13 July 2023

The art of the possible

Political analyst Mikayel Zolyan reflects upon what Armenia’s foreign policy should be today

© Har Toum

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Be here now

Be Here Now. This is the title of a famous book by Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert), a psychology professor and one of the spiritual gurus of the 1960s. The problem of much of contemporary Armenian society is perhaps that we fail to ‘be here now.’ What is happening to us and what are we to do? To answer these questions we have to focus on the current situation and accept it (‘accept’ does not mean ‘give up’), and act based on the circumstances without hiding from reality however unpleasant we may find it. There are many tricks to escape reality which we often, consciously or unconsciously, resort to. Examples of this are abundant in the Armenian society: appeals of politicians, speeches of experts and opinion leaders, posts on social media. It seems many turn a blind eye to the reality in which Armenia and Artsakh have found themselves in recent years. Many try to preserve the myths, the stereotypes, the conceptions that we have been living with for a few decades and that influenced the formation of our foreign policy. These are the myths and stereotypes that brought about the crisis we are living through today.

Constructive cop-outs

Another opportunity to see this presented itself in the wake of the statements recently made by Armenia’s prime minister: Nikol Pashinyan said that Armenia was ready to recognise Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity of 86,600 square kilometres, assuming that Azerbaijan would recognise Armenia’s territorial integrity as 29,800 square kilometres.

This followed the statement that Charles Michel made after a meeting in Brussels using similar wording.

Michel’s and Pashinyan’s statements provoked a strong reaction across Armenian social media and the Armenian press. The tone of response was predictable: over three decades no Armenia’s leader has made such statements. However, statements to the contrary have not been made either. [translator's note: first president of Armenia in 1991-1998, Levon] Ter-Petrosyan had a reputation of a diplomatist, [translator's note: second president of Armenia in 1998-2008, Robert] Kocharyan was considered a ‘hawk,’ [translator's note: third president of Armenia in 2008-2018, chairman of the Armenian Chess Federation, Serzh] Sargsyan had a penchant for chess, Pashinyan was often accused of populism, but none of them ever mentioned the recognition of Artsakh independence. Armenia’s stance on the status of Artsakh was never quite clear and could be interpreted in any way Armenia’s leadership was always keen to take advantage of. In diplomacy it is called constructive ambiguity; in Yerevan street language of the 1990s it would have been called a ‘cop-out.’

Pashinyan’s statement was not exactly news. Since as early as spring 2022 he had been playing with this idea using less precise wording which allowed for different interpretations.

So in April 2022 he opined that the international community was ‘clearly telling us that we need to lower our requirements on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.’ At that time the opposition took to the streets of Yerevan. The protests lasted for a few months and came to nothing but it became obvious that the opposition could not or would not take power.

In September 2022, after Azerbaijan’s large-scale attack on the internationally recognised Armenian border Pashinyan said in the National Assembly that he was ready to sign a document with Azerbaijan as long as that document would guarantee security of 29,800 square kilometres of Armenian territory. The opposition staged another rally, thousands gathered almost instantaneously but very soon protests died down.

Power struggle and the Karabakh problem

Finally, in May this year, following the Brussels statement and Pashinyan’s recent speeches, domestic political activity in Armenia increased once again. One of the key events was the kidnapping attempt on the prime minister's son, Ashot Pashinyan, made with the participation of family members of soldiers killed during the 2020 war, as well as various street actions and the rally in Kornidzor, Syunik Province, organised by the parliamentary opposition.

But this time the opposition struggle was over almost before it began. When Gayane Hakobyan suspected of the attempted kidnapping of Ashot Pashinyan, was detained by a decision of the court, her defence attorneys discontinued their participation in the trial. Their statement said, ‘the events of recent days took place right before our eyes so there is little wonder that in our opinion all legal instruments for effective protection of Mrs Hakobyan have been exhausted.’ (It may have seemed that, on the contrary, under such circumstances they had to use their human right protection abilities to the full extent.) The rally in Kornidzor also got nowhere.

