Pashinyan’s Predicament (Why the shooting goes on)

Nikol Pashinyan has been officially reappointed as Prime Minister of Armenia, after his unexpected triumph in gaining almost 54 per cent of the vote in June’s snap parliamentary election. Pashinyan is in a much stronger position than could have been expected, considering he is a defeated war leader. One commentator described the choice that faced the Armenian people in the election in the following way:

“The Armenian electorate… faces an unpalatable choice: an incumbent who was responsible for the worst military defeat in over a century, or a mostly nationalist opposition composed of former leaders whose only recipe for the future is more of the same – and an even greater dependence on Moscow.”

The Armenian electorate chose the Prime Minister who was responsible for the worst military defeat in over a century.” And so Pashinyan gets a second chance, as the lesser of two evils.

It is evident that this is a different Pashinyan, in one way at least. He has been chastened by the events of 2020 and has scaled down his ambitions regarding territory. The defeat of last year ended all the flamboyant posturing talk of “new war for new territories” that brought on the war and defeat.

Pashinyan now assures Armenia’s neighbours:

“We have no intention to conquer territories, our intention is to preserve our sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have no aggressive intentions. We are ready to start an active dialogue on this agenda with the support of international partners, if necessary, and through direct contacts.“

Presumably, the height of Pashinyan’s ambitions now amounts to somehow detaching the rump of Nagorno-Karabakh, with its Armenian populace, from Azerbaijan. Perhaps the Armenian Prime Minister knows himself this is a forlorn hope but needs to be kept in play to avoid demoralisation. But the chances of Yerevan achieving this through negotiation with Baku are close to zero. President Aliyev has made it abundantly clear that any future peace agreement would be conditional on Armenia’s formal acceptance of the said territory as an integral part of Azerbaijan. Acknowledgement of territorial sovereignty based on international law and demarkation of borders must precede any further discussions on future political arrangements and a final settlement. And it is now, with the result of the war, that Azerbaijan holds the strongest hand in negotiations.

The Armenian Prime Minister is, therefore, faced with a number of difficult issues to overcome if he is to succeed in statecraft where he previously failed.

The Balancing Act

The first challenging issue involves maintaining a proper balance between Russia and the West. Although Russia’s geopolitical interests were already changing prior to Pashinyan’s original coming to power the Velvet Revolution of 2018 certainly upset the existing balance in Armenia to the detriment of Yerevan. The development of Azerbaijan as a strong, functional state whose existence Moscow had to take account of, and appreciate as a good neighbour, meant that Armenia’s traditional relations with Russia, as an ally, became more problematic.

The Velvet Revolution and Pashinyan’s leanings toward the West further destabilised these relations making Moscow a much less dependable ally than it had been in the past. When the war broke out and Armenia quickly got the worst of the fighting it found, to the anguish of many Armenians, President Putin insistent that he would not bail them out. Maintaining the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory was not in Moscow’s interest and the most Armenians could expect was Russian assistance in managing their defeat to prevent a catastrophe of their own making. Russia still had an interest in maintaining Armenia’s existence as a state but Putin was not going to fight a war for it that would seriously damage good relations with the government in Baku.

After defeat in the war Armenia is in a difficult position and Pashinyan realises that his room for manoeuvre is limited. So what Pashinyan is attempting is to leave Armenia’s defence and security to the Kremlin whilst attracting Western investment to rebuild its shattered economy. He hopes this division of power will satisfy both parties, to the benefit of both himself and Armenia.

Pashinyan has been ingratiating himself with Moscow by pleading for Russian military forces to bolster Armenia’s border defences, claiming that Azerbaijan represents a real threat to Armenian territorial integrity. Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu has recently stated that Russia will help re-equip and modernise the Armenian Armed Forces, re-assuring Yerevan that it remains “Russia’s ally and a key partner in the Caucasus region” despite recent events. This will have been very welcome news for the Armenian Prime Minister.

