Can Armenians agree on a unified strategy?

Yeghia Tashjian at the II International Expert Forum “Russia-Middle East” organized by the Primakov Center for International Cooperation at the Pyatigorsk State University, Russia, November 7-10, 2022

Over the past few weeks, I participated in multiple international and regional workshops and conferences in Europe and Russia and met with many European, Azerbaijani, Turkish, Iranian and Russian experts and politicians. These opportunities and encounters made me realize that we as Armenians must adapt to a new reality, revise our strategy (if we have one) and try to confront the dangers with the resources that we have. The possibility of a new war with Azerbaijan is very high, but proactive diplomacy and deterrence can postpone a major military clash. 

I also realized a change in attitude in many Azerbaijani experts. Of course, we cannot generalize, but from their perspective, Azerbaijanis still firmly believe that the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis has been resolved, which the West and Russia do not agree on. They do not have enough leverage to force their will on Baku, as Azerbaijan is playing its energy card very well for now. Azerbaijanis have come to realize that if they enforce their will over Nagorno-Karabakh and engage in ethnic cleansing, there will be international backlash. The Russians will be humiliated and will push Armenia to get out of the Russian orbit but also will mobilize the West, especially the US and France, to impose harsh economic sanctions on Azerbaijan. That will eventually push President Aliyev to seek Russia’s protection, and Baku will fall under the Kremlin’s orbit. Baku would not be pleased with this scenario. For this reason, Azerbaijan has shown preparedness to engage in negotiations with Nagorno-Karabakh. Whether this attempt is an act to gain some time or appease the West is another story. 

Within this context, different viewpoints came from many academic circles in Baku. Shujaat Ahmadzada published a paper in the Topchubashov Center of Baku with the title “How should Azerbaijan talk with Karabakh Armenians?” Although I do not agree with much of his analysis and conclusion, highlighting his opinions is necessary to understand the intellectual thought in Azerbaijan given the regional developments and the post-Ukraine war uncertainties in the South Caucasus.

The author stated that Baku views efforts to establish any autonomous region within its borders as a threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Hence, he proposes to change this view, arguing that “sooner or later, Azerbaijan should sit at the table with the Karabakh Armenians, whom it considers its citizens.” 

Ahmadzada argues for a special representative for “reintegration issues.” This individual from Baku would have enough power and legitimacy to engage in dialogue with Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. He even proposes a joint statement similar to that of August 1919. However, the author neglects the fact that in 1919, the British forces forced and threatened the authorities of the Armenians of Karabakh to sign an agreement to be included as part of Azerbaijan, and eventually, this led to the massacre of Armenians and the destruction of the Armenian half of Shushi in March 1920. In his book Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Conflict in the South Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh and the Legacy of Soviet Nationalities Policy, Dr. Ohannes Geukjian references British Colonel D.I. Shuttleworth’s January 1919 appointment of Dr. Sultanov as governor-general of Nagorno-Karabakh (assuring the Armenians this was a temporary measure). However, Armenia protested and considered this a “violation of its territorial rights.” During that time, the number of Karabakh Armenians was estimated at 170,000, comprising 95 percent of a total of 180,000 inhabitants. On April 23, 1919, the Fifth Congress of the Karabakh Armenians, which met in Shushi, refused any Azerbaijani domination since Azerbaijanis were committing atrocities against Armenians elsewhere. Colonel Shuttleworth threatened the Armenians saying, “We are strong enough to force you to submit.” Later, the British confessed their guilt, but it was too late. 

Ahmadzada proposes municipal elections in the Armenian-populated areas of Karabakh, acknowledging that Baku will not allow the recognition of parliamentary and presidential elections. He believes Baku must offer cultural-administrative and not political autonomy for the indigenous Armenians of the region since “accepting the village representatives as legitimate individuals in itself cannot undermine the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Azerbaijan.” This proposal is very dangerous as it calls for the dismantling of the democratic institutions Armenians built over the past three decades in Nagorno-Karabakh. By such an act, Armenians would lose their representative bodies, and if Baku seeks any demographic changes like it managed to do during the Soviet era through resettlement projects, the outcome of the “elections” would be very clear. 

