Ambassador Ashot SMBATYAN: “Our initiative will turn South Caucasus into crossroads between East and West, North and South, as it used to be for centuries"

07.12.2023 (Caucasian Journal) It is an honour for Caucasian Journal to welcome His Excellency Ashot SMBATYAN, the Ambassador of Armenia to Georgia and Hungary.

 Հայերեն. Read the Armenian version here.
▶ ქართულად:  Read the Georgian version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: Your Excellency, welcome to Caucasian Journal. This interview is special for us, because one of the aims of our journal is to support the centuries-old ties between the peoples in our region, to share the achievements, and to discuss the solutions to the problems.  So, when I was planning the concept of this interview, I wanted to suggest two main themes to discuss: The implications of the latest developments in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the relations with Georgia. You are welcome to correct me by guiding me to other subjects, but let me start by expressing the empathy to over 100,000 Armenians who had to leave Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), and at this moment are very far from their homes. How would you comment on this – both as a diplomat and as a person?

Ashot SMBATYAN: First, let me thank you for this opportunity. It has been a year since I have been appointed the Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia to Georgia, and I believe that this is a good opportunity to sum up the progress we have had during this year.

I would also like to thank you for your kind words of support regarding the tragedy that happened to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, it is important to hear these words in friendly Georgia. Indeed, the aggression unleashed by Azerbaijan against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, followed by forcible displacement of the entire indigenous population of Nagorno-Karabakh was nothing but an ethnic cleansing, which should have been strongly condemned by the international community. Unfortunately, we have witnessed how 100,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homeland by Azerbaijan.

Unfortunately, since the war of 2020 unleashed by Azerbaijan against Nagorno-Karabakh we can see official statements by the leadership of Azerbaijan claiming that the force can be a legitimate tool of resolving issues, which is like opening the Pandora’s Box. And the logic here is that there will always be someone more powerful than you.

What happened in Nagorno-Karabakh is also a great human tragedy. And I hope that along with Armenia all our friendly countries will try to help to meet the basic needs of these people and share their pain.

AK:  What’s in the future for Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, and for the ethnic Artsakh Armenians?

AS:  On September 19-20, Azerbaijan unleashed a large-scale aggression against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, which claimed hundreds of lives, including among the civilian population, women and children. Tens of thousands people became forcibly displaced, women, children, and elderly were forced to stay in the open air, without food and other means for subsistence. This aggression was a culmination of a 10-months-long blockade of the Lachin corridor and forced starvation imposed on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Severe shortage of food, medicine, fuel, natural gas, electricity and other essential goods had already brought the vulnerable people of Nagorno-Karabakh to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. Facing the existential threat, the indigenous people of Nagorno-Karabakh had no other choice but to leave the soil that their ancestors had lived on for centuries: in 3-4 days following the aggression, more than 100 thousand people were forcibly displaced to Armenia. The policy and actions of Azerbaijan for the last 10 months evidently demonstrate the pre-planned and well-orchestrated nature of this mass atrocity.

The ethnic cleansing policy against Nagorno-Karabakh is just a part of a bigger picture. Azerbaijan continues illegal occupation of the sovereign territory of Armenia and unequivocally speaks about its territorial claims towards Armenia. Moreover, until now dozens of Armenian POWs [prisoners of war - CJ] remain hostages in Baku.

On the contrary, Armenia has repeatedly confirmed its commitment to sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan based on the principles of international law, on mutual recognition of territorial integrity and sovereignty. Our principles are largely expressed in the statement adopted after our quadrilateral meeting in Granada. These principles are very clear: the mutual recognition of the territorial integrity based on the Alma-Ata Declaration; the delimitation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border based on the most recent maps of the Soviet Union, as well as the unblocking of communications under the sovereignty and jurisdiction of two states, based on the principles of equality and reciprocity. Especially regarding the last point, I want to note that this is what we call the “Crossroads of Peace”. We are confident that our territory can become the mentioned crossroads, and that it will bring economic benefits not only to our immediate region or to our neighbours, but also to the whole world, and that it will become a unique guarantee for peace. Unfortunately, Azerbaijani side doesn't seem to be interested in negotiated settlement of issues and long lasting peace in the region, but tries to continue its maximalist policy.

AK:  Thank you for mentioning the “Crossroads of Peace”. It is the initiative presented by Prime Minister of Armenia on October 26, 2023, when Mr. Pashinyan attended the Silk Road Forum in Tbilisi, and was one of the main speakers there. Could you please elaborate on this topic, what is it about and how do you see its implementation in practice?