Through his policy Pashinyan hopes to make Armenian dependancy an asset against Baku, by cultivating Russian sympathy to the Armenian plight – which, of course, is largely self inflicted. Presumably, Yerevan also hopes it can draw Russian forces into a shooting war with Azerbaijan at some point. The policy has the benefit of shoring up Armenia’s weakened defences, getting Moscow to pay for this with the added bonus of harming Moscow/Baku relations in the interests of Armenia. It also has provided Pashinyan with the opportunity of moving Armenian troops, in contravention of the Trilateral Agreement, into Karabakh, with Moscow providing a protective shield against repercussions of continued military provocations along the border.

The Armenians claim that these forces, located on Azerbaijan’s territory, are merely the “Artsakh Defence Army” and not Armenian Army units. However, throughout both wars and occupation period, spanning 30 years, there was a great fluidity between what was Armenian and what were so-called “Artsakh” forces – as if there was any real difference between the two! The difference was maintained, of course, to avoid Yerevan being implicated in an illegal occupation and facing possible ramifications in international courts. So, Armenian forces metamorphosed into “Artsakh” forces when they crossed into Armenian occupied Karabakh and the military service of Armenian conscripts was done there routinely. It looks like Yerevan will continue to maintain the fiction of the “Artsakh” pseudo-state even after it has been whittled away by the defeat. On August 15 it was reported that Armenian armed formations in the territory of Azerbaijan, where Russian peacekeepers are stationed, fired at the positions of the Azerbaijani Army units located near Shusha.

On the economic aspect of strategy, Pashinyan has been hugely fortunate that the European Union is eyeing an expansion into the Southern Caucasus after being blocked off by Moscow in Ukraine. The EU is offering Yerevan an aid package of 2.6 billion Euros over the next 5 years, 1 billion more than the EU had previously earmarked in an earlier proposal. The aid is so large it nearly equals Armenia’s annual budget for next year. The package is being generally viewed as a reward for what the EU deemed to be recent fair elections in Armenia and the return of the pro-Western Pashinyan as Prime Minister. The EU is intent on spreading democracy and European values eastward into what is considered the Russian sphere of interest and Armenia is the perfect and grateful instrument for such a thrust.

This seems a clever strategy on Pashinyan’s part. If it succeeds it will protect him against internal opposition, which, after all, when it was in power, failed on both counts of maintaining an effective fighting force and a functional economy. If Pashinyan can achieve the correct balance of dependancy between Moscow and Brussels he might revive Armenia, although, of course, at the continued cost of its independence. He will be balancer-in-chief between two masters. But perhaps that is all that can be hoped for at present by Armenians.

Whether Pashinyan can maintain such a balance between Russia and the West, between the suspicions of Moscow and the EU’s proclivity to blunder into regions full of good intentions but with little except the US to back them up, is another matter. President Biden’s more limited Foreign Policy objectives are unlikely to assist the EU, or indeed encourage it in the way President Obama’s contradictory aims brought on conflict in Ukraine, Syria and Libya.

Recent events in Afghanistan have underlined that if Armenia holds out hope about utilising the West (US and EU) as a player in the Southern Caucasus it will be disappointed. The geopolitics of the situation is that the US is increasingly turning its focus toward China and the Pacific. Armenia likes to project itself in the West as a democratic state, up against authoritarian regimes, and therefore deserving of assistance against the “authoritarians.” Of course, it projects itself differently to Moscow. However, whilst the US will continue to issue propagandist rallying calls for “democracy” against its geopolitical opponents, it is less and less likely to make this a reason for intervention in the world. The withdrawal from Afghanistan marked the end of that 20 year Neo-Con project. The EU, despite its pretensions, has only economic levers in the game, without US military power. And its economic punch is minimal compared to that of China. After 400 years the East is coming West rather than the West coming East.

The alternative development that could lead to greater Armenian independence is now unlikely in the immediate future. This would have involved Yerevan making a swift and lasting peace with Azerbaijan and improving relations with Turkey within the framework of the Trilateral Agreement. For many Armenians, this would amount to a formal surrender, both of territory, which has been vigorously presented as being intrinsically Armenian and central to the nation’s identity, history and culture. It would negate the pride in the victories of the 1990s which served as a counter-balancing heroic narrative to the historical disaster of the 1915-20 period, which, of course, is intimately connected with Turkey.

