Armenia’s crushing defeat in the 2020 Artsakh War saw the loss of a significant amount of territory, an uncertain future for tens of thousands of Armenians of Artsakh, cultural heritage coming under threat, and the security of the Republic of Armenia imperilled. The political, economic and social fabric of Armenia will undoubtedly witness tectonic shifts in the coming weeks and months as the nation stands at an inflection point; it will either rise from the catastrophe by defining a new narrative for its future existence or it can plunge into chaos, divisiveness and the erosion of any democratic gains made over the last several years.
Amid calls for his resignation following the humiliating November 10 trilateral agreement, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who appears disinclined to heed those calls, published a road map on November 18, for what he considered to be the “most important activities in the near future.”
Instead of presenting a detailed plan to help guide the country toward a number of clearly-defined national goals, Pashinyan’s road map resembled a laundry list of necessary post-war actions to take to mitigate the fallout.
According to the Prime Minister, the overarching goal of the road map is to ensure democratic stability in Armenia and put into place mechanisms that will ensure the formation of power in the country through the free will of the people. He also said that, in order to implement his road map, he will be making changes to the government structure. “It will take six months to put these measures on an irreversible institutional track. In June 2021, I will present a report on the implementation of the road map. Then, we will make a decision on what to do next, taking public opinion into account,” he said.
Following a defeat that has left the Armenian people stunned and devastated, a number of important questions need to be addressed before a comprehensive road map can be designed.
Who is leading the negotiation process?
The trilateral agreement that effectively brought the war to an end and saw Russian peacekeepers deploy in Artsakh appears to be a working document. That is, negotiations are ongoing regarding demarcation of final borders, positions of Russian peacekeeping forces along the Contact Line, exchange of bodies and prisoners of war, protection of cultural heritage sites, etc. It is not clear who exactly is leading these negotiations on behalf of the Armenians, who have borne almost all of the concessions and what principles or guidelines they are based upon. There needs to be more transparency about the negotiation process and options that the Armenian people might still be able to negotiate on, if all is not yet lost.
- Restoration of the Karabakh peace process within the format of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, emphasizing the status of Artsakh and the priority of the return of Artsakh residents to their places of residence.
- Ensure the return of the people of Artsakh to their homes. To completely restore the normal life of Artsakh. Reconstruction of damaged houses, apartments and infrastructure in the territories under the control of the NKR authorities.
- Providing social guarantees for the families of killed servicemen and citizens.
- Reconstruction of residential and public structures and infrastructure damaged during the war in the territory of the Republic of Armenia.
- Providing social guarantees, prosthetics and professional training for disabled servicemen.
- Immediate return of soldiers and civilians in captivity. Providing social guarantees for their families. Swift clarification of the fate of the missing. Providing social guarantees for their families.
- The formation of a system of psychological rehabilitation for the people who took part in the war and society in general.
- Approval of the Armed Forces Reform Program and launch of reforms.
- Overcoming COVID-19 and eliminating its consequences.
- Restoration of economic activity.
- Activation of demographic programs.
- Adoption of a new law on amendments to the Electoral Code and political parties.
- Introduction of the Institute of Specialized Judges as the first step in establishing an anti-corruption court. Launch of the law on confiscation of illegal property.
- Conducting regular thematic consultations with representatives of Armenian political and civil society sectors.
- Conducting regular consultations with Armenian organizations and individuals of the diaspora. Involvement of Armenian private individuals and diasporan structures in the above-mentioned processes.
What will the OSCE Minsk Group do differently now?
The OSCE Minsk Group, tasked with finding a final, peaceful solution to the conflict, has been ineffective and impractical for a long time. The disruption of the security environment in the 2016 April War and the inertia of the body in response only further emboldened Russia, and now Turkey, in its ability to exert influence on Yerevan and Baku.
If three ceasefires sponsored by each respective member state of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs failed, but a truce imposed almost unilaterally by Russia has succeeded, then how will the Minsk Group adjust? Does it still have a credible mandate? Will the Armenian side bring pressure to bear to ensure that the body refrain from its decades-long practice of positive neutrality?