The question arises as to how come the opposition could not or would not take advantage of the Karabakh problem in a real struggle for power? For decades it has been assumed that this problem was a key issue for Armenian domestic policy. It was instrumental for some politicians to come to power and for others to lose it. It is well remembered |that in 1988 the leader of the Soviet Armenia Karen Demirchyan lost power after he said to the people who gathered on a square, ‘I don’t have Karabakh in my pocket, I can’t take it out and give it to you.’ The Pan-Armenian National Movement and Levon Ter-Petrosyan who came to power on the wave of the Karabakh movement, lost it when they tried to offer society a compromise-based solution to the conflict. At that time this was regarded little short of high treason, and the army-related members of the Ter-Petrosyan team led by the defence minister Vazgen Sargsyan forced him to resign. Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan who took the helm have learned a lesson from their predecessors and inside Armenia never mentioned compromise on the Karabakh problem, whereas in international negotiations they discussed various options to resolve it such as transferring seven regions to Azerbaijan, but not recognising Artsakh's independence.

Much ado and nothing

Now Nikol Pashinyan goes against the tradition but nothing happens. There is a lot of noise in the press, on social media, a lot of statements of people with different political views, politicians, experts, intellectuals – in other words, as Soviet playwright Evgeny Schwarz would put it, ‘best people in town.’ It may seem an ideal time for the opposition to take to the streets and overthrow the ‘anti-people’ government of ‘traitors’ and ‘defeatists.’ As an outraged social media user wrote, repeating the words Pashinyan had said during the 2018 revolution, ‘power is there lying on the pavement easy to pick up for anyone.’ However, apart from the noise nothing happens. That same scenario has played out three times since spring 2022. And every time the opposition instead of picking the power up from the pavement, limited itself to what can be termed as rate race or imitation of frenzied activity.

Some might argue that the opposition leaders Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan are now so discredited that no one is going to support them. This is hard to argue against. But firstly, we should not forget that in 2021 they were supported by a quarter of Armenian voters, a majority of whom were prepared to forget the pre-revolutionary past in the hope that these people who positioned themselves as ‘strong leaders’ would make a breakthrough in resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Secondly, if the ‘formers’ were fully discredited, was it not a perfect opportunity for the newcomers to assert themselves? If we were talking about another post-Soviet country we would say that the opposition has no access to the media, but in Armenia this hasn’t been true for a long time: there are a lot of media outlets in Armenia criticising the government and readily giving airtime to Pashinyan’s opponents. In today’s Armenia, the main source of information is the Internet rather than television. If you’re in doubt, just google up Vardan Gukasyan also known to the general public as ‘Dog.’

So the problem lies elsewhere.

No alternative

So why would the opposition – old, current, or future – not use Pashinyan’s statements to oust him? Social media commentators unsatisfied with Pashinyan asked each other this question and could not find the answer.

I have an answer, as obvious as unacceptable to many in Armenia. Both the political elites and the vast majority of the people of Armenia are well aware that there is almost no alternative to the path taken by Pashinyan. Alternatives do exist but, apparently, involve much more serious risks than what is being done today. Any leader or political team should they come to power today, will have to do much the same as Pashinyan and his Civil Contract. There may be differences in tactics. There may be differences in decor: a politician may be more fluent in Russian or in English, may have closer relations with Russian or Western elites, may be better or worse in communicating with the media. But eventually, this politician will do just the same. And if not, Armenia could be in for a new round of disasters.

And now, we are about to answer the question why the opposition not only cannot but, most likely, does not want to step into Pashinyan’s shoes. After having ousted Pashinyan and having played the nationalist patriotic card, the opposition will be facing the dilemma of whether to implement policies in line with the preceding rhetoric and drive the country towards a catastrophe, or change the political course and do exactly what Pashinyan is doing today. The opposition, naturally, will lose allies who used to help it. But far more important is the fact that today the government has to handle all the dangers and risks the way chosen by Pashinyan is fraught with. So why should the opposition take on such responsibility if it is sufficient to wait until Pashinyan has done all there is to be done? And then, when all the necessary papers have been signed, the opposition will return to the political scene and try to take power again.

So what should be the way any Armenia’s leader has to follow today? And why there is no alternative to this way? It would actually not be too hard for us to answer this question as long as we take our mind off our daily quarrels and try to see the big picture. The big picture will soon be presented to you. We will try to do it as simple and clear as possible, without going into detail. And, above all, following the advice of Ram Dass, we will try to focus on the present, without discussing why what happened did happen, who is to blame, could it have been avoided, etc.

