Interview with Paul Goble
Friday, October 10, 2008 First published in September 13, 2008 Armenian Reporter.
Paul Goble: Georgia crisis is 9/11 for the Caucasus
An interview with a Cold War veteran who now works for Azerbaijan
- Paul Goble, a former Soviet ethnic affairs analyst for the U.S. State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and Radio Liberty, is known for his adversarial rhetoric on Russia both before and after the Soviet collapse. He has been a supporter of separatist aspirations of minority groups in Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus, where the Russian government fought two brutal military campaigns against Chechen (1994–96) and Islamist (since 2000) insurgencies.
- Last year Mr. Goble joined the staff of Azerbaijan’s Diplomatic Academy as its director for research and publications. Back in Washington, he testified at the congressional Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) on the Georgia crisis on September 10, 2008.
- After the hearing he granted the Armenian Reporter’s Emil Sanamyan and Lusine Sarkisyan an interview, in which he spoke about the impact of Georgia crisis, his “modest proposal” for Karabakh that had reverberations for years, and how his current station in Baku impacts his outlook.
U.S. global leadership, existence of Russian Federation put into question
Reporter: What main lesson do you draw from the debacle in Georgia?
Goble: [The main lesson for the United States is that] we cannot have a foreign policy on the cheap. If we want to be a global power we need to know a lot more, invest a lot more. It is complicated and hard. And maybe it would be more complicated and more hard than we would be willing to do.
But the worst thing we could do is to suggest to others that we are a global power that can do anything and then not be in a position to back that up.
Reporter: Should the United States put Russia back at the top of its foreign policy agenda as was the case in the Cold War days?
Goble: Certainly not. I think China is more important and I think, in the short-term, some parts of the Middle East are. Russia is not nearly as important as it imagines itself to be. And it should not be encouraged to think that it is more important that it is. Tragically, it has been.
Reporter: But in your testimony you compare the events of last month to the Soviet collapse of 1991 and the September 11, 2001, attacks, events that heralded the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror respectively. Are we in the new era of confrontation with Russia?
Goble: It is one of those events where we divide the world as it was before and after the event. The Russian government, for the first time since Afghanistan, has sent its forces across an international boundary in violation of international law. We assumed that the Soviet action in 1979 in Afghanistan was one of the things that brought Soviet Union down because it was so at variance with international law.
Reporter: Do you expect this to bring down the Russian Federation?
Goble: I think the Russian Federation has seriously wounded itself. The current leadership, Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev, have done things that are not in the interest of continued existence of the Russian Federation. That does not mean it will disappear overnight; it just means a more authoritarian and hence a more unstable and poor Russia in the future.
The man with the “Plan”
Mr. Goble agrees that if he is known for one thing it is his 16-year-old proposal for Azerbaijan and Armenia to exchange territories as a way to resolve the Karabakh conflict.
It was January 1992. Cyrus Vance, a former U.S. secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter, was getting ready to launch the first Western mediation effort under the United Nations umbrella in the Karabakh conflict, until then largely an internal Soviet affair.
At the time the republics had just become independent, and Armenians in Karabakh were militarily surrounded by Azerbaijan on all sides and appeared on the verge of adding another page of victimization to their national narrative.
Before his departure for the region, Mr. Vance asked around for ideas. Mr. Goble, who had left the government service the previous year and was by then working at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offered one.
In a briefing paper “done very quickly and without any grand thinking,” as Mr. Goble relates, he suggested stepping away from Stalin-era borders: Let Armenia get Karabakh and the Lachin area linking Karabakh with Armenia proper, and let Azerbaijan get the Meghri area, thus connecting directly to Nakhichevan and, from there, Turkey.
The briefing paper became an article titled “Coping with the Nagorno- Karabakh Crisis,” published in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, a Tufts University publication, in summer 1992.
But in an unsophisticated and conspiracy-minded Caucasus hungry for outside information about itself, the paper was quickly interpreted as a U.S. plan, which Mr. Goble insists and subsequent years proved it never was.
The “plan” has always been anathema in Armenia (as well as Karabakh), seen as a plot to stitch Azerbaijan and Turkey together and cut Armenia off from Iran. Although generally opposed in Azerbaijan as well, the idea was supported by Azerbaijan’s late President Heydar Aliyev, who pushed for a territorial swap with Armenia before his death in 2003.
In a sign that the “plan” still has some potency, in the recent election campaign in Armenia, opposition presidential candidate and former president Levon Ter-Petrossian charged his successor, President Robert Kocharian, with a “grave conspiracy against the Republic of Armenia.” Although Mr. Ter-Petrossian did not make a direct charge, the implication was that Mr. Kocharian was going to exchange Meghri for Karabakh and then for some reason did not. It was the dreaded “Goble plan” again.
In a televised response, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who handled Karabakh talks under both presidents, denied that either president ever intended to surrender Meghri – although various discussions inside the government and with Azerbaijan did take place. He revealed further that the “plan” was in fact discussed by Mr. Ter-Petrossian and a narrow circle of advisors, including Mr. Oskanian, in 1994.
Mr. Oskanian – who wanted to make the point that considering a plan does not imply agreeing with it – added, “Mr. Ter-Petrosian had expressed an opinion saying ‘if the northern section of the Azerbaijani exclave Nakhichevan were given to Armenia to ensure a border with Iran, the Goble plan would be beneficial for Armenia.’” At the same time Mr. Oskanian said that it would be incorrect to say that “Ter-Petrosian wanted to hand Meghri to Azerbaijan.”
Indeed, that was the outline of the “Goble Plan 2.0,” which received less attention than the original idea. Today both concepts are not realistic, says Mr. Goble.
