The 2018 “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia raised hopes for a long-lasting peace in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but sticking points remain.Ruben Elamiryan
That the revolution radically changed Armenia’s power structure and the whole of the ruling elite provoked multilayer expectations and hopes among those who had considered further compromise on the status quo of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to be impossible.
It was clear at that time that the leader of the “Velvet Revolution,” Nikol Pashinyan (who was later elected as the prime minister of Armenia), had enough authority and legitimacy to bring some progress in resolving the conflict.
Some believed that the new national leader who was supported by the vast majority of Armenia’s population could use this support to provide concessions to Azerbaijan instead of some economic advantages as a result of a Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement.
Others thought that Pashinyan, who claimed to provide for an “economic revolution” after the political one, will continue supporting the status quo until the Armenian economy has been transformed, thus increasing the country’s political and military strength, and leading to a better negotiating position in the international arena.
However, Pashinyan’s rhetoric made it clear that Armenia as the guarantor of the Artsakh’s (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) security considers it not only impossible make some territorial concessions, but he also claimed the necessity to return Artsakh to the negotiations table and suggested that the Azeri government in Baku directly talk to Stepanakert (the capital of Artsakh).
Pashinyan’s rhetoric allowed many inside and outside of Armenia to conclude that Yerevan would be tightening its position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The Internationalization of Ethno-Political Conflicts like Nagorno-Karabakh
Any textbook on international relations and security studies clearly puts that the globalization of international relations led to the internationalization of the local and regional conflicts.
As a result, after the “Velvet Revolution,” the international community’s reaction of the to those involved in the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was not long in coming.
On October 25, 2018, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, visited Yerevan as part of a regional tour and said the following:
It is a fact that if the predictions come true he (Pashinyan) will have a very strong mandate, and that is the most opportune moment to take strong action in a number of different respects. And if, as I appreciated what I learned in the meetings here today… the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh is the primary issue on the Armenian political agenda, there is no better time to try and take decisive action than right after that election.
A week later, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary General Thomas Greminger declared that all the sides should work constructively to avoid boosting rhetoric and reducing tensions on the line of contact. Moreover, according to Greminger, the sides should establish an atmosphere for constructive talks, making it possible to achieve difficult compromises for long-lasting and comprehensive peace.
At the same time as the OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting in Milan, the Heads of Delegation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair Countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, published a joint statement, which particularly stated:
“The Co-Chair countries expressed hope that an intensive results-oriented high-level dialogue between the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia to promote a just and lasting settlement of the conflict can resume in the near future.”
Less than a week after the snap parliamentary elections in Armenia, which finalized the country’s power transition after the “Velvet Revolution” on December 14, 2018, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov declared that Russia expects both Azerbaijan and Armenia to resume talks on the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as soon as Armenia forms a government based on the results of its recent elections.
Furthermore, in a congratulatory message to Pashinyan on his appointment as prime minister of Armenia, Trump stated that
The United States supports a prosperous, democratic Armenia at peace with its neighbors. Together, we can make progress on deepening trade between our countries, strengthening global security, and combating corruption. A peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will help these efforts.
A month later, Lavrov emphasized that “the declarations about readiness to search for resolutions, which are coming from Baku, should be fully supported.” Furthermore, he expressed a hope to see reciprocity from the Armenian side.
Statements like the above could be continued, but they show that the international community is looking forward to decisive action to provide resolution and long-lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moreover, the impression is that all the “eyes” are turned towards Armenia.
This is puzzling as Armenia has declared its commitment towards compromise since early 2000s. Particularly, during the Paris round of negotiations, the Key West meeting, the Madrid process, and Russia`s Kazan meeting it was the Azerbaijani authorities who refused to proceed with the agreed results of negotiations and sign a “breakthrough” agreement on resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
New Reality, New Tactics, But Old Strategy
In June 2018 I met an Austrian professor who was visiting the South Caucasus to develop academic cooperation. While walking down across one of the central streets in Yerevan, we started talking about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (he was in Baku before arriving to Armenia) and the professor asked me a simple, but strange question: “Why is Armenia not willing to go to compromise with Azerbaijan,” meaning territorial secessions from Artsakh Republic as a compromise.
I discussed some reasons to explain the position of the Armenian side, but further reflection on the question has raised additional insight. For at least the last twenty years, the international community was pretty convinced that it was Azerbaijan, and not Armenia, that is against compromise.
