‘Delimitation means that Azerbaijan must withdraw’: French Ambassador Olivier Decottignies

Border demarcation between Armenia and Azerbaijan; relations between France and Armenia; obstacles to obtaining Schengen visas for Armenian citizens; armaments and field training; alleged Azerbaijani interference in New Caledonia. How does France approach these issues? Olivier Decottignies, the French Ambassador to Armenia, talks to CivilNet about these issues.

Q: For several weeks now, Armenia has seen demonstrations against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government. The Tavush for the Homeland movement, led by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, is demanding an end to the process of delimiting and demarcating the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as agreed by both governments last month. What is France’s position on the demarcation process and on Armenia’s current domestic political situation?

O.D: It is normal that opinions can be expressed in a democratic country. And I think that the expression of this movement is also a sign of the democratic vitality of Armenia. We, as a government, our interlocutor is the government of Armenia. From this point of view, there is no ambiguity. This movement reflects concerns and uncertainties. There is a history with Azerbaijan that is anything but trustworthy, and it is normal for Armenians to be worried. As far as the deal is concerned, this is good news. Because the demarcation of the border, even on a small segment, is a good opportunity. Then, it is even better that this demarcation could be made on the basis of the principles of the Alma-Ata Declaration. This is the 1991 agreement by the former Soviet republics for the delimitation of their borders, which became international borders, and this agreement consists of choosing the former Soviet administrative boundaries as a basis. This declaration was signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. This statement was reiterated after the meeting in Prague in October 2022, with the support of French President Emmanuel Macron, by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. And so, it is an excellent thing that this serves as a basis for the delimitation, but this delimitation should not stop at this small sector. It must be done across the entire border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This also means that Azerbaijan must withdraw its forces that occupy positions on Armenia’s sovereign territory, across large portions of Armenia’s territory. We are attentive to this, and this is what we expect from Azerbaijan. French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said this extremely clearly on March 20.

How do you negotiate with a state that declares that they have not taken any territory that does not belong to them? How can Armenia move forward when faced with an interlocutor who arouses more mistrust than anything else?

This is not what we see. I myself went to the military line of contact precisely because this line, in a number of segments, is today in Armenian territory. I am thinking in particular of the Jermuk region, where there are considerable areas that are occupied by Azerbaijani forces. Our French prime minister has recalled this, and international law says it clearly: Azerbaijan must withdraw.

In mid-April, the Armenian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that a preliminary agreement had been reached in Brussels to provide 10 million euros in aid to Armenia under the European Peace Facility. According to diplomatic documents, the corresponding funds are to be used for the establishment of a modular field camp for a battalion, which will include a medical aid clinic, as well as the necessary services and capabilities. But Hungary vetoed this decision. What are the implications of this process?

Not only is France part of the European Union, but it was France that proposed to the European Union that Armenia could access the European Peace Facility. And that remains our position. We believe that Armenia can and must accede to the European Peace Facility. There are a number of countries that already benefit from it. I am thinking of Moldova and Ukraine. Armenia is not without similarities to these countries. Part of Armenia’s territory is occupied, just as part of Ukraine’s territory is occupied by a foreign power. Azerbaijan occupies parts of Armenian territory, just as Russia occupies parts of Ukrainian territory. European support via the European Peace Facility is a necessity for us. Decisions within the European Union on these foreign policy and security issues are taken unanimously. Therefore, the agreement of all member states is required. We continue to work. But if you want details on the decisions of one member state or another, ask them directly.

Since the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, relations between Armenia and France have strengthened. There is nothing new in the fact that there is a close French-Armenian friendship, both in the diaspora and between the two states. Armenia has seen military support, as well as financial aid at different humanitarian, social and cultural levels. What factors lead the tightening of the relations.

What is new today is that these relations have taken into account the strategic dimension of Armenia’s situation. We, the French, have a relationship with Armenia historically marked by compassion, and which has long been dominated by humanitarian issues. It is completely natural and legitimate, because this relationship is marked by the memory of the genocide of 1915, and also because this relationship is marked by the earthquake of 1988. That was the moment when the French people, public opinion, the political class, and local authorities discovered Armenia as we know it, with this great surge of solidarity. But today, the geopolitical situation of Armenia, the threats Armenia faces on its own territory, demand that this relationship take a strategic turn. This was the case with the development of a defensive relationship. I opened the defense mission within the French embassy. This is the case in the economic field now. The meeting between the two French and Armenian prime ministers in February 2024 in Paris led to an agreement to create a steering committee to accelerate and prioritize our economic actions, particularly in the field of strategic infrastructure. And this must be the case in all areas. And I think that from this point of view, all the French and Armenian actors in this relationship are aware of this. And I very frequently receive representatives of local authorities, civil society organizations, and diaspora associations. And everyone has this desire to think and act strategically. That is to say, focus on the most exposed territories of Armenian territory and focus on the most strategic sectors. And from this point of view, there are no small subjects and no small projects.