A cold peace

Well, let us try to outline the situation. Armenia is in conflict with Azerbaijan. In terms of territory, population, resources Azerbaijan is superior to Armenia and, most importantly, it has a powerful ally, Turkey. Previously, the factor of Turkey was balanced out by that of Russia which was considered a guarantor of Armenia's security. However, today Russia does not want or cannot perform this function. Russia, furthermore, is not in a condition to even supply weapons to Armenia. Besides, Russia is becoming increasingly toxic in international relations. The Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh are clearly unwilling or unable to counter Azerbaijan’s aggressive moves, and their future presence in Artsakh remains questionable.

Who can replace Russia? The West seems to be ready to serve, to some extent, as a guarantor of Armenia's security but only on condition that we find common ground and broker a peace deal with our neighbours. It is not quite clear yet, how far is the West prepared to go in this matter. It appears that the West is ready to become a guarantor of a peace deal, and, what is more, on some issues to exert political pressure on our neighbours so that they do not demand too much, in particular, with respect to Armenia’s borders and the so-called ‘corridor.’ The optimistic scenario envisages the West helping to prevent ethnic cleansing in Artsakh, while it is not clear exactly how. Iran is prepared to help us in certain areas, in particular, in ensuring Syunik’s security. But the support from the West and from Iran will not go further than that, even under the most optimistic scenario. Put simply, neither Russia nor the West, nor Iran, nor any other international actors are willing to be our allies in our life-and-death struggle against Azerbaijan and Turkey, and even less willing to support Artsakh’s independence.

It is fair to say that apart from the risks, the dangers, and the need for painful concessions, this situation offers some opportunities. So far the internal Armenian discussion has been focused on the risks and the dangers. And if in the case of the opposition this is, in a certain sense, logical; the fact that Pashinyan and his team also remain within this discourse is a result of the government’s inefficient communication strategy. Anyway, while Armenia is able to avoid another war and maintain neutrality in the context of the war in Ukraine, we have some new opportunities available. For instance, in 2022 Armenia not only experienced unprecedented economic growth but also unprecedented immigration, and we are not quite aware yet of what prospects it offers to our country. And perhaps the most important point to make is that today Armenia has the option to break the neocolonial dependence on Russia and emerge as a truly independent and sovereign nation.

The same applies to the potential that will open up should the relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey transform from war – sometimes hybrid, sometimes ‘hot’ –to a ‘cold peace' at least. We have been living in the conditions of a ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ war for so long that we do not believe in the possibility of real peace. Maybe we are right to not believe it. But let us also not forget that the world and our region keep changing, and these changes could affect our countries, and that a ‘cold’ or sometimes ‘hot’ war could, at the very least, give way to a ‘cold peace.’ Of course, it is hard to hope for more even under a most favourable scenario. But even an enforced peace, a peace imposed from outside will open new ways for all the countries in the region. And it is not only about open roads, commerce, investment, but also about new horizons of social and cultural development.

The three ways

So what can and cannot do Armenia in this situation taking into account all risks and opportunities? There are three ways: to escalate the situation, to try to freeze the situation, or to try to resolve the conflict.

It is perfectly clear that large-scale military clashes should be avoided because within the existing balance of forces, some very negative scenarios may occur including occupation of new pieces of internationally recognised territory of Armenia and ethnic cleansing of Armenian population still remaining in Artsakh. Certainly, a situation may arise where war becomes inevitable. We must also be ready for this scenario, obviously, the most dangerous one. And any step bringing the war closer would be at least counterproductive, such as tough rhetoric no matter how warmly received by part of Armenia’s population. In addition, even in the case of a military scenario the support of the international community in ending the war will be more probable if all the parties know that it was not Armenia who instigated the war. These may seem to be simple points to make but every time Aliyev initiates new provocations, some people in Armenia say that such moves on the part of Aliyev are but the consequences of the ‘peace agenda’ proclaimed by Pashinyan.

Another way is to freeze the conflict. There is a certain logic behind this approach. This logic says that any resolution to the conflict will be unjust and more in Azerbaijan’s interests. It can be assumed that the situation will change, and if we manage to freeze the situation today, then in two, five, or nine years the conflict may be resolved in a more just and balanced way. But the question is what we do if the situation suddenly changes to our detriment? Firstly, it is hard not to notice that Armenia’s past attempts to freeze the conflict led to strengthening Azerbaijan’s positions and weakening ours. Secondly, today we do not have resources to freeze the conflict in a configuration of conditions that would be favourable for us. Freezing the situation would mean relying on Russia, and today’s Russia is in crisis and is not prepared to guarantee freezing the situation (which was almost formally recorded following the meeting in Sochi in autumn 2022). The most likely outcome of attempts to freeze the conflict would either be a temporary delay of ethnic cleansing in Artsakh or a slower and ‘softer’ way of doing it: in coordination with the Russian peacekeepers, without excess noise and cruelty, which in the end would be to Aliyev’s advantage. We have already seen it happen from Khtsaberd to Parukh and a checkpoint set up in the Lachin Corridor. Relying on this scenario today would be quite unsafe.

