Armenian premier steps in Karabakh minefield with no safe exit as Baku’s determined to regain lands

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 11 May 2018
Armenian premier steps in Karabakh minefield with no safe exit as Baku’s determined to regain lands

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has reiterated official Baku’s determination to regain control over all the occupied territories and has the nation’s tricolor flag hoisted in Karabakh, including Susa and Xankandi, two key towns of the enclave.

"Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is not the subject of negotiations; it has never been and will never be. The Azerbaijani people and the state will never allow the creation of a second Armenian state on the Azerbaijani soil. If someone thinks differently, I believe he lives in fool’s paradise. Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity must be ensured in full and without any conditions. This is demanded by justice and international law, Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani flag will be hoisted in all the occupied territories, including Susa and Xankandi," Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said at a ceremony marking the 95th anniversary of the anniversary of the national leader of the Azerbaijani people Heydar Aliyev.

This statement followed Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s illegal visit to Azerbaijan’s separatist Karabakh region on May 9, where he spoke up for the separatist region's independence from Baku. For several days, Armenia’s new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been making radical statements and calls to toughen the Armenian position in the negotiation processes and to unilaterally recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed Karabakh region.

As Strati analysts predicted (See, Repeating predecessors’ grave mistakes, Armenian premier soon to reach deadlock), the Armenian prime minister has stepped into a minefield with no exit strategy but the resumption of the hostilities and unavoidable defeat of the aggressor.

A day after being elected Armenia’s new prime minister under the pressure of the popular protests, Nikol Pashinyan visited Azerbaijan de jure Nagorno-Karabakh region under the control of the Armenian forces, where he made a series of high-profile statements, calling for the separatist regime to become a full party in the internationally mediated talks to resolve the long-drawn-out conflict between Yerevan and Baku.

The OSCE’s Minsk Group-mediated talks in search for a negotiated strategy to resolve the Karabakh conflict with regular meetings of top officials and presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have yielded no results so far. The Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States, is mediating between the conflicting parties to reach a consensus.

"I am ready, and in general, Armenia is ready to negotiate with Azerbaijan on behalf of the Republic of Armenia, and it is the leadership of Artsakh (Karabakh) represented by its president that should negotiate on behalf of Artsakh," Pashinyan told a news conference shortly after his meeting with the Karabakh separatist leader.

Baku reacted angrily to Nikol Pashinyan's plan to visit Nagorno-Karabakh and said that several foreign media representatives were okayed to trip the separatist region to attend the newly-minted prime minister’s press conference. Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmat Haciyev in a statement on May 8 said "the Nagorno-Karabakh region under occupation currently has always been an integral part of Azerbaijan".

It is small surprise for the Azerbaijani diplomacy and expert circles that the new government in Armenia would move to stiffen official Yerevan’s posture towards Karabakh.

Several reasons are behind Pashinyan’s thinking of Karabakh-related developments. First, the unpredictable success of the protests has caught him nodding, like his predecessor Serzh Sarkisian, who never thought of quitting the power under popular protest but did so after the Kremlin washed hands of him. Like the protesters, Pashinyan was also not hoping for Sarkisian to quit peacefully and Russia to remain aloof.

Second, Pashinyan has no team well-versed in minute details of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and by radicalizing his approaches to the problem he wants to win both time and make a reconnaissance before opening negotiations. He realizes that once a popular vote of confidence in him is over, he will suffer the fates of the predecessor since the latter not quitted for reluctance to resolve the Karabakh conflict but for the failure to tackle economic woes, corruption, nepotism and so on.

Third, Pashinyan has to prove to Russia’s Putin that he would not make surprises to the Kremlin. As many expert say, young people in Armenia are the engine of the “velvet revolution” and they are mainly pro-Western and call for full integration into the European structures to realize their hopes and expectations. However, this is what frightens the Kremlin, which views “velvet revolutions” as an attempt on Russia’s sovereignty. Also the Kremlin is hopeful of Pashinyan’s foreign policy orients as he, in his capacity as parliamentarian, called for departure from Moscow-led regional blocs and rapprochement with the West.

