In a recent interview on December 19, 2023, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan delivered groundbreaking remarks that challenged Armenia’s long-standing narrative on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. This marked a significant departure, as it was the first instance where an Armenian leader publicly challenged the predominant understanding of the issue that had grown into a creed within the country.
In a separate analysis, I examined the key components of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, delving into the nuances of the principle of self-determination, the declaration of independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, the evolution of statehood over time, and the prevailing misinterpretations within Armenian society surrounding these critical aspects.
This article centers on the substantive portion of the interview, where the Armenian Prime Minister delves into the intricacies of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, reflecting on the negotiations’ legacy since the 1994 ceasefire agreement in Bishkek.
Nikol Pashinyan implicitly acknowledged that since he came to power, the public continued to be kept in the dark about the realities surrounding the negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh, just as it was before. Emphasizing a significant departure from the previous narrative, he asserted that attributing political accountability for potentially misleading the public and fostering unrealistic aspirations extends beyond the current administration. Such a conviction, he noted, would implicate a broader circle of stakeholders, including not only his government but also past leadership in Armenia.
With the interviewer’s assistance, the overarching message crystallized: Assuming power, Pashinyan and his team discovered that Armenia’s pursuits since the early 1990s had been as practical as a chocolate teapot. Pashinyan emphasized that this revelation took time, given that he, too, emerged from a society with ingrained misconceptions over the years. The Prime Minister asserted that to deconstruct the deeply entrenched narrative, they needed a credible political alternative, which his administration lacked at the time. In justifying the delay, he admitted that coming to terms with the reality was a bitter pill to swallow, which took some time to grasp. However, given the resources and expertise available to the state, understanding the true state of affairs should not have been a challenging or time-consuming feat.
Uncovering Negotiation Pitfalls
Pashinyan succinctly outlined the fundamental components of the negotiation process that rendered the Armenian narrative unattainable. Thus, the 1993 United Nations Security Council (UN SC) Resolutions confirmed Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory. Any gains made by Armenia through the use of force were deemed null and void, underscoring the imperative of upholding the territorial integrity of states. Indeed, this stance was affirmed by the UN General Assembly Declaration on Friendly Relations, reflecting a widely acknowledged customary rule: “No territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognized as legal.” Moreover, the OSCE Summit in 1996 in Lisbon solidified the substance of Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination, emphasizing its pursuit of the highest possible degree of autonomy within Azerbaijan.
Pashinyan further emphasized that during the Kazan talks in 2011 when the idea of granting an interim status to Nagorno-Karabakh was proposed, Armenia insisted that the interim status should reflect the de facto situation on the ground. However, Azerbaijan rejected this proposal. Pashinyan made a weighty statement, asserting that the negotiation process inherited in 2018 already presupposed the gradual dissolution of the de facto statehood of Nagorno-Karabakh. This shift allegedly happened in August 2016, when a new proposal surfaced regarding the interim status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Unlike the Kazan offer, this formula presumed the involvement of the UN SC. The SC would deliberate and establish the means through which Nagorno-Karabakh could determine its future, constituting the interim status.
Pashinyan further argued that the alleged advantage of the Madrid Principles, the mechanism to determine Nagorno-Karabakh’s status through a future referendum, was leveraged by Azerbaijan to nullify the effects of the referendum held on December 10, 1991, and the subsequent declaration of independence by Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, this interpretation is inaccurate. The 1991 referendum held by Nagorno-Karabakh had no legal standing and did not, in the first place, establish any interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh recognized by the international community.
A Large Pinch of Salt
Assessing the credibility of Pashinyan’s assertion requires a retrospective examination of Armenia’s vision, which was typically obscured by the smoke of ambiguity. What was Armenia trying to achieve ultimately? Was it the secession or external self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh, followed by a unification with Armenia? As highlighted elsewhere, these ambitions run contrary to international law and are difficult to envision as acceptable to the broader international community.
For Azerbaijan, the solution to the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh entailed the unequivocal acknowledgment and establishment of its sovereignty over the region. Yet, what did a solution look like for Armenia?
Over time, numerous high-ranking officials kept asserting that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was “resolved,” suggesting the perpetuation of the status quo on the ground. While this stance was not officially endorsed by Armenia, it seemed to align with popular sentiment and even contributed to shaping that sentiment within a close-knit circle. Pashinyan’s interview once again highlighted the role that public opinion and sentiment played in the policymaking process.
Regrettably, the Prime Minister’s reliance on popular sentiment over Nagorno-Karabakh overlooks a fundamental truth—that leading a country often requires making unpopular yet wise decisions. The capability to provide meaningful alternatives is a measure of political merit. Consequently, the failure to present such alternatives cannot serve as justification for a political leader in this context. Beyond a mere change of course, the pressing need was to unveil a critical understanding that could potentially avert consecutive humanitarian disasters. It was imperative to have a systematic discourse with society—a task well within the capabilities and responsibilities of an immensely popular administration.
In response to the interviewer’s question about why he did not alter his rhetoric on Nagorno-Karabakh at the time, Pashinyan reiterated the absence of alternatives. However, the very disclosure of the underlying reality could have served as an alternative. Faced with the choice between pulling emergency brakes or allowing the train to hurdle over the edge, Pashinyan deliberately opted for the latter.