The specialists in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict still remember how close Robert Kocharyan, the second president of Armenia, and Heydar Aliyev, the father of the current Azerbaijani president, were to a breakthrough deal back in Key West in 2001. However, very soon after the Key West talks, Baku refused to continue the process.
The same happened in Russia`s Kazan city in 2011, where the Azerbaijani delegation arrived with some new amendments to an agreement that the two sides had agreed to sign during that meeting.
This confidence was rolling up with the launch of the so called “April war,” which became the “hottest point” since the 1994 ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia.
The examples of the Austrian professor, as well as Lavrov`s statement of January 16, 2019, clearly demonstrate that the international community started trusting the Azerbaijani government’s new peaceful approach.
Another reason to believe Azerbaijan’s intentions could be Aliyev’s maneuvering between Russia and the West, promising all the sides what they want to hear.
This could be a potential membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization in the case of Russia. When it comes to the European Union and United States, a wide range of mutual interests can be pursued, including on energy security, Iran, and Afghanistan.
Interestingly enough, Aliyev recently even stopped claiming that it was necessary to provide a mandate for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to the United Nations as he used to (according to the Azerbaijani position, the OSCE Minsk Group could not find a solution).
However, the problem is the complete lack of trust among the sides. As a result, the sides can not rely on each other’s sincerity, especially given that any concessions could weaken the negotiating—or even military positions—of either side. Moreover, neither Russia nor the West wants to lose Armenia.
What of Legitimacy?
Pashinyan came to power in Armenia with massive public support, which allowed him to overthrow his predecessor Serzh Sargsyan in April–May 2018. Moreover, Pashinyan’s alliance won the snap parliamentary elections and received 70.4 percent of the votes. This high degree of legitimacy lent credibility to the international community’s expectations decisive actions” on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution.
However, as one insightful Armenian wrote on Facebook, “nothing is forever, including the legitimacy. Moreover the land concessor will be conceded to the land.” That means if Pashinyan agrees to any territorial concessions, then he will witness the end of his political career, to say the least.
The issue is that starting at least from early 2010 Azerbaijan was increasing military pressure on Artsakh and Armenia, which was resulting in multiple casualties on both sides. Moreover, during the “April war,” the Armenian sides lost more than a hundred young soldiers and officers, which mostly were under thirty years old.
All these developments led to the rapid radicalization Armenians living in both republics. Any territorial concession will thus be regarded as treason towards those who lost their lives defending Artsakh and human lives in this unrecognized state.
The Strategic Environment in the South Caucasus
Though all the involved players are seeking a long-lasting peace and prosperity in the South Caucasus, each has its own vision of how to provide the new security architecture.
However, the journey to a solution could be mutual win for all the sides if the starting point is based on the recognition that a long-lasting and durable peace is necessary for the broader region.
For instance, the recent active meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities are very welcomed as only dialogue can develop an atmosphere of trust that can transform into cooperation. On the other hand, it allows understanding both sides’ positions and red lines, which must be clarified.
However, only the presence of officials from Stepanakert at the peace talks can make the negotiations legitimate and allow for a drafting of a final framework for the peace settlement. Without the voice of the people of Artsakh, any agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia can fail when it comes to the implementation on the ground.
At the same time, it is worth mentioning that compromise of some territories from Artsakh (as a concession for peace to Azerbaijan) will not improve but worsen the security architecture in the region by simply establishing a new status quo and creating new temptations for military activities. This would be reasoned by the violation of the current geostrategic parity and balance of powers on the ground.
The necessity of a long-lasting peace and durable security architecture should not be sacrificed to a short-term advantage, as it could prove much more serious security breaches in the future.
From this point of view, issues related to the status and recognition of independence of Artsakh is a cornerstone, as nothing interim, including the issue of the status, would be durable and long-lasting. As we saw in the past, it could provide a temptation and window for further manipulations, speculations, and escalations, even if international peacekeepers are sent in to the conflict zone.
The Armenian sides should make their objectives and red lines clear to both Azerbaijan and international community in the peace talks, including the inviolability of the fact that the people of Artsakh have a right to self-determination after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Still, what remains most puzzling is how the United States, Russia, and the European Union share the same approach towards this strategic and controversial region. However, what is more important is if they envision a collaborative regional security architecture being created with the participation of all sides, or another era of divisional geopolitics after “long-lasting” peace is achieved.
Provided the region’s importance for global stakeholders seeking power-projection capabilities, regional states should have the decisive word in the final peace configuration. Moreover, the level of collaboration and strategic thinking between those states will determine whether their final approach will create a long-term and durable peace in the South Caucasus, rather than a new status quo.