Fourth, Pashinyan wants to revive the national economy and needs to encourage foreign investments. Russia under new crippling sanctions cannot deliver on its ages-old promises and has to decide on the fate of enterprises it took over as part of a debt settlement scheme agreement with Armenia. Moscow is also against the flow of western investment and this is at this point is legally impossible as owners of the major idle enterprises are Russian businesses. For Western investment to flow into the resource deficit nation, Armenia needs to minimum divorce from Russia, to improve relations with Turkey and recognize its territorial integrity and get security guarantees. Another major stumbling block is the occupation of Azerbaijan’s territories and official Yerevan’s determination to have the occupation recognized as de jure. All these circumstances indicate the challenges the Pashinyan government will soon to face in a hope to address dire poverty or soon to respond to new protesters’ anger over failure to tackle problems.

Fifth, Azerbaijan will for sure to step up pressure on Armenia to compel it to de-occupation and signing of a peace agreement. Official Yerevan will fight to the bitter, resorting to all means to involve minimum Russia-led CSTO.

Sixth, Iran is attentively monitoring developments in Armenia and once it makes sure that this is a U.S. project, Tehran will likely minimize contacts.

With the change in power in Armenia, enabled by the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” now essentially complete, the stage is set for shifts in the country’s foreign policy. These shifts are coming despite declarations to the contrary by the newly elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and members of his reformist team.

The first such transformation to Armenia’s diplomatic posture - already underway - concerns the lingering conflict with Azerbaijan over the status of the latter’s breakaway region of Karabakh. As anticipated, following his May 8 election by parliament, the new Armenian prime minister paid a visit to Karabakh on May 9.

The trip was a deliberate signal that Karabakh holds top significance for Pashinyan and his team. The visit was also designed to dispel the long-standing narrative, consistently repeated by some supporters of former Armenian presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sarkisian that Artsakh will not remain secure unless Yerevan is led by someone with direct links to this region.

And yet, Prime Minister Pashinyan, who is not from there, continues to unequivocally demonstrate a much tougher stance than his predecessors regarding the Karabakh problem. From Pashinyan’s perspective, Armenia’s foreign policy trajectory, including toward Karabakh, must be guided by principles of Armenia-centrism (or Armenia First!), which the new leadership conceptualizes as the starting point for an effective pursuit of Armenia’s national interests.

Pashinyan made three points, which stand in stark contrast to the Armenian government’s policy under Serzh Sarkisian’s rule. First, while stating that the current negotiations format for resolving the Karabakh conflict is adequate, he nevertheless stressed that, as Armenia’s prime minister, he would solely represent Armenia in the talks, noting that “only the leadership of Artsakh can speak on behalf of Artsakh”.

In other words, Armenia will no longer represent the interests of Artsakh, although it will retain its full commitment to the latter’s security. Second, Pashinyan clarified that his government’s policy toward the Karabakh resolution process represents a radical break from the previous regime. Specifically, he declared that “unless Azerbaijan reverses its militaristic rhetoric, threatening to annex Yerevan, Sevan, Zangazur and Xankandi (Stepanakert),” any dialogue with Baku on a potential consensus is pointless.

And third, Pashinyan stated that “mutual concessions can be negotiated only if Azerbaijan gives a clear message that Baku is ready to recognize the right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination”.

To understand the rationale behind Pashinyan’s approach to Karabakh, it is important to bear in mind that - contrary to the ruling regime he has replaced - the “Velvet Revolution” leader currently enjoys near-total support from a consolidated society.

This gives him sufficient political legitimacy to confidently and forcefully respond to any sharp rhetoric coming from Azerbaijan. And in seeking to harden Armenia’s overall posture, Pahshinyan’s ultimate strategic goal is to eventually see Artsakh internationally recognized as part of Armenia, just wishful thinking opening the way for Armenia's further impasse.