Editor’s Note: The following interview with Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Bureau chairman Hagop Der Khatchadourian appeared in Armenian in the January 2021 issue of “Troshag,” the official publication of the ARF. It has been translated by Weekly staff writer Lillian Avedian.
Troshag: With this interview we like to conduct a complete summary of the past year, but the tragedy that has struck our people and nation requires that we focus on specific events. We entered 2020 as our communities in the Middle East were experiencing many shocks, and the worldwide Armenian nation carried on its efforts to reduce that burden. COVID-19 imposed many more worries and tasks. Then in the fall the jointly provoked Azerbaijani-Turkish war burst over our heads. Naturally it was a year of intense efforts for the party. Presenting all of those endeavors might require a very lengthy answer, so please explain in general terms the work that the ARF initiated and implemented.
Der Khatchadourian: Yes, 2020 was a year of plagues. We began that year with the determination to address the growing Lebanese economic crisis and the consequences of the ongoing war in Syria and to lighten the burden facing the Armenian communities in those two countries. The coronavirus epidemic struck, which shocked the international economy and greatly disrupted daily life. In August the explosion at the Port of Beirut once again shook the Armenian community of Lebanon; and we closed the year with the greatest defeat of our most recent history, when we lost a large part of the Republic of Artsakh and all Armenians were plunged into mourning, despair and anger. Besides the major loss of land, thousands of precious martyrs and wounded soldiers also weighed on our hearts, which is no less a tragedy for our people.
Beyond this surprise war that plagued our national and everyday life, 2020 was a year of intense planning and hard work for us and for our collective life. To recall some of the major events:
- The parliamentary and presidential elections took place in Artsakh in the spring of 2020 and a new governing leadership was formed in the second Armenian republic. The ARF had a new group of members of parliament in the National Assembly, and in spite of violations and many instances of the exploitation of state resources committed by the ruling party, we decided to accept the election results, taking into account the imperatives of the stability and security of Artsakh.
- As a result of longstanding and consistent work, the 105th commemoration was highlighted by the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by both branches of the United States Congress. Due to similar efforts the Genocide was also recognized by the Syrian Parliament.
- The work to achieve recognition of the independence of Artsakh as well as the efforts to increase aid to Armenia and Artsakh continued with consistent momentum. The resolutions adopted by the French National Assembly and Senate on the necessity of recognizing the independence of Artsakh were unprecedented victories.
- Within the scope of various activities, special attention was paid to alleviating the socio-economic damages caused by the pandemic. Within these efforts was the «Օգնիր հայրենակցիդ» program to distribute aid to needy families in Armenia. This program was spearheaded by the global ARF youth associations and implemented through the ARF Student Association (ՀՅԴ ՆԱՈՒՄ) and ARF Youth Federation of Armenia (ՀԵՄ).
- We also focused our attention on the pandemic, economic crises and the catastrophic Beirut explosion that inflicted suffering upon the Armenian communities of Lebanon and Syria. We continued to focus our efforts on overcoming the damages of the ongoing war in Syria. To complement the ARF fundraising and reconstruction efforts, our youth and sister organizations, especially the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), worked diligently to meet the immediate needs of the Armenian communities of Lebanon and Syria. The pan-Armenian mobilization was also commendable, as the Armenian states, the Armenian church and religious denominations and all pan-Armenian organizations of the Diaspora delivered millions of dollars in aid to the Armenian community of Lebanon.
- A special program was developed to assist the Armenian army, which was launched after the July war. That program was expanded in the fall during the Artsakh War.
- A working plan was established for the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Moscow and Treaty of Kars, work that continues today.
- An online conference of the worldwide Armenian National Committees (ANCs) took place in December 2020 to discuss the new sphere and priorities of political activities on the issue of the status of Artsakh following the war.
Let us note that we also were not able to realize a part of the planned activities because of the COVID-19 restrictions, while others were carried out through another format. We will refer to some of the major ones separately.
Troshag: After the large-scale attack on Artsakh on September 27, the ARF put out a call to set aside internal political disagreements and engage in the work of defending the homeland with national unity. Just hours after the invasion, the first ARF platoon also departed for the military front with the party’s other platoons to join shortly after. The involvement of the ARF was not limited to this already important role. Active efforts were undertaken to organize various forms of assistance, as well as to organize mass events in political, diplomatic and other directions. Please briefly elaborate on these activities as well.