Pashinyan has evidently decided that such a bold policy is beyond him, at least for the present, if indeed he is interested in it at all. He sees the obstruction and avoidance of responsibility in honouring the Trilateral Agreement as the most useful strategy in the immediate term for facing down the opposition in Yerevan, which although electorally defeated, has not gone away. Pashinyan remains an opportunist in nature.

The shooting war that has recently developed along the Armenia/Azerbaijan border has to be seen in this overall context. Armenian fire has become nearly a daily occurrence against the Sadarak district in Nakhchivan, Gadabay and Kalbajar. In many respects this is a case of symbolic resistance to the reality of Armenian defeat. It is meant more for domestic consumption than resistance to Azerbaijan, which is content with the result of the war and which only wishes for formal delineation of borders to be engaged in and agreed to finally settle things. If Armenia were to quickly consent to meaningful cooperation with Baku and Ankara it would be regarded at this point as a complete and unconditional surrender on Pashinyan’s part. It is understood in Armenia that the war was lost but there is a strong reluctance to openly and willingly submit to the reality of the defeat. Only time will allow for that.

In the short-term, therefore, Pashinyan will do everything to postpone negotiations and buy time with symbolic resistance in things such as getting prisoners released in exchange for mine maps of the formerly-occupied territories (which indeed have only proved partially accurate). 

However, a resumption of full scale war is neither in Armenia’s or Azerbaijan’s interest (or importantly, Moscow’s) and so these skirmishes, although occasionally deadly, are likely to be locally confined unless a large tragedy occurs.

The Settlement

One thing that Pashinyan will attempt to do is to persuade the West that it is essential for Armenia to retain the few areas of “Nagorno-Karabakh” it still occupies. It is President Macron and France, Armenia’s main European ally and member of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair, that will play the main role in such a strategy. However, Pashinyan will realise that a careful balance is necessary here too since this rump area is wholly dependant on Moscow and its military forces for its continued existence. Russia can, at any time, if it so chooses, fatally undermine the Armenian presence in Karabakh, to show displeasure at Pashinyan. As a result of its policies over the last 3 decades Yerevan has got into a situation that necessitates deference to Moscow in all things.

However, in around 4 years, Pashinyan, if he stays in power, will have to deal with the issue of the renewal of the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers in this rump area. According to the Trilateral Agreement, “the peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation will be deployed for five years, a term to be automatically extended for subsequent five-year terms unless either Party notifies about its intention to terminate this clause six months before the expiration of the current term.” Armenia, given its present weak military and economic situation, will probably be in no position to request Russia to withdraw. However, Pashinyan will be faced with the prospect that Azerbaijan, which recently signed a mutual defence pact with Ankara, may well call for the withdrawal of Russian troops. In such a situation, Armenia will be totally dependent on Moscow and its willingness to either exert pressure on Baku or find some mechanism for sliding out of its withdrawal commitment.

The prospect of this impending event is likely to have a great influence on the size of the remaining Armenian population of this area which has already significantly declined. According to Baku’s monitoring of the Yerevan/Goris/Lachin road traffic it could be as low as 25,000. The Azerbaijani military is aware of how many vehicles pass every day along this road, what they transport, and how many civilians and military personnel use this mode of access. The Azerbaijani army posts are situated a hundred metres from the main road from Yerevan and observations are supplemented by satellite information. 

Azerbaijan is keen to get Armenia to sign a formal peace treaty ending all territorial disputes in the area, leading to a lasting settlement. While the precise content of such a deal is still unknown, it would surely include Armenia’s recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity based on the borders of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Armenia would, therefore, formally recognise the whole of Karabakh as an inseparable part of Azerbaijan.

This is, obviously, something which Pashinyan will attempt to avoid, if at all possible. Moscow has declared that it will assist the neighbouring states with the delimitation and demarkation of borders. However, Pashinyan will hope that Moscow does not pressurise him into signing up to a formal treaty on Karabakh. He knows that this can only be implemented if Russia pressures Yerevan to sign such an agreement and hopes that Moscow decides to maintain its leverage in the region by leaving Karabakh’s formal status open. Russia’s continued presence in the Armenian populated part of Karabakh would be problematic if the status were to be formally resolved, resulting in Azerbaijan’s favour.

