Facing the Reality that is Artsakh

The following article was completed by Dr. Mensoian prior to his passing on July 7, 2020 and is being published in honor of his karasoonk on August 23, 2020 at St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown.

Dr. Michael Mensoian and Dr. Khatchig Mouradian in Artsakh, 2011 (Photo provided by Dr. Khatchig Mouradian)

It has been a tumultuous 26 years since the Russian brokered ceasefire ended the active phase of the war initiated by Azerbaijan against the Artsakh Armenians. I say active, because our people in Artsakh continued to live under wartime conditions created by Azerbaijan’s repeated transgressions along the Line of Contact (LoC). It should be noted that the greater part of Artsakh’s population resides within a mere 20 miles of the LoC.

During this period there has been no viable progress in reaching a favorable solution. Unfortunate as that might be, it is a greater misfortune that we have failed to use this valuable time to strengthen our position in Artsakh. This involves much more than the ability to defend the frontier against the constant Azerbaijani incursions. We have failed to generate a sustainable consensus in support of Artsakh’s freedom and union with Armenia. This necessary commitment cannot be based on an emotional appeal, but on a practical understanding of what unification means to our country. Combining both regions would provide a Greater Armenia with a significantly expanded resource base capable of supporting upwards of eight million people. The economic and military benefits of such a union should be obvious. There is an urgency for Artsakh Armenians to put their mark on the landscape. This is difficult to do, especially in the liberated territories that are either sparsely populated or empty of people. Claiming vacant land, given the current political environment of the peace process, is a hard sell. Raising the necessary funds to develop and administer a robust settlement program to achieve this objective is solely dependent on a commitment by the Armenian people that cuts across institutional loyalties and parochial interests. In addition to strategically occupying the vacant lands, an increasing population serves as a catalyst for comprehensive economic development. As the economy expands, so will employment opportunities. And as the workforce increases, so will consumption and family formation. This then serves to drive further economic development. Effectively monitored, it becomes a self-generating process.

Unfortunately, the population of Artsakh has remained more or less static, while its benefactor, Armenia, has been hemorrhaging population. Based on its 1991 population, Armenia should have about 4.3 million people compared to the three million it currently has. This represents a loss (permanent and temporary) of some 1.3 million people. Presently, Armenia now makes up a meager 18-percent of the total  population of the region. This not only has serious implications for Armenia (social, economic and military), but for Artsakh as well.

Additionally, failure to achieve independence for Artsakh, for whatever reason, would exacerbate Turkish-Armenian relations. It would definitely strengthen Ankara’s resolve to continue its revisionist policy and anti-genocide propaganda. Artsakh’s struggle may be with Azerbaijan, but its ally Turkey has a pernicious influence on the Minsk Group governments charged by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to mediate the process determining Artsakh’s status.

Although these governments have sizable diasporan populations, this fact has little effect on their determination to protect and enhance their respective national and geostrategic interests. Given the importance they have accorded Turkey (allied with Azerbaijan) allows Ankara to ably play both sides against the middle as opportunities arise. Russia plays the same game with respect to Armenia (Artsakh) and Azerbaijan. Governments will not sacrifice their interests or national policy simply to support a settlement, justified as it may be, favoring Armenia (and Artsakh).

Unfortunately, in this respect, Armenia cannot compete with this alliance. However, there is no question that Armenia is strategically important to Moscow as its only foothold in the south Caucasus. Geographically, Armenia is also the potential link in a strategically valuable north-south corridor connecting Russia with Iran and the Persian Gulf. Without Armenia, Russia would be hard pressed to compete with Turkey’s determination to dominate the south Caucasus. Presently, with Russian support, Armenia stands as a significant bulwark to Ankara’s desire to expand its influence through the region across the Caspian Sea into central Asia.

Armenia’s contribution to Russia’s geostrategic needs is obvious. Having said this, the problem remains that Armenia is essentially a captive ally of Moscow. It is not an alliance between two equals. Russia’s interests in the south Caucasus are not predicated on Armenia being a willing partner or that Yerevan has the ability to demand Moscow’s commitment to support Artsakh’s independence as a quid quo pro for its cooperation. What happens to Artsakh, in large measure, will depend on what is most beneficial for Russia. Can it be predicted? Not likely. Is this subject to change? Obviously. The international environment within which all governments operate is not static. COVID-19 is an excellent example. The virus sprang out of nowhere and is having a dramatic impact on global politics and economies in ways that no one could have foreseen.

