“Diplomacy is irreplaceable for building an understanding among peoples”
Text: Martina Hošková and M. Zisso; Photo: Archive
The Ambassador of Armenia to the Czech Republic, Mr. Ashot Hovakimian, joined the diplomatic service immediately after his country gained independence, meaning exactly 31 years ago. “One can never overestimate the significance of the diplomatic service for building an understanding among peoples, and this service requires 24/7 dedication,” he is still convinced of the high importance of his work for humanity. A powerful message from the representative of a country that had experienced a horrible genocide in the past, and currently suffers from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
You have many years of experience in diplomacy. Can you share some of your assignments with us, please?
I joined the diplomatic service immediately after Armenia gained independence. As a specialist in Balkan and Slavic Studies, I was invited for consultations with the newly established Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, from which I received a proposal to join the diplomatic service. Since then, I have been posted to many diplomatic missions.
Among my first assignments was Greece, where I opened the Armenian Embassy in 1993. Then followed Poland, where I served as an Ambassador for almost eight years, simultaneously covering Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Directly from Poland, I was transferred to Austria, where my mission lasted for over five years. From Vienna, I served as a non-resident Ambassador to Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, as well as Permanent Representative of Armenia to the OSCE and the international organizations based in Vienna. After Vienna, in 2011, I returned to Armenia, where I was appointed as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and served in this capacity until my appointment as the Ambassador to the Czech Republic at the beginning of 2019. I am currently a non-resident Ambassador to four other countries: Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, and I have recently been appointed also to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
How would you describe your work to future ambassadors?
One cannot overestimate the significance of the diplomatic service in the sense of building a viable statehood. It is not just meant to establish means of communication with the governments of other countries but is in actuality the most powerful tool in presenting your country, your people, and your culture to the outer world. It is a means to attaining understanding and acknowledgement on the part of others, and, in this sense, it goes way beyond the simple function of communication, becoming an irreplaceable tool for building understanding among peoples, promoting human rights and universal values.
This service requires 24/7 dedication, and at times diplomats and their families are exposed to all types of extreme pressure. This pressure is multiplied in the case of Ambassadors, who not only have to act on the frontline but also take responsibility for their team. So, I advise the upcoming generation of Ambassadors to make sure they understand the whole scope of responsibility that rests on their shoulders.
You have been posted in Czechia for over three years now. How do you see our current relations?
As I mentioned, this is not the first time I am accredited as Armenia’s Ambassador to Czechia, to which I served as a non-resident Ambassador from Austria for several years before. Of course, being a resident Ambassador opens up more possibilities for enhancing the political dialogue we enjoy with the Czech Republic.
We see Czechia as a like-minded country, with which we not only share the same humanistic values but also relations, which are anchored on sustained democratic traditions, historical friendship, and mutually beneficial cooperation in both bilateral and multilateral formats.
In the bilateral dimension, we have quite active inter-parliamentary cooperation, as well as an ongoing inter-governmental cooperation framework with an inter-governmental commission on economic issues, operating through regular sessions and discussions. Armenia and Czechia also have mutually beneficial cooperation within multilateral formats, including the UN, OSCE, and CoE. This is extensively complemented by the Armenia-EU cooperation framework, including the implementation of the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. The active role taken up by the Czech Republic in promoting the EU Eastern Partnership framework is commendable, and we stand ready to join efforts in further maintaining this cooperation platform.
Are your expectations for the future equally positive in this regard?
We see an untapped potential in further deepening our cooperation with the Czech Republic both in the bilateral and multilateral formats, as well as within the framework of the European Union, whilst the Czech presidency of the EU Council is an additional asset to this end.
Armenia is keen to work towards not only expanding the political agenda but also fostering educational and intercultural exchanges, and activating the mobility between the peoples of our countries in terms of tourism, promoting trade and mutual investments.
We are also keen to work towards joint endeavors in the spheres of IT and high-tech solutions, a field full of potential and aspirations for both of our countries.
Next year we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Czechia, and this will be a good opportunity for re-evaluating and further enhancing our dialogue in all fields of mutual interest.
The Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs visited the Czech Republic quite recently, at the end of July. What does this visit indicate?
We have established good traditions of cooperation on the level of Foreign Ministries. The most recent visit of our Minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, indicates the reciprocal willingness of both sides to further promote bilateral political dialogue and cooperation within the European dimension, amid Czechia assuming the Presidency of the EU Council.