Der Khatchadourian: Immediately following the outbreak of the war, the ARF, with its sister organizations and supporters, expanded its work to assist the homeland in the following four areas:
- Provision of manpower: The necessity of forming volunteer detachments was already made clear by the clashes of 2016. Thus, we initiated the establishment of volunteer reserves/platoons to provide the Armenian army with trained units whenever the borders of Armenia and Artsakh were endangered. This initiative took shape as a non-governmental organization («Կամաւորական Շարժում ՀԿ») spearheaded by the ARF and implemented with the cooperation of the Ministry of Defense of Armenia.
On September 27, immediately following the attack by Turkey, Azerbaijan and hired mercenaries, the trained men of our platoons departed for the Artsakh frontline, and according to everybody’s testimony, they made an honorable and significant contribution to the defense of Artsakh’s borders. We had many casualties, the memories of whom we bow before respectfully, and we had several injured reservists, whose medical and socio-economic needs we must meet through our worldwide party efforts. After the ceasefire our men dedicated themselves to the defense of the borders of Syunik. The work of the reserve platoons continues today so that we always have trained manpower to support the Armenian army, particularly during this period of its reorganization.
- Political work: The political activism and lobbying campaigns through our ARF bodies, the ANCs and Hai Tahd offices gained momentum. The campaign for the recognition of the independence of Artsakh and the right to self-determination saw serious progress, particularly in Europe. Protests arose all over the world against the war crimes committed by Turkey, Azerbaijan and their mercenaries, the racist anti-Armenian manifestations, the pan-Turkic and neo-Ottoman aspirations and the violations of international law. In a number of countries, we initiated legislation or government decisions to halt the flow of arms to Azerbaijan. We cultivated special relationships with the Minsk Group Co-Chair countries, as well as with the legislative circles, executive powers and embassies of Iran and the European Union. We condemned Azerbaijan, and especially Turkey’s role, in unleashing a racist anti-Armenian campaign against the Armenians and promoting neo-Ottoman expansionism. Finally, we exposed in international political circles the Turkish efforts to penetrate into the South Caucasus and its destructive role in impeding the Artsakh negotiations.
- Media relations and protest activities: Turkey and Azerbaijan organized a global propaganda campaign of misinformation to justify their aggression. Throughout the course of the entire war, and until today, they flooded and continue to flood international press, television, broadcast channels, websites and social networks with their lies through a professional, coordinated and expensive campaign. To confront this attack and present the Armenian perspectives, we coordinated all our capabilities and formed a multi-layered media campaign. Moreover, we planned protests and demonstrations in world capitals in front of Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s diplomatic missions. It was imperative to show our enemies that Armenians worldwide are united and determined in the defense of their homeland on all fronts. And Armenians were able to form a firm fist, putting aside all internal disagreements, in order to contribute to the positive outcome of the war.
- Fundraising: The pan-Armenian fundraisers were a great success, and smaller-scale campaigns continue to this day. The global Armenian community immediately responded to the call for material support for Armenia and Artsakh and allocated more than 170-million dollars to the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund.
The purpose of fundraising was to provide medical, social and economic support, as well as housing, to the soldiers and volunteer freedom fighters who experienced difficulties as a result of the Artsakh War, as well as to houseless and homeless families. It is impermissible, of course, for those funds to be allocated for purposes other than the above-mentioned humanitarian needs. The ARF called on the Armenian nation to unconditionally participate in these fundraisers. We were very pleased that our global network of ARF bodies and sister organizations (especially the ARS), other institutions and supporters unconditionally responded to that call by carrying out their national duty and opening their purses wide.
All of this was realized, though during the year preceding the war we continually approached our worldwide community for other fundraisers for Armenia, Artsakh and especially the Middle East to meet the needs of the Armenian communities of Lebanon and Syria. As I already noted, the work of securing funds continues today as well. Naturally we must now focus on reconstruction programs in Artsakh and the socio-economic needs of the displaced population of Artsakh.
Troshag: We know that during the war there was communication with the Prime Minister of Armenia for the purpose of cooperation. On the other hand, the ARF today demands the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan. Please address these issues.
