‘I’m categorically opposed to all wars’ A conversation with Ruben Vardanyan, the state minister of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, about the humanitarian crisis that looms without international action
Interview by Lilia Yapparova. English-language version by Sam Breazeale.
Ruben Vardanyan is a billionaire, a former owner of the investment bank Troika Dialog, and one of the founders of Moscow’s Skolkovo Business School. He was also a key figure in a 2019 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) that uncovered a system of offshore companies through which money was secretly transferred to some of Russia’s wealthiest people, including close Putin associate Sergey Roldugin. In the fall of 2022, Vardanyan unexpectedly renounced his Russian citizenship and took office as the state minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (officially named the Republic of Artsakh). Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova spoke with Vardanyan about his departure from Russia, the allegations against him, and the ongoing blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh.
This article was originally published on February 7, 2023. Meduza is presenting it again as part of the background on Azerbaijan’s military strike on Nagorno-Karabakh, launched on September 19, 2023.
On October 5, 2020, nine days into the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Russian-Armenian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan released a video statement in which he appealed to a variety of audiences, including the Azerbaijani people, the international community, and Armenia’s leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh. Perhaps most notably, he addressed Vladimir Putin directly, saying, “I’m speaking to you as a Russian citizen, and indeed, I have no other passport.”
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, he warned, was a “ticking time bomb” that would explode “first and foremost in Russia” if Putin didn’t intervene.
Thirty-six days later, on November 10, the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia signed a joint statement announcing an end to the fighting in the disputed region. As part of the agreement, Russia pledged to station about 2,000 peacekeepers on the ground in the conflict zone.
On the one hand, a lot has changed in the two years and three months since the treaty was signed. Ruben Vardanyan is no longer a Russian citizen, having renounced that status in 2022 to become the state minister of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, also known as the Republic of Artsakh. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, by launching a full-scale war against Ukraine, has done more to damage Russian society, the Russian economy, and Russia’s reputation on the world stage than the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh was ever likely to do.
At the same time, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh feels as unstable as ever. While Russian peacekeeping forces remain in place, they didn’t prevent Azerbaijan from launching attacks on several Armenian towns in September, nor have they stopped Baku from staging an ongoing blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only road that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
Residents of Stepanakert, the Artsakh Republic’s capital, told Meduza that they’ve been jogging, doing squats, and wearing winter coats indoors to keep warm as Azerbaijan has intermittently cut off gas supplies. Ruben Vardanyan himself experiences the blockade along with his constituents, and he says he’s been living in his office to save time and energy.
“I can give you a whole list [of things we've run out of]: from spare parts to toilet paper, laundry detergent, and toothpaste. […] It happens imperceptibly: one thing, then another, then another,” he told Meduza.
To deal with the shortages, the Artsakh government has introduced ration cards and authorized the distribution of foods from state stockpiles to grocery stores. Vardanyan said this has gone far to prevent issues like price gouging and suspicion among residents. The region also receives aid shipments from the Red Cross, though Vardanyan says few of the organization’s vehicles manage to cross the blockade each day — not nearly enough to feed the republic’s 120,000 people.
While Vardanyan declined to disclose what remains of the government’s reserves, he was quick to note that residents can grow their own food once spring begins. “For that reason, we’ll never starve. That’s a fact. Now, what kinds of restrictions we’ll have to resort to is a different question altogether. But Artsakhians are resilient, very resilient, and they’re prepared to endure,” he said.
But starvation and cold aren’t the only dangers in Nagorno-Karabakh. While ambulances are allowed to pass through the blockade, the road from Stepanakert to Yerevan is still long and winding; in the past, patients in urgent need of medical care have been airlifted. According to Vardanyan, Azerbaijan has banned Russian peacekeeping forces from using helicopters (though this hasn’t appeared in any of Baku’s public statements), and several attempts to transport patients by ambulance have failed. Artsakh residents told Meduza about two cases where people died because they couldn’t reach Yerevan for chemotherapy and hemodialysis.
The Lachin corridor, the sole road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, passes by the city of Shusha, which Azerbaijani troops have controlled since 2020. Ruben Vardanyan describes an incident on December 12 where Russian peacekeepers (abiding by the 2020 agreement) allowed through a group of Azerbaijani citizens calling themselves “eco-activists” who followed behind an Azerbaijani ambulance. The demonstrators then “set up their tents and everything else around the ambulance,” blocking the road, Vardanyan said.
They’ve been there ever since.
These “eco-activists” (none of whom seem to have previously been involved in environmental activism) claim that Armenians and Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh are damaging the environment by illegally extracting minerals. According to Azerbaijani Interior Ministry Press Secretary Aykhan Hajizada, an Azerbaijani environmental monitoring group was denied access to gold and copper-molybdenum deposits in the disputed region, two days before the activists blocked the road.
