Pashinyan, Aliyev public debate in Munich “courageous,” yet counterproductive

YEREVAN—Armenian President Armen Sarkissian and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan joined other world leaders, high ranking government officials and members of the global security community at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Germany over the weekend to attend the 56th annual Munich Security Conference. The conference, which was first held in the Bavarian capital in 1963 for the purposes of coordinating a common defense doctrine between NATO member-states, has since developed into the most influential security policy meeting in the world. 

This year’s events saw security strategists and policy makers discuss the significance of major security policy challenges of “Westlessness“—the perceived drawback of global clout wielded by Euro-Atlantic security structures. Among the hottest topics of discussion in Munich were the the spread of the Coronavirus, the role of social media in undermining democratic institutions, and the espionage threat to the integrity of Western intelligence-sharing mechanisms posed by Chinese-manufactured 5G networking hardware.

President Armen Sarkissian served as a keynote speaker at the Munich Security Conference, February 15, 2020

President Sarkissian, who holds PhDs in theoretical physics and computer science, delivered a keynote address in front of international delegates in which he outlined his contribution to the study of international relations: quantum politics. Prime Minister Pashinyan’s busy schedule included high-level meetings with several other heads of state including Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Bulgarian Premier Boïko Borissov, Latvian President Egils Levits, EU Commissioner for Budget and Management Johannes Hahn and Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić among others.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan in Berlin, February 13, 2020

Kicking off his four-day state visit to Germany with a press event in Berlin, Pashinyan spoke highly of the deepening economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries shaped by common European values. He also thanked Chancellor Angela Merkel for attending the opening of a German-funded tumor research center in Armenia late last year. Merkel, in turn, commended Armenia’s robust progress in democratic governance reform since the Velvet Revolution. She also expressed her hope that the Munich Security Conference would serve as a good forum to restart the stalled Karabakh peace process. 

Pashinyan did get a chance to raise the issue with his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Munich. However, it seemed to fall short of the diplomatic breakthrough the Chancellor and others had hoped for. International dignitaries, security experts and journalists sitting in on the hastily announced tête-à-tête on Saturday had expected a productive discussion on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Instead, bewildered audiences looked on as veteran Eurasian security policy expert Celeste Wallander attempted to moderate an uncharacteristically heated debate between the two countries’ leaders which rapidly derailed into the sort of dubious historical rationalizations, blame shifting and hollow policy position statements that are all too familiar for seasoned Caucasus-watchers.

President Aliyev kicked off the debate with a long, at times incoherent, historical diatribe. “There is no mention of Armenians at all in the text of the Treaty of Kurekchay,” he asserted,  referencing an obscure 215 year-old agreement in which the Turkic Javanshir clan—petty nobility in the Persian Empire—relinquished its nominal suzerainty over the region to Russian administration. Incidentally, the subsequent treaties of Gulustan (1813) and Turkmenchai (1828), which formalized Russian sovereignty over the South Caucasus, do explicitly mention the Armenian population. Fast-forwarding through his chronology of events, Aliyev repeated a previous claim that the city of Yerevan had been gifted in 1918 by the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic as a capital for Armenians. “If you give something to someone, that means that it belonged to you,” the President deduced, “we still have the original text.”  

“If we want to go that far into history,” retorted Pashinyan, “I could mention that when the Armenian King Tigran the Great (140 – 55 BC) negotiated with the Roman general Pompey, there was no notion of a country called Azerbaijan anywhere in the world.” 

As audience members struggled to keep up due to the lack of context, the debate reached truly esoteric levels. “If [Pashinyan] doesn’t like Stalin, it’s strange why he loves Shahumyan so much,” blurted Aliyev, in reference to the early 20th century old-Bolshevik figure Stepan Shahumyan—virtually unheard of outside the region. “The fact that their so-called capital Stepanakert […] was originally named ‘Khakendi’ proves that Armenians have no historical legacy in these territories.” 

Eventually however, the conversation inched its way back toward the topic at hand. Leaning on his democratic credentials, Pashinyan styled himself as a proponent of the novel idea that “any solution must be acceptable for the people of Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

Munich Security Conference panel discussion with PM Nikol Pashinyan and President Ilham Aliyev, February 15, 2020

The moderator seized on Pashinyan’s unexpected overture to finally reign in the speakers. “As a political scientist, I always want to get on to the solution,” Wallander joked, “I feel like historians help us understand [the context] but don’t always help us understand how to move forward.” 

