Histoires Continentales
Geschichte Kaukasus Politik

Karabakh: Genealogy of a Convenient Deadlock

The Karabakh con­flict keeps the inter­na­tio­nal rela­ti­ons in the South Caucasus ten­se. On the one side, the ant­ago­nisms bet­ween Armenia and Azerbaijan obst­ruct eco­no­mic growth and soci­al chan­ge. On the other, it offers legi­ti­ma­cy to the ruling eli­tes, par­ti­cu­lar­ly in Armenia, and oppor­tu­nities for for­eign intru­si­on in a regi­on of geo­stra­te­gic import­an­ce.

In the spring of 2018, mass demon­stra­ti­ons shook Yerevan, the capi­tal of Armenia. This public unrest led to the down­fall of the regime under Serzh Sargsyan, which was con­si­de­red to be cor­rupt and unfit to sol­ve Armenia’s eco­no­mic pro­blems. The new lea­der, Nikol Pashinyan, plans to reform the coun­try and foster its pro­spe­ri­ty.

This new government faces intri­ca­te struc­tu­ral chal­len­ges deri­ving from wit­hin the Armenian socie­ty as well as its geo­stra­te­gic posi­ti­on that it can­not igno­re. The con­flict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh remains unsol­ved. On the one side, the per­ma­nent non-solu­ti­on pro­vi­des oppor­tu­nities for all for­eign powers to inter­fe­re. On the other, it keeps the poli­ti­cal system in Armenia sta­ble. The losers in this power strugg­le are the youn­g­er genera­ti­ons in Armenia. Lacking in other oppor­tu­nities, they can eit­her adapt to the ruling system or lea­ve the coun­try.

This arti­cle pro­vi­des a short over­view of this poli­ti­cal dead­lock. It shows why the­re can­not be any easy way out and why a broad majo­ri­ty of all pres­su­re groups and deci­si­on makers even pro­fits from the cur­rent situa­ti­on. To under­stand this dead­lock, we first have to go back to the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

A Toxic History

The term “Armenian Genocide” its­elf is pro­ble­ma­tic as it implies not only an ana­ly­ti­cal, but also a moral and legal stan­ce. It is today wide­ly used not only in the trans­na­tio­nal poli­ti­cal deba­te in Armenia as well as wit­hin the Diaspora, but also in the inter­na­tio­nal aca­de­mic dis­cour­se to label the mass mur­ders com­mit­ted by Ottoman forces against the Armenian popu­la­ti­on in Anatolia after April 1915. During the­se unpre­ce­den­ted mas­sa­cres and depor­ta­ti­ons more than one mil­li­on Armenians died. These hor­rors were a high­ly trau­ma­tic expe­ri­ence for tho­se who sur­vi­ved. It has beco­me one of the cen­tral pil­lars of the natio­nal nar­ra­ti­ve among the Armenian dia­spo­ra as well as in Soviet Armenia.

The begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry was also a trau­ma­tic era for the Armenians living under Russian rule. Between 1904 and 1905, acts of inter­eth­nic vio­lence bet­ween Armenians and “Turks” shook the South Caucasus. After the col­lap­se of the Russian Empire and its army in 1917/18, the Armenian ter­ri­to­ries form­er­ly under Russian rule decla­red their inde­pen­dence. However, this Armenian Republic was con­fron­ted with almost unbe­ara­ble chal­len­ges. On the one hand, it had no defi­ned bor­ders and on the other hand, it was in a sta­te of war with the Ottoman Empire. The Nagorno-Karabakh regi­on, a high­land in the south part of the Lesser Caucasus, was par­ti­cu­lar­ly con­te­sted bet­ween Armenia and the new­ly for­med Republic of Azerbaijan, its neigh­bour to the east. Thus, the South Caucasus beca­me again the sta­ge for inter­eth­nic vio­lence. The pogroms in Baku in 1918 and the mas­sa­cre of Shushi/Shusha 1920 are among the most ter­ri­ble examp­les.