The fundamental problem we face is the fact that the European Union and the United States (the western democracies) have not fully accepted the Artsakh Armenians’ declaration of their independence under the principle of self-determination. Yet the Madrid Proposals cite that as one of the three guiding principles to be met in seeking a settlement (in addition to territorial integrity and the non-use of force).    

The current peace process, however, has placed restoring Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity first and foremost. It is based solely on Principle 4, Article 2, Chapter 1 of the United Nations (UN) Charter that “All Members shall refrain…from the…use of force against the territorial integrity of any state.” On its face the inviolability of a state’s territory from attack by a neighboring state should be all persuasive. But there is more to it than that. Baku responded to the Karabakh Armenians’ legitimate right to secede by inciting vicious attacks against the Armenians in Sumgait (1988) and Baku (1990). Then in 1992 the Azeri military launched a full scale attack on the Armenians in Karabakh. It was this level of response that precipitated what the Azeris like to refer to as the unprovoked attack by Armenia. 

Let’s consider the mindset of the officials in Yerevan. The Genocide that nearly destroyed our nation some 80 years earlier is still fresh in the minds of all Armenians. It has become part of our national psyche. The savagery of that Genocide; the generation of men and women forever lost to our nation; and the enforced servitude of countless young children brought up in an alien culture can never be forgotten or erased by time. How could Armenia sit idly by while a second genocide was in the making by Azerbaijan? Yerevan was duty bound to respond. This was a humanitarian intervention, not an unprovoked attack. Intervention can, and in this instance did, have a moral component. That moral component was to save the lives of innocent Karabakh Armenian men, women and children from a genocide. 

The last time I visited Artsakh in the autumn of 2019 we were in effective control of the country and quite capable of protecting our border with Azerbaijan along the LoC. Yet, the co-chairs expect us to give up this independence and abandon the liberated territories which are critical to our security; allow Azeris who are being propagandized by their government to denigrate Armenians and Armenian culture to return to their former homes; and entrust our safety and our right to live as Armenians to an international peacekeeping force during some interminable period until a committee monitoring the peace decides the time is appropriate to hold a plebiscite. 

Prior to this plebiscite being held the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan will have been restored while the status of Nagorno Karabakh hangs by a slender thread. Although Karabakh would be restored to Azerbaijan, a peacekeeping force would occupy the region to maintain order and protect the rights of the Armenians. Peacekeeping forces, however, are never given the authority or the resources to intervene against hostile actions against the minority at risk. To observe and report is their primary mission. Effectively cut-off from Armenia, their Defense Force demobilized, the security of the Artsakh Armenians would be problematic. Given Baku’s history of disavowing agreements, we would be naive to believe that our brothers and sisters could be considered safe and secure during this intermediate period.

One doesn’t have to be prescient to believe this scenario to be more plausible than expecting a plebiscite, no matter the voting safeguards and options available, to yield independence for Karabakh. At the very best a plebiscite, if held, might result in the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh being granted cultural independence (autonomy). This would not be political independence for an Armenian Nagorno Karabakh. Does it seem plausible that once Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity had been restored that a plebiscite would then be allowed to carve out Nagorno Karabakh as an independent state? Highly unlikely.  Notwithstanding agreements, dedicated corridors with Armenia, or international guarantees the culturally independent Armenian minority in Karabakh would be overwhelmed by a tsunami of Azeris as Baku brazenly transforms Karabakh into another Nakhichevan. 

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but we have to face the reality that confronts us in Artsakh. No one can predict what we may encounter 10, 20 or more years from now. Neither Armenia’s status in the south Caucasus nor its prospects are immutable. Tomorrow could bring a more promising outlook for our cause. In the meantime, however, Artsakh’s de facto independence remains relatively secure. Any large scale military action by Azerbaijan along the LofC could have serious unintended consequences that could easily escalate and engulf a much wider region. That alone is of sufficient concern for the co-chairs to reign in the propensity of President Aliyev to threaten military action as a solution. Hopefully, time will continue to be our ally. Unfortunately, we squandered much of the first 26 years. It would be unconscionable if we continued to squander the time a continuing stalemate provides. The future of Artsakh and a Greater Armenia hangs in the balance.

Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.

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