Full Transcript: Markus Ritter - European Union Mission in Armenia | Ep 322

Posted on Tuesday, Apr 2, 2024 | Category: EU, Armenia | Series: Blog | Armenian News, Armenia, EU Observer Mission, EUMA, Markus Ritter, Artsakh, Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Nerkin Hand, Iran, Russia, EUMA (European Union Monitoring Mission), European Union, European diplomacy, Foreign policy, Caucasus region, Geopolitics, Regional stability, Conflict management, Conflict resolution, Peace talks, Peacekeeping, Military conflict, Security, Border monitoring, Border security, Civilian missions, Observers, Diplomatic immunity, Public diplomacy

The following is a transcript from Episode 322 where we conduct an in-depth interview with Dr. Markus Ritter, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMA) in Armenia. Dr. Ritter provides detailed explanations regarding the mission’s activities, its role in calming tensions along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, and the challenges it faces amidst regional dynamics. Covering specific incidents and addressing criticisms, Dr. Ritter offers transparency on the mission’s operations, emphasizing its commitment to contributing to peace and stability in the region.

Don’t miss out on this engaging discussion that offers valuable insights into the EUMA mission and its impact on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict landscape.

Listen to the episode and/or read the transcript below.


Asbed Bedrossian: Welcome to this Conversations on Groong Episode.

Today we are talking to the EU Observer Mission in Armenia with the head of the mission Dr. Markus Ritter.

Welcome to the show Dr. Ritter.

Hovik Manucharyan: Hello Dr. Ritter.

Markus Ritter: Good morning. Hello. Glad to be here.

Asbed: Thank you.

We are very glad that you could join us.

Dr. Ritter, so you have a very rich background as a law enforcement official and we were reading your bio and we learned that you have also participated in many, five, international deployments.

Since this is your first visit to our podcast and hopefully not the last, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about your background?

What made you choose this career?

Background on Dr. Markus Ritter

Ritter: So I’m a member of the German Federal Police since 1996.

Before I have been a trooper in the state police of Baden-Württemberg, it’s one of the states in the south of Germany.

And after studying law, I changed from the state police to the federal police and at the beginning I worked at Frankfurt International Airport because the federal police is also the border police in Germany.

And if you are working at the Frankfurt International Airport, you have a lot of international contacts. And this was a time when I started to get interested in working with other people from other nations.

Then at the beginning of this century, I was in an expert group for the enlargement of the European Union to the eastern and southeastern Europe.

So I visited all these countries and started to make some assessments on the borders, on the airport security. That was also the time when I proved my English and I really found out that is great to work on an international context.

And then I was asked in 2004 if I would be willing to go on my first mission and that was Kosovo.

And in those days I had two little children and I promised my wife I would try it, if it’s good and if it works with the family and if she tells me it’s not possible, I will immediately return.

But it went quite well.

So after one year returning, after returning, after one year, I told my wife that this might be the future.

So I gave this signal to Berlin, to my Ministry of Interior, so that I’m willing also to go again.

And there was one day when they told me, okay, we can rely on you, that you are willing to go abroad again, we also will build you up with all the trainings and everything for a potential international career.

And that is how it started.

Asbed: Wonderful to hear. Okay.

Ritter: And I’m still happily married.

My children are in university in the meantime now and a lot of my friends who never left the town or the city are divorced now, I’m still happily married. So it seems that there are other reasons if people get divorced.

Asbed: Yes, that’s right. That’s no easy task. Let’s not take it for granted.

Mission Details

Hovik: So the EU mission recently celebrated its one-year anniversary in Armenia.

I believe it was established in February of 2023 and time seems to fly very quickly nowadays.

But the mandate is only two years so far, at least.

And I was also reading that you have recently announced full operational capacity.

The mission seems to have six forward operating bases, including Kapan and Goris, Jermuk, Yeghegnazor, Martuni and Ijevan.

So can you tell us a little bit more details about the goal of the mission and anything else I missed in terms of introducing the mission so far?

Ritter: Yeah.

The idea for this mission was born in autumn 2022 after the attack of Azerbaijan forces, the first time on the main territory of Armenia.