The Caucasus Region. Nagorno Karabakh is here rep­re­sen­ted with its self-desi­gna­ted name „Arzakh“
(wiki­me­dia com­mons CC-BY)

Facing an inva­si­on by Turkish natio­na­lists under Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk), the Armenian government beg­ged Moscow for assi­stan­ce. This led to the occupa­ti­on of Armenia by the Red Army in December 1920 and its sub­se­quent sovie­ti­sa­ti­on. In the trea­ties of Moscow and Kars in 1921 bet­ween the government of Mustafa Kemal and the Soviets, the lat­ter not only ceded the ter­ri­to­ries around Kars, but also gran­ted that Nakhichevan will belong to Azerbaijan. Later, the Armenian side per­cei­ved the­se con­ces­si­ons as a pro­of for the Soviet betra­y­al of its inte­rests.

With the rise of Soviet power in the South Caucasus, the inde­pen­dent sta­te­hood of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia ended, and the open eth­ni­cis­ed vio­lence was stop­ped. The Soviets accep­ted the exi­stence of natio­nal­ly defi­ned repu­blics as such. The Communist Party took a fate­ful deci­si­on, as it atta­ched Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. The Bolsheviks did not pri­ma­ri­ly think in natio­na­list, but, as well edu­ca­ted Marxists, in eco­no­mic cate­go­ries. In their logic, the attach­ment of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan was to bring natio­nal peace to the regi­on in respect of exi­sting eco­no­mic ties. The regi­on was much bet­ter con­nec­ted with Baku than with Yerevan. This deci­si­on evo­ked a long-lasting oppo­si­ti­on among the Armenian popu­la­ti­on, par­ti­cu­lar­ly in Nagorno-Karabakh its­elf, even though the Soviet government decla­red the ter­ri­to­ry of Nagorno-Karabakh to an auto­no­mous regi­on, the NKAO.

The Matrix for National Narratives in Soviet Armenia

The effects of geno­ci­de and the Karabakh issue appeared only as two out of the many pro­blems the Bolsheviks faced in Armenia during the 1920s. Armenia was the smal­lest of the three repu­blics in the South Caucasus and had the lowest num­ber of inha­bi­tants. Despite this, it had to deal with many refu­gees from the for­mer Ottoman Empire and Greece. The abso­lu­te num­bers of about 50.000 Armenian refu­gees arri­ving in the Republic Armenia after 1921 may not seem that high in abso­lu­te num­bers, but this was a con­si­dera­ble chal­len­ge for a small moun­tain­ous coun­try in ruins with only 880.000 inha­bi­tants in 1926.

Despite initia­ti­ves from the Armenian side, the Soviet lea­dership kept silen­cing the Karabakh issue as well as the com­me­mo­ra­ti­on of the geno­ci­de. Facing this neglect, Armenian intel­lec­tu­als orga­nis­ed an infor­mal com­me­mo­ra­ti­on. On 24 April 1965, the 50th anni­ver­s­a­ry of the geno­ci­de, they arran­ged a mass demon­stra­ti­on on Lenin Square (today Republic Square), in the cent­re of Yerevan. Tens of thousands of Armenians ral­lied and com­me­mo­ra­ted tog­e­ther. This mass hap­pe­ning, tole­ra­ted by the Communist Party, was a striking per­for­mance of Armenian tog­e­ther­ness. The Armenian par­ty rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves deci­ded to dis­cuss with the crowd and make con­ces­si­ons. Moscow was not at all plea­sed. However, a lar­ge monu­ment com­me­mo­ra­ting the geno­ci­de on Tsitsernakaberd—a hill clo­se to the cent­re of Yerevan—could be built.


The Genocide Monument on Tsitsernakaberd Hill in Yerevan

In the 1970s, the Armenian issue kept the Soviet government busy. At this time, Moscow was plan­ning a revi­si­on of the Soviet con­sti­tu­ti­on. Activists from Armenia took this oppor­tu­ni­ty and sent peti­ti­ons, asking for a re-eva­lua­ti­on of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ter­ri­to­ri­al sta­tus. A few Armenian natio­na­lists even initia­ted a vio­lent cam­pai­gn against the Soviet government. On 8 January 1977, three explo­si­ons shook the cent­re of Moscow. The National United Party took respon­si­bi­li­ty. The Soviet press cen­sor­ship silen­ced the­se attacks and the Soviet jud­ges con­vic­ted the per­pe­tra­tors secret­ly.