The author also addresses the fate of the displaced Armenians from the ex-NKAO territories. However, he mentions Hadrut and not Shushi. He proposes a certain collaboration and mechanism with the European Union and UNHCR for the guaranteed return and safety of Armenian IDPs even after the Russian peacekeeping withdrawal from the region. But he doesn’t explain the mandate of this institutionalization and whether these Armenians will enjoy the same “autonomy” that the Armenians of the Armenian-administered area of Nagorno-Karabakh will have. As for their safety, the author says that Azerbaijan can declare amnesty to those Armenians who fought during the wars and ensure that they will not be brought before the court. Ideally, this can be a positive step; however, given the institutionalized Armenophobia in Azerbaijan, it is very unrealistic for President Aliyev to take such a step, given the fact that anti-Armenianism is one of the factors that has consolidated his grip over the Azerbaijanis over the past two decades. 

Regarding the issue of passports, Ahmadzada argues that Armenians “residing in Karabakh” must be granted “neutral passports” by the government of Azerbaijan. He references Georgia and how Tbilisi granted passports to the Abkhazians and South Ossetians devoid of Georgian governmental emblems. Azerbaijani state symbols may not be present on these passports, and they “may even utilize Armenian in the entry section.” This could be accomplished only if the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh recognized Baku’s sovereignty over them. Last month’s massive rally in Stepanakert was a clear message that Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakhgiven their historical experiences with Baku and the current threats and military provocations along the Lachin corridorcannot accept the reverse of history. 

To resolve cultural issues, Ahmadzada proposes that the Armenian Apostolic Church should establish a diocese in Azerbaijan and that all Armenian churches and cemeteries located within the country be placed under its administration. To foster trust between the parties, he proposes the placement of Shushi’s Ghazanchetsots Cathedral and Kanach Zham, as well as Karvajar’s Dadivank, under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Ideally, this is an excellent step for trust and peacebuilding. However, the author forgets that in the last decades, Azerbaijan has developed a state narrative regarding the Albanization of the Armenian Apostolic heritage. How will Baku reverse this track and accept the fact that these churches and their property are Armenian and not Caucasus Albanian? 

Ahmadzada writes that Azerbaijan must not use military force when dealing with the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Even if the Russian peacekeepers withdraw and Azerbaijani armed forces enter the region, Baku must refrain from such actions. On my last visit to Nagorno-Karabakh in July 2022, and upon my meeting with officials and residents, I can affirm that not a single Armenian in Artsakh will stay in his/her house if the Azerbaijani army enters the region, considering the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Shushi and Hadrut and the psychological and physical torment by Azerbaijani soldiers in the September 2022 incursions. Not a single Azerbaijani soldier has been punished by authorities in Baku. That’s why such ideas are unrealistic.

Finally, Ahmadzada concludes that the “decentralization and democratization of Azerbaijan should go hand in hand with the process of reintegrating Armenians of Karabakh.” In order to build harmony and trust between different communities, he argues Azerbaijan must reform its outdated Soviet administrative-territorial system and that the local municipalities must have a greater say in managing the state of affairs of the local administrations. No one can argue that democratization of Azerbaijan will bring stability to the South Caucasus and facilitate the process of real peace in the region. However, peace is not beneficial for autocrats as it will delegitimize their power. Is President Aliyev ready to sacrifice his dynasty’s power for the sake of peace? Or would he prefer to prolong the conflict with the Armenians to feed his warmongering that will only boost anti-Armenianism and feed his authoritarian regime? 

The above case is an example of how the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is becoming part of a public debate in Azerbaijan, although it is clear that such proposals may be viewed as “minimalist.” It is clear that Baku is drawing a red line toward the issue. On the other hand, Armenians still have not adapted to the geopolitical changes and are not able to formulate a clear strategy.

What should Armenia do?

Authorities are ready to compromise, thinking that by providing territorial concessions they will save the remaining Armenia, while the opposition still has not grasped the reality on the ground and thinks that any power shift in Armenia will have a major impact on the negotiation process. The question is what Armenia should do and whether public debates are needed to formulate the future of our country and come up with our own proposals for the security of Artsakh, which is based on the principle of self-determination. 