And it was agreed in the European Union political summit in Prague in October to send a very fast European Union presence to this border and line of confrontation.

And it was agreed at the beginning it should be two months to calm down the tension.

So they were coming here very quickly and started to patrol alongside the border and the line of confrontation.

And it worked to calm down the tensions.

In December, Armenia asked for a permanent mission and it was well received in Brussels and in January it was decided to have a permanent mission, the European Union mission to Armenia in Armenia on the border side.

And it should have the same task as this two months present.

So it was the first line of operation is by patrolling and reporting from the line of confrontation to calm down the tensions.

But also to be the eyes and ears of the European Union because Charles Michel, the president of the European Council is one of the broker for the peace negotiations.

The second line of operation was to visit the towns, the villages, the farms, the people as such in the conflict affected areas on the Armenian side. And this is the so-called human security patrols.

We are going there to talk with the people to bring them the feeling of security but also some hope that they know that the international community has an eye on them.

And the third line of operations is contributing to the confidence building between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But to be very honest, this doesn’t work very well because Azerbaijan refused any cooperation with us.

And so we are not able to have direct contact with them.

So this is still not working so well.

So that’s why we started, now last summer, to contact the civil society in Armenia and NGOs and the women’s organization who might also have some contacts to Azerbaijan. It was from the beginning clear it was a two-year mandate, but that does not mean that we are leaving after two years.

It’s always, even for those missions who already exist since 20 years, it’s always a two-year mandate that will be extended if it makes sense to stay in the country.

And for sure, it makes sense to stay in Armenia.

So this two-year mandate will end in February next year.

End of this year, we will have a strategic review that means we will make an assessment of what went well, what was not so well planned, what are the expectations and the wishes from the host country, from the people, from other organizations.

And that might lead either to a continuing with an existing mandate or to a modification.

Asbed: Actually, that was one of my quick questions for you.

Do you, in your assessment, do you think that the EU MA has been effective in reaching its goals currently?

Ritter: Except this, that we are not very successful with confidence building between Azerbaijan and Armenia, I think we are quite successful.

We still have incidents alongside line of confrontation, but much less than before, before we arrived here, by our presence by patrolling openly alongside the line of confrontation, visible for both sides, we are calming down the tensions.

And since our arrival here, there were no civilian victims, there was no shelling of villages, farms or whatever, and the number of incidents involving military stuff from both sides also decreased significantly.

So I think it’s a success.

Hovik: Dr. Ritter, the confidence building measures are very interesting.

So I understand that you are operating only on the territory of Armenia, but do you have some kind of even informal understanding with the Azerbaijani side on some of the other goals such as the confidence building measures, what exactly, what is the understanding with the Azerbaijani side in terms of your operational procedures and so forth, if you can tell us a little bit more about that.

Ritter: Yeah, when we are patrolling alongside the line of confrontation, we have two types of patrols. There are areas where we go escorted by either Armenian military or Armenian border guards, or we go on those patrols that are escorted by Armenian security forces.

Those patrols that are escorted by Armenian security forces, we are planning one week in advance, and we are notifying these patrols to Baku.

So don’t having a direct contact with them, we are sending this patrol schedule to the office of the European Union Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Toivo Klaar, who has connections to Baku.

So he is forwarding this.

So they have knowledge when the next week we are patrolling with escorts.

They don’t have the right to give a permission or approval, they just get a notification. And then we also, we don’t tell them exactly that we are at, for example, on Wednesday or at 8.30 at an exact observation point, we let them know that the next week on Wednesday between 8.00 and 12.00, for example, we are in a certain region patrolling.

So this, we are doing first for my staff here, because we are unarmed and civilian for a duty of care, because I want both sides to know that we are there, and that there are no misunderstanding.

Second, it’s also a kind of confidence building that we let them know where we are going. So the Azeri side and the Armenian side know that we are like an open book.

But also there are still areas where you have mine threats or there might be some tensions. It’s good, again, for duty of care to have then escorts who can tell us, don’t go further or we return, whatever.

It has never happened that we have been threatened or targeted by Azerbaijani forces.