In the mid-1980s, the ten­si­ons bet­ween the Armenians and the Azeris had not eased at all. Even though the situa­ti­on of the Armenians living in the NKAO was bet­ter than that of tho­se living in other parts of Azerbaijan, they per­cei­ved them­sel­ves mar­gi­na­li­sed. Until 1986, the com­mu­nist ideo­lo­gy, the cen­sor­ship and the poli­ti­cal poli­ce had silen­ced the­se ten­si­ons. Then, the pere­stroi­ka (recon­struc­tion) and glas­no­st’ (trans­pa­ren­cy) poli­ci­es intro­du­ced by Mikhail Gorbachev ope­ned spaces for the arti­cu­la­ti­on of such per­cei­ved grie­van­ces, but also for the full-sca­le com­me­mo­ra­ti­on of the geno­ci­de. The Armenian move­ment stood at the begin­ning of the erup­ti­on of the natio­na­li­ty issu­es wit­hin the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev’s admi­ni­stra­ti­on was not at all friend­ly with natio­na­list demands from the peri­phe­ries as they chal­len­ged the sta­bi­li­ty of the USSR. A trans­fer of Nagorno-Karabakh could open Pandora’s Box, trig­ge­ring other con­flicts in the Union, like in Crimea or Abkhazia. Though pro­mi­nent intel­lec­tu­als like Andrei Sakharov sup­por­ted Armenian claims, Moscow rebuf­fed them, as it had done for almost 70 years, but this time some­thing severely chan­ged. The pogrom in Sumgait on 27 February 1988 set a fatal esca­la­ti­on in moti­on. In this Azerbaijani town near Baku, Armenian resi­dents were slaugh­te­red with excep­tio­nal bru­ta­li­ty. During the mas­sa­cre the Azerbaijani poli­ce forces did not step in or were sim­ply absent. The exact num­ber of vic­tims is not clear; at least 28 Armenians were kil­led.

From a histo­ri­cal per­spec­tive, the Sumgait pogrom appears as the decisi­ve tip­ping point. It had a high­ly mobi­li­sing effect on the Armenian side. Exploited by cer­tain activists, the pogrom beca­me a stark dri­ver for fur­ther natio­na­list demands. However, Moscow’s dithe­ring beha­viour after this event, tog­e­ther with its slow inve­sti­ga­ti­on, led to a fur­ther streng­t­he­ning of Armenian natio­na­list fee­ling. The Karabakh Committee, a group of Armenian intel­lec­tu­als deman­ding reuni­fi­ca­ti­on, won more and more popu­lar sup­port. As in other parts of the USSR, natio­na­list activists like Levon Ter-Petrosyan were able to crea­te new poli­ti­cal legi­ti­ma­cy based on the natio­na­list nar­ra­ti­ves.

Confronted with popu­lar pres­su­re groups, the Supreme Soviet of Armenia, still con­trol­led by the Communist Party, decla­red uni­la­te­ral­ly the (re‑)unification of NKAO with Armenia in June 1988. Subsequently, the Azerbaijani government decla­red an eco­no­mic blocka­de of the NKAO. This esca­la­ti­on went hand in hand with the mass depor­ta­ti­on of Armenians living in Azerbaijan and Azeri living in Armenia. Most Armenians were now con­vin­ced to not step back in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. There should be no “second geno­ci­de”; even if this meant going to war.


