By – Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.
In 2018, a wave of hope propelled Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, into office. With the wind of a peaceful ‘Velvet Revolution’ that deposed his corrupt and feared predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan, at his back, it seemed almost anything was possible.
Pashinyan – who led months of anti-corruption protests prior to assuming office – committed himself to returning government to the people and tackling inequality. Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, he also promised a peaceful resolution to the thorny issue of Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan.
Just two years later, Armenia is locked in its worst conflict over the province since the end of the war. Though the escalation of hostilities caught the world off guard, regional analysts new it was just a matter of time before Pashinyan’s increasingly hostile rhetoric and provocative actions stoked tensions between the countries.
Failing to deliver on his electoral promises and under fierce pressure at home, the Armenian prime minister gave in to the expedient comforts of nationalism, quickly moving from dove to hawk on the issue of Nagorno Karabakh or what Armenians call Artsakh.The contested landscape is currently controlled and populated by ethnic Armenians, yet legally recognized by the international community as Azerbaijan.
It was an unusual choice in light of his political pedigree. Pashinyan was once a devotee of Armenia’s first President, Levon Ter-Petrosyan. In 1997, the latter wrote an essay in the Armenian press called “War or Peace,”which stressed that lasting peace was only possible through a compromise acceptable to all parties, while pointing out the central problem of the illegality of Armenia’s position in the eyes of the international community. In 2002, whilst editor of a national newspaper, Pashinyan republished the seminal essay, lamenting: “we have not heard a more serious and weighty word about those challenges over the past five years.”
Today, Pashinyan has not only distanced himself from his principled position but become the object of Ter-Petrosyan’s ire: amember of the Armenian political establishment who rejects all compromise, while denying his maximalist positions will result in war and needless conflict.
A diplomatic solution on Nagorno-Karabakh has been sought ever since a ceasefire ended the 1990s war. Azerbaijan’s claim has always been legal, whereas Armenia’s has been one of self-determination. In reconciling the two, the 2009updated Madrid principles – the mutually agreed framework– called for a negotiated settlement on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet in August of this year, Pashinyan declared “Karabakh is Armenia – period.” With these words, Pashinyan effectively buried the Madrid and Kazan agreements alongsidethirty years of negotiations between leaders from Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In Azerbaijan, this was read unambiguously. As one official put it to The New York Times, it was: “The final nail in the coffin of the negotiation process.” Azerbaijan had already made clear its frustrations with the negotiations.The framework envisaged the removal of forces from the seven territories surrounding Nagorno Karabakh, and the right of return of nearly 700,000 Azerbaijanis evicted during the war. No progress had been made in either case. The status quo, in their view, favored Armenia. Pashinyan made clear his intent to drop the framework altogether.
Further provocation lay in the place Pashinyan made his statement – Shusha, the cultural capital of the Azerbaijan nation, and under occupation. Before this, in March, he stated he no longer recognized the Madrid principles as the basis for negotiations. In July, he introduced new conditions to include the self-styled but internationally unrecognised ‘republic’ of Nagorno-Karabakh in the talks (whilst excluding evicted Azerbaijanis), which was rejected out of hand by the co-founders of the OSCE Minsk group – France, Russia and the U.S., the mediators of the conflict.
These unworkable demands made explicit Pashinyan’s unwillingness to seek a diplomatic solution. At the same time, his Defence Minister stated the forces had discarded the “lands for peace” policy; instead, it would now be a “new war, new territories” strategy. The ‘new territories’ rhetoric only served to reinforce the long-held opinion of many observers that Armenia was only ever interested in a land-grab.From across the border, what at first looked like a promising new partner was now an aggressor and the possibility of achieving their bare-minimum conditions with a negotiated settlement looked increasingly bleak.
This too was the perception amongst the population at large.Azerbaijan’s democracy may still be in its infancy but public opinion matters, nevertheless. In July, an Armenian attack across the line of conflict killed a popular general. Huge protests followed in the capital and country, urging stronger action from the government. The presence of Internally Displaced Persons was a continued injustice to the people; moreover, one the international community agreed should be resolved through the legal right of return. The Armenian Prime Minister, in action and in word, ruled out their return through diplomatic means. And they launched attacks on Azerbaijan from within Azerbaijan’s borders.
For the Armenian Prime Minister, raising the temperature seemed irrational to many onlookers, particularly since Azerbaijan had surpassed its neighbor economically as a result of its rich natural resources and had cultivated a vastly stronger military presence.
But Pashinyan’s actions seemed more understandable when viewed through the Armenian domestic lens. At the start of the year, as Armenia suffered the worst outbreak of coronavirus in the region, rhetoric on Azerbaijan hardened. At the same time, the high hopes that swept him into power were putting pressure on him to deliver at home. Frustration was growing with the lack of progress on his electoral promises. Neither was Armenia’s economy performing well. Avoiding scrutiny by turning up the heat on Nagorno-Karabakh, an intensely emotive issue, seemed a logical strategy – at least in the near term.
Today, however, Azerbaijan appears to have a significant advantage in this avoidable conflict and Pashinyan seems determined to overplay his hand. Now he must reckon with the advice of the man he once admired, Levon Ter-Petrosyan: “Compromise is not a choice between good and bad, but between bad and worse.”
Though fulfilment of his early rhetoric would have made him a national hero, it was never in the cards. Now Pashinyan must be pragmatic in choosing compromise, or he will expose his nation to an outcome that is far worse.