Der Khatchadourian: The ARF has always sought to maintain a political relationship with Armenia’s preeminent leader, in order to have a direct exchange of views, receive information from the primary source and directly communicate the ARFs perspectives and views. For a long time that communication with the Prime Minister did not exist, but during the war and immediately preceding it, we had a few meetings, primarily to express our concerns and hear the official analysis of military developments. During the war we also conveyed that regardless of our disagreements, we were prepared to put all issues aside and focus on supporting the Armenian state and army to secure an Armenian victory for Artsakh. During our initial meetings, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan conveyed that ARF troops had participated in the war from its start and that the ARF was spearheading political, propagandistic and fundraising efforts across the pan-Armenian world so that the war would have a pro-Armenian outcome. Unfortunately, however, there was not an honest and accurate transfer of information by the leadership’s representatives during and outside of those meetings, even when those representatives admitted that the situation was much worse than publicly shared official data indicated.
Realizing that the official information did not correspond to reality, yet accepting that we were in a serious military conflict, that there was a state of war and that we were not allowed to contradict official state information, we showed restraint. Of course it weighed heavily on our conscience that the Armenian side had many casualties and a large number of wounded soldiers and volunteers, and that there didn’t seem to be any possible pro-Armenian outcome to the war. The Armenian authorities repeated that there was no option besides fighting until the end.
During the war significant difficulties arose: a disorganized situation on the ground, irregular and unenforced calls for conscription, inappropriate political interventions and serious losses on the battlefield. For us it was unacceptable that we had high-ranking experienced officers who, regardless of how much they dissented from the government position, had expressed their readiness to support the military operations and to dedicate their leadership and capabilities to the army, but the answer was always the same: abrupt rejection. In any case, the result is now unfortunately clear; there are still many unexplained and unacceptable issues regarding the war, to which the president of the Republic of Artsakh alluded during his December address to the people of Artsakh and which will undoubtedly come to light soon.
All of this created a very bad state of mind in Armenia, Artsakh and the Diaspora. After the ceasefire, when the extent of the national catastrophe became clear, it was obvious for us that the only way out of this situation is the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan, who had conceded land and led us to defeat, and the removal of his administration. It is clear that a defeated Prime Minister, who has conceded everything, who has disoriented the public with his lies, cannot secure a pro-Armenian position from international forces or face our enemies, Turkey and Azerbaijan, during negotiations. It is necessary to remove him as soon as possible, so that a new prime minister with strong convictions in our nationalist ideology, surrounded by an experienced and competent team, can create a patriotic government, take the reins of this nation, return hope to our people and help realize favorable outcomes for our nation on the vague points of the accursed agreement and during future negotiations.
Troshag: Under the present difficult circumstances, what are the priorities for the Armenian leadership, political forces and general population?
Der Khatchadourian: The priority of any political leadership of Armenia must be to secure pro-Armenian solutions to the vaguely defined sections of the signed agreement, which unfortunately is an impossibility under the current administration. Political forces and the intelligentsia, which are gathered around the ARF, have already expressed their stance: creating an interim government for the salvation of the homeland, so that hope can reawaken among the people, the nationalist ideology can return and the people can emerge from the present defeated state and depressed psychology. After establishing some stability in the country and solidarity among the people, this interim government can then call upon the citizens of Armenia to express their will through early parliamentary elections.
Until those elections, it is necessary that the homeland salvation government work to stop the economic decline, create normal conditions to end emigration and bring its important contribution to the reconstruction of Artsakh. These goals cannot be accomplished if the current prime minister and his administration are not removed from power.
Troshag: Due to well-known difficulties, particularly due to restrictions arising from the pandemic, the ARF Bureau was forced to cancel a number of its planned events or make changes to their implementation. Is it fair to say that even under these conditions it was still possible to implement several events and address almost all of the party’s agenda?
Der Khatchadourian: We started 2020 optimistically, since it was a year with several important anniversaries, and the ARF Bureau had organized several initiatives in the homeland and diaspora. The conference of the committees and offices of the ANCA in Stepanakert and Yerevan between February 24-28 of 2020 took place without any interruptions, but beginning in March all of our events were either postponed or were moved online.
We had planned for the following initiatives during the year:
- The joint conference of our affiliated associations, the AYF, the Hamazkayin Cultural Association, the Homenetmen, the ARS and the ANCA structures, which was planned for April of 2020 in Armenia, was postponed to 2021.