So we don’t feel in danger.

So but still we are doing this because it’s also a kind of, as I said, confidence building if we tell them openly what we are doing.

Asbed: Dr. Ritter, do you think that Azerbaijan has used the information that you provide in good faith?

Because over the course of the previous year, there have been incidents where the Armenian border guards have died and the EU mission has not been present at pretty much at all of these incidents.

To be open and frank, both sides, there are also allegation from media, from Armenian that these notification are misused.

So the Armenians say if you tell the Azeris where you are the next week, they know where to go and make incidents where you are not.

The same, the Azeris say if you announce your presence at the border, the Armenians know that we will never shoot or attack when you are in the area so they can do some incidents whatever and they are covered by you.

So this is not the reality because as I told you, we also have a lot of patrols and most of our patrols are unescorted.

So if we announce that in a certain area in the next week we are with escorts on patrolling, that does not mean that there are not other areas alongside the borderline where we are without escorts and these patrols without escorts are not announced to both sides.

So we have six forward operating bases, each of the FOBs they are launching per day at least three patrols. So you can see that is 18 per day.

We are now already nearly 1900 patrols we have done so most of these patrols are unescorted.

So no one, both sides don’t know where we are.

They may know where is the escorted patrol but they also are both sides aware that there are a lot of other patrols going in other regions.

So for this, they cannot really plan with our presence and or not, this is not possible.

Asbed: How many patrol teams are there right now?

We have each forward operational base is staffed with eight.

This is a team leader, the deputy team leader and six monitors and they are going out as I said on a daily basis.

We have planned, scheduled patrols where you have a roster, it means they are looking where we haven’t been a long time, where we should go again to see if something changed.

But there are also areas where they go on with the task for me.

If we want to know more about an area, we had a lot of patrols to the entrance of the Lachin corridor last summer.

We had a lot of patrols in Yeraskh to Nakhijevan when we had this firing on the steel factory last year.


We have a lot of extra patrols in the area of the gold mine east of Sotk and we are also now patrolling a lot in the north in the Tavush province because there is a discussion about these four villages near these former exclaves and that’s also why sending them to see what’s going on.

Yeah, so this is, as I said, up to now 1900 patrols and one third of these patrols are alongside the border and the line of confrontation.

The rest, and this is the majority, are in the conflict affected areas to visit the people.

And this is also very important because then you don’t only have the official version if you’re meeting border guards or military but you also have a feeling that you get a feeling what the people, what they see, what they hear, what they are feeling and that’s also very important to get the whole picture.

Asbed: So earlier when I was asking about whether the Azerbaijanis have used the information with good faith, you said, well, “both sides” and then you moved on.

Has there been a case where the Armenian side has not used the information in good faith?

Ritter: No, but also I cannot say that the other side have misused the information.

We don’t have evidence on this.

There’s a lot of disinformation going on about us, what we are doing, what we are not doing. This disinformation comes from Russian side and more and more from the Azerbaijani side. But we don’t have this from Armenia and what we had, what is our problem with the Armenian media and also at the beginning with the people here that they thought when we, after our arrival here, if there’s any incident that I will be in the media in the evening and make a statement and blaming Azerbaijan and whatever.

But it was very clear, we made it then very clear that this is not our task.

We are reporting to Brussels and I don’t make any fast statements in the media or something like this.

But we also don’t accuse one or the other side.

We try to be impartial.

And that was at the beginning, the first half year, also when I was not really well staffed with PPIOs, with media officers, whatever, a little misunderstanding that when we had incidents, everybody expecting that I would make a public statement or we make a tweet immediately afterwards.

This is not what we are doing.

Asbed: But it’s true that the Armenian media or the Armenians in general would expect that if you observed that the Azerbaijanis are shooting, you would say the Azerbaijanis are shooting because that’s not, you know, that’s just stating the fact rather than taking sides.

Ritter: Yes, that’s right.

If we clearly see that the Azeris are shooting at the Armenians, then we will report this.

This is clear.