We are thankful to the Czech Republic for its approach to humanistic issues of importance, not only for the Armenian people but also for humanity in general. Both chambers of the Parliament of the Czech Republic have officially condemned and recognized the Armenian Genocide. Czech parliamentarians were also among those who explicitly raised their voice on the issue of the Armenian prisoners of war remaining in Azerbaijani custody.
The Czech side has also been a supporter of the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship, which plays a key role in reaching a comprehensive and lasting settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
You are also acting as an Ambassador to Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Montenegro. How can you manage so many countries?
It is my “motto” to create a new, more comprehensive image of the status of a non-resident Ambassador. I travel to each of the non-resident countries at least 4-5 times a year, combining official meetings with cultural and economic events, organizing different receptions, and providing a chance for a better understanding of my country, its politics, its economic possibilities, alongside creating a strong bridge between our friendly states. Some state officials even sometimes joke, telling me that I meet them more frequently than some of the resident Ambassadors do. Our task is to discuss, research, find mutually beneficial areas for our cooperation, and do our best for their further development. Of course, sometimes many things overlap – you cannot be present simultaneously in the different countries, and you have to choose your priorities – but, very often, personal contacts and my knowledge of the languages of the region prove helpful.
Turkey and Azerbaijan are not among the countries where diplomatic relations were established by Armenia. Would you like to give us a picture of this situation?
Since proclaiming its independence 31 years ago, the Republic of Armenia, following the principles of universal values, has been building its statehood and active communication with the outside world. We have joined and actively participated in the work of around two-dozen international organizations, and established diplomatic relations with around 180 countries. Turkey and Azerbaijan are not among those countries due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The border between Armenia and Turkey was unilaterally closed by Turkey in the early 1990s. As you probably know, the special representatives have now been appointed for the normalization process and a few meetings have already been held where the sides decided to move forward without any preconditions, with the goal of opening the borders. To give a positive dynamic to that process, the Foreign Minister of Armenia recently accepted the invitation of the Foreign Minister of Turkey and travelled to Turkey to participate in the Antalya Diplomatic Forum, where he met with his counterpart on the margins of the Forum.
We believe that in order to achieve normalization it is necessary to have a political will and readiness to undertake concrete steps. The Armenian side has repeatedly demonstrated both, and we expect the same from the Turkish side. Despite all the risks and the fragility (of the situation), there is a chance for opening an era of peaceful development in our region, and Armenia will continue its efforts to contribute to the realization of that chance.
And in the case of Azerbaijan?
With regards to Azerbaijan, it should be noted that the waning years of the USSR were marked with the expression of the peaceful appeal of the people of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) to exercise their right to self-determination, but the lawful demands of these people were, unfortunately, responded to with violence, deportations, premeditated massacres, and, eventually, wars. Thus, it was not surprising that, instead of promoting peace in the region and committing to the resolution of the conflict through a peaceful negotiation process, on 27 September, 2020, Azerbaijan, with the direct support of Turkey, and with the participation of foreign terrorist fighters from the Middle East, unleashed a large-scale war against Artsakh.
The growing anti-Armenian hatred, xenophobia, and intolerance, which have been cultivated for decades in Azerbaijan and promoted at the highest political level, never being properly addressed, eventually found their manifestation in the war crimes perpetrated against the Armenian population and the Armenian historical- cultural heritage during and after the last war in Artsakh, where hospitals, schools, kindergartens, and residential buildings were deliberately targeted, and mass atrocities, extrajudicial killings, as well as the destruction and the illegal expropriation of churches, cemeteries, and religious symbols, became ordinary practice.
Did the trilateral statement, signed between the leaders of the Russian Federation, Armenia, and Azerbaijan on 9 November 2020, not help?
The statement put an end to the fighting, and provided for the stationing of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, creating conditions for ensuring the comprehensive security of the population of Artsakh. But this did not provide for the final settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moreover, even after two years, Azerbaijan, along with other key provisions of the document, continues violating the provisions of paragraph 8 of the statement on the exchange of prisoners of war, hostages, and other detained persons, in gross violation of the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law. With false and fabricated trials against the Armenian POWs, Azerbaijan uses human lives as a political bargaining chip, whilst the xenophobic attitudes prevailing in Azerbaijan continue to pose a direct threat to our compatriots, currently under Azerbaijani custody.
