The past few months, riddled with sporadic bouts of volatility inside and outside its borders, have been difficult for Armenia. In April, military escalation in the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh caught Yerevan off guard, resulting in a small but notable loss of territory for the Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh forces. The incident left the most casualties for Armenia and Azerbaijan seen since they implemented a cease-fire in 1994. And though the uptick in fighting lasted just over four days, it was enough to show that Russia, Armenia's strategic ally, was unwilling to come to Yerevan's defense. Instead, Moscow forced Armenia to resume diplomatic negotiations with Azerbaijan on the issue. Many Armenians consider the conflict and subsequent talks to be major setbacks, since Armenia would have preferred to maintain the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, this disappointment was one of the primary motives behind the July 17 capture of a police office in Yerevan by an armed group called Daredevils of Sassoun, an offshoot of Armenia's Founding Parliament opposition movement. The group, composed of many veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, received an outpouring of support from Armenian society. Thousands of people protested against the government, prompting it to open talks with the group that eventually led to its surrender on July 31. We asked H.E. Mohammad Raeisi, Iran’s former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Armenia, the latest developments and the roots of the recent hostage crisis in Armenia. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Armenia has faced with some economic-oriented protests during the past years. However, it seems the recent developments prove protests are not only unique in Armenia’s history but also rooted in domestic political corruption. What is your judgement about the core essence of the protests and would protestors bring about any change to the political establishment?
“I cannot agree with you that the protests have past history. First of all, hostage-taking was illegal and even the EU demanded its cessation. Second, the hostage-takers' invitation for the people to join them and stage demonstrations was met with cold shoulders; only a few people participated in nightly demonstration. There were three rallies, overall, the bigger one of which was a relatively small gathering. The people of Armenia were opposed to the hostage-taking. Especially, because they feared their country, like Ukraine, would experience the horrors of a civil war and dissolution.
“Most of the members of the political movement responsible for the hostage-taking were former warriors who fought in Karabakh. The main source of the opposition of those like Jirair Sefilian, the leader of the group, was the rumors about the appeasement of the Armenian government, regarding the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijani forces in particular, had retaken a few small regions in Karabakh, during the escalation of the crisis in April, 2016. Therefore, it is fair to call them a group of radical nationalists.
“And given that neither the Armenians nor the international community approved of the illegal approach of the hostage-takers, it cannot be argued that such incidents brought about sweeping changes in the Armenian society.”
While history suggests that the recent developments in Armenia probably indicate a color revolution stands on the Yerevan doorstep, you do not buy this idea. Why?
“I am positive the West has not yet decided to instigate a so-called Color Revolution in Armenia. There are many NGOs and media in Armenia that are funded by the West. Also, most of the Western financial assistance is dedicated to development and consolidation of civil society in Armenia. It can be argued that the younger generation and new classes of the Armenian society are more inclined toward the West, however, that cannot be generalized to the whole society. Plus, the Karabakh crisis unified the people of Armenia and they react to anything that threatens this national unity.
“There can be no the so-called color revolution in Armenia without the majority support of the Armenians. There needs to be a small and yet serious circle to form the nucleus of the revolution; their activities should receive extensive support from the Western politicians and media; and eventually, as the protests continue, they will force the government to capitulate to their demands. This model could be implemented in many countries, including Armenia. I seriously doubt that a color revolution would have the support of the majority of the people in Armenia. Also, security and economic dependence of Armenia on Russia is an issue that the West would not be able to replace in short-term. Ukraine did not have a security or political conflict with any other country; Armenia, however, has serious problems with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Thus, neither the government nor the people are willing to give up the support of Russia.”
Given your remarks, a vital question arises that which groups, movements and individuals lead the Opposition? You believe that the Opposition does not have enough power to organize the popular uprising. Correct?
“I think the current crisis was started by radical nationalists, though it was the limited demonstrations of the protesters that led to a political-economic confrontation. In other words, the demands of the hostage-takers were different from that of the protesters. For example, there were a series of demonstrations about mandatory pension insurance and increased Electricity prices in 2013 and 2014. None of the well-known opposition parties participated in them, and protesters did not affiliate themselves to any political party or group either. The core of the demonstrations consisted of a few young protesters who would choose a region in Yerevan via social networks and organize the gatherings. Regarding the indicators of globalization, the civil protests during the last few years in Armenia were leaderless.”
How would the Armenian developments take shape Iran’s policy towards Caucasus?
“Iran's long term strategy for interaction with its neighbors is a principled policy based on good neighborly ties and development of friendly relations. The same policy is in place for south Caucasus countries; the Islamic Republic of Iran has always emphasized the necessity of avoiding violence and solving the crises, like Karabakh dispute, through peaceful methods and within the boundaries of the international law. Accordingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran announced its opposition to acts of violence and the necessity of reliance on democratic means.”
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