We also reported to Brussels and we made tweets when we had incidents with casualties on the Armenian side, but most of what we are doing at the moment that you have alleged shooting incidents that never happened, what we found out so that we, to calm down the situation, make tweets like, we patrol in this area, everything is calm and quiet.

So to calm down.

We have been eyewitness of shootings.

That is right.

But when we arrived there, the shooting was going on, both sides were exchange of fire.

So we see that there’s a shooting and this is what we report.

But we cannot tell you or the people who started with this.

And this is what we are very, very cautious and to stay in an impartial organization because it’s clear if we are only patrolling on Armenian side and we ask the Armenians, they will always tell us that the other side started and that is clear.

So that is why we are very cautious to start these things.

But we have been eyewitness of exchange of fire, even of shelling, but both sides were shelling each other in the Sotk area and this is what we reported to Brussels. Thank you.

Hovik: Dr. Ritter, that brings me to the question that we had in terms of what technologies and tools does the EUMA use?

Do you use, for instance, any shot detection technology or anything to augment your monitoring efforts?

And also, in terms of specific cartography, there has been a lot of political discussions around the fact that, for instance, the CSTO does not recognize what the exact borders of Armenia are and the Armenian Prime Minister has said the EU, on the other hand, does.

So does that, how does that recognition translate to technical terms?

Do you use any specific maps that are blessed by both sides and how do you define the areas that you need to go to?

Ritter: Okay, the first, our techniques, we have binoculars and we have cameras.

That’s all what we have.

And we don’t have any detection technology or something like a video or we have to survey around 1,000 kilometers and we don’t have the technical means to cover them all by drones or whatever.

So we don’t have this.

We can only go there openly, taking pictures, observing, writing reports.

That’s at least what we do at the moment in the current mandate.

The maps, it’s not very often a problem of which maps we have.

We have some given by the European Union and I can tell you that in most of the cases, because of the advance of the Azeris in September 22, the positions of Azerbaijan are inside the areas that are shown on our maps as Armenian territory and this limits.

We only can go as far as the Armenian positions and we cannot go further.

So in most of the cases there, it’s at the moment, it’s not relevant where at the border because our limitations to go are the two lines of confrontation, the trenches of the Armenians and the trenches of the Azeri side.

There are some few areas where from our maps, the Armenians positions are on Azeri territory, but there we stop where our maps show us even with the support of Google Maps, that Armenian territory stops and Azeri territory starts.

We don’t, we don’t, we strictly try to avoid to enter Azeri territory.

That’s how we are working.

Asbed: Dr. Ritter, when you say our maps, what maps do you use?

We have maps from the European Union.

We have some international maps.

We don’t have Russian maps and we don’t have the military maps from the Armenian side.

We don’t have, we have our own maps, but I can, I’m not a specialist now, which we have maps provided by the European Union.

Asbed: Okay.

Hovik: Dr. Ritter, you told us that you essentially act as the eyes and ears of the EU and what reports, for instance, does the EUMA generate?

Is it just sort of, you know, daily incident reports, for instance, some peacekeeping and observing missions have, you know, more summary reports that they release to the public.

Is any of the information that you release open to the public, for instance, or do you plan on doing anything more public?

Because I think it would improve the confidence of the people in understanding exactly what the mission does and, you know, how many incidents, for instance, have happened in the area.

From what we’ve heard, the biggest, the biggest criticism and problem is that, you know, essentially the people are left out and the media is left out of this reporting.

Sometimes it’s very difficult to verify events and incidents that happen.

Ritter: Okay.

What we do every day, every patrol makes a patrol report.

They are not very exciting because very often there’s not much changes.

There are, the people don’t say it’s something that is very exciting.

So we do these patrol reports and we are putting them in archive, also in our closed system also with a picture because then we can, in the future we can compare if there are any changes or something like this.

We do a weekly report to Brussels.

This is more a statistic report and how many patrols, how many visitors, whatever.

We do a monthly report to Brussels.

This is more detailed and if there are any incidents or something, we do special reports on this.

They go exclusively to Brussels and Brussels is deciding what to do with it.

So normally they go back then also to the EU delegations.

That means the EU embassies in the world and we have one in Yerevan.

So the EU delegation is the one who give political statements.