Goble: Too much time has elapsed, too many realities created on the ground. The Zangezur region, the bridge to Iran, is fundamentally more important to Armenia than it was in 1992, when the border was effectively closed. Now it is an important conduit. That means that some of the things I thought about 16 years ago were absurd or would be absurd now.
I have no interest of reviving the “plan.” But I have always said that some day – when I am very old, hopefully – I’ll die and there will be an obituary that would say that this was Paul Goble and author of the “Goble Plan.” But I would like to believe that I have done more with my life than write that one paragraph [in an article from 1992].
But I do believe that borders drawn inside the Soviet Union were drawn to create tensions, to make people hate one another, and that this was the border as long as it existed was going to be a source of tension.
What I wrote about Karabakh, Armenia, and Azerbaijan was a derivative of my general understanding rather than being a true expert opinion since I was never an expert on either place. What I was trying to do was not to resolve anything specific, but to point to a general problem [in the former Soviet space].
Reporter: But in the end the “Goble plan” is what then-President Heydar Aliyev wanted to agree on at the time of talks in Key West, with Armenia resisting the Meghri aspect of it.
Goble: That’s right. I think that Heydar Aliyev wanted to resolve the refugee crisis; for him it was terribly important and he was prepared to consider a variety of things that no other Azerbaijani official could have considered.
Now, it is going to be harder not easier to get a resolution [in the Karabakh conflict] because the world has changed – in the Caucasus part of the world especially – fundamentally. I think the events in Georgia are going to make it harder.
Although, having been away from Azerbaijan since May, I cannot say exactly how the Georgia crisis changed the moods there, in my just published article “Ten shattered assumptions of Azerbaijani foreign policy,” I outline my ideas about that.
[In the article published in the Azerbaijani Diplomatic Academy’s biweekly newsletter, Mr. Goble argues that President Ilham Aliyev is wrong to assume that “Azerbaijan’s growing economy might well allow it to counter any challenge posed by Armenia over Karabakh”; and that “Armenia, now more than ever, can count on Russian help.”)
Goble: I am not working for the Azerbaijani government
Reporter: How does a former U.S. official find himself working for a foreign government?
Goble: Well, first of all, I am working for a teaching institution. I worked at state institutions in Estonia as well. I work for a Diplomatic Academy [in Azerbaijan]. I teach students, I edit things. Many people do that when they are in their declining years.
Reporter: While teachers may be relatively independent at the Foreign Service Institute or National Defense University. . . .
Goble: They didn’t offer me a job.
Reporter: It is hard to imagine you would have much independence when your boss is the former Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States Hafiz Pashayev, who is also a deputy foreign minister and a close relative of President Aliyev’s.
Goble: The first time someone says I can’t say something, I won’t be there anymore. At the same time, I decided on the personal level that I would not get involved in Azerbaijani domestic politics; I have avoided that. What I did do is I have co-taught a course on the Karabakh crisis.
No one asked me to do this in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Armenia.
I just happened to know Ambassador Pashayev from his years in Washington, he invited me, and that is what I did. I would certainly never work for a foreign government directly.
Reporter: In terms of Azerbaijan’s very special relationship with Armenians, are you under pressure to say or write certain things as far as Armenians are concerned?
Goble: No, no, no. Nothing that I have written has been edited. So the answer is absolutely no.
Reporter: Just recently [in the August 2 Armenian Reporter] we published an article on one of the many disinformation campaigns undertaken by Azerbaijan. That one tries to falsely link Karabakh to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and you were one of the people spinning that idea that sort of went nowhere in the end, but was illustrative nevertheless.
Goble: I only mentioned that [the PKK – Karabakh story] had been reported, but I didn’t do an article on it. It is in the media. We report things that are asserted.
Reporter: I understand you may not be an expert on this specific issue, but I would think you could sense you were being involved in a sort of a campaign against Armenia.
Goble: No one has ever had a conversation with me about that issue or indeed any issue like that. To suggest that I am being used in some way – it is not true.
Reporter: Finally in terms of Azerbaijan’s threats to take Karabakh by force, do you think such an attack would be justified under international law or any other rationale?
Goble: I would very much hope that no one uses military force. “Justified” is a terrible term. The fact is once you start down the road of using force, as Russians have just done, all kinds of things happen that are ugly. I would not want to see a military solution.
But that does not mean that a final status should be determined because one side is occupying the area and the other isn’t.
As I said in my testimony both national self-determination and territorial integrity should be respected. What it would look like in any one place, I assume there will be more than one answer.
The use of force should be the last resort.
Reporter: Are you open to travel to Armenia?
Goble: I have never been invited. I know that it can be a problem for people coming to Azerbaijan if they have a Karabakh visa in their passport. Just like in the Middle East, if you go to Israel you can’t go to certain Arab countries. But I don’t preclude going, but neither do I have any plans.
I am an American citizen and I want to be able to travel and see and do things.
Just reporting the news?
Since beginning to work for Azerbaijani Diplomatic Academy in fall 2007, Mr. Goble in his blog and comments for the media has
- In August 2008, alleged Armenian involvement in a grenade attack on a Baku mosque on August 17 (the Azerbaijani government itself later blamed Islamic radicals);
- In February 2008, spun the Azerbaijani government’s narrative on the anniversary of
the 1992 Armenian operation to capture Khojaly during the Karabakh war;
- In February 2008, promoted Azerbaijan’s efforts to establish a lobby in the United States to counter the Armenian-American community;
- In December 2007, promoted a fictitious report initiated by Azerbaijan that alleged Armenian government support for establishing a Kurdish military and political presence in Karabakh;
- In November 2007 promoted charges that Armenia was involved in a campaign to stir up ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan.