For those who missed it, Friday brought some remarkable news. In Artsakh, President Bako Sahakyan and Armenia’s National Security Director Artur Vanetsyan held a joint press conference, following a visit to the southern border where they inspected military personnel and the current situation in the area. Vanetsyan explained that during the trip, he learned about resettlement efforts underway in southern Hadrut near the Arax River. He gave special mention to Araxavan, a new village currently in the planning stages. Designed for up to 150 homes with adjacent land and working conditions, the village would help bolster Artsakh’s civilian presence in a strategic area adjoining both Azerbaijan and Iran.
Vanetsyan assessed this program as an important guarantee of national security, concluding as follows: “The program that we call a resettlement program, in my and everyone’s assessment, will be the main guarantee of our country’s security. Because there are those speeches, those expressions, and those people who always manipulate this subject as if lands will be returned, will be negotiated, conceded, etc. As a result of that program, we will send a clear message to all our people and the world that we have no intention to give an inch of land; on the contrary, our compatriots must settle on those lands and build our country.”
Such a pronouncement—its context, its setting, and above all, its content—is frankly unprecedented. Indeed, it is the first such statement—by far, the most serious—made by a high-ranking Yerevan official, about not yielding the liberated lands. In 25 years since the Artsakh War, no one from official Armenia—not Levon Ter-Petrosyan, not Robert Kocharyan, not Serzh Sargsyan, nor any of their aides—has commented so openly, so directly, so unequivocally on this matter.
The timing of the announcement is also worth examining. Here is a new regime, its leader, Nikol Pashinyan, widely popular but still untested as a statesman. To boot, Pashinyan has a background of past collaboration with Ter-Petrosyan, well-known for his conciliatory posture regarding Artsakh. Given all of this, some critics have been closely watching his every move, especially as Yerevan and Baku prepare for a new round of talks billed as “preparing for peace.” For such critics, who sometimes hint at a possible Pashinyan ‘sell-out,’ Vanetsyan’s statement likely brings a welcome sigh of relief (or bitter disappointment, depending on how cynical the critic is).
Until now, such phrases have been used mostly as slogans or rallying cries among the populace, but never in official discourse.
‘Not an inch of land,’ to paraphrase Vanetsyan. Until now, such phrases have been used mostly as slogans or rallying cries among the populace, but never in official discourse.
Except in Artsakh. There, from top to bottom, the stance has been the same for years – certainly since 2007, when Sahakyan assumed the reins of power. Since that time, Artsakh’s authorities have made explicit reference to territorial matters, shunning the term “occupied territories” for those borderlands lying outside the old Soviet-imposed borders. Instead these territories have been incorporated into Artsakh’s constitution, which deems them an inalienable part of the Republic. Meanwhile, words are increasingly matched with deeds, as the Republic, officially and unabashedly, promotes an active borderland resettlement program, in conjunction with a few non-governmental actors.
During these years, Armenia has stood by quietly. True, it has amply assisted Karabakh in maintaining the facts on the ground, but in the diplomatic arena, Yerevan has often been reticent, even timid. And when faced with Western-led formulas, like the OSCE “Madrid Principles,” calling for return of territories as a precondition for peace, Yerevan has behaved reactively, often signaling tacit consent to such concessions.
Now, apparently, things are changing. Upon assuming power last May, Pashinyan publicly called for Artsakh’s return to the negotiating table (its seat having been taken by Kocharyan, who claimed the right to speak for both Yerevan and Stepanakert). More recently, Pashinyan told OSCE mediators that before asking Yerevan if it’s ready for concessions, they should first address their inquiry to Baku. And now, we have Vanetsyan’s pronouncement against land concessions. While nothing is certain, it would seem that Armenia’s diplomacy has already become sharper, more agile and proactive, as it seeks to navigate this difficult terrain.
And what of the media reaction? In Azerbaijan, they are already in a rage. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Leyla Abdullayeva promptly demanded condemnation by the OSCE co-chairs, claiming that Baku will raise the issue of “illegal settlements” in international forums. Leading commentators there have followed suit. Meanwhile in Armenia, the coverage – while considerable – has been rather tame. It seems, then, that Yerevan’s recent approach has succeeded in pushing some buttons among adversaries abroad. Whether it will succeed in quelling hawkish critics at home remains to be seen.