So they are also feed by our findings.

We don’t give any written reports or numbers to our Armenian friends here, to the host government.

What I do, I regularly have meetings with a point of contact in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also meet with the Secretary of the National Security Council, Armen Grigoryan.

With him orally I’m telling him what we are doing, what we found out or whatever.

And beside this we are doing press releases, statements, X tweets and we are posting on our internet site.

Now already also since we have now Armenian PPIO in Armenian language.

This is how we inform the Armenian public.

What I also do is, like now with the podcast here, I am invited from Armenian Public TV, whatever, doing interviews, we are taking journalists with us on patrols.

This is what we are doing to promote our work, whatever, but we don’t give any findings to one of the sides of the conflict.

This is what we are not doing and I’m not allowed to do this.

Asbed: Hovik, let’s just take a moment here.

We’d like to remind our listeners to go to our donate page, podcasts.groong.org or just go to podcasts.groong.org and there is a donate link there and consider buying us a coffee or better yet become a sustaining member of Groong through our Patreon link and give us monthly.

Hovik: You know there aren’t that many shows like us who digest Armenian news weekly and bring you interesting discussions relevant to it in English language and in a regular manner. We have always operated as a labor of love and we are not only non-profit but we are also non-budget unfortunately so we rely on listeners like you to help us.

Just two to three friends who have committed our lifetime and effort to understand the world around Armenians and Armenians and sharing their understanding with you.

Asbed: So we will continue to do our work as we always have but your support will help us expand our reach to more people who are interested in Armenian affairs around the world.

Hovik: So please visit our donate page again podcasts.groong.org or such donate and consider supporting us.

Thank you in advance.

We appreciate your listening to us and we take that trust and your support very seriously.

Asbed: Thank you.

Perceptions From Neighboring Countries

Hovik: Dr. Ritter in February 2023 shortly before opening the mission, Pashinyan in a speech to the parliament said that one of the goals of the EUMA is to make sure that and I’m quoting to make sure that Armenia and Russia are not planning attacks against Azerbaijan.

We recall that Azerbaijan tried to convince the EU that they were concerned that this could happen.

Is that just a mere political statement or is that part of also your mission and how does that translate into what you do?

How does the EUMA prove this?

Ritter: That Armenia is not attacking Azerbaijan?

Hovik: Yes.

That was a speech in parliament that Prime Minister Pashinyan made where he said that Azerbaijan is concerned that Armenia and Russia would attack it.

So one of the goals of the EUMA mission is also to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Ritter: Well, I cannot comment on this and to be honest, I never heard of this.

So we are here to calm down the tensions between both neighboring countries to contribute to confidence building and to by our presence to make both sides think twice if they start something because being out there on a daily basis, we can report if you see that some one side is starting an attack or whatever.

This is but this is a very neutral to to calm down the tensions alongside the border.

This is not aiming against one of the countries and it’s not that one of those countries is more or less under observation from us.

No, this is not our job.

Asbed: Dr. Ritter, Turkey has been largely silent on the presence of the Western observers in Armenia, but Iran, Russia and in fact, Azerbaijan have been very explicitly negative on the presence of the EUMA. They believe that regional issues should be resolved by regional players and Iran has said that they do not trust the Western observers because they don’t know what the mission is doing.

How would you respond to Iran and how would you tell them that contrary to their assertions that you are a destabilizing force, you are in fact a stabilizing force in the region?

Ritter: To be honest, I cannot see this with Iran.

I know that from the very beginning there was a hostile approach from Russia who see us as the Western spearhead in their zone of influence and after being more neutral at the beginning, Azerbaijan is now since last autumn very hostile against EUMA also with allegations of whatever we did being spies, being a private military company, but from Iran I was not aware that we have this. I know from our counterparts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that how to say they are not so happy about this Western presence here, but they somehow accept it. So I don’t have this. What I have now more and more in the media is that the problems of the region should be solved in the region, but this from my point of view is more directed to the peace talks that are brokered by Washington in Brussels or in Moscow, but it’s not related to this mission. So Iran is quite neutral, at least until now.