While both Pashinyan and Aliyev publicly reiterated their countries’ commitment to the peace process, neither deviated from their respective governments’ long-established official stances on the matter. Responding to an audience question about bringing the matter to international arbitration, Aliyev reiterated that “Azerbaijan still has hope that, through negotiations, we will regain full territorial integrity.” Pashinyan, in turn, echoed his predecessors by challenging the oft-repeated Azerbaijani talking point on territorial integrity. “If that were the case, Azerbaijan also violated the principle of territorial integrity when it separated from the Soviet Union,” he replied.

Though the conversation seemed largely unproductive, the mood remained relatively cordial throughout the 45-minute session. At times, the two leaders even managed to find common ground. Both agreed on the need to de-escalate tensions and supported the idea of using social media to connect their citizens. A recent exchange of journalists between the two countries was the result, according to Aliyev, of “a decision between two leaders to try and find any opportunity to reach a peaceful settlement.” In a rare instance of public outreach, Pashinyan even credited Aliyev for his part in inaugurating a system of direct dialogue between the two governments following a meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the 2018 CIS conference in Dushanbe. 

Munich Security Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger later described the encounter as “a remarkable accomplishment.” Despite the lack of substantial outcomes, the veteran diplomat mentioned that the very fact that the two leaders agreed to talk in public was in itself deserving of “applause because it takes some courage.”

PM Pashinyan and President Aliyev, February 15, 2020

Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.


  1. I opened your reference (to Turkmenchai peace agreement), but there was no mention of Armenians. In fact, no nation is explicitly mentioned. If in the full text of Turkmenchai Armenians are mentioned, you must refer to the full text, no to a concise version.
    My regards.

  2. Turkmanchi treaty was between Persia ( Iran) and Russia, where Russia defeated Persians and forced them to give away lands.

    Azarbaijan was part of Iran not as an independent country. Seems to me that you people love to steal others civilization in the name of Azerbaijan. Your real civilization destroyed by invading Turkic herds from Central Asia and accepted their domination, and Turkification.

    I wonder how Russians were capable to change your Turkic surname to AV or OV and your unknown alphabets. Georgians and Armenians fought and kept their heritage and identities in Caucasia.

    unfortunately, Armenia lost the entire Armenian highlands (including today’s Azerbaijan), due to invading Turkic Muslim enemies, Muslims, such as Arabs, Mongols, Seljuks from Central Asia.

    Like Pashinyan said Armenians have a history in this crazy world of today and nobody is going to take away Artsakh with fake political mean from Armenians!

    • GB’s comment makes a fair point. Those whom don’t like it, can reply to it, with a well thought out, logical answer (point by point), instead of cranking up a loudspeaker with a hate speech accusation.

  3. Nobody in the international community cares about B.C., the Roman Empire, Russia, Persia. There should be an effort to teach people about modern history. Armenians barely know about Artsakh’s history or the pogroms in the LATE 20th century, especially the new generation.

    I hope one day Armenia has less amateurish politicians. We are in a situation where the US is giving the Azeris huge amounts of tax payer money as military aid, thanks to Trump and his business interests once he is out of office. The Azeris have been building up their military for decades now after their humiliating defeat. They are still in a situation where they will lose but it will be much more difficult.

    One mistake Armenia did was not recognize Artsakh back in 2014 during the short war when they had the opportunity to do so to allow other countries to recognize it in the future, like what happened with Kosovo. What was Azerbaijan going to do? It was already at war and the internationally community would have recognized it as a result of Azeri aggression.

  4. I followed the public forum. PM Pashinyan clearly made the following poits:

    1. Karabagh was never part of an independent Azerbaijan state. Mountainous Karabagh gained its independence from the Soviet Union much like Azerbaijan did
    2. Mountainous Karabagh is a party of the negotiation without its participation it is not possible to resolve the conflict because the resolution of the conflict must be accepted by the people of Karabagh, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
    3. The underlying issue is the security and not territoriality. For its sake and for the sake of the regional stability and security, Armenia cannot compromise on its security.
    4. In order to achieve a lasting peaceful resolution of the conflict “micro” and then “mini” revolutions need to take place starting with toning down the social media animosity and hatred. Consequently, the resolution of the conflict cannot happen with one or two meetings.

    I am surprised to read that this public forum “ seemed to fall short of the diplomatic breakthrough the Chancellor and others had hoped for.” I came across no such hinting from Chancellor or other heads of states, save Aliev who surely looked for a public capitulation that included”Erivan”.

  5. Back in 2000, a family friend went to Azerbaijan and reported how it had turned into a third world country under Aliyev, with fewer citizens having access to drinkable water than a decade earlier.

  6. I think that at this point to have expected a dramatic breakthrough was unrealistic. Nevertheless, talking face to face leaves the doors to progress open no matter how long it takes. Talking can open doors; bullets slam doors shut.

    I strongly agree with the comments calling for non-personal, hateful replies.

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