Opinion | Armenia may benefit from defusing the Karabakh bomb

Several years ago, when Serge Sarkisian became Armenia’s president, many Armenian friends of mine would remark, half-jokingly “its not Armenia that captured Karabakh, it is Karabakh that took over Armenia.” Indeed, many important positions in Yerevan were held by those who came from that region – President, Prime Minister, leadership of military and security services, many economically profitable posts and even chunks of Yerevan municipality. Among those who complained the most, supporters of the former president Levon Ter-Petrosian were the most vocal. Ter-Petrosian’s election team was then led by young and energetic journalist, one Nikol Pashinian…

Thornike Gordadze

is a Lecturer at the Paris institute of Political studies

From late 1980s Armenia has been a hostage to Nagorno-Karabakh issue. This meant giving up a lot: the country practically mortgaged its sovereignty to Russia, entered Moscow-led CSTO; to cover its energy debts toward Russia, most strategic industries fell under Russian control. In 2013, Armenia backtracked from signing the Association Agreement and the free trade agreement with the EU. Parts of its military have been practically merged with the Russian army and became fully dependent on it. As one Armenian friend of mine once remarked, “Armenia is a bit like southern Kaliningrad” – referring to Russia’s westernmost, highly militarized exclave.

Whenever an Armenian leader tried to divert from the path of nationalist orthodoxy on Karabakh issue  and spoke about concessions, they were toppled in a coup at best (Levon Ter Petrosian) or killed, at worst (Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and the Parliament Speaker Karen Demirchian). “Keeping Karabakh” was thus very costly politically, economically, and also morally – we remember Russia’s cynical treatment of Armenia during “Electric Yerevan” protests or the way the murder of the Armenian family by Russian military base serviceman was handled…

Nikol Pashinian is the first head of government in the past 22 or 23 years who does not hail from Karabakh and stands on fundamentally different political and mental ground than the so called “Karabakh clan” politicians. It is thus paradoxical and even sadly ironic, that this man had to fight for Nagorno-Karabakh to the bitter end and to make the most radical statements possible in supporting the cause. What an irony of history, that Ilham Aliev is now saying he had better relations with Serge Sarkisian and Robert Kocharian – people who fought Azerbaijan arms in their hands in 1990s – than with Pashinian. It is also bitterly ironic, that Pashinian’s political career may now fall victim to Karabakh and perhaps take with it the prospect of Armenia’s democratic future.

Pashinian came to power in a spectacular display of popular support because most Armenians were fed up with corruption and authoritarianism of the previous leaders, who were closely intertwined with the Russian security establishment. But it seems that the same society was less ready to abandon the doctrine of “unity” with Karabakh – which has been the mainstay of the Armenian politics for the last 30-35 years.

Truth to be told, the opposition has attacked Pashinian for “being soft on Karabakh” immediately after his coming to power. The new Prime Minister tried at the same time to convince Russia that Pashinian as an opposition orator and as the man of executive responsibility were two different figures, that he was not planning to substantially deviate from the commitment to Moscow. On the other hand, he attempted a reconciliation with residents of Karabakh, visited Stepanakert very soon after his election and made many statements in support of region’s independence from Azerbaijan and its unity with Armenia that were the shibboleth of nationalist politics.

Perhaps Pashinian was the man who wanted this war the least, but once it started, he had no other choice but to fight it, with full determination. In his mind, any concession before the war would have given an opening to the opposition to take over. From today’s tragic vantage point, perhaps it would have been more advisable to do what was necessary when he just came to power and was riding the wave of unprecedented public support… But that would be but a futile exercise in the counterfactual.

Karabakh was the remote-controlled bomb that threatened any more-or-less democratic and western-leaning leader of Armenia. The trigger was always in the hands of Moscow and its proxies in Armenia.

When we see the angry crowds chase Pashinian and his allies in the streets of Yerevan, break into their houses, trash the local Soros Foundation offices – those are the same sort of people that conservative, pro-Russian forces use all over Russian periphery – supporters of Yanukovich that they call “titushki” in Ukraine, “old boy” criminals that support the “Georgian Dream” in Tbilisi.

Russia and the Armenian opposition now try to establish the narrative that Armenia was defeated because Pashinian was too pro-Western, too pro-democratic – an attack on Soros Foundation leaves no doubts to where this narrative comes from. This same narrative also serves to justify Russia’s behavior – after all, what could the Kremlin do, support a  pro-western “Sorosite”?! 

But Pashinian still has many supporters in Armenia and it is now crucial that he manages to mobilize them, despite the obvious shock brought by the outcome of this war for Armenia. He shall fight, but I have little hope that any tangible support from the West will be forthcoming. Yet, I am sure, that the passivity of the West now would mar its reputation not only in Armenia, but in the wider region for the years to come.

And finally, when it comes to the deal that ended the war, I think Pashinian had no other solution. To continue this war would have had catastrophic consequences – hundreds and perhaps thousands of additional lives would have been lost, Nagorno-Karabakh would have been erased from the map as a political and territorial entity. For many Armenians, it is understandably hard to fully acknowledge the gravity of the situation that the leadership was facing.

What now?

In the long-term perspective, Armenia shall liberate itself from the long shadow of Karabakh, defuse the bomb that keeps exploding to damage the prospect of its development. This sounds heartless, but it is the rational thing to do. Obviously, it is easy to say for me – not being an Armenian myself – rather than to the people whose national identity has largely been shaped around the symbolic importance of Karabakh.

But without being a hostage to Karabakh, Armenia could integrate better and faster into Euro-Atlantic space, probably also adding regional weight to Georgia’s long standing efforts. Without Karabakh weighing on the relations, ties with Turkey may also improve one day– after all, Ankara recognized Armenia in 1991 and only severed relations in 1993, after Armenia took control of the Azrebaijani provinces around Nagorno-Karabakh. Another chance of restoring relations was lost in 2009 with so called Zurich protocols. Once again – the cause was Karabakh, as Azerbaijan put pressure on Turkey to link the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of border with the conflict resolution. Now, the situation is much worse, relations have soured significantly, and it would be difficult to find the way back, towards political normalization.

Of course, the matter of securing the livelihoods of those Armenians who remain in the rump province remains vital. Armenia lost the opportunity of converting the military victory of 1990s into security guarantees for the population of Karabakh. From the hindsight, it was a mistake to count on unification of the region with Armenia, when it was becoming clearer from the early 2000s, that the time was working in favor of rapidly re-arming Azerbaijan. The rigidity of the Armenian position on status was only spurring on the revanchism in Baku.

With November 9 agreement Russia increased its presence in the region. Moscow remains the main arbiter. Having “saved” most of Karabakh from Azerbaijani conquest and the civilians of Stepanakert, Askeran and Mardakert from the imminent flight to Armenia, the Kremlin retains leverage over Yerevan.

But Pashinian and his allies must explain to the Armenians that from now on, the fate of Karabakh is firmly in Moscow’s hands. If one day the Kremlin gives up protecting the Karabakhi Armenians, that will only be because Moscow would have decided to do so based on its own interests.

Despite all the wave of criticism that has befallen Pashinian today, he is still a symbol for those Armenians who have mobilized in the spring of 2018. Pashinian’s only correct response to this tragedy must be even more, even bolder reforms, especially in the fight against corruption, in the reform of justice and the law enforcement. Moscow’s geopolitical blackmail may no longer hold back the internal reform agenda.

This is Pashinian’s true, ultimate battlefield and this is also where his vision could truly bring results. And if the West still has any geopolitical ambitions remaining in the region, it must become his ardent supporter on this thorny path.