Monument Tatik Papik (Grossmutter und Grossvater), Symbol für das unabhängige armenische Berg-Karabach, aufgenommen von mir im August 2017
Monument Tatik Papik (Grandfather and Grandmother), sym­bol of the inde­pen­dant Nagorno-Karabakh Republic

A natu­ral cata­stro­phe acce­le­ra­ted the fading of Soviet power and the poli­ti­cal take­over by natio­na­list activists. On 7 December 1988, an ear­th­qua­ke shook the nort­hern part of Armenia with the epi­cent­re in Spitak near Leninakan (today Gyumri). The num­ber of vic­tims is not clear, but at least 25.000 peop­le, most­ly Armenians, died, many more beca­me homeless. The este­em of Gorbachev’s government fell to an abso­lu­te zero, as the Soviet aid was per­cei­ved slow and bureau­cra­tic. Due to the Soviet government’s ina­bi­li­ty to main­tain poli­ti­cal legi­ti­ma­cy, to pro­vi­de huma­ni­ta­ri­an aid and mana­ge the dis­a­ster as well as its unwil­ling­ness to use mili­ta­ry force to regain order, it lost con­trol over Armenia.

The National Movement under Levon Ter-Petrosyan and other figu­res who gai­ned their pre­sti­ge in the Karabakh Committee step­ped into this poli­ti­cal vacu­um. This move­ment won the elec­tions to the Armenian Supreme Soviet in sum­mer 1990 and decla­red to sece­de from the Union on 23 August 1990. At the same time, mili­ti­as began to orga­ni­se them­sel­ves to “pro­tect” the Armenian popu­la­ti­on in the Republic and in the NKAO. After the August Putsch in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan decla­red their inde­pen­dence. After the dis­so­lu­ti­on of the USSR, they were at war with each other.

Sorcerer’s Apprentices and the Forces of Armenian Nationalism

Even though Turkey has blocked the bor­der to Armenia sin­ce 1993 and the eco­no­my was in a despe­ra­te situa­ti­on, the Armenian forces won the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Diaspora orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, par­ti­cu­lar­ly in the US, made dona­ti­ons. Even though Azerbaijan had more advan­ta­ges in wea­pon­ry and bet­ter access to the mar­kets, the Armenian side won the war due to its bet­ter orga­ni­sa­tio­nal, logi­stic and stra­te­gic skills. The Armenian mili­ti­as forced the Azeri and Kurdish popu­la­ti­on in the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries to flee. The Azeri town of Agdam had had a popu­la­ti­on of 28.000 peop­le in 1989. As Armenian tro­ops occu­pied it, they first com­pel­led the remai­ning resi­dents to lea­ve and then they syste­ma­ti­cal­ly destroy­ed the buil­dings and the infra­st­ruc­tu­re. During the war, Armenian mili­ti­as com­mit­ted several atro­ci­ties, as they mur­de­red, for instan­ce, the inha­bi­tants of Khojali in 1992.

The Karabakh war beca­me a faci­li­ta­tor for quick care­ers. The batt­les against the “Turks” was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to accu­mu­la­te pre­sti­ge, as, for instan­ce, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan did. Kocharyan had been first prime mini­ster and then pre­si­dent of the Karabakh repu­blic until he was appoin­ted Armenian prime mini­ster. Sargsyan had been lea­ding the Army of the Karabakh Armenians from 1991 until 1993, when he was appoin­ted as Armenian mini­ster of defence. During the 1990s, this Karabakh net­work suc­ce­e­ded in con­ver­ting this pre­sti­ge into poli­ti­cal and eco­no­mic influ­ence. The for­mer pre­si­dent Sargsyan hims­elf was com­mon­ly known as the “first” olig­arch of the coun­try. He domi­na­ted not only the poli­ti­cal and mili­ta­ry, but also the eco­no­mic field.

The agen­cy of Armenian pre­si­dents has been limi­ted. Though the first pre­si­dent of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, had also gai­ned his poli­ti­cal capi­tal in the Karabakh Committee, i.e. in the civic struc­tures, he was wil­ling to find a com­pro­mi­se with Azerbaijan and Turkey. In 1998, he publicly announ­ced a peace agree­ment, omit­ting gua­ran­tees for the Karabakh Armenians. This imme­dia­te­ly led to his down­fall and to the rise of Kocharyan. Since this time, it seems to be poli­ti­cal sui­ci­de for Armenian poli­ti­ci­ans to approach a sett­le­ment on Karabakh with an open agen­da. This is the core of the dead­lock wit­hin Armenia: the poli­ti­cal eli­tes are well awa­re of the hardships rela­ted to the inter­na­tio­nal isolation.On the one hand, they pro­fit from this situa­ti­on eco­no­mi­c­al­ly and on the other, they have built their poli­ti­cal legi­ti­ma­cy on the­se natio­na­li­stic nar­ra­ti­ves.