AS:  The Government of Armenia has recently developed the “Crossroads of Peace” project as an integral part of its peace agenda. Despite the current challenges that the Republic of Armenia faces, through this project we reconfirm our commitment to take our part of responsibility and contribute to achieving long-term peace in our region.

We do believe that this project is of great interest to all the people that live in our region and can become one of the pillars of regional peace and inclusive development.

The key essence of the “Crossroads of Peace” project is the further development of communications between the all countries of the region by means of renovating, building, and operating roads, railways, pipelines, cables, and electricity lines. It must be based on the principles of sovereignty and jurisdiction of the countries, as well as reciprocity and equality.

We do believe that together with other regional initiatives the complete implementation of the “Crossroads of Peace” project will lead to deep interconnections and interdependence between the countries of the region with strong infrastructural ties with the neighboring countries and regions. Thus, it will allow turning the South Caucasus into the crossroad between the East and the West, the North and the South, as it used to be for centuries.

The key essence of the “Crossroads of Peace” project is the further development of communications between the all countries of the region by means of renovating, building, and operating roads, railways, pipelines, cables, and electricity lines.

AK:  If I am correct, during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 you were the ambassador of Armenia to Germany. This time you have been serving in Georgia. Can you compare the situation and your feelings then and now? And in practical terms, how can you assess the Georgia’s potential as a mediator platform?

AS:  I would not like to make a distinction between the Azerbaijani aggression against the Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, the aggressions against the Republic of Armenia in May 2021 and September 2022 and the ethnic cleansing committed in September 2023 in Nagorno-Karabakh. All these are the result of a policy of ethnic hatred against the Armenians officially promoted in Azerbaijan for decades.

Yet in 2020, Azerbaijan violated its commitment of peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and unleashed a war against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, accompanied with gross violations of international humanitarian law and war crimes. A number of international organizations recorded the use of foreign mercenaries by Azerbaijan against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Moreover, in 2021 and 2022 as a result of aggression Azerbaijan has occupied parts of the sovereign territory of Armenia. Since the blockade of the Lachin corridor by Azerbaijan in December 2022, major international actors have expressed a clear position regarding the need to unblock the Lachin corridor, halt the suffering of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and ensure their fundamental human rights. On February 22 and July 6, 2023, the International Court of Justice indicated a provisional measure, according to which “Azerbaijan shall take all measures to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin corridor in both directions”. Though the decisions of the ICJ are legally binding for all the UN member states, in response Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military attack against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Hence, all these processes are interconnected and even today, due to lack of clear international reaction to its previous aggressions, Azerbaijan continues its reliance on military force. Moreover, Azerbaijan also uses exaggerated perception of its geopolitical importance due to energy resources as a leverage against different countries, including the European Union and its member states. Recent decision of Azerbaijan to avoid the planned negotiations with Armenia on a peace agreement mediated by the EU and to be held in Granada and Brussels in October 2023 was a vivid example of aforementioned arrogant policy.

And coming to Georgia, we definitely appreciate the readiness of our Georgian friends to promote the resolution of issues in our region by offering good deeds and support for this purpose. Of course, we should also bear in mind that today we already have existing formats for negotiations.

AK:  As we have now touched upon the role of Georgia, let’s continue with the Armenia-Georgia relations. Many people expect that two ancient Christian neighboring nations must have elaborated a rocklike partnership. In your view, which are the factors that have been slowing this development down?

AS: Speaking of the relations between Armenia and Georgia one should bear in mind that in both countries are quite young, only 32 years have passed since we regained our independence. And last year we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries.

During these years, we managed to develop quite an inclusive bilateral agenda that encompasses almost all possible areas of cooperation. For the very recent years, we have witnessed even more activation of bilateral contacts in the highest political level, as well as between different state agencies and cultural, educational and other institutions of two countries. Therefore, I would define the bilateral relations between our countries as particularly warm for neighbors, bearing in mind that there is yet a vast potential that can be used to make our relations exemplary.

Of course, we should accept that 32 years of independence were not definitely easy ones for both Armenia and Georgia. Unfortunately, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union our region dragged into a number of conflicts, which definitely had its impact on the cooperation between countries and the potential of the development of the region as a whole. Hence, I do believe that achieving long lasting peace and stability in our region is the main basis for the comprehensive regional cooperation.

AK: Do you think that recent political dynamics in our countries are showing a perspective for a much closer cooperation in the future between Armenia and Georgia? 