Do the weapons supplied by France meet the demands or expectations of the Armenian government in a conflict context? Are they relevant in the event of conflicts? Are there any field exercises organized, beyond providing weaponry?

The reason why we launched this cooperation is precisely because we share this analysis. A conflict could occur, it cannot be ruled out. The idea is to act first. And therefore, to help Armenia give itself the means to ensure the defense of its population, its territory and its sovereignty. It’s not limited to weapons. There is a training component, training of Armenian soldiers, both on French territory and Armenian territory. And, there is an advisory component, with the deployment of French military advisors. We remain attentive to the needs expressed by our Armenian partners in this context. That is to say, the defense of the territory, the population, and sovereignty. I think it is important not to reduce this question of Armenia’s defense to the simple question of armaments. In the debate on this subject, there is a sort of commodity fetishism. Weaponry, however sophisticated, without the training that goes with it, without the doctrine that allows it to be used, is weaponry that does not produce much effect. There is, therefore, a broader ambition in our defense cooperation with Armenia, which is long-term. This is why we have established partnerships between our military academies, between the Vazgen Sargsyan Academy and Saint-Cyr. And if we manage to establish partnerships between military academies, it is clearly because we are looking toward the future.

To access Europe, Armenian citizens must have Schengen visas. Since the 2018 “velvet revolution,” Armenia has been increasingly considered a country with European values, it is a state with democratic values. However, liberalizing the Schengen visa process has still not happened, despite all of Armenia’s democratic efforts. France is one of the countries for which it is very difficult to obtain a visa. Why is the visa process so complicated for Armenia?

Democracy is not a passport. Armenians advance democracy for themselves, for what it achieves in their country. On the issue of visas, each application is examined individually, on its own merits. The files must be complete, the reasons must be credible. And we have, collectively as Europeans, a subject of migratory risk with Armenia. Many Armenians who apply for Schengen visas do not return to Armenia after their visa expires. A certain number of them abuse the hospital systems and the generosity of the welfare state of other European countries. And that is a subject on which we are working with the Armenian authorities. And the idea is to resolve these issues to support Armenia in this area too.

HSBC, Aragate, Carrefour, Orange, and other large foreign companies have left Armenia. And, we do not hear about the arrival of new investments. What new investments are planned by France in Armenia? Are there any?

The discussions held with the Armenian authorities at the highest level focused on economic cooperation in strategic areas: water, transport, connectivity, energy. Regarding private companies, I think it is important to maintain a good investment climate in Armenia. There are efforts that have been made in this area in terms of attractiveness, but also in terms of the fight against corruption, since this is a key subject. But these efforts must continue. You cited the case of Orange. I think that Armenia cannot afford another episode in relation to French companies like that of the departure of Orange, which took place in catastrophic conditions. And, obviously, all of the other French actors are watching that.

You talk about the need for diversification of the Armenian economy, so how can Armenia diversify? What logistics should be put in place for more diversification? Knowing, for example, that it is the French company Pernod Ricard that owns the production of Ararat brandy, and that the vast majority of its exports are intended for Russia?

France is a market economy. The state does not give instructions to economic actors, and that is so much the better. When it comes to Russia, there are simply legal limits for a certain number of sectors that are under sanctions. I think that there is a realization on the part of the Armenian authorities and Armenian economic actors, that in economic matters, as in defense matters, we cannot afford to put all our eggs in one basket. To avoid dependence but also to create opportunities. And as the French embassy, ​​we support and we advise all French companies that have projects in Armenia, particularly when they are investment projects that create jobs and structure the Armenian economy. I’ll give you an example: Veolia. It is the first largest investor in Armenia, the first French employer in Armenia, and of course the water sector is a very important sector for the sovereignty of a country.

A political crisis with violence and riots have been taking place in New Caledonia for more than a week now. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin declared that there was interference by Azerbaijan in the affairs of New Caledonia, and that some of the Caledonian independence leaders made a deal with Azerbaijan. What is your analysis of this situation?

I have nothing to add regarding the characterization of this interference by the minister of the interior, who was very clear about the role played by Azerbaijan in these events. Furthermore, an analysis was conducted and made public by the organization responsible for monitoring issues of disinformation in France, called Virginum, which dissected the mechanisms of this Azerbaijani disinformation. We see these actions of Azerbaijan as a consequence of and direct reaction to our support for Armenia. And we stand for this support for Armenia. In the world in which we live, interference, hybrid actions, and destabilization operations have become a tool particularly in the hands of authoritarian regimes. And obviously, there is a whole series of states that use these means, between which we even observe a form of emulation and sometimes cooperation. And obviously, that calls for a response.

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