Asbed: Does the mission observe the Armenian-Iranian border?

No, clearly no. Also, we are not observing the Georgian border and also not the border to Turkey.

We have only the mandate to observe the border to Azerbaijan main country and to the exclave Nakhijevan.

Asbed: Pashinyan has asked the Russian border guards to leave Zvartnotz airport. He has also frozen his activities within the CSTO at the present time. It’s understood that Pashinyan is pivoting the Armenian security architecture towards the West. Now, if the Russians were to leave Armenia, could the observer mission be transformed into an armed peacekeeping mission?

Ritter: First, it’s a political question and I’m not now in the position to answer political question, but in general, missions can always be changed. That as I said with a new mandate, but be aware that for a European Union mission, it should always you need the consensus of all 27 member states. So they all together have to decide, yes, we want a mission in this shape, in this strength and with this equipment. An armed mission would be then a military mission that would not be a civilian mission, a CSTP mission anymore. So that would mean everything would change, must change in Brussels. So what related to my mission to change it into an armed mission? I don’t see this.

As I said, that would be a new mission, a completely different mission and that would be the end of my civilian mission. So this mission here is with civilians, no military, no weapons, and if you have civilians, this includes police officers. Police officers have if they are armed, small arms, and that would make no sense, no difference here in this area of a military conflict if you would have police officers with a pistol. So that must be something quite different and that would not be EUMA anymore.

Hovik: On the same note, there is concern among the Armenian diaspora that the EU mission, just as they included Canada, could eventually include countries that Armenia did not explicitly agree to. For instance, there’s a big concern that if Turkey could eventually be part of such a mission, what is the procedure for adding new countries to the mission in general? Does the Armenian government have to give it approval for that either explicitly, like it’s in part of the charter or is it maybe out of politeness, there is discussion, but what is the, because I also know that the Armenian opposition was pressuring the government to add explicit language that only based on the approval of the Armenian government could new countries be added to the mission.

Ritter: So first, it’s a long tradition in the European Union to have third contributing states, these so-called like-minded states to contribute to European missions. I have been before head of mission in Iraq and we had Canadians, Australians inside. This is nothing new, also from Switzerland, from Norway. Good, this is the question of Turkey. It’s always a policy of European Union not to have third contributing states from, contribute from third state from neighboring countries.

So that might be involved in the conflict that already exclude Turkey as the neighbor of Armenia. It was the same, by the way, in Iraq, where also Turkey was excluded because it was a northern neighbor of Iraq. The government has, as a host country, has a saying on this for sure and the procedure is always that states who are interested to contribute to a mission make an official request or an announcement in Brussels and there it is decided also again with the member states who will be involved and who not. So it will not happen that against the will of Armenia suddenly countries are popping up here, what the Armenian government not want to be here.

Diplomatic Immunity

Hovik: And most recently, the mission received diplomatic immunity in Armenia. So our question was, was this requested? Is this always like a standard procedure and what is the need for such immunity if you could brief us a little bit? And also, if you can tell us, is this, what kind of immunity? Is it like a full diplomatic immunity or is it functional immunity? I hope you understand that I guess the difference between those two. Yes.

Ritter: I’m not a specialist now on this, but I can tell you that every mission from the European Union, but I think it’s also with the UN missions, whatever, they have a SOMA called status of mission agreement. This is because the people working here need to have a kind of diplomatic status.

So this is a normal thing that is not more or less than in other countries. That’s a normal procedure. It takes a time because there are negotiations between Brussels and the host country, then it has to be ratified by the parliament, what happened here last week, and then it’s signed. That’s a normal procedure because it cannot be that we are treated like normal Armenian citizens, but we are also not out of the law or something like this. We have a status, a quasi diplomatic status, like an embassy or consulate. That is how we are working, but that is how we are working everywhere in the world, from Kosovo to Libya to Mali, wherever we are with mission. That’s a quite a normal thing.

It’s not that Armenia granted us something very special, other don’t get. It’s quite a normal This is our legal basis here.

Hovik: Does the immunity cover only what the observers do during day to day activities, or does it cover them, for instance, if they’re not working and something happens?