The realities based on the use of force, mass violations of human rights, as well as the consistent actions of a similar nature by Azerbaijan following the war, including the infiltration by Azerbaijani armed forces into the sovereign territory of Armenia, cannot create a sustainable foundation for regional peace and security. Only agreements reached within the framework of a peace process can open a new page for peace, security, and development in the region. We stand for the full- fledged launch of the peace process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the framework and mandate of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship (US, France, and Russia).
Do you have anything else to say on this sad topic?
Unfortunately, Azerbaijan continues blocking the access of humanitarian organizations and other specialized bodies to Artsakh, which is of vital importance in the context of a comprehensive and effective solution to the humanitarian crisis resulting from the war.
The settlement of humanitarian issues, including the repatriation of all prisoners of war and captured civilians, addressing the cases of enforced disappearances, as well as ensuring the protection of the Armenian historical- cultural heritage fallen under Azerbaijani control, all require an urgent solution.
Moreover, whilst Armenia is trying to engage in open discussions and negotiations on the opening of regional communications to the benefit of all countries in the region, Azerbaijan continues pursuing its expansionist agenda through the misinterpretation of a so-called “Zangezur Corridor”. The existence of any extra territorial corridor inside the territory of Armenia is ruled out. This is not even up for discussion. Our discussions are exclusively about opening and unblocking roads, transport, and economic communications.
Has the war in Ukraine had any effect on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Azerbaijan continues its policy of provocative actions and its threats of using force. After the situation in Ukraine unfolded, the Azerbaijani armed forces invaded the village of Parukh in Nagorno-Karabakh, which was preceded by the constant shelling of villages and civilian infrastructure, urging the peaceful Armenian population of the neighboring villages to leave their homes under the threat of the use of force, disruption of the operation of the gas pipeline for several weeks amid the unprecedented cold weather, etc. The provocations and aggression by Azerbaijani armed forces newly intensified in the beginning of August, resulting in deaths and casualties. Currently, when the world focuses its attention on Ukraine, Azerbaijan may be tempted to launch a large-scale provocation at any moment. Hence, it is extremely important for the international community to undertake effective steps to prevent the attempts of destabilizing the situation in the South Caucasus.
Nevertheless, we think that peace, not war, is the solution, and Armenia continues its efforts aimed at establishing peace and stability in the region. We’ve repeatedly stated that we are ready to start negotiations on comprehensive peace with Azerbaijan, which will also include the lasting settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including the protection of all rights of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, and its final status. Nagorno-Karabakh is not only a piece of territory; it is a people, whose dignity should be respected.
During the meeting of leaders in Brussels on 22 May, it was agreed to start work towards the delimitation and security of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, to finalize talks on opening the transport infrastructure in the region, and to work on the preparation for comprehensive peace talks. If Azerbaijan demonstrates a constructive approach, and refrains from creating hurdles along the way like they have many times before, I think we can move forward. Let me repeat that Armenia is ready for a constructive dialogue on peace and collaboration, free from preconditions and threats. Only when all these issues are properly addressed, prospects for sustainable peace and development in our region will become visible.
As a Jew, I cannot ignore the historical genocide against the Armenians. How is this affecting modern Armenia?
As you know, every year on 24 April, Armenians all over the world commemorate the Armenian Genocide, known as the first genocide of the 20th century. The evil act, meant to exterminate a nation, not only failed in its mission but even strengthened the will of the Armenian people to live and create a better future.
Today’s huge Armenian Diaspora of over 7 million people is mostly comprised of the descendants of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, who were not only given shelter and care in various friendly countries, but were also provided opportunities to preserve their national identity and organize their own cultural and political life whilst actively engaging in their host communities. We are grateful to all those who stood by the Armenian people during the tragic pages of our history.
Ever since, the Armenian people, both in Armenia and the Diaspora, have pledged their commitment to raising awareness of genocidal crimes and protesting against denialism.
History has shown us that inappropriate condemnation of past crimes and avoiding punishment create fertile ground for denial and justification of genocide, and, eventually, lead to recurrences of mass atrocities. Denied justice on its part pursues generations of genocide survivors and hinders genuine reconciliation.
Feel free to elaborate on this.
Unfortunately, even after a hundred years, the Armenian people see history reminding them of their painful past, with the genocidal intent demonstrated during the 44-day war in Artsakh, and the developments that followed. This includes the situation with the Armenian POWs, as well as the continuous intentional destruction by Azerbaijan of Armenian historical-cultural heritage in an attempt to eliminate all traces of Armenians from the territories that have fallen under its control.
