By Ruzanna Stepanian and Anna Saghabalian
A group of prominent Armenian veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh on Tuesday warned Armenia’s leadership against returning any territory to Azerbaijan, saying that would be tantamount to high treason.
In a statement which they claimed was signed by some two thousand rank-and-file veterans, the former field commanders warned that the authorities in Yerevan will earn the “status of Turkish occupiers with all consequences stemming from that” if they agree to liberate any of the seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh. “At this critical moment we are urging all patriotic forces to unite and defend our endangered homeland,” they said.
None of the known signatories of the statement is affiliated with the Yerkrapah Union, the biggest and most influential of groups uniting Karabakh war veterans. The Yerkrapah leadership, which is loyal to the Armenian government, has not commented on the latest Karabakh peace initiatives so far.
The angry statement was apparently prompted by the publication of the main principles of the most recent international plan to resolve the Karabakh conflict, which envisages Armenian withdrawal from at least six of the occupied districts. The Lachin district, which serves as the shortest overland link between Karabakh and Armenia, would remain under Armenian control at least until a future referendum on the disputed enclave’s status. Official Yerevan has largely accepted this plan.
“This is not mutual compromise, this is a surrender,” said Manvel Yeghiazarian, the former commander of the now disbanded Arabo militia that fought in the Karabakh war. He warned that President Robert Kocharian will be considered a “traitor” and incur his and many other veterans’ ire if he signs such a deal.
“Twenty one fighters of Arabo went missing on June 29, 1992 [and remain unaccounted for]. What should I say to their mothers?” Yeghiazarian told reporters.
“Nobody must dare surrender those territories, whether he is a president or a minister,” said Levon Sahakian of the Independence Army, another former paramilitary group. “Our brothers died there and those lands are very important for us.”
Ashot Bleyan, a former education minister and the most famous proponent of far-reaching Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan, scoffed at such arguments, challenging Armenian hardliners to settle in the largely deserted Azerbaijani lands with their families. Bleyan, had served in the administration of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, rejected their claims that the Armenians already resolved the Karabakh dispute on the battlefield and must not concede anything.
“Before saying that we won, every Armenian must ask themselves: What are they ready for? Are they ready to die? Are they ready to send their boy to death?” he told a roundtable discussion in Yerevan.
Bleyan raised eyebrows in Armenia and Karabakh when he visited Baku on a peace-making mission in late 1992, at the height of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war. He declared on Tuesday that he is ready to make another trip to Azerbaijan, describing it as a “potential strategic partner” of Armenia. “If we don’t want to respect a neighboring state and have relations with it, we can’t be serious,” he said.
Yerevan’s apparent acceptance of the peace plan put forward by the OSCE Minsk Group contrasts with serious reservations expressed by the ethnic Armenian leadership of Karabakh. Samvel Babayan, the former wartime commander of the Karabakh Armenian army, echoed Stepanakert’s concerns in an interview with RFE/RL last week, saying that the plan is too risky for the Armenian side because it calls for the return of Azerbaijani refugees to Karabakh and Lachin.
“One small incidents, and all roads leading to Stepanakert would again be blocked and we would return to 1988,” said Babayan.