Mass demon­stra­ti­ons in Yerevan in April and May 2018 brought Nikol Pashinyan to power. This was a shift wit­hin the ruling eli­tes as the situa­ti­on out­si­de Armenia remains the same. Comparable to Israel, the collec­tive expe­ri­ence of vic­timi­sa­ti­on and its con­stant com­me­mo­ra­ti­on com­bi­ned with a com­pa­ra­ble strong army pro­du­ce and repro­du­ce a strong resi­li­en­ce against for­eign thre­ats. These are fur­ther dri­vers for the feed­back loop that rein­forces the Armenian group­ness and makes Armenia para­do­xi­cal­ly very vul­nera­ble for for­eign intru­si­on.

Opportunities for Foreign Intrusion

Compared to the ongo­ing con­flict in Syria, the South Caucasus recei­ves much less prio­ri­ty wit­hin the agen­da set­ting of regio­nal powers like Turkey, Iran as well as glo­bal powers like the US, Russia and the EU. Although Turkey, Iran, Russia, the EU and the United States have cer­tain sta­kes in the South Caucasus and encou­ra­ge nego­tia­ti­ons bet­ween Armenia and Azerbaijan, they spend only limi­ted resour­ces on this. The initia­ti­ve for chan­ge lays in Yerevan, Baku and Stepanakert. For examp­le, the OSCE—the Organization for Security and Co-ope­ra­ti­on in Europe—tried to media­te and for­mu­la­te a pos­si­ble for­mat for a con­flict sett­le­ment wit­hin the frame of the Minsk Group, foun­ded in 1992. It invi­tes on regu­lar bases the Armenian and the Azerbaijani lea­ders to sum­mits, but beyond lip ser­vices from both sides, they have rea­ched no fun­da­men­tal bre­akth­rough.

The inter­na­tio­nal stan­ding of Armenia and Azerbaijan is high­ly dis­pro­por­tio­na­te. Even though Azerbaijan had litt­le suc­cess on the batt­le­fields, its inter­na­tio­nal stan­ding is in almost every field bet­ter than that of Armenia. Relaying on lar­ge oil and gas resour­ces, the Azerbaijani government under the Aliev dynas­ty seeks equi­di­stan­ce to all other powers, except for spe­cial rela­ti­ons to Turkey. It tri­es to balan­ce bet­ween the West and Russia, pro­fit­ing from both sides. In the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, the Azerbaijani posi­ti­on has been firm sin­ce 1991. According to Baku, the pro­vin­ce is part of Azerbaijan, only cur­r­ent­ly occu­pied by Armenia. The Azerbaijani government refu­ses to accept the Stepanakert government as part of the nego­tia­ti­on pro­ces­ses. Turkey is sup­porting this firm posi­ti­on. It has cea­sed all diplo­ma­tic rela­ti­ons and tra­de with Armenia sin­ce 1993. There is also no direct con­nec­tion and no traf­fic bet­ween Turkey and Armenia due to this blocka­de.

At the fore­ground at the left side: Khor Virap Monastery (7th/17th cen­tu­ry); in the midd­le: the bor­der fence to Turkey; in the back­ground at the right side: the two tops of Mont Ararat.


The poli­ci­es of all invol­ved powers in the regi­on are not so much a pro­duct of Armenian, but Azerbaijani deci­si­ons. Baku clo­sed down all Russian mili­ta­ry bases after the dis­so­lu­ti­on of the USSR. As the rela­ti­ons bet­ween Russia and Georgia have been trou­bled sin­ce 1991 due to the Russian sup­port for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the mili­ta­ry bases in Armenia are the last Russian out­posts in the South Caucasus.