Domestically, after the 2020 war and Armenia’s defeat during the war, Armenian society became deeply polarized. The opposition (or “oppositions”) failed several times to oust Pashinyan’s government both in the elections and on the street. Leaders of the traditional opposition parties lacked a unified agenda or even a vision; some were even waiting for a certain “green light” from abroad. Name-calling by the opposition (“traitor” and “Turk”) backfired and damaged their cause. The opposition became fragmented; some saw that opposing PM Nikol Pashinyan’s policies within the institutions (National Assembly) was a failure and sought to mobilize the street, but this strategy also failed and pushed the opposition to review its strategy.

Yerevan must engage with the Diaspora to draw a common strategy

It would be unfair to label, however, all the actions of the opposition as a failure. The street mobilization pressured the government not to offer more concessions to Ankara and Baku. This was clearly reflected when Turkish officials accused the Armenian opposition and Diaspora “lobbying groups” of hindering any “normalization” process between Ankara and Yerevan. Meanwhile, authorities in Yerevan failed to find a common ground with the leaders of the Armenian opposition or even Diasporan institutions. Instead of calming the street, the government started detaining opposition activists and declaring some Diaspora activists as persona non grata, further expanding the political gap in Armenian society. 

Regionally, Armenia is facing an existential crisis. After the 2020 war, the geopolitical balance of power in the region shifted toward Turkey. Ankara is directly backing Baku in its military provocations against Yerevan. Russia is stuck in a long war in Ukraine, while Iran’s domestic developments especially in the northern provinces are raising eyebrows. Hence, it is within these geopolitical complexities that Armenia must navigate, draw conclusions, adapt to the new reality, revise its strategy and put an end to the internal divisions, and at least come to an understanding of what factors constitute red lines to Yerevan. 

What are Yerevan’s red lines in Nagorno-Karabakh? What kind of “peace treaty” does Armenia need? Who will guarantee this peace treaty? Russia? The West? Or both? Will Armenia be able to balance between the EU observers on the border with Azerbaijan and the Russian border guards? Will Armenia be able to prevent Azerbaijan from invading Syunik? These are existential questions that Yerevan must formulate strategies to address. 

One thing is clear: the increasing western pressure on Baku and the outcome of the trilateral agreement in Sochi, to some extent, temporarily contained President Aliyev’s territorial ambitions toward Armenia’s sovereignty. This does not mean that at any moment Baku won’t take advantage to commit a similar incursion as it did on September 13, 2022, to force a final capitulation on Yerevan by not only resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in its favor but also enforcing a “corridor” in Syunik, thus realizing Ankara’s century-old pan-Turkic dreams. 

Yerevan must diplomatically and militarily be ready for such scenarios to prevent the occurrence of this scenario. For this, Yerevan must engage with the Diaspora to draw a common strategy for multidimensional diplomacy. In this tumultuous period, Armenia needs all the lobbying efforts that are being engaged for the sake of the Armenian cause. Such coordination may not necessarily mean the opposition should halt its demands, but given the dire situation, there should be a clear understanding of national security matters and the need for a unified vision that reflects the current balance of power on the ground. 

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian is a regional analyst and researcher. He has graduated from the American University of Beirut in Public Policy and International Affairs. He pursued his BA at Haigazian University in political science in 2013. In 2010, he founded the New Eastern Politics forum/blog. He was a research assistant at the Armenian Diaspora Research Center at Haigazian University. Currently, he is the regional officer of Women in War, a gender-based think tank. He has participated in international conferences in Frankfurt, Vienna, Uppsala, New Delhi and Yerevan. He has presented various topics from minority rights to regional security issues. His thesis topic was on China’s geopolitical and energy security interests in Iran and the Persian Gulf. He is a contributor to various local and regional newspapers and a presenter of the “Turkey Today” program for Radio Voice of Van. Recently he has been appointed as associate fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Middle East-South Caucasus expert in the European Geopolitical Forum.
Yeghia Tashjian

@yeghig

Regional analyst & researcher. PPIA graduate @AUB_lebanon. Associate Fellow @IFI_AUB co @ArmenianWeekly, Instructor IA @aust_lebanon #MiddleEast #SouthCaucasus
@PetrosVon hmmm - 52 mins ago

1 Comment

  1. why you have not mentioned lachin kurds , they are the only present reality that can help armenia and armenians. you can manage a thinkpool with regional and diasporal kurds.

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