PhD in Politics, Fulbright Visiting Fellow,
Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University


The 2018 “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia raised hopes for a long-lasting peace in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but sticking points remain.

The “Velvet Revolution” of the April – May 2018 marked the end of the approximately thirty year-long rule of the so called “military generation” in Armenia – those who came into power in Armenia during or as a result of participation in the bloody Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 1991-1994 in the South Caucasus.

The power transformation and radical change of the whole ruling elite provoked multilayer expectations and hopes among those who considered impossible the further compromise on the status quo around Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
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 changes into the conflict resolution.

Some believed that the new national leader who was supported by the vast majority of Armenia`s population could use this support and provide concessions to Azerbaijan instead of some economic advantages as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict peaceful settlement.
According to the others, Pashinyan who claimed to provide “economic revolution” after the political one, will continue supporting the status quo until transforming the promised economic power into political and military strength for better negotiation positions on 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 to go to some territorial concessions, but he also claimed the necessity to return Artsakh to the negotiations table and suggested Baku to directly talk to Stepanakert (the capital of Artsakh).
Pashinyan’s rhetoric allowed many both domestically and internationally concluding the tightening position of Armenia on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Internationalization of ethno-political conflicts: International community is looking for progress

Any textbook on international relations and security studies clearly puts that globalization of international relations led to internationalization of the local and regional conflicts.

As a result, after the “Velvet revolution” the reaction of the international community and those involved in the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was not long in coming.

On October 25, 2018, the US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton visiting Yerevan as part of a regional tour 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 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 not easy compromises for long-lasting and comprehensive peace.

At the same time on the occasion of the OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting in Milan, 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 power transition in Armenia after the “Velvet Revolution” on December 14, 2018 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 the recent elections.
Furthermore, in a congratulatory message to Pashinyan on his appointment as Prime Minister of Armenia, President Trump, particularly, 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.

The line of the statements emphasizing the logic above could be continued, but their trace allows summarizing that the international community is looking forward to decisive actions to provide resolution and long-lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moreover, the impression is that all the “eyes” are turned towards Armenia.

This puzzles taking into account that Armenia has been always declaring its commitment towards compromise since early 2000s. Particularly, during both Paris Round of negotiations with Key-West meeting and Madrid Process with Russia`s Kazan meeting it were the Azerbaijani authorities who refused to proceed with the agreed results of negotiations and sign a “break-through” 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 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (he was in Baku before arriving to Armenia) and the professor asked me a simple, but strange enough for that time question: “Why Armenia is not willing to go to compromise with Azerbaijan”, meaning territorial secessions from Artsakh Republic as a compromise.

I brought some reasons to explain the position of the Armenian sides, but further reflection on the question raised some strange emotions.
During at least last twenty years the international community was pretty enough convinced that not Armenia, but Azerbaijan is against compromise.

The specialists in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict still remember how close to a break-through deal were the second president of Armenia Robert Kocharyan and the father of the current Azerbaijani president – Heydar Aliyev in Key West back in 2001.

Despite the results of the talks have not been disclosed since then, there is general consent among the specialists that the sides were very close to make a deal. However very soon after 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, which 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 1994 ceasefire agreement among Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia.

The example of the Austrian professor, as well as Lavrov`s statement of January 16, 2019 clearly demonstrates that the international community started trusting the new peaceful approach of the Azerbaijani government.

Another reason to believe Azerbaijan could be Aliyev`s better maneuvering between Russia and the West, promising all the sides what they want to here.

This could be a potential membership in Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization in case of Russia. When it comes to the EU and US, a wide range of mutual interests can come to place, including energy security, Iran, and Afghanistan.
Interestingly enough Aliyev recently even stopped claiming the necessity to provide mandate for Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to the UN he used to promote (as, 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 sides can not rely on each other’s sincerity, especially provided that any concessions could lead to weakening not only of negotiation positions, but even military ones on the battleground. Moreover neither Russia nor the West wants to lose Armenia.

Strong legitimacy or the “land concessor will be conceded to the land”?

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 per cent of the votes.
This high level of legitimacy proved the expectations of the interested international actors, as well as the claim, as shown above, for “decisive actions” on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution.

However as one of the Armenian Facebook users put, “nothing is forever, including the legitimacy. Moreover the land concessor will be conceded to the land,” meaning that if Pashinyan decides to proceed with any territorial concession, he will find the end of his political career, to say the least.

The issue is that starting at least from early 2010 Azerbaijan was growing military pressure on Artsakh and Armenia, which was resulting in multiple casualties from the sides. Moreover, during the “April war” the Armenian sides lost more than a hundred young soldiers and officers, which mostly were under their thirties.

All these developments led to the rapid radicalization of societies in two Armenian republics, where any territorial concession will be regarded as treason towards those who lost their lives defending Artsakh and human lives in this non-recognized state.

Strategic environment in the South Caucasus: a journey to a durable peace

Though all involved players are promoting the idea of a long-lasting peace and prosperity in the South Caucasus, each of them has its own vision how to provide the new security architecture.

However the journey to solution could be win-win for all the sides if the starting point is based on the understanding of the necessity of long-lasting and durable peace in the region.

For instance, the recent active meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities are very welcomed as only the dialogue could develop the atmosphere of trust and further transform into cooperation. On the other hand, it allows understanding both positions and red lines of the sides, which should be designed maximally clear.

However, only the presence of official Stepanakert at peace talks can make the negotiation format complete, allowing to draw the final framework for the peaceful 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, 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 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, issue of 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 provided a presence of international Peace Corps in the conflict zone.

The Armenian sides should make it clear to both Azerbaijan and international community what is their objective and red lines in the peace talks, including inviolability of the fact of self-determination of the people of Artsakh after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

What remains most puzzling, how it is possible that the United States, Russia, and the European Union share the same approach towards the normalization in this strategic and controversial region. However, what is more important, if they see a collaborative region with the participation of all sides, or a new division is planned to start after the “long-lasting” peace achieved.

Provided the opportunities of global power projection for the global stakeholders, the states of the region should have the decisive word in the final peace configuration. Moreover, the level of collaboration, strategic approach and wisdom will determine their final joint weight to provide much-awaited long-term and durable peace in the South Caucasus, but not a new status quo.

First published in The National Interest
95 reads | 13.05.2019

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