What about the future status of the Republic of Artsakh?
The status of the Republic of Artsakh has always been part of the negotiation process and on Armenia’s foreign policy agenda. Putting aside the less than robust efforts in this regard, Prime Minister Pashinyan, during the war, spoke about the possibility of using international instruments to secure a form of remedial recognition for the Republic. This, similar to his pronouncements to implement the tools of transitional justice following the Velvet Revolution to address almost 30 years of corruption and political violence, remained only in speeches and/or on paper and were never followed through on. Will the international recognition of the Republic of Artsakh provide guarantees to prevent future aggressions? Should advocating for securing recognition be a priority for the Armenian side? Who should lead this process?
What do the Armenians of Artsakh want?
Over the past two years, Pashinyan has tried to give representatives of the people of Artsakh direct representation in the processes that seek to determine their fate. This overture was deemed to be unacceptable by Azerbaijan. In these new conditions, will the Armenians of Artsakh have a voice in coming developments? Who will speak for them? What will be the processes under which their collective will is expressed?
Can military reform help protect the future of the Armenian people?
The 2020 Artsakh War highlighted Armenia’s outdated defense systems and capabilities, which were no match against the modernized army fielded by Azerbaijan, boasting high-tech military hardware made possible with the country’s oil revenues and supported by NATO-member Turkey, that has the world’s eleventh most powerful military. Armenia must look critically at its military shortcomings (since the end of the first Karabakh War and in the last 2.5 years) and address them – among the most important factors being effective planning, coordination and communication. Taking into consideration, however, that its limited capabilities (human and financial) will always be outmatched by any future Azerbaijani-Turkish military aggression, the public has a right to know what the Armed Forces Reform Program entails and how and if it will protect the future of the Armenian people.
In a shifting geopolitical reality, what should Armenia’s diplomatic priorities be?
We are now in a multipolar world order, where security is no longer provided by global superpowers using constant foreign military involvement, but by hegemonic regional actors, as paltry or brutal as their “security” is. With Azerbaijan’s territorial gains, Russia increased its presence on the ground and brought unprecedented involvement by Turkey in the conflict. Armenia has found itself in an even more precarious geopolitical situation than before. It would be an unimaginable folly not to adapt and navigate it in the most intelligent and effective way possible. Russia is perhaps Armenia’s only ally (and an arguable one at that) because Armenians have not actively sought to develop alliances with other partners. Greece, Cyprus, France and India are natural partners for different reasons and both their populations and governments are to some extent receptive to deeper cooperation with Armenia. Developing robust diplomatic alternatives and significantly improving its intelligence capabilities are among the alternatives to counteracting Armenia’s isolation and increasing its geopolitical leverage. Moreover, Armenia’s diplomats accredited to different countries around the world must finally start acting in the national interests of the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Arstakh and the Armenian nation.
What should Armenia’s economic recovery look like post-war, post-COVID?
The global economy will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic completely transformed, with many trends that were long-underway accelerated by the pandemic. Now is the time for Armenia to turn its attention to reimagining a stronger economic future by adapting to this new reality. Armenia must more rapidly and strategically develop its digital economy and increase access to it. This is especially necessary with the advent of remote working and learning and the expansion in e-commerce and fintech. Moreover, Armenia must address the economic vulnerabilities that the pandemic exposed. Among the most significant of these is social inequality. Economic choices made now will have far-reaching consequences. It is imperative that these decisions do not further entrench these inequalities, but actively work to correct them. Facilitating women’s access to labor, for example, should be an essential part of economic reform, because policies that increase women’s engagement in labor tend to help countries recover from recessions much more quickly and sustainably in the long term.
The development of sustainable energy sources in Armenia must be part of its economic development. The oil boom, the tail end of which helped Azerbaijan build up its military capacity, will be over in our lifetimes. Armenia can approach renewables as an industrialization process itself. Renewables can mitigate balance of payment burdens, reduce dependence on Russia, generate employment and enhance energy security.