But Vardanyan says the mining operations at those deposits have been ongoing since the Soviet era. He told Meduza that the Azerbaijani environmental group gave little advance warning of its visit, which resulted in local residents and miners blocking the delegation’s path on December 10.
“Afterwards, along with the [Armenian mining company BaseMetals’s] leadership, we said, ‘You’re welcome to come! [But] please only send the experts. In our view, Azerbaijani environmentalists, who aren’t doing a great job protecting the environment in their own country, aren’t competent enough to evaluate ours,’” the state minister told Meduza.
Vardanyan said the Artsakh government then sent a letter to the Russian peacekeeping forces explaining that they were prepared to let the Azerbaijani monitoring group access the mines, asking in return that the protesters unblock the Lachin corridor and allow an environmental impact assessment conducted by international standards. “To this day, we still haven’t received a response to that proposal,” he said.
“When I’m asked about the ‘environmental’ side of the issue, I find it amusing,” he continued. “How many environmental protests have there been in Azerbaijan in the last 20 years? These are total double standards: one set of standards applies to the small, democratic republic, while completely different ones apply to the authoritarian Azerbaijani Sultanate.”
Vardanyan told Meduza that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is doing all he can to force Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian residents to concede that the Artsakh Republic doesn’t even exist.
“That’s their clear, overt goal — Aliyev said so at a press conference. What’s not clear here? […] It’s difficult to imagine that a country that can’t ensure human rights for its own people could ensure the human rights of an ethnic minority. What rights does the autocratic, despotic sultanate in Azerbaijan ensure for its population?” he asked.
‘Why would I evade sanctions in a place where I can be killed for being Armenian?’
In 2019, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published a series of investigations about Troika Dialog, the private investment bank Ruben Vardanyan co-founded in 1991 and controlled until 2011. Journalists traced $4.5 billion in hidden transfers to Russia’s most influential people, including Russian cellist and businessman Sergey Roldugin, a close friend of Vladimir Putin.
Against this backdrop, it’s difficult not to wonder if Vardanyan’s decision to renounce his Russian citizenship was at least partially spurred by the threat of Western sanctions. But the ex-banker says he would have chosen a much easier route if that were his true motivation.
“As I already told The Financial Times, if I were trying to evade sanctions, I would have gone to Uruguay, which has good weather, good meat, fruit, a great attitude towards Armenians, and a wonderful climate. I’d live peacefully on a farm. It would be very odd to flee sanctions to a place where you can be killed just for being Armenian,” he told Meduza.
Vardanyan also argued that OCCRP’s investigation unfairly applies modern standards to policies that were commonplace in an earlier era of banking. The report, he says, put undue focus on Vardanyan himself as the leader of an organization that had thousands of employees:
The state minister also noted that his vocal support for Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians long predates the full-scale war in Ukraine, citing his video address to Putin during the 2020 conflict. The reason he decided to enter politics and move to the region in 2022 was that it seemed the most effective way for him to help, he told Meduza. And after deciding to devote himself to the Artsakh cause full-time, he said, it made sense to renounce his Russian citizenship.
“There were some formal requirements [about citizenship], but those weren’t my main reasons. I had two [main] reasons. [The first was that] I didn’t consider it right to [speak out politically on behalf of Artsakh] and put Russia in a difficult position. [I didn’t want] to do it as a foreigner who had moved to Artsakh. Secondly, people in Artsakh should be able to trust that I’ll be with them to the end,” he said.
‘A lot of questions’
Though many of the Nagorno-Karabakh residents who spoke to Meduza in late January were growing skeptical of Moscow’s ability to provide security to the republic while so many of its resources are going to the war in Ukraine, the breakaway state is still reliant on Russian peacekeepers. So, it’s little wonder that Vardanyan was unwilling to speculate on his former country’s economic future, and he essentially told Meduza as much:
Regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine, Vardanyan said that he’s “categorically opposed to all wars,” and called on “all decent people” to “make basic humanitarian values the basis of our lives again.”
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As for the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Vardanyan is doubtful that Aliyev will be willing to launch another war against the civilians currently living in the region. Instead, he said, he believes Baku is betting that he’ll succeed in forcing Armenians to leave the territory. “You know, the difference between our model of the world and Aliyev’s model of the world is very simple: We say that ‘we [Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorny Karabakh] live next to one another, but not together,’ while they hold that ‘peace is Artsakh without Armenians.’”
To ensure that doesn’t happen, and that Armenians can remain in the region, Vardanyan said he believes two steps are necessary: the establishment of an internationally recognized air corridor and sanctions against Azerbaijan’s leaders.
“I wish not just Russia but also England and France were speaking out forcefully. Why is Aliyev still being invited [to the World Economic Forum in] Davos, for example? He’s subjected 120,000 people to a blockade, and they’re shaking his hand in Davos. In that sense, I have a lot of questions — a lot of questions for a lot of countries,” he said.