AS:  In recent years, we can see enhancement of cooperation between Armenia and Georgia. Two ongoing processes can explain this: first, in the modern and fast changing world both Armenia and Georgia, due to their interconnections, face very similar challenges, so we also share common interests. As neighbours, we tend to activate our cooperation to overcome these challenges.

Second, in domestic politics both Armenia and Georgia have chosen the path of building a democratic state as a key attribute for development. In this aspiration, our key partner is the European Union.

These realities create appropriate preconditions for bringing the relations between Armenia and Georgia to a strategic level. The initial steps in this direction were taken at the meeting of the Prime Ministers of Armenia and Georgia in Batumi in July 2023, where it was noted that Armenia and Georgia aimed to engage in High Level Dialogue on strategic issues. I am convinced that this will provide an additional impetus for effective cooperation while contributing to regional peace and stability.

AK:  Are there any concrete projects in political, economic, or cultural fields that you would like to emphasize? In particular, if your Embassy has been directly involved in such.  

AS:  As I already mentioned the political contacts between our countries are dynamic, only within this year the Prime Ministers of Armenia and Georgia have met on several occasions. We also have active contacts between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and other institutions that ensure the regular exchange of views on the developments in regional and international dimensions.

During this year, we also established a new format of cooperation between the Foreign Relations Committees of the Parliaments of the Republic of Armenia and Georgia. In May, the first joint session of the aforementioned commissions was held in Tbilisi, and we hope that this will become another effective platform for political dialogue between our countries.

In January 2023, we had the 12th session of Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Cooperation between Armenia and Georgia in Yerevan, chaired by the Prime Ministers of both countries, and almost all possible directions of cooperation were included in the agenda. It was followed by the Armenian-Georgian business forum held in Tbilisi with the participation of more than hundred businesses.

In terms of economic cooperation with Georgia, we are also very much interested in implementation of regional projects. For instance, during the meeting with the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan in Granada, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed the support of the Commission to Armenia’s participation in the Black Sea Electricity Cable, and in this regard, we would highly value the support of our Georgian colleagues as well.

Armenia also pays much attention to the cultural relations with Georgia. We try to have cultural events in Georgia as often as possible, and we will continue our efforts in this direction. Another important pillar is the direct cooperation between cultural institutions of our countries. In these terms, I can mention the signing of the Memorandum of Cooperation between the Cultural Committees of our Parliaments, which was something new for both Armenia and Georgia. The relevant Ministries of the two countries also consider the plan of having the Armenian and Georgian cultural days in Georgia and Armenia respectively.

AK:  We at the Caucasian Journal are strong believers in the importance of wide dissemination of the best practices, reform experiences and other advanced know-how. This is why we devoted much attention to Armenia's unique TUMO education centers (a free-of-charge study program for teenagers in IT and design). We would be happy to offer our media resource to promote more projects like this – in Georgia and internationally. Perhaps you could name more Armenian projects, where our information support might be useful?  

AS:  You are right; the TUMO has definitely become one of the popular visiting cards of modern day Armenia. The TUMO Center for Creative Technologies is a free-of-charge educational program made up of 14 learning targets including web and game development, animation, graphic design, programming, robotics, 3D modeling, etc. The main advantage of this program is that the teens here are the ones responsible for their learning; they combine these targets into personal learning paths that adapt to their evolving preferences and rate of progress.

I would pay no less importance to the Armath Engineering Laboratories, which is a similarly successful and forward-looking educational program. These labs can also be established in the schools with the aim to introduce kids aged from 10 to 18 to science, technology, engineering and math education through interactive after-school classes, exciting competitions, innovative camps and more. Just like TUMO, Armath has also started the process of exporting the Armenian model of technology education all over the world. As of 2023, besides Armenia Armath labs operate in Kuwait, France, USA, Georgia (Samtskhe-Javakheti), India, etc. During her visit to Georgia in spring 2023, the Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport of Armenia proposed to the Georgian side to consider the establishment of Armath Lab in one of the schools in Tbilisi, and I hope that with our Georgian colleagues we will succeed to establish these labs also in Tbilisi.

I would also like to mention the COAF (Children of Armenia Fund) SMART Center established in the Lori region of Armenia. It is a unique non-formal education hub for the children from the rural regions aged from 3 to 18, based on 3Hs Educational Theory – Head, Heart, Hand. It offers up to 18 programs to students including arts and music (Heart), entrepreneurship and languages (Head), engineering and athletics (Hand).

AK:  Thank you! Speaking about TUMO Centers, we know this Armenian concept is proliferating to France, Russia, USA; in Germany, the TUMO center was opened while you served there as ambassador. I cannot help mentioning that, alas, only one tiny TUMO class exists in Georgia (in Armenian-speaking Javakheti). What can be done to realize such projects, which could have an immense importance for strengthening the ties between our peoples? 