Pashinyan will demand that the Armenian populated part of Karabakh be attached to Armenia, or become a separate entity, apart from Azerbaijan. Of course, Baku will not agree. It refused such a proposal in the years of Armenian occupation, after defeat in 1994, so it would be ridiculous to concede such a thing after winning a war, when Baku’s hand is much stronger. So, in reality this stance will be an Armenian bargaining position to keep the status of the area formally open, with the understanding that this will be in Moscow’s interest too, in order to maintain leverage.

Of course, this will tie Pashinyan and Armenia to Russia indefinitely and it will not necessarily work over the long-term, particularly if Azerbaijan is able to offer Moscow something that was of greater benefit to Russia’s interests than its military presence in Karabakh. Baku offering Russia a permanent military base in Khankendi might seriously tempt Moscow. Or there could be a further geopolitical alteration in the region. Whatever the eventuality Moscow will act as a straight-jacket on Armenia, which will find that its ability to develop with Western assistance will be dependant on not annoying Moscow. The Karabakh tail will continue to wag the Armenian dog until Moscow decides otherwise.

At the conclusion to the war Moscow demonstrated that it was the only Power able to impose a ceasefire and agreement on the parties to the war, with the consent of the combatants, for differing reasons. By doing so it assured itself of substantial long-term leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Russian forces present in the region for the foreseeable future. The only way Armenia can break out of its dependence on Moscow is by doing business with Azerbaijan and Turkey, rendering the Russian presence unnecessary.

Zangezur Corridor and Economic Zones

A further problem for Pashinyan is the impending construction of the Zangezur corridor and the development of Azerbaijani economic zones related to this corridor and the Armenian inhabited part of Karabakh. Azerbaijan has signalled its intention of implementing this part of the Trilateral Agreement, with or without Yerevan’s co-operation, and has already begun the construction of the necessary infrastructure.

The seventh article of the Trilateral Agreement states that “all economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic in order to arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles, and cargo in both directions. The Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Services shall be responsible for overseeing the transport connections.” The Shusha Declaration added that the opening of the Zangezur corridor connecting Azerbaijan and Turkey through the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and the construction of the Nakhichevan-Kars railway, would enhance the transport and communication links between the two countries.

The Zangezur corridor is not only of interest to Azerbaijan, but also to Russia, China and the EU. Freight traffic is expected to flow along it from China and Southeast Asia to Turkey and the EU, and in the opposite direction, from Europe to the CIS and the Far East. It will considerably shorten the present distance of travel and cheapen transportation costs. For Russia, the Zangezur corridor is one of the main sections of the North-South project and for China, a further link in the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Within this context, Azerbaijani President Aliyev signed a decree on July 7th on the division of Azerbaijan into economic development regions. According to the decree, the “Karabakh economic region” will “ensure the restoration and rapid development of the region.” This poses problems for Armenia in a number of ways. Armenia fears that such economic development in regions around the rump would gradually envelop the Armenian inhabited area, tying it into the economic infrastructure of the surrounding areas. This, of course, is normal behaviour on the part of a state – in fact, the duty of a state. However, Armenia wishes to maintain any distinctiveness it can in the rump area, whether it remains isolated and impoverished or not, to retain hope of somehow absorbing it in future.

Yerevan has made great play about statements issued by President Aliyev regarding the historic background of the Zangezur region (Western Zangezur). President Aliyev has pointed to how Zangezur, which was historically part of Azerbaijan and shown as such on British, French and Russian maps, was given by Stalin to Armenia, ostensively to create a buffer between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan, and therefore between Turkey and Azerbaijan and the rest of the Turkic world to the East.

It is generally accepted in Armenia that Western Zangezur only became part of Armenia because of the ethnic cleansing activities of Garegin Nzhdeh, who waged a campaign there and then led resistance to the Bolsheviks. He managed to hold off the Red Army for a few months and eventually agreed to surrender the region to the Bolsheviks on the condition that it become part of Armenia, and not Soviet Azerbaijan. Nzhdeh’s campaign facilitated the detachment of Zangezur from Azerbaijan by his forces’ depopulating of the Muslim population, allowing the Bolsheviks to assign the region to Armenia on the basis of “self-determination”. Afterwards Nzhdeh went off to fight for the Nazis.