Nevertheless, a small nation, that in just a little over 100 years has survived genocide and faced three wars waged upon its mere existence, does not give up on its fight for justice, and continues to lead international efforts towards the “Never Again”campaign by traditionally introducing the Resolution on the Prevention of Genocide at the UN Human Rights Council, where, quite recently, on 31 March, the fifth of such was once again adopted by consensus. Upon Armenia’s initiative, the UN GA has proclaimed 9 December as the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide, and of the Prevention of this Crime. Commemoration and respect for the dignity of the victims of genocide and genocidal crimes are not just expressions of solidarity, but are amongst the most important actions in the prevention of such crimes in the future. Year by year, Armenians are joined by the international community and their friends worldwide in not only commemorating the over 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, but also bringing together efforts in condemning and preventing such grave crimes against humanity. To this end, I would like to once again thank the Czech Republic for joining this big family – the Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Parliament adopted a resolution condemning and recognizing the Armenian Genocide back in 2017, and the Czech Senate adopted a similar resolution quite recently in May of 2020. Each year on 24 April, when honoring the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide here in the Czech Republic, we also pay tribute to famous Czech traveler and writer Karel Hansa, and to prominent Austrian-Bohemian novelist of Jewish origin Franz Werfel, one of the first in Europe to have documented the horrors of the Armenian Genocide.
A few months ago, you were very upset that some interviews with you were censored. Am I correct?
Unfortunately, I will have to confess that Indeed, we had such incidents, especially during the last war in Artsakh and the period that followed, when the Embassy and I as the Ambassador were on some occasions not only refused the opportunity to voice the official position of my country, but were also often deprived of the right to reply. Moreover, my authorized texts were several times subjected to censorship in the most hideous way, whilst in other cases we were prompted on what exactly should be said in order to be able to get ‘space’ in the media. Such misconduct on behalf of some media outlets has only deepened our concerns that the latter (outlets) were not merely pursuing their commercial interests, but were being guided by the political interests of third parties, and subjected to the influence of those third parties in their activity.
Traditionally, we ask the Ambassadors at this moment of an interview to voice their wishes for their country. I think Armenia is one of those where the wish is rather obvious.
So, I will describe it a little more broadly. Armenia is one of the cradles of ancient civilization, with roots going back into pre-historic times. We have millennia- old heritage, not only in terms of tangible, but also intangible, cultural and religious heritage. Armenia is the first country that adopted Christianity as a state religion, which, together with the Armenian language and traditions, has played quite an important role in preserving the Armenian identity throughout the centuries, especially in the times of the absence of Armenian statehood. 31 years ago, through the expression of the united and collective will of the Armenian people, the modern-day Armenian statehood came into existence. Our nation, which possesses a centuries-old history, having passed through many hardships and trials and having survived genocide, not only withstood all those challenges but also restored its statehood in its historical homeland. Even in this short period of time, we were still challenged to fight for the preservation of our identity and for the right to live in our homeland. The Artsakh wars and the achievements and losses of the Armenian people are once again a testament to the strong will of the Armenian people to live and create in their native homeland, and to the unbreakable faith in building a bright future for the new generations.
Do you have a wish for the Czech Republic as well, to conclude our interview?
The Czech Republic is one of the countries with which Armenia shares good traditions of friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation, anchored on sustained democratic traditions and universal values. A few years ago, Czechia festively celebrated the 30th anniversary of the establishment of statehood through the democratic path. Czechia is a country which has officially taken the course of pursuing the legacy of Václav Havel, underscoring human rights, democratic development, strong civil society, and multilateral collaboration. The wave of peaceful transition that started off in the Czech Republic over three decades ago has years later found its reflection beyond its borders. In Armenia, we also pursue these values, which was reflected in the non-violent “velvet revolution” that took place in our country a few years ago, and which is currently visible in the ambitious agenda of democratic reforms and transformations that the Armenian Government is currently undertaking. The Czech Republic is a reliable partner for us in this sense, in sharing its experience and supporting Armenia on its democratic path.
I would therefore like to use this opportunity to wish the Czech Republic the utmost success in all of its endeavors, including its EU presidency, and for our countries to benefit from the flourishing friendship between our two friendly nations.