Pashinyan sought to implicate the previous leadership, suggesting that the responsibility for keeping society in the dark should extend to a larger group of stakeholders. However, a crucial distinction lies in Pashinyan’s acknowledgment that Armenia’s course was inherently unrealistic. In contrast, previous leaders might defend themselves by claiming a genuine belief in the viability of their chosen path. While this does not absolve them from political accountability, Pashinyan’s attempt to implicate them should not serve as an exoneration for his role.
The Armenian Narrative Under International Law
Let’s take a moment to briefly dissect the core of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as perceived in Armenia. Regardless of the official position Armenia implemented during the negotiations, the narrative for the domestic audience included misinterpretation of the principles of international law and the realities documented in the prolonged negotiations.
A fundamental issue at the core of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the misrepresentation of the principle of self-determination. The narrative consistently put forth by Armenia’s leadership asserted that the international community recognized the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, which is indeed accurate. However, what remained concealed from society was the true substance of this principle. Contrary to the internal messaging, every pertinent document, including the Madrid Principles, understood self-determination in its only acceptable form under international law—internal self-determination within the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. Despite this legal reality, the narrative in Armenia persisted, suggesting that external self-determination was the consideration. This notion, allowing Nagorno-Karabakh, under international law, to secede or join Armenia, is legally baseless, as I have detailed elsewhere. To reiterate, international law does not recognize the concept of external self-determination beyond the colonial context.
As a result, a mistaken belief solidified in Armenia that the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity were in perpetual conflict, contributing to a perceived legal impasse surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. This conflict formed the core of both popular and high-level discussions in Armenia. However, the principle of self-determination exists within a specific context that does not contradict the principle of territorial integrity. Compounding the issue is the absence of independent academia with a critically-minded approach, providing a carte blanche for the proliferation of erroneous narratives.
Hence, deceiving and misinforming society on the paramount issue of Nagorno-Karabakh has been an enduring constant, persisting through changes in leadership since the conflict was frozen in the 1990s.
Piercing the Veil
Adopting the Prime Minister’s logic for the sake of argument regarding alternatives and predictability, one may question: What has changed now? If the prevailing narrative is being refuted, this implies the existence of alternatives, and the future is seemingly more predictable. However, if this is the case, why is the public still left in the dark about Armenia’s current trajectory?
To this point, a commentator suggests that his pronouncements may be strategically directed at addressing Azerbaijan’s specific concerns related to normative aspects indirectly embedded in the Armenian Constitution, implying implicit territorial aspirations over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Preamble of the Constitution refers to the Declaration of Independence of Armenia, which, in turn, cites the December 1, 1989, decision of the Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR and the National Council of Nagorno-Karabakh on reunification. As a result, Pashinyan’s interview can be seen as an effort to address Azerbaijan’s concerns in this context.
Regardless of the reasons, Armenian society remains in the dark about the state’s direction in this regard and it must set a higher threshold for political accountability, demanding firm transparency and comprehensive explanations regarding the chosen course. This stands in stark contrast to the feeble attempt at whitewashing the catastrophic missteps that have characterized Pashinyan’s leadership since 2018.
From the perspective of this article, the most catastrophically tangible consequence of Pashinyan’s tenure is the thousands of lives lost, the profound psychological trauma within society, and the complete ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. Assessing the matter from this standpoint makes the argument for meaningful alternatives appear ludicrous. While the future remains an enigma, no crystal ball is needed – just a healthy dose of critical analysis, a sine qua non tool in the arsenal of every high-profile political figure, to dissect basic cause-and-effect patterns.
This underscores the essential requirement for robust restraints on political discourse, facilitated by proactive academic pronouncements grounded in provable and accountable research. The promotion of such practices should be championed through the efforts of civil society and critical media. The need for the latter is once again evident in the tone of Pashinyan’s interviewer, who, despite being renowned for hard talk, assumed a marginal role.
While Pashinyan’s revelation itself is commendable, its underlying purpose does not seem directed toward enhancing the public’s understanding of reality. Setting aside the regional and geopolitical context, this article focused on the repercussions for societal cognitive well-being and the inherent political accountability of the country’s leadership. Pashinyan’s central argument revolves around acknowledging the responsibility to deconstruct the prevailing narrative. A comparable responsibility surfaces as the shockwaves from this interview penetrate societal cognition.
The power of narratives is potent and can be perilous, setting traps for both states and societies. The “not an inch of land” narrative was one such trap, ensnaring both government policies and the minds of the people. Ironically, this proved to be a self-set trap, as leaders in Armenia deliberately inflated and exploited this sentiment to pursue and solidify their power. This maximalist approach, demanding all or nothing, ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving nothing in its wake. The crucial question now is, what replaces the old narrative? Will the state initiate and lead a systematic, long-term discussion with society? It must, though my skepticism prevails. I highly doubt the likelihood of such an initiative ever materializing.
Pashinyan hammered home the point that with Nagorno-Karabakh no longer in the forefront, Armenia must now prioritize its own development; the earlier emphasis on Nagorno-Karabakh’s progress had hindered Armenia’s advancement. Yet, prioritizing Armenia’s development must have always been imperative. Pashinyan’s vision is not revolutionary and does little to heal society. Importantly, it does not excuse the disastrous modus operandi that has led the nation through recent calamities. While the current leadership is crafting a narrative of passing the buck, civil society, academia, and independent media must emerge as the key actors capable of resisting this trend and demanding effective political accountability.
By the Same Author
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