Yeritasard Interviews Mr Stephen Pound

Interview With Mr Stephen Pound: ‘To Breathe the Air of Freedom’
Friday 7th March

AYF:     Why do you believe Britain has a duty to nudge the Artsakh issue forward?
SP:       Yes that was the expression I used when we had the debate on February 11th. I believe Britain has a duty to nudge the Artsakh issue forward partly because we have very close relations with Armenia and the Armenians and I think that the United Kingdom needs to be seen as a neutral party here. There’s a perception that the UK, because it has strong trade links with Azerbaijan would somehow in the Minsk process favour the Azeri case. I profoundly hope that isn’t the case but clearly as long as the Minsk process is unresolved we have two major problems; one is the issue that the line of contact is undefined therefore there will still be no certainty, for example Stepanakert airport is not open yet and it should be, and quite clearly until the Misnk Group can come to a conclusion it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to get that essential block in the building of Armenia. The second thing is people are dying at the moment: people are sniping across the line of contact, planes are being shot at, and helicopters are being shot at. If you’ve got a slow-motion border war – which is what we’ve got at the moment – then all the more reason for actually doing something. The UK has a humanitarian duty to nudge the process forward because people are dying. But it also has to recognise that Armenia is a beacon of stability in the South Caucuses: it is a democratic, pro-Western country. Ultimately when you’re in Yerevan you feel that it’s a much more of a European country than say Baku, therefore we have interests of sound commercial and geopolitical reason, but also humanitarian.

AYF:     Mr Simmonds claimed Britain is a friend of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It’s obvious for all however that not only Britain’s but nearly all of the major Western powers’ friendship ties with Azerbaijan are stronger than those with Armenia. Do you believe this accommodates Azerbaijan’s immoral policies toward issues like Artsakh, Safarov and Caucasian human rights violations?
SP:       I don’t actually believe Mr Simmonds – I spoke to him afterwards and I said that I understand him trying to make an equivalence here but I didn’t see one. What I did mention in that debate was the fact that Azerbaijan is trying to buy influence left, right and centre. I also mentioned that the two champions that they chose, Lord Laird of the Upper House has now been suspended for alleged misconduct, and Mike Hancock in the Lower House has been deselected by his party, thrown out of the Liberal Democrats and is facing criminal charges. So, they’re not particularly good at choosing their champions. I mentioned in the debate that the UK has a massive trade relationship with Azerbaijan – mostly the fault of the Armenians for sorting out all the oil in the Gulbenkian days. France, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus and Argentina are just a few countries that are much more pro-Armenia. Throughout the world it’s unfortunate that the friends of Azerbaijan tend to be countries like Turkey, Russia and now China too has a strategic and geopolitical interest. At the moment I can’t divide the world into the pro and the anti, but what I want to see the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is indisputably Armenian and has been since the dawn of time, breathe the air of freedom, to grow together, to make that amazingly fertile nation the breadbasket of the South Caucasus. That’s what we need to see. It could have more arable and dairy farming than anywhere around it. The sooner we see that the better.

AYF:     Recently Great Britain’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Irfan Siddiq, called for a referendum in Artsakh to decide its status, drawing comparison with Scotland’s desire to split from Great Britain. What do you make of this?
SP:       I think it’s very interesting because Ambassador Morningstar has now come up with a much more pro-Armenian take on it. The way he’s talking about moving the Minsk process forward is actually very positive. At the moment there’s no question that any sort of referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh would choose to stay with Armenia. However, we both know that if that’s every announced the Azeris would immediately say we want everybody who we consider to be displaced to have a chance to vote, and it could then end up including people from all over. The idea is superficially attractive and I have absolutely no doubt that the population of Nagorno-Karabakh would vote to unite permanently with Armenia, but I don’t think that would get support from the other partners in the Minsk process. If you look at those who were displaced from their homes during the war on the Armenian side, brand new houses have been built for them outside Stepanakert just underneath the Mamig and Babig statue, whereas there are still people in tents in Azerbaijan. They’re there because it’s publicity and PR, because if there was a referendum of the future determination of Artsakh, they would then all be claiming the right to vote. Ultimately this and the other disputed areas have to be resolved diplomatically – a vote simply wouldn’t work.