No, we are not outside the legislation. So if we commit crime, this is not that we are in a free space or something.


Sotk (August 2023)

Hovik: Do you mind if we ask you some more questions about specific incidents that happened? It was interesting that you said that you were never targeted or you were never shot at.

So the specific incident that we wanted to bring up is August 25, 2023, when the Armenian Ministry of Defense reported that Azerbaijani forces had opened fire on the EU observer mission, and that EUMA was quick to deny the report and label it as fake news.

But then I believe there was some video evidence published and the mission amended, I guess. They deleted that tweet specifically, and I think they admitted that they were present to the shooting, but we heard you say today that you were not targeted. Can you tell us a little bit more detail on that specific incident and whether you were indeed targeted or not, and why there’s a discrepancy between the Armenian government and your report?

Ritter: Okay, first it was not on the 25th, but on the 15th, because I know this because, I have so often now been asked about this incident that if you awake me in the night, I can tell you exactly what happened. I would say that it’s the most interesting, but first and at all, we never had been targeted or attacked by Azerbaijan.

What happened on that day is that we have been on an escorted patrol in the east of Sotk, and around noon, we were in an area where there was an exchange of fire between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The patrol leader called me and said, we are here at the moment, and there’s an active shooting.

Should we stay and witness or should we leave? I asked them, are you under attack or not? He said, no, we are not under attack. Good. Then I say, stay. Then we will report tonight to Brussels that there was a shooting incident. Good.

After one hour, they told us they will continue now this patrol. I said, okay, do it. They go somewhere else, and please come in later in the late afternoon to make. I want to have all the knowledge. We want to make a special report because it was one of our rare situations when we really were eye-witnessing from not too far away what’s going on.

Around 15:00, I suddenly my phone, all my phones started ringing in all of my staff members, and we got calls from Europe, from the media, from the embassies, how we heard you are under attack. What happened? I said, no, we are not under attack. I sent an email to all the embassies here, that we have been in an area where there was shooting, and that, yes, the shooting took place, but not against us. But this did not stop. It got more and more and more because then we heard that the Ministry of Defense had made a press release and said, EUMA is under attack.

Okay, that was when all the media, everybody was really, they were storming us, and also Brussels, the member state capitals, they were all concerned about their staff members here in the mission and wanted to know what happened. So I said, what we have to do now, we have to make emergency breaks. So we make a tweet, false information, we have not been under attack.

Then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed me, but you have been under attack because we have an evidence, we have a video. Okay, so I asked my team leader, the patrol leader, everybody, who was taking a video because normally we don’t make videos. And they said, no, there was no video, whatever. I said, can it be that our escorts took videos of us? They said no.

And then I got from one of the embassy, they called me and said, we have seen the video. It seems that one of your guys took, out of the mission, took the video. And I watched the video.

It was like one of my team members made a private video with a helmet on because he made it for his home to be more interesting, whatever. So we are under attack and he was shouting into the camera. So I wanted to know from him what was it and who was taking this footage. So it was later that he gave his mobile phone to one of the Armenian escorts, asked him to film him. And after this filming was done, the escort asked if he can also have a copy of it. And he said, only if you promise to use it only for private reasons. And he promised and what immediately he sent it to the Ministry of Defense.

So I was told that I was not very diplomatic to say that it was a false information, so I should delete this because it’s an offense against host country.

And what we did then, we said, yes, we can testify that there was a shooting. That is our second tweet on that day, not that we were under attack. The next day we had then some emergency meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the Ministry of Defense. And I think it was very clear for both sides that one side made a mistake, taking a private video as an official video from EUMA and to post it. And we agreed, and I think that was good that we had the chance to talk about this, that in future we should not release any tweets or whatever that are not somehow coordinated. Both sides learned a lot of this and it never happened again.

But also I made all sides clear that it’s a huge difference if EUMA patrol is eye-witnessing a shooting or if EUMA patrol itself is under attack, because that means that would change the whole procedures here and the whole approach of this mission. So both sides learned out of this.