Creating a domestic defense industry would reduce dependence on unreliable sources of arms. Ideally, an Armenian domestic defense industry could promote the development of human capital and discourage emigration of skilled labor, and it would also promote the development of civilian industry by creating backward loops into the economy. At the same time, defense production is very expensive and Armenia would have to rely on imports of raw material, parts and technology. There are examples of developing countries bootstrapping their own domestic defense industry that could be used as models for how Armenia might do it.
How can we nurture social cohesion and help the country heal?
Despite the overwhelming support that Nikol Pashinyan secured following the Velvet Revolution, his administration has been plagued by a lack of strategic and long-term thinking both in terms of domestic reforms as well as in terms of foreign policy. Constructive criticism and alternative visions are ideally offered by an opposition. But in Armenia, what is called the opposition, the former ruling elite and their allies, has instead done everything in its power to discredit and vilify the new administration as unpatriotic, often relying on disinformation. In other words, instead of offering true democratic competition, the goal is to obfuscate information, and to confuse and polarize Armenian society. This has presented Armenia with a kind of false choice - either between Pashinyan and these illiberal, corrupt, oligarchic forces. This political and social polarization must be de-escalated. At the same time, Pashinyan, on many occasions, discredited and vilified them as well, poorly handling issues such as the Constitutional Court, only aggravating tensions.
Armenia needs a new social contract – a new collective understanding about what Armenia is, what Armenian citizenship is, and in which direction Armenia and Armenians are going. A strong social contract should be cohesive and in everyone’s interest to enforce rules and norms that ensure security for everyone. Strengthening the rule of law, promoting social inclusivity and protecting strides made in democracy should be at the foundation of a new social contract with the understanding that these are the best ways to strengthen the Armenian state.
How will the Republic of Armenia deal with Azerbaijani war crimes?
During the fighting, Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey and mercenaries, committed numerous war crimes against the Armenians of Artsakh. They murdered civilians, beheaded and tortured POWs (and continue to do so), rained fire onto forests, and targeted hospitals, schools and churches. While states are obligated under customary law to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed by their nationals, this does not always happen. The Armenian government must push for an investigation and prosecution of individuals involved in these war crimes as a form of legal protection. By punishing perpetrators, the idea that international crimes are not only violations against individuals, groups and states, but against humankind, is enforced. Moreover, a thorough prosecution would not only provide justice to victims and facilitate trust-building efforts, it would also help provide a historical account of what happened and hopefully restrain others from repeating such actions.
What should the diaspora’s role be now?
The diaspora’s participation in Armenian state-building since independence has largely been limited to charity infrastructure projects – work that the Armenian state should really be responsible for. Continuing down this path not only constrains Armenia’s ability to develop its own basic capabilities as a state, it also wastes the diaspora’s potential. The diaspora is perfectly positioned with footholds in different countries and societies to influence foreign policy toward Armenia. Azerbaijan has the petrodollars for effective PR and lobbying, paying pundits, journalists and PR firms to promote Azerbaijan’s interests and whitewash their war crimes.
Armenians need to financially organize to a comparable level in order to counter this. While some policy achievements benefitting Armenian interests have been won by the older, more organized diasporan Armenia lobbying infrastructure, they have not always been successful on issues related to Turkey or American energy policy in the region. If Armenia is to survive the next five years, it needs to take advantage of its diasporan resources and encourage not only robust investment in the country, but the expansion of the Armenian lobby by hiring and working with PR firms that will push its agenda on the international level in collaboration with relevant state bodies, under the leadership of Armenia’s Foreign Ministry.
In his road map, Pashinyan says that they will conduct regular consultations with Armenian organizations and individuals of the diaspora, involving them in these processes. This has to move beyond words to actual action and a genuine interest and motivation to listen and hear advice, and put it into action.