- A pilgrimage to Bulgaria to commemorate the 115th anniversary of the martyrdom of ARF founder Christopher Mikaelian, including a conference, a visit to his tomb and the placement of a new bust, was postponed to 2021; however, previously planned publications of this anniversary were distributed in print and online.
- A conference on diaspora issues, which was planned for the summer of 2020 in Lebanon, was postponed to 2021. Our hope was that the conference would take place under the auspices of our Catholicoses and the heads of other religious denominations, and in collaboration with organizations with pan-Armenian structures and with the participation of state representatives from the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh.
- The pan-Armenian ARF youth and student union summer camps were postponed to 2021.
- The 100th commemoration of the Treaty of Sèvres and the celebration of President Wilson’s Arbitral Award were to be celebrated with great pomp in Armenia, France and the United States. The public events were replaced with online commemorations. A documentary film was prepared, which was broadcast internationally. A volume dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Sèvres was published in the ARF “Vem” series.
- Due to the pandemic and the Artsakh War, celebrations of the 130th anniversary of the ARF were either cancelled or reduced to the minimum.
Naturally the Artsakh War also impacted the fate of these initiatives, as the attention and capacity of the global Armenian community were absorbed by the war beginning on September 27. After the ceasefire the provision of various forms of assistance to Armenia and Artsakh and the revival of hope within the people became critical, pushing other initiatives to the background.
Troshag: We began the New Year with uncertainty and expectations for the worst. Carefree days do not await us. Let us first note the concerns and challenges facing the population of Artsakh. However with every New Year come optimistic hopes. What is your wish for our homeland, our people and our friends?
Der Khatchadourian: 2020 was a catastrophe, a year of continuous shocks and setbacks. Let us once again recall the economic decline in Lebanon that began in October of 2019, the crises related to the war, economy and health in Syria, the catastrophic global pandemic, the explosion of the Port of Beirut and finally, the greatest catastrophe of our recent history of independence caused by the defeat in the second Artsakh War. The ARF, like many others, was forced to reconsider its programs, decide which ones to prioritize and focus on the losses suffered by the Armenian people as a result of these various calamities and on providing assistance to Armenia and Armenians. At the same time, of course, we cannot forget the necessity of bringing our people out of their desperation because of the war losses, so that their legendary spirit of courage emerges once again.
We wish our homeland and people determination to dispel widespread despair and defeatist attitudes. And we expect our ungers to remain firm, to focus on the following priorities with renewed energy and and unwavering commitment in 2021:
Political transformations in Armenia and Artsakh
The first essential step is the removal of Pashinyan and his administration. After the confirmation of a national salvation government, the people of Armenia and pan-Armenian forces must unite to face the domestic challenges: to restore solidarity and normal political processes, to return the nationalist ideology as the foundational principle, to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, to reverse the economic decline, to secure the return of all Armenian prisoners of war, to honor the memories of the martyrs of the Artsakh War, to fulfill the needs of families of the fallen as well as the families of wounded soldiers and volunteer freedom fighters, to strengthen the Armenian army, to restore negotiations on the status of Artsakh, to improve Russian-Armenian and Iranian-Armenian relations and to restore rationality to political relations.
For the ARF, the recent losses of Artsakh are not permanent. The ceasefire has been established, but the war has not ended. The time will come to restore the right and complete borders of Artsakh. Until then, it is necessary to improve the conditions of the ceasefire, rebuild towns and villages, secure favorable conditions for the return of the Armenian population of Artsakh to their homes, fulfill the needs of homeless families, improve the economy, emphasize on the global stage the right to self-determination for Artsakh and work to restore the Minsk group negotiation format.
Revitalizing the diaspora
We must also pull the diaspora out of the terrible shock caused by the losses in Artsakh and return faith in the bright future of the homeland and the Armenian people. I hope that in 2021 we will be able to host a conference on diaspora issues to provide a new boost for diasporan Armenians and elaborate on the new pan-Armenian priorities.
As one united nation, we Armenians must soberly recognize that we find ourselves facing a new reality today. This reality demands new programs and multiplied efforts to redirect once more to our grand national aspirations the course of our nation’s ship that has seen turbulent decades and the recent stormy seas of defeat. Let us all work to reaffirm the unity of all Armenians and to rebuild the faith and spirit that guided our difficult march through centuries of trials. We must learn from the mistakes and omissions of our recent past and, with our backs straightened and our minds cleared, move forward, guided only by our national interests and ideals.