Iran also tried to make use of the Karabakh con­flict to gain influ­ence in the South Caucasus. Thereby, the Iranian government under Ali Khamenei shifted several times bet­ween the two sides. After the fall of the Elchibey government in June 1993, the Iranian influ­ence in Azerbaijan decrea­sed as the governments under Gaidar Aliev and his son Ilham rejec­ted Iranian appeals to com­mon histo­ry and Shi’a‑tradition and opted for clo­ser rela­ti­ons with Turkey and impli­ci­t­ly for an access to the western mar­kets. As it per­cei­ves Turkey as the main oppo­nent com­pe­ting for influ­ence in the post-Soviet South Caucasus, the Iranian government has sought clo­ser rela­ti­ons to Armenia.

The EU has an inte­rest in the oil and gas resour­ces in Azerbaijan and their safe trans­fer via Georgia to Turkey. The Baku-Tiflis-Ceyhan-Pipeline has been finis­hed in 2006. The Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars rail­way was inau­gu­ra­ted in 2017 and ope­ned for pas­sen­ger trans­por­ta­ti­on in May 2018. The Trans-Anatolian gas pipe­line should be com­ple­ted in 2019. In the eyes of the EU, they ensu­re and ease the trans­port of resour­ces from Azerbaijan and Central Asia to Europe. Further, the­se trans­port lines are out­si­de of pos­si­ble Russian inter­fe­rence. For Azerbaijan, they pro­vi­de a stea­dy inco­me on the one side, and the eco­no­mic iso­la­ti­on of the Armenian rival on the other. Compared to Azerbaijan with its resour­ces, Armenia has not much to offer in the eco­no­mic field, except for flou­ris­hing inter­net and off­shore ban­king sec­tors as well as the pro­duc­tion of excel­lent bran­dy.

From the Armenian point of view, the clo­se eco­no­mic ties with Iran are vital. Confronted with a blocka­de in the west and in the east and besi­des con­nec­tions to Georgia in the north, the tra­de cor­ri­dor to Iran via Meghri is key for the Armenian eco­no­my. This is also why the Armenian government did not app­ly any sanc­tions taken against Iranian ato­mic pro­gram­me bet­ween 2005 and 2016. Armenia is today an attrac­tive place for Iranian tou­rists and for Iranian invest­ments. Due to the dead­lock, the government in Teheran is well awa­re that Armenia would never app­ly any sanc­tions. From this per­spec­tive, the cur­rent situa­ti­on in the South Caucasus appears to be an asset to Iranian for­eign poli­cy.

The rela­ti­ons bet­ween Russia and Armenia are clo­se, but com­pli­ca­ted. One the one hand, Russia is Armenia’s only ally; on the other it also main­tains good rela­ti­ons with Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh is the only post-Soviet ter­ri­to­ri­al con­flict, whe­re Russia is not direct­ly invol­ved with its own tro­ops. The ten­si­ons bet­ween Armenia and Azerbaijan are more than con­ve­ni­ent for the Russian government and indu­stry. The Russian mili­ta­ry indu­stry can sell wea­pon­ry to both sides and Russia’s only ally in the South Caucasus has no other opti­on as to accept this.

The per­si­stence of the con­flict gua­ran­tees Russian influ­ence, but Moscow is not at all inte­re­sted in any esca­la­ti­on. This is also why Russia inter­ven­ed so quick­ly and reso­lute­ly after both sides had vio­la­ted the armi­sti­ce in April 2016. In the end, a lar­ge sca­le war would obli­ge Russia to choo­se the Armenian side, whe­re­as Turkey as NATO mem­ber would most likely sup­port Azerbaijan. Such a con­flict could evol­ve to a lar­ge sca­le regio­nal war and this is not at all desi­red by any par­ty invol­ved.