AYF:     What role would you like to see Britain playing in the future of Armenia?
SP:       I want to see Britain play the role of a trade partner. I’d like to see educational links. I’d like to see links in chess because, frankly, Armenia is a much better country when it comes to playing chess than the United Kingdom and we want some of your glory – the football team’s not doing too bad either at the moment. The point being that the best relationship between two countries is based on trade, and if goods don’t cross the border armies often do. When I first went to Armenia around 10 years ago I think there were only 5 British companies registered there, but now there are up to 100, admittedly small, British finance companies, and I want to see more of that. For me, the Armenian raw material is the brain, and that is the future. You don’t have to worry about borders or taking lorries up through Georigra; it’ll be cyberspace and cybertrade, and that’s the real future. All the indicators to me are that Armenia is on that path, and I think the UK would be insane not to be associated with a fast-growing, technologically capable, extremely skillful nation of young people who know what’s going on. And, who have contacts everywhere in the world! I think its’s in Britain’s self-interest to do more to work with Armenia, commercially and intellectually.AYF:     Do you think Britain could have economic interest in Artsakh over the coming years?
SP:       One thing that struck me about Artsakh are rich, grassy valleys, which have been a long tradition of arable farming. In terms of absolutely high quality arable goods I consider there’s a real future for Artsakh. In all honesty we don’t know what the minerals are like – we know there’s gold in the Ararat region but we don’t know what will be found in Artsakh, it could be anything! For me, I think this is the great arable hope for the south caucuses. In a world of increasing food shortages, food is going to be the new raw material. Artsakh could be about high quality farm produce. Ultimately though it’s going to be the brain that drives the nation.AYF:     What is your view of the health of Armenia’s democracy? Do you think it has improved over the course of your many visits?
SP:       I had a long meeting with one of the presidential candidates, Raffi Sarkissian, who’s convinced that the election was stolen. But I was talking to John Whittingdale, who is an election monitor, and he said it was a fair election in terms of representation. I think the party structures are odd to my eyes – there’s a lot of coalitions. Some of them are quite young too. The biggest concern of all the politicians I’ve spoken with is the brain drain, people leaving the country. There’s no question that there’s a real future for Armenia and I think that the democracy of a nation is something that you can’t put to one side. You’ve got a real contrast with surrounding countries: democracy doesn’t exist in Iran and it certainly doesn’t exist in Azerbaijan. I think the momentum is there: you’ve now got electoral registration to an incredibly high degree, which used to be the old problem. As an outsider, I think it’s getting towards just about as good as it gets.AYF:     We often campaign in our local constituencies such as Ealing as a youth group, but how do we take our cause from being a local issue to that of national importance?
SP:       You’ve got the biggest and most important year in Armenian history coming up next year. Between now and next Spring is the time for Armenia to be on the national stage. People still don’t understand the full horror of the Genocide, so this is now the opportunity to use the goodwill – and there’s a lot of pro-Armenian goodwill – to actually remind people of what happened; the first genocide of the 20th century, the genocide that gave Hitler the green light for his genocide. This is the opportunity to make the national case. The problem that I see as an outsider is that there’s too much dissention between the groups: if only you could actually come together as one.AYF:     What inspires your love of Armenia?
SP:       I wish I knew the answer to that! You can’t understand the history of the world without understanding the history of Armenia. Armenia virtually invented writing, it was the first Christian country on Earth, but it’s also a country which, throughout its history, has been like a library in which the librarian wears a sword. It’s the great storehouse of wisdom. There’s nothing that anyone can learn about politics that hasn’t been discussed in Armenia. It’s like finding a museum or a treasure house or an art gallery that you didn’t know was there, and your first reaction is “let’s not tell anyone else about this”, and your second reaction is “glory to Armenia!”AYF:     What’s your favourite food and drink in Armenia?
SP:       I’ve got several favourite drinks, including Gyumri and Kilikia beers – two of the best beers in the world – and pomegranate tea. As for food, the one thing I could say in Armenian is “please, no more”. My favourite food has to be Armenian cheese with real home-baked Armenian lavash.AYF:     What is your favourite tourist attraction in Armenia?
SP:       Garni. It’s extraordinary. It almost makes me breathless just looking at it and thinking how old it is. In addition though, Echmiadzin is a tourist attraction but it’s a holy place, but I wouldn’t insult that by calling it a tourist attraction. And the same goes for the Genocide Museum – I wouldn’t call it a tourist attraction either. Oddly enough, I love the Metro. There’s also a church just south of Independence Square called St Gregory the Illuminator and I call it the new church: it’s 25 years old, but compared to most Armenian churches it’s very young. And then I arrived at Stepanakert, woke up in the morning and looked out at the garden of Eden – that was Artsakh! Also to go to Shoushi to see the cliff and realise that soldiers climbed up that cliff. What’s extraordinary about that one place is that there’s a mosque there, there’s a brand new Armenian Orthodox church there, and there’s a soviet graveyard. You realise how many people have passed through and all the countries that have occupied it, all the countries that have threatened Armenia, all the countries that have damaged, destroyed and fought, none of them have ever diluted the essence of Armenia.

— Heros Jojaghaian, Vahe Boghosian

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