President Aliyev has also pointed to the Azerbaijani inhabitants of Zangezur who became IDPs after being driven out of their villages in 1991 and who wish to return.

Armenia has described Baku’s statements as irredentist and this view has been echoed by Laurence Broers from Chatham House. Leaving aside the temerity of Armenia in accusing others of irredentism when it exhibits some of the most extravagant irredentism itself and has sat in occupation of ‘Armenia irredenta’ for 30 years, there is something bizarre in equating Aliyev’s statements of historical fact with Armenian revanchism. This is journalistic “balance” taken to the extremes of incoherence.

There is nothing extraordinary in President Aliyev asserting historical fact against a nation that lives in the realms of myth-making over history. And there is nothing wrong in pointing out the dangerous game that Armenia continues to play in making territorial claims against stronger neighbours. Although the Azerbaijani President did not state any intention of re-incorporating Zangezur into Azerbaijan it would be wise for Yerevan to understand that wars are catastrophic activities and in entering into them in pursuit of a neighbour’s territory a government risks the existing territorial status quo. That is accepted as a fact of history and perhaps Armenia needs it spelt out.

As part of their financial subvention to Yerevan, the EU emissaries from Brussels have indicated their willingness to support the opening of another corridor, to rival the Trilateral Agreement one, with access to Europe through Georgia. 600 million Euros will be allocated toward the completion of this new north-south highway to the Iranian border. The large amounts of EU financing devoted to the road through Zangezur, “indicates that this funding has a strategic meaning for the EU,” according to Arman Yeghoyan, a member of parliament from Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance: “From India, Iran, the Gulf, Armenia, and Georgia, a road to Europe. Six hundred million is allocated for that road alone.” This is Armenia’s bridge to Europe, avoiding Russia and Turkey. The European Commission also announced that in the next 5 years it is going to allocate over 1.5 billion Euros to Armenia for the construction of a number of key projects, including the development of Western Zangezur (which it calls Syunik region). This will complement the efforts of the ARF Youth wing which has launched a project ‘Towards Syunik’ to develop the area and generate a more nationalistic spirit within it.

On the eve of Charles Michel’s visit to Yerevan, Pashinyan stated that he was not prepared to honour the clause in the Trilateral Agreement which made provision for the construction of the Zangezur transport corridor. This part of the Trilateral Agreement, which is guaranteed by the President of Russia, and which is of strategic importance to Russia’s interests in the region, will not be implemented according to the Armenian Prime Minister. It seems that the EU, and its money, has provided Pashinyan with the courage needed to obstruct the Agreement. However, the meeting of the trilateral working group held in Moscow under the joint chairmanship of the deputy prime ministers of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia on 17 August shows that the Russians are holding Pashinyan to the agreed process for the restoration of transport communications in the South Caucasus and their development.

There is presumably little Pashinyan can do to prevent the construction of the Zangezur corridor. It is being built on an extra-territorial tract of land which Armenia signed over to Moscow in 1992. It is Moscow that provides security along the entire 40-kilometre stretch of the Armenian-Iranian border where the corridor will run. Charles Michel informed President Aliyev that the EU is in support of it. All interests are therefore lined up against Pashinyan if he attempts further obstruction. And Armenia will ultimately be an economic beneficiary of it.

What we can see is that Pashinyan is attempting to avoid the logic of the peace agreement he has signed up to and is attempting to find various escape routes from it. However, sooner or later, the thing he most wants to avoid addressing – the issue of Armenian-Turkish relations – will inevitably confront him at the conference table. Some voices in Armenia, such as that of former Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Lena Nazaryan, have recently stated that Armenia must establish stable relations and even permanent peace with all its neighbours. Nazaryan said in an interview that she believed there was now a “high chance” of Armenia establishing diplomatic relations with Turkey.

That is the predicament that confronts Prime Minister Pashinyan. He will undoubtedly engage in much political manoeuvring in the short term. It remains to be seen if the political agitator can become a statesman in helping to craft an accommodation with Armenia’s neighbour.

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