Seldom does the Sarkisian Administration do anything that elicits a favorable comment. However, the apparent shift in President Sarkisian’s approach to reclaiming our historic Western Armenia lands was a distinct surprise, and long overdue. Evidently the prosecutor general of Armenia, Aghvan Hovsepyan, was chosen as the point man to stress the need to place Armenia’s demand for these lands on a firm legal basis. This obvious need has always existed, but that it is now publicly supported by Yerevan changes the dynamics. The significance of this policy change can be seen in the immediate response by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warning Yerevan that it “…is out of the question to [even] think about…” reclaiming land from Turkey.
This seemingly seismic change by Yerevan suggests that it may be time to rethink the situation in Artsakh. In the nearly 20 years since the ceasefire in 1994, Artsakh has made progress in repairing the infrastructure laid waste by the Azeri military. In addition, a government based on democratic principles has been formed, together with the foundation for an economic system that could rapidly expand given sufficient inputs. However laudable this progress has been, we cannot allow Artsakh to experience this same slow rate of infrastructural and economic development for the next 20 years. There is a vital need to accelerate its development. This may well be the time to craft a more aggressive policy that will meet this objective.
An important component of any policy would be to increase the population and to facilitate a planned settlement pattern that would meet Artsakh’s strategic needs. The situation in Syria has generated a small in-migration of Armenians responsible for the creation of several new settlements in the Kashatagh region of Artsakh. However, these recent settlers have not appreciably changed the fact that during the two decades since 1994, the population has been virtually stagnant with respect to numbers and its distribution. Both economic development and spatial integration (the need to effectively tie the various regions of Artsakh together) are directly dependent on maintaining a sustainable annual increase in population and creating a settlement pattern that meets the country’s economic and military objectives.
Immediately some will say that Armenia does not have the will or the influence to openly support such an aggressive policy with respect to Artsakh. Well, for an official of the present administration to speak of placing our demand to reclaim land from Turkey on a firm legal basis seems to be a far more aggressive stance for Yerevan to take than what is being suggested for Artsakh. That being so, this may well be the opportune time for Artsakh to benefit from a comprehensive policy that will accelerate the development of its socioeconomic infrastructure and its economy, and encourage in-migration and the strategic placement of new settlements. The continued concentration of people in the capital district (Stepanakert and Shushi) will prove to be an economic and military liability. This concentration of people and economic activity increases the vulnerability of Artsakh to attack. It also unfairly skews the allocation of resources to the core area at the expense of rural development. If the next 20 years experience the same slow, but commendable, rate of development that we have witnessed during the first 20 years, it is likely that Artsakh will see a net loss of population. That is a politically dangerous situation to contemplate.
Artsakh is ours. We have a responsibility to ensure that Artsakh remains ours. This requires the adoption of a development program that reflects this reality. Azerbaijan and Turkey will surely object and use every means at their disposal to condemn any initiative that increases Artsakh viability. We cannot allow our efforts to be circumscribed by either Baku’s or Ankara’s specious claims or threats of military action. Neither should the expected diplomatic pressure from countries more intent on their geostrategic interests than on justice for Armenia and Artsakh keep us from our task.
The first step is to place the right of the Karabagh Armenians to declare their independence on a firm legal foundation. This is an objective I have consistently advocated. It is up to the relevant experts, which would be convened by Stepanakert and supported by the ARF, and other political parties (this is a task that Yerevan should assume) to determine whether the declaration by the Karabagh Armenians was governed by the former Soviet constitution; the principle of self-determination; or the principle of remedial secession. Once the legal basis is determined, the present principles governing the negotiations become obsolete. It should be noted that these principles, however nuanced they may have been over time, have never addressed the possibility of de jure independence for Artsakh.
We should not lose sight of the fact that Armenia and Karabagh have some leverage based on their geostrategic location that more than overcomes its small combined area. Should Artsakh’s independence fail in any respect (meaning, the area under the present jurisdiction of Stepanakert is not granted sovereignty), we would see a profound effect on every country bordering the South Caucasus as well as those beyond, such as the United States and Western Europe.
As Armenia’s ally and supposed protector, Russia will have been shown to be a paper tiger. Its influence in the South Caucasus will have suffered irreparable harm. Its restive Islamic provinces on the north slope of the Caucasus might view this as an opportunity to renew or intensify their struggle for independence. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics beginning in February 2014 has already been targeted by the Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov. Turkey, the principal beneficiary should Artsakh fail, would be free to expand its economic and political influence in the South Caucasus across the Caspian Sea to compete with Russia (and Iran) in Central Asia. Iran could face possible ethnic issues in its northwest region adjacent to Turkey and Azerbaijan and in the northeast along the border with Turkmenistan. Presently, however, the large Azeri minority in Iran has achieved an acceptable accommodation with Tehran. As Turkey’s principal competitor in the greater Middle Eastern region, any expansion of Ankara’s influence, whether in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or the South Caucasus, would be a direct threat to Iran’s interests within the region. As for Armenia, its influence within the South Caucasus would be severely diminished permanently. The Armenians of Javakheti and the crypto-Armenians of Turkey could well end up as collateral casualties.
Finally, the last ripple from what would be the catastrophic loss of Artsakh would be the needless sacrifice of our 7,000 azatamartiks and the credibility of Hai Tahd. If Artsakh should fail, is it realistic to believe that Armenians will continue to embrace Hai Tahd as representing a set of achievable objectives?
We cannot allow the next 20 years to pass without a comprehensive policy to increase Artsakh’s population and accelerate the improvement of its social and economic infrastructure. Artsakh is not only the key to Hai Tahd, but the key to Armenia’s future. It is the future frontier that could attract our recent out-migrants to return home to a land of opportunity as well as appealing to those long in the diaspora who have a desire to return to their mayreni yergir.
How the Minsk Group or the Congressional Armenian Caucus would respond to such an aggressive policy to develop Artsakh is an issue that has to be anticipated and properly addressed. This is why a strong legal, moral, and historic case must be prepared to support Artsakh’s declaration of independence. As for Baku, it has very few viable options to exercise. It could finally come to terms with reality and accept Artsakh as its neighbor. Should that be more than Aliyev can accept, then his remaining option is to depend on the military he has so often threatened to use. Unfortunately, even Aliyev must realize that resorting to military action faces many unknowns, ranging from the loyalty and effectiveness of his ground troops in actual combat situations; the support of the civilian population for a renewal of hostilities; and the ability of his military to breech Artsakh’s defenses within the first 72 hours. This latter objective is almost a requirement, as there would be an immediate call from a host of concerned nations for a cease fire.
The Caucasus is an historic powder keg. A second conflict could be the fuse that ignites the entire region. Neither Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, or Western Europe or the various corporate interests want—or could—benefit from either an expanded or protracted conflict. The unintended consequences would be akin to an unfortunate opening of a Pandora’s box.
Any danger we may encounter from pursuing an aggressive development policy for Artsakh is significantly less than the danger we face by relying on others to protect our vital national interests.