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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.