AS:  The concept of TUMO Centers proved to be quite attractive to our friends abroad. In just about 10 years, TUMO centers have been established in Paris, Beirut, Tirana, Berlin, Zurich, Kyiv, Lyon, etc. In fact, I consider the establishment of the TUMO center in Berlin as one of the main accomplishments of my diplomatic mission in Germany. This network of TUMO centers operating all over the world can be an effective mechanism of establishing ties between the youth of different countries. In this context, we are definitely interested and open for cooperation with our Georgian colleagues to add Tbilisi to this international network of TUMO Centers.

AK: In an interview at the start of your work in Georgia, you named as your important goal the intensification of personal contacts between citizens according to principle “more Armenia in Georgia and more Georgia in Armenia”.  Are there any steps that have been made in this direction during the past year? In particular, for the young people, how do you assess their perspectives for joint study or other future projects?

AS:  I do consider the intensification of personal contacts as one of the key directions of the activities of diplomats. In this context, I can speak about several fields that can stipulate people to people contacts between Armenians and Georgians.

In this context, tourism has its specific place. You know that Georgia is traditionally one of the favorite destinations of Armenian tourists, while the number of Georgians visiting Armenia is comparatively less. However, I can see the positive tendency in this direction: in 2022, we had an increase in the number of Georgian citizens visiting Armenia; it was more than 175 thousand. Therefore, we must continue our work towards making Armenia more attractive for Georgian tourists.

In January 2023, our Prime Ministers signed an agreement that makes it possible for the citizens of Armenia and Georgia to visit our countries with the ID cards, which is an additional impetus for our citizens visiting each other’s countries. I should note that Georgia is the first country with whom Armenia signed this kind of agreement.

Another important step is holding regular cultural events in our countries. Currently we discuss with our Georgian colleagues holding Armenian and Georgian cultural days in our countries, which will be a good opportunity to present our cultures and gather Armenian and Georgian youth together in one place.

Education can be another sphere fostering contacts between youth. During the visit of the Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport of Armenia to Georgia, we had Memorandums signed between the Yerevan State University and Tbilisi State University, as well as between two basic schools from Yerevan and Tbilisi. One of the key aspects of these Memorandums was the idea of student exchanges between the universities and schools. I think that we should continue our work in this direction, increasing the number of Armenian and Georgian schools and universities cooperating with each other.

We also have the format of Youth forums held in Armenia and Georgia annually. We have a vision on how to enhance our cooperation in this framework, which is currently being discussed with the Georgian side.

AK:  My last but still important question is about relations with Hungary. Being based in Tbilisi, you are serving as Ambassador not only to Georgia, but also to Hungary. If I am correct, you are the first ambassador after restoration of diplomatic relations with Budapest – after a 10 years’ severing (following Hungary's extradition of an Azerbaijani prisoner convicted of the murder of an Armenian officer in 2004). How would you comment on the state of relations with Hungary, and their perspectives for Armenia?

AS:  You are right, after the meeting on the margins of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Łódź, Poland in December 2022, the Foreign Ministers of the Republic of Armenia and Hungary agreed to restore full diplomatic relations between our countries, expressing intention to open a new chapter in Armenian-Hungarian relations based on mutual trust and respect towards international law. Soon after non-resident Ambassadors were appointed.

There are deep historical and cultural ties, as well as shared Christian heritage between the Armenian and Hungarian nations. Besides that, we have an Armenian community in Hungary that is a constitutionally recognized national minority, which is quite a unique status all over the world.

Of course, the lack of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Hungary had created a gap, but our governments decided to work towards the development of a new agenda that in addition to political dialogue would include the fields of economy and trade, energy, culture, education, etc. 

During this year we have already had several high-level visits, the last one was the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary Mr. Péter Szijjártó to Armenia only a few weeks ago.

We also consider the cooperation with Hungary in the context of Armenia-EU relations. And we expect that the Hungarian side will support the initiatives aimed at deepening our ties with the European Union. 

AK:  If there is anything that you would like to add for our readers, the floor is yours. 

AS:  I think we had quite an interesting and inclusive interview that covered many directions of cooperation between Armenia and Georgia, as well as some regional developments and security issues. Hence, I would like once again to thank you for this opportunity and reconfirm my readiness to continue our cooperation in future.

AK: Thank you very much!

Read the Armenian language version here.  Read the Georgian language version here.  

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