in the conflict has been decisive, he said. “The current war against Nagorno-Karabakh comes with an unprecedented level of joint preparation by Azerbaijan and Turkey,” he said. “Turkish drones are the backbone of Azerbaijan’s attack. One can conclude that the decisions about the military action are taken jointly.”

Experts say the closest the two countries came to achieving a settlement came in 2011, when Mr Sargysan and Mr Aliyev broke off talks organised by Moscow, Washington and Paris in the Russian city of Kazan.

A resolution of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh appears further than ever. “This conflict is not resolved, partially because of the lack of trust,” he said. “I strongly believe that direct negotiations with Aliyev are a big mistake for the simple reason that Azerbaijan will never agree to the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

The Kremlin is trying to broker a meeting in Moscow between Mr Pashinkyan and Mr Aliyev.

Asked what he would say to his Azerbaijani counterparts, Mr Sargysan said: “This conflict cannot be solved with military means or with any solution that would drive Armenians from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh. Peace needs to come through negotiations.”

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