What is left for Armenia to do? Armenia should work toward a resolution of the conflict while setting more or less realistic goals:

● Restoring Armenia’s territorial integrity, liberating the occupied territories.

● Establishing true independence and sovereignty of Armenia, breaking the neocolonial dependence on Russia.

● Ensuring international security, preferably including Armenia’s accession to international security institutions which will deter further Turkish and Azerbaijani attacks in the long term.

● Reforming the state institutions, in particular, creating independent and efficient security institutions (which is difficult to imagine without achieving the previous two goals).

● Preserving Artsakh as an Armenian-populated region, establishing in Artsakh such a status that would allow Armenians to continue living there without threats to security or restrictions on freedom.

Possible ways to achieve these goals are more or less obvious, although implementation can be very difficult. First of all, it is necessary to continue the dialogue with Azerbaijan and Turkey, in the foundation of which Armenia should lay the necessity to achieve just and lasting peace based on respect for international law and human rights. Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s provocative statements should be countered not with the same kind of hardline rhetoric but with a concept based on democratic values, a concept that avoids the use of the language of force and violence, a concept founded on values of human rights and peace. Not only will this be understood by the international community but to a certain extent will impede Azerbaijan and Turkey in finding excuses to start a new war or engage in other hostile activities.

If the willingness to pursue peaceful dialogue resonates in Azerbaijan and Turkey, this can set a foundation for resolving the conflict and establishing peace in the region. Of course, given the nature of Erdogan’s and Aliyev’s regimes, it’s quite possible that none of this will happen. But we should not underestimate the influence of peace discourse on neighbouring societies, especially if international mediators work actively to this end. Second of all, even if Erdogan and Aliyev continue to consider Armenia an enemy, then rhetoric based on ideas of peace and dialogue will also be beneficial. Such rhetoric will serve several purposes: it will preserve the negotiation process, prevent Aliyev’s regime from unleashing a new full-scale war, and send a message to the international community that Armenia seeks peace. No doubt, such a dialogue and even signing a document cannot guarantee peace. But at least a dialogue with Turkey and Azerbaijan can decrease the likelihood of violence, new incidents, and war, therefore, Armenia should proceed with it.

Another direction is working with the West and Russia. Armenia clearly needs support from the West so as to get rid of the neocolonial dependence on Russia. This goal cannot be achieved without support from the West. On the other hand, it is also clear that Russia is likely to continue to play an important role in the region, and a conflict with Russia would cost our country too much. That is why getting rid of this dependence does not imply that Armenia should become an enemy of Russia.

Breaking the neocolonial dependence on Russia and maintaining pragmatic relations with Russia is rather a difficult task. Many of Russia’s co-called ‘allies’ seem to be aiming at exactly that, including Azerbaijan and Armenia’s partners in the Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Today Armenia is following this path too, which is not only and not so much a choice of the ruling elite as an objective necessity.

Finally, the third direction and the hardest one: the struggle for the rights and security of Artsakh Armenians. Contrary to persistent allegations, recognising Azerbaijan's territorial integrity does not mean shifting away from protecting the rights of Artsakh Armenians. In fact it means reformulating the core vision of the Artsakh problem, the essence of which is not struggle between Armenian and Azerbaijani national projects for some territory, but providing security, freedom, and well-being of the people who live in this territory. The issue of the region's status should be raised but it should be focused on the rights, and not vice versa. At the same time, we should address the situation in a realistic manner and understand that achieving the desired status of Artsakh cannot be a task for today or tomorrow, today the priority task is achieving such a situation in Artsakh that would allow it to remain a self-governing territory populated by Armenians.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. But it's worth a try. And any Armenia’s leadership guided by the interests of Armenia is destined to follow this path. It seems a substantial proportion of Armenian society is also not prepared to follow patriotic slogans and expects workable, pragmatic solutions. Unfortunately, this maturity came at a very high price for Armenian society. But the maturity itself inspires hope.

Translated from Russian by Alexander Stoliarchuk