From a mili­ta­ry per­spec­tive, the EU and the NATO play only a minor role in the Armenian-Azerbaijani dead­lock. The initia­ti­ve to imply the Minsk agree­ments from 1992 has to come from Armenia or Azerbaijan, as the “West” has only litt­le mili­ta­ry, eco­no­mic and moral leverage in the regi­on to enforce an agree­ment. The situa­ti­on of the western powers is fur­ther com­pli­ca­ted by the Kosovo issue, as a majo­ri­ty of western sta­tes have reco­gnis­ed its uni­la­te­ral seces­si­on from Serbia. This is the pre­ce­dent, to which Armenian offi­ci­als love to refer.

A Deadlock and Its Benefits

The new Armenian government has to find a balan­ce bet­ween the European and the Eurasian Union, but in the end this is a balan­ce bet­ween unequal weights. Even though it publicly under­li­nes the sha­red stan­dards with the EU, the scope of the Armenian government in for­eign poli­cy remains small. It could never risk its allegi­an­ce to Russia, as this is its only reli­able ally. From the Armenian per­spec­tive, it gua­ran­tees the sta­tus quo in Nagorno-Karabakh and the impos­si­bi­li­ty of a “second geno­ci­de”. The natio­nal nar­ra­ti­ves deri­ving from the com­me­mo­ra­ti­on of the geno­ci­de and from the Karabakh war are the dri­vers for a feed­back loop that keeps the Armenian group­ness strong. On the one hand, the­se dri­vers pro­vi­de legi­ti­ma­cy to the ruling eli­tes. On the other, they tie their hands. In order to stay in power, poli­ti­ci­ans must not let Armenians appe­ar as vic­tims again. Whoever questi­ons the natio­nal taboos will be ost­ra­cis­ed by the poli­ti­cal com­mu­ni­ty as Ter-Petrosyan has been sin­ce 1998.

Poster of Nikol Pashinyan in the Yerevan Metro, sum­mer 2018; the Message in Armenian: “Nikol the Prime Minister”

Facing all the­se chal­len­ges, this dead­lock offers a form of sta­bi­li­ty and per­si­sting bene­fits for the Armenian ruling eli­tes as well as for the sur­roun­ding powers. None of the invol­ved inte­rest groups and governments is wil­ling or able to intro­du­ce chan­ge: neit­her for an esca­la­ti­on nor for a sett­le­ment. All of them expect to risk much more than they could pos­si­b­ly gain.

This dead­lock leads to the point that many peop­le can­not see any per­so­nal per­spec­tive in Armenia and deci­de to migra­te to Russia, Europe or America. Young, well-edu­ca­ted peop­le would appe­ar to be the ide­al agents for a chan­ge. However, a gre­at part of the­se peop­le lea­ve the coun­try due to the mise­ra­ble eco­no­mic situa­ti­on and the lack of per­so­nal per­spec­tive. Those who remain in Armenia have to stick to the exi­sting nar­ra­ti­ve if they plan to start their care­er in the sta­te admi­ni­stra­ti­on or in pri­va­te busi­ness con­trol­led by the natio­na­list olig­archs.

Moreover, migra­ti­on of the well-edu­ca­ted and oppor­tu­nism of tho­se remai­ning con­tri­bu­te to the feed­back loop that main­tains the Armenian group­ness. Mass demon­stra­ti­ons and public disap­pro­val in Armenia may replace some of the peop­le in char­ge. However, they will hard­ly be able to over­throw the ruling eli­tes and shat­ter the exi­sting poli­ti­cal taboos as such. Thus, tho­se in power can keep their sta­kes and while the rest of the popu­la­ti­on has to care for its­elf.


About the aut­hor:

Stephan Rindlisbacher has acqui­red a mobi­li­ty grant by the Swiss National Science Foundation from December 2016 up to May 2019. Prior to this, he worked as tea­ching assi­stant at the Historical Department of the University of Bern. He stu­di­ed modern histo­ry, Slavic as well as Islamic stu­dies. In his cur­rent pro­ject, he focu­ses on the questi­on of how the natio­nal ter­ri­to­ries in the Soviet sta­te were estab­lished. However, he is also inte­re­sted in the histo­ry of ter­ro­rism, poli­ti­cal com­me­mo­ra­to­ry cul­tu­re as well as in the histo­ry of Russian and Soviet paper money.