Karen Mirzoyan: The unrecognised minister
It is not easy to represent the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh, but the stakes could not be higher: extinction.
When Karen Mirzoyan, its “foreign minister”, wants to hold an international meeting he has to drive six hours from Stepanakert, Artsakh’s capital, to Yerevan, along the mountain road that forms its only link to the outside world.
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Sometimes the 3,000-metre high passes are blocked by snow.
In other places, the minister drives behind earth dykes to shield his car from potential Azerbaijani fire.
Artsakh, which is home to some 150,000 Armenian people, has an airport, but its warring neighbour has threatened to shoot down any plane that used it.
Meanwhile, foreign envoys do not call on Mirzoyan at home because European, Russian, and US diplomats are forbidden from going to Stepanakert to maintain neutrality.
When he gets to Yerevan, or flies onward to the EU, the minister holds meetings in private conference rooms instead of official buildings.
He also keeps quiet about them in order not to embarrass his interlocutors.
He told EUobserver in an interview that he had met with “EU officials” and other “high-level [EU] people, but not at the level of foreign ministers of big powers”.
The jovial 52-year old was born in Artsakh, which used to call itself the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. He left for Armenia and joined the Armenian foreign ministry, before stepping down to take the Artsakh post.
“It mightn’t be very good for your [professional] ambitions, but being the foreign minister of a non-recognised country is more enjoyable,” Mirzoyan said.
“I’m not bound by norms of diplomatic protocol. I’m more free,” he said.
He said Artsakh’s story inspired him.
“The fact I represent a small nation on the outskirts of Europe that was able to survive against all the odds, was able to win the war and build a democratic state, gives me strength and creativity,” he said.
He said proximity to people also inspired him.
“In Artsakh, the distance between a minister and a citizen is so small. You’re foreign minister for a few hours a day, but when your work ends and you walk in the street, you’re an ordinary citizen,” he said.
The conflict began in 1988 when the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Soviet Azerbaijan tried to join Armenia.
Armenia won a subsequent war, which claimed over 20,000 lives, and held on to Azerbaijani territory.
Both sides killed civilians, according to NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Memorial.
Twenty nine years later, there is still almost daily fire on the front line and there is little sign of reconciliation.
The last serious incident was on 25 February, the 25th anniversary of a massacre of Azeri civilians in the village of Khojaly.
Human Rights Watch and Memorial say that Armenian and Russian forces did it.
But when asked if Artsakh was ready to apologise, Mirzoyan claimed that Azerbaijan bore “direct responsibility” for the deaths.
“The Artsakh side should not apologise for crimes committed by the Azerbaijani authorities against its own people,” he said.
The minister said that Azerbaijan was still committing war crimes.
He said that its actions in the Nagorno-Karabakh village of Talish last April reminded him of its anti-Armenian pogroms in 1988.
“They sent special forces to Talish where they killed and mutilated elderly people, people over 80 years old,” he said.
Mirzoyan said the conflict ought, one day, to be ended by political negotiations.
He noted that countries in Europe, such as the UK with Scotland, and Spain with Catalonia, had found peaceful ways to resolve status issues.
“I hope. I hope, but I’m very pessimistic given what Azerbaijan is doing,” he said.
He accused Azerbajan’s authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev, who is spending billions of euros a year on arms, of enflaming tension.
"Aliyev speaks not of peace but of war, that one day he’ll destroy not just Nagorno-Karabakh, but all of Armenia," Mirzoyan said.
He also accused Aliyev of “fascist” propaganda.
“There’s no big hatred towards Azeris, especially among older Armenians, who remember how we used to live together. But every day Azerbaijani TV says that a good Armenian is a dead Armenian and blames Armenians for everything,” Mirzoyan said.
He said he was willing to discuss alleged crimes in the 1990s war, but he said that Azerbaijan silenced people, such as the writer Akram Aylisli, who tried to hold an open debate.
Red carpet treatment
The minister is not alone in his EU diplomacy.
Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan, who was also born in Nagorno-Karabakh, met top EU and Nato officials in Brussels this week.
But on the other side, EU countries buy almost as much oil and gas from Azerbaijan each year (€7.5bn) as Armenia and Artsakh’s combined GDPs (€10.5bn).
They have strategic relations with Turkey, Azerbaijan’s ally and a Nato member.
Aliyev often visits the EU and has hired lobbyists in EU capitals and in Washington.
He also buys influence in other ways. Italian prosecutors are currently investigating an MP for allegedly taking a €2.4 million bribe to work for Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
Mirzoyan said the EU should impose a cost on Aliyev’s aggressive behaviour.
“At least, don’t give the red carpet treatment to political leaders who come to the EU and say: ‘We’re here to sell oil and gas and in place for this to get indulgence for our crimes,’” he said.
The EU has little leverage in the South Caucasus, which lies in Russia’s sphere of influence, but Mirzoyan said Europe’s “soft power” could reduce the risk of escalation.
He invited EU diplomats to come and see Artsakh with their own eyes.
“There must be no black holes on the map of Europe … Europe must be present here in visible form,” he said.
The isolated republic last week held a referendum on a new constitution.
The EU said it did “not recognise the constitutional and legal framework of such procedures,” but Mirzoyan detected “some signs of understanding” in the EU statement that people in Nagorno Karabakh were entitled to express their views in a democratic process.
Some Armenians see the war as a Christian-Muslim conflict that dates back centuries.
Mirzoyan, who is a scholar of Turkic languages and culture, said it was a conflict of values, however.
“This is not just … some aborigines killing each other,” he said.
“It’s the border of Europe, the place where Europe begins. We have a common culture and history. People in Stepanakert might have a darker skin colour and hair colour than other Europeans, but they dream of the same future,” he said.
This interview is the fifth in a series of stories by EUobserver that examine the issues and look at the lives of ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The first part was about a referendum to create a 'Republic of Artsakh' in Nagorno-Karabakh. The second article looked at the origins of the conflict. The third one looked at the situation on the line of contact. The fourth one was a news update.