Asbed: This was an important clarification because it caused a lot of consternation for Armenians when they saw that there are differences in reports from the EUMA and the Defense Department and everybody said, what are they covering up? Why aren’t these stories matching? So it’s very important that we know there’s transparency and understanding in the incident.

Ritter: To be honest, we have a very good relationship with our escorts and also with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense. And after this, we even came closer because both sides, as I said, learned and we learned what it doesn’t mean if without any coordination and cooperation, things are spread and that’s why things are much better working since last August.

Both sides learned a lot.

Nerkin Hand (February 2024)

Hovik: Yeah, and the other incident that I really wanted to get a little bit more detail upon, you probably can guess which one would that be, is the one in February around Nerkin Hand.

And if I can recall, so actually, first of all, I’ve been to the area myself, the two times that I was driving in a Russian peacekeeping APC parked outside the entrance of the village. But if I can just describe to our listeners, the village, essentially, when you drive to the village, it goes down into a valley. And there was a lot of reports. So I don’t know which one is the official language from EUMA. But apparently, there was reports that the Russian peacekeepers did not allow the EUMA staff to observe what happened. Unfortunately, that incident four Armenians were killed by Azerbaijan. But at the same time, so we wanted to get your side of the story.

Was EUMA prevented from doing its work? Did you need to actually go into the valley portion of the Nerkin Hand in order to observe? Or could you have conducted your observation also from the nearby road? And there’s like, we’ve seen like photographic evidence, like photos that have been geolocated, I don’t know how accurate they are, that show that EUMA has been observing that portion of the border from the road itself, which is higher than the village, which probably would be more advantageous from a perspective of monitoring.

So please tell us what, in your own words, what happened that day?

Ritter: I cannot tell you what happened on that day. I can tell you that to this valley and to Nerkin Hand itself, we had only one access that was June last year. Because before you reach this valley, you have on the right side of the road, you have a huge base of the Russian Federation border guards, and they stopped us regularly there, blocking the road and said we cannot continue because of security reasons.

Last June, we have been there with an escort of the Armenian military, even then we have been stopped. And only after two hours and after a high ranking general from the Armenian army intervened, we were allowed to continue to this valley, what you just said, with the road where you could look down to the valley. That was the only time we ever managed to go so far. Afterwards, we were not allowed anymore, though since July, since July last year, we don’t have access to this area. That’s also why we cannot tell you what happened in February with the foredead, because it’s an area we have to avoid since last summer.

Asbed: Dr. Ritter, do you have any specific topics you would want to address that we can ask?

Ritter: No, I just want to say that the EUMA staff, we feel very happy here in Armenia, as you have said at the beginning, I have been to other places in the world. We have never been to a country where we have so warmly been welcomed. It’s a nice, it’s a beautiful country. People are very friendly. My staff likes it. We think we make something, this makes sense, because a lot of other missions are advisory missions, where you go in the morning to the offices of them in the ministry starting some projects here, being outside with our marked, clearly marked vehicles with an EU-flag, going to these villages and see how the people are happy that they see us.

That makes a difference. That’s also a huge motivation, and we are happy to be here. We are happy to contribute to the peace, and we all hope that it will stay peaceful and stable here.

Asbed: We wish you much success. All right, then we’re going to leave it there for today.

Thank you, Dr. Ritter. We hope to have you back on the show again.

Ritter: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Bye-bye.

Asbed: That’s our show today. This episode was recorded on March 26, 2024. Please support our show and help us expand our reach. Go to our donate page at podcast.groong.org slash donate. That’s podcast.groong.org slash donate and use the links to buy us a coffee or two or more, whatever you like, or even better, you can become a sustaining member with a monthly contribution. Thank you in advance for that.

We’ve been talking to Dr. Markus Ritter, who is the head of the mission of the European Union Observers in Armenia, EUMA. For short, he is a senior police officer with extensive experience on the national and international scene. For more on Dr. Ritter, please check out our show notes on podcast.groong.org.

I’m Asbed Bedrossian

Hovik: And I’m Hovik Manucharyan.

Asbed: Please find us on social media and follow us everywhere you get your Armenian news. The links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you soon.

NOTE: The above is a preliminary transcript and may contain errors.