Are we headed toward a better, or a more worrying future? At this stage, the pendulum is clearly shifting, but it’s still difficult to tell in which direction: toward more uncertainty or toward a lull? Two fundamental questions stand out: the survival of Artsakh and the independence of Armenia.
With Artsakh effectively removed—by force of circumstance—from the OSCE Minsk Group’s platform but still recovering from the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh War, never have Armenians been so vulnerable to the storms which criss-cross the South Caucasus: the Northerly Wind of the Ukraine war, the Westerly Wind with its nebulous Russo-Turkish games, the Easterly Wind of Aliyev’s insatiable appetite and the Southerly Wind of Iran’s relations with international markets. In Yerevan, Stepanakert and across the Armenian World, tempers are flaring and debates are amplifying against a feeling of being closed in by powerlessness and restless reflection. The frustration at a lack of acceptable options fuels intolerance, sectarianism and fear-mongering.
Armenia continues to pay the price for the military defeat in 2020, over and over again. What will the full cost end up coming to? There are two competing schools of thought: 1) Those who believe that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is the cause of all these hardships and a return to the pre-2018 class of leadership will create new options, while discounting their share of the blame over the last three decades; and 2) Those who insist that Pashinyan can save whatever furniture is left after the fire, while discounting the threats of the path we’re currently treading. This tribalism puts off the silent majority who say “A pox on both your houses”, as they are numbed into trying to avoid thinking about Armenia’s future altogether.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister has, at the April 13 and 14 sessions of the National Assembly, not only taken responsibility for the defeat but also made clear what he was on the hook for: not making concessions earlier. In contrast, the opposition refuses to enumerate its past shortcomings, and the underlying reasons for the limits to their popular support. During this exercise, the Government tried to explain its approach to pulling Armenia out of an impasse, opening up a path toward diplomacy and addressing the country’s immediate problems.
What is really taking place is a shift from a territorial logic toward a national logic for the settlement of the Artsakh conflict and the future of Armenia. By shifting from the rights of territory to the rights of people, Nikol Pashinyan has emphasized needs for guarantees from the Armenian State and the protection of the political rights of Artsakh’s Armenians, as well as the unblocking of diplomacy that has hitherto been muffled by two decades of Kocharyan-Sargsyanism or the territorial HayTad-ism supported by the ARF. It is impossible to understand Nikol Pashinyan’s strategy without taking into account these three principles (1. Shift from territorial rights to rights of people; 2. Guarantees of protection of Artsakh Armenians; 3. Unblocking of diplomacy), harkening back to the ideas of former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan. So are we talking about a return to the 1990s? It looks that way, but with an important nuance: Levon Ter-Petrosyan headed a militarily victorious Armenia, while Nikol Pashinyan leads an Armenia defeated by force of arms. Since the November 9, 2020 ceasefire statement, Armenia has been running the gauntlet of pressure, provocation and other forms of limitless cynicism by Azerbaijan.
First of all, under the threat of a new war, Yerevan has signaled readiness to sign a negotiation architecture based on the five points which Baku submitted in March 2022. With such a peace accord, Baku will be able to score the ultimate victory: if Armenia concedes that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan, it will give credence to Aliyev’s posturing that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been resolved (and that “there is no entity called Nagorno-Karabakh”). That’s a difficult pill to swallow for Armenians who had once seen Pashinyan as the architect of Armenian-Artsakh unification.
Secondly, Yerevan is continuing Moscow-backed negotiations with Ankara without preconditions. Actually without preconditions? Armenia has no preconditions, but it’s not clear if Turkey is operating under the same logic. Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mehvlut Cavusoglu recently clarified that this process would be pegged to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to Baku’s satisfaction, and these meetings were expected to take place either in Turkey or in Armenia, but not abroad. Yet, the third such meeting is scheduled to take place in May in Vienna, like the last one, while the first took place in Moscow. Tensions between Armenians and Turks are even higher now given that the same Mehvlut Cavusoglu caused controversy on April 23, 2022, when he was filmed taunting Armenians with the extremist Grey Wolves gesture while in Uruguay, the first state to have recognized the Armenian Genocide in 1965.
Thirdly, Yerevan and Baku are negotiating a peace accord under the guidance of the European Union, which may be rewarded with financial encouragement for both sides to the tune of €2.5 billion.
Fourthly, Nikol Pashinyan’s meeting with Vladimir Putin on April 19 in Moscow produced a 32-point declaration where both parties recommitted themselves to their alliance, and pledged to coordinate joint action in virtually every sphere imaginable: from regional development to the coordination of positions at the United Nations. It’s not quite the reaffirmation of the Russo-Belarusian Union State agreement signed in 2021, but it’s certainly a first step toward a similar form of Armenia-Russia integration. Yerevan can continue to insist that Russo-Armenian equality is respected, yet the words “independence”, “sovereignty” and “status of Nagorno-Karabakh” appear nowhere in the final text, while the words “denazification” and “Russian Diaspora” do.
