After Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, a New Look at the Karabakh Challenge

Two years ago, Armenia and Azerbaijan came close to the brink of all-out war. Now political changes in Armenia have created a new opening – and new challenges for all parties.

Expert comment Published 31 May 2018 Updated 7 December 2018 3 minute READ
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan poses for pictures with locals during his visit to the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh on 9 May. Photo: Getty Images.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan poses for pictures with locals during his visit to the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh on 9 May. Photo: Getty Images.

Armenia’s new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, sensibly avoided foreign policy issues during his protest campaign. As his new government takes office, this will be a harder balancing act, nowhere more so than with the part-foreign, part-domestic issue of Karabakh. He is right to be wary: in the 1990s the conflict in Karabakh was the undoing of several leaders on both sides of the divide.

Recent history has seen surges of public euphoria on both sides. Azerbaijan’s army, in the ‘four-day war’ of 2–5 April 2016, reclaimed occupied territory for the first time since 1994. Armenia’s Velvet Revolution has fired up Armenians to believe that anything is possible. But expectations need to be tempered.

Credibility and institutional memory

Pashinyan has a number of short-term challenges. National security has traditionally been seen as the liberal opposition’s Achilles’ heel in Armenia. This explains his prioritization of a visit – his first ‘international’ trip as leader – to the disputed territory on his first day as prime minister on 9 May.

Just as important as buffing up security credentials is managing handover. Since the late 1990s the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks have narrowed to a tight huddle involving only presidents and foreign ministers. Without teams of negotiators, envoys or backchannels, a large amount of highly sensitive institutional memory is concentrated in just a few individuals. When these change, the process is vulnerable.

Baku is likely to want to move quickly, perhaps with a view to resetting parameters before Pashinyan’s team have had time to cover their brief. The current peace proposal, known as the Madrid Principles, has already been updated a number of times. When, as a former senior negotiator puts it, the negotiations are not about substance but ‘which document should be the basis of our talks’, institutional memory is a crucial resource. Yerevan is consequently likely to want to take its time.

The end of the ‘Karabakh clan’?

Armenia’s Velvet Revolution also takes Azerbaijan out of its comfort zone. This is because for the first time in 20 years, Armenia has a leader who is not a native of Karabakh.

The idea that Armenia has been chafing under the rule of a hardline faction from Karabakh has been a mainstay of Azerbaijani analysis for two decades. The ‘Karabakh clan’ entered the analytical orthodoxy about the conflict after former Karabakh Armenian leader Robert Kocharian became Armenia’s president in 1998.

The idea lived on in references to former president Serzh Sargsyan as the ‘last of the Mohicans’: the last member of a ruling elite born in the crucible of the Karabakh war. Sargsyan’s resignation was hailed by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who announced on 24 April that they were looking forward to negotiating with ‘sensible political forces’.

The ‘Karabakh clan’ is an attractive notion when looking for easy answers to the impasse of the last 20 years. Remove the clan, so this thinking goes, and unblock the negotiations. Tempting as this may sound, it is wishful thinking.

Karabakh Armenians, living near the frontline, have unsurprisingly always held more hardline views against territorial concessions as part of a peace package. But Armenia has been catching up.

In the mid-2000s, around two-thirds of Armenia’s population was willing to consider the return of occupied territories as part of an overall deal. But after 2016’s four-day war that had dropped to less than 10 per cent in 2017. Rather than the last of the Mohicans, Baku confronts an attitude more akin to ‘we are all Mohicans now’. Public opinion on Karabakh has always mattered, even to authoritarian leaders. But it will even harder to ignore for a democratic leadership in Armenia.

Reconciling compliant and augmented Armenias

Pashinyan’s key long-term challenge is reconciling two different visions of Armenia that have vied with one another since independence.

The first is ‘compliant Armenia’, the internationally recognized state that seeks integration into the wider world and to fulfil the country’s early democratic promise. The other is the ‘augmented Armenia’ that grew out of the unification movement with Karabakh, and which includes not only Karabakh but also – as on almost any map you see in Armenia today – the territories occupied in 1992–94.

Over the last 20 years, the formal politics of a compliant Armenia consistently conceded to the informal politics of augmented Armenia. The argument that only they could provide for the latter’s security embedded and protected a former veteran elite and their clients among Armenia’s oligarchs. Their claims to provide for augmented Armenia’s security were hit hard by the violence of April 2016. Today there is a significant opportunity to redefine the meaning of security in Armenia, from strongmen to strong institutions.

Strongmen have benefited – indeed encouraged – a narrow peace process that they can control. One step towards managing the contradictions between compliant and augmented Armenias would be for Karabakh Armenians to speak for themselves in the Minsk Group talks. This is hardly new: Armenians – and the Azerbaijani minority displaced from Karabakh in 1992 – participated in the talks as interested parties in the mid-1990s.

Baku – fearful of tacit recognition – bristles at any suggestion of dialogue with the de facto authorities in the disputed territory, just as the latter bristle at any suggestion of dialogue with Azerbaijanis displaced from the lands under their control. One may not be possible without the other.

Yet the inclusion of these voices in the negotiations is essential for Nikol Pashinyan, or any Armenian leader following him, to define the borders of the political community to whom they are ultimately accountable. And that, ultimately, is also in Azerbaijan’s interest.