How do we interpret these four dynamics and where are they taking Armenia? Officially, Nikol Pashinyan’s government says it appreciates the stakes at hand: state sovereignty and the independence of Armenia at play. Yerevan has little alternative to difficult decisions and must preserve the essential to keep Armenia on the world stage and capable to act in urgency to manage the unmanageable and gain time while focusing on economic growth to restore the situation. In short, the point is to get out of the gauntlet of defeat as quickly as possible and to score the slightest success as a victory, whatever it may be. Thus, during his pivotal speech at the National Assembly, the Prime Minister declared that, by freeing up new paths for Armenian diplomacy, he satisfied one of the international community, which had apparently told him that only Armenia has yet to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, and that, if Yerevan lowers the “benchmark on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh a little” it will “ensure greater international consolidation around Armenia and Artsakh.”
Yet Nikol Pashinyan does not specify who he is alluding to when he talks about the “international community”. None of the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group (the United States, Russia and France) have publicly made such a call. Could he be referring to Charles Michel, the President of the European Council? The Pashinyan Administration needs to clarify this point. Observing the EU’s recent reengagement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, commentators have noted an international process existing in parallel to that of the Minsk Group, as if Brussels understood that the Minsk Group had lost its substance.
Now little more than a shadow of its former self, the OSCE Minsk Group has not, however, dissolved itself, since its French (Brice Roquefeuil) and American (Andrew Shaffer) co-chairs have separately spent several days in Yerevan in mid-April, without following up with visits to Baku. Why? For two reasons. First, because Azerbaijan understands that to admit this group’s representatives amounts to a tacit admission that the Karabakh Question has not been resolved, specifically the issue of its ultimate status. Second, ties between Russia and the West have deteriorated so much since the war in Ukraine that it is hard for Europeans and Americans to find themselves face to face with Russians. So then why is Sergey Lavrov berating the West by denouncing their lack of action which would put the Minsk Group’s existence, and Armenia’s interests in danger? That’s simply because in the wake of Azerbaijan’s war of aggression in 2020, Moscow has been attempting to shut out the West from the region entirely and declaw the Minsk Group. It is indeed Moscow which is stalling the group’s reengagement. Logically, why would Paris and Washington disengage from the Minsk Group given that reactivating the group has been the French and Americans’ sole objective ever since they were slighted by the trilateral (Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey) declaration of November 9, 2020?
So, if Washington and Paris are committed to the Minsk Group’s legitimacy, what is Russia up to? Here, there is some light being shed. Russia intends to do with Artsakh what it undertook with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Transnistria and the puppet republics of Donetsk and Luhansk: turn them into tactical pressure points. By progressively developing direct ties between Moscow and Stepanakert, Russian strategists will benefit from additional levers to influence diplomacy within the remains of its empire. In these difficult times, Vladimir Putin will use Artsakh as a lever, and will continue to be able to control the region. He comforts Azerbaijan with the knowledge that a union between Armenia and Artsakh is off the table, while demarcation and delimitation with Armenia is a serious option. Vladimir Putin takes the load of Artsakh off of Armenia’s shoulders and encourages Yerevan to normalize relations with Baku, as well as Ankara. Finally, Russia is cornering, if not outright burying the Minsk Group, which it no longer has a need for; the perpetuation of the conflict is the objective.
The idea of turning Artsakh into a new Abkhazia has simmered in the Russian imagination since the first war (1990-1994), with Russia seeking to impose a military presence in Stepanakert since the May 27, 1994 ceasefire to better control the entire region and consolidate its influence. The International Community is obviously not against any process of regional de-escalation, even if it is alarmed by the implementation of the Abkhazia model, which would sooner or later destabilize Azerbaijan, a privileged partner for gas deliveries to Europe. Baku is well aware of this. By accepting this interim option, the Aliyev clan asserts that the regional conflict should not come to a resolution until the so-called “Zangezur Corridor” connecting Baku to the Nakhichevan autonomous region has been secured. And all of this can be taken care of through arrangements with Russia. If, for example, in accordance with the November 9, 2020 ceasefire statement, Azerbaijan conditions the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh after 2025 to the opening of a “corridor” in Zangezur under Russian military control, why rush to solve the regional conflict?
This option should not be taken lightly. It happened before, during Perestroika, when Mikhail Gorbachev placed the autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh region under the aegis of the Volsky Commission between 1988 and 1989, named after the Soviet politician who headed this working group which included Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Baku denounced this commission while the Armenians showed a more nuanced stance. Yerevan, then reaching a boiling point, disagreed with Zori Balayan’s position while Stepanakert and the diasporan Armenian parties supported it. Thirty years later, like a dust-covered dossier sitting at the bottom of a drawer in Moscow, the first signs of reactivation are starting to show, notably in the read out of the 32-point Armenian-Russian treaty, which does not mention the word “status” for Artsakh but still entrusts Russia and Armenia with the responsibility for guaranteeing the security of Armenians in Artsakh. However, if Armenia and Azerbaijan sign a peace treaty, we’ll know which one of them will actually take responsibility for the rights of Armenians in Artsakh: Russia. Thus, the process of Artsakh’s “Abkhazization” is already underway and has its corollary in Yerevan in the form of an integration of Armenia with Russia, modeling that of Belarus. In short, looking at Armenia and Artsakh in 2022, Yerevan is potentially headed toward the Russo-Belarussian Union State, while Stepanakert is headed toward becoming a new Abkhazia.
In Yerevan, Spring is back, but the storm, whether it comes from any of the four cardinal directions, can still hit. It is up to the Armenians to deal with it like they do in bad weather.
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