Nagorno-Karabakh: can the “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia bring to a conflict with Azerbaijan?
“Turkey, Azerbaijan… what are you waiting for?”
Serious or not, these were words appeared on a Facebook comment some days ago, in relation to the tense climate of protests ongoing in Armenia. The reference is clear: the comment is related to the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azeri region under Armenian military occupation which declared itself independent during the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “Republic of Artsakh”. This de facto independent State, ethnically Armenian but part of the territory of Azerbaijan, is not recognised by any UN member, though it is part of the so-called “Commonwealth of Unrecognised States” which includes the Russian-backed secessionist regions of Transnistria (Moldova), Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia).
The region of Nagorno-Karabakh is at the centre of one of the less frozen conflicts of the post-Soviet space, and it is susceptible to explode again in any moment at the first spark. The political developments taking place in Armenia, conjugated with the last declarations of the recently and unsurprisingly re-elected Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, threat to breach the fragile cease-fire agreed between the countries under the supervision of the OSCE Minsk Group. Indeed, the situation at the Azeri border with Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh is constantly tense: the two parties keep accusing each other of violating the ceasefire along the line of contact, and a settlement of the conflict has not been reached since the war of 1992-94, culminating, among the others, in the “four days war” of April 2016.
How do the political developments taking place in the two countries come into this issue? Despite it seems rather obvious, a short resume of the recent electoral and constitutional events taking place in Armenia and Azerbaijan is necessary.
Ilham Aliyev has been President of Azerbaijan since his father’s resignation, Heydar, occurred in August 2003, before his death occurred in the October of the same year. Aliyev’s family rules Azerbaijan since 1993, when Heydar fully seized the political power taking advantage of the chaotic situation provoked by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by supporting a coup d’état against the former president Elçibay, who, by the way, had appointed Aliyev senior as deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1992.
Since the farce elections of 2003, where Ilham Aliyev ran as the sole candidate, he has been elected President of Azerbaijan three more times: in 2008, 2013 and 2018. These last elections took place on April 11th, the first after the Constitutional Reform of 2016 which extended the presidential mandate from five to seven years: these elections have been anticipated from the initial date, the third Wednesday of October according to the Azeri law, through a Presidential decree issued in February 2018. This took the opposition unprepared and fragmented, thus the elections were boycotted. Aliyev has been elected with 86% of the ballots, with a turnout around 74% according to Azeri Central Election Commission data. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has, however, addressed the elections as plagued by serious irregularities and characterised by the lack of pluralistic competitions, provoking a serious response from the Azeri authorities.
Nevertheless, we should focus our interest in Aliyev’s words at the inauguration ceremony, which took place on April 18th: during his speech, Aliyev addressed Armenia as a “dead-end country”, proudly advocating how Azerbaijan’s foreign policy has been fruitful in isolating it from “all” the regional projects. Furthermore, Aliyev has not only claimed (rightfully, according to the law) that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azeri territory, “but also the present-day Armenia are [Azerbaijan’s] historical lands” because “at the beginning of the 19th century, the Azerbaijanis accounted for 80 per cent of the population of the Erivan Khanate”. Most importantly, the re-elected president has underlined how “the conflict must be resolved within the territorial integrity” of Azerbaijan and that “even though Armenian lobbying organizations are conducting campaigns against” Azerbaijan, he stated that “no-one recognizes and [...] never will recognize the self-styled "Nagorno-Karabakh"” as an independent country.
Aliyev claims over Nagorno-Karabakh, at least, seem to be legitimate. However, contemporary to his speech, the political situation in Armenia was - and is - rather unstable. After the constitutional referendum of 2015 over the switch from a semi-presidential form of government to a parliamentary one through the 2017-2018 electoral cycle, the Republican Party, under the leadership of the controversial figure of former president Serzh Sargsyan, proposed and appointed through parliamentary procedures Armen Sarkisian as the new President of Armenia, in order to substitute Sargsyan himself who could have been appointed as Prime Minister, thus taking advantage of a governmental environment where the powers of the President have been reduced from the executive ones to mere ceremonials and bypassing the constitutional prohibition to run for a third presidential mandate. As soon as Sarkisian took his office on the 9th of April the procedures to appoint a new Prime Minister started and, consequently, on April 13th the opposition gathered into the squares of the capital to express its dissent towards a Sargsyan premiership. However, the President of the Republic, with the support of the Republican Party, appointed Sargsyan Prime Minister on April the 17th.
The opposition, led by the Member of the National Assembly Nikol Pashinyan of the “Yelk” (Exit or Way Out) parliamentary group, of liberal and pro-EU orientation, kept protesting the following days, starting the so-called “Velvet revolution”, named after the extraordinarily pacific character of the protests (although some minor clashes between the Police and the protesters occurred). After the arrest and following release of Pashinyan himself, the leader of the opposition obtained to sit at a negotiating table with Sargasyan himself, forcing him to resign as Prime Minister on April 23rd due to the strong support to the protest coming from the Armenian people, police included, and thus solving the government, with former Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan re-appointed ad interim. In the moment I am writing (April 25th, a day after the recurrence of the Armenian Genocide) Armenia has no operating government, attempts to meet between Karapetyan and Pashinyan have failed. In fact, the opposition leader stated that he would only speak with the President of the Republic and has expressed his will to be appointed as the new Prime Minister of Armenia. To this purpose, he accredited himself to the Ambassadors of the EU countries present on the Armenian territory, expressing his will to meet with the Ambassadors of the United States and the Russian Federation as well.
The international environment is exactly the question mark we need to find an answer to. And the reasons are several. First of all, Azerbaijan (and Turkey too) are closely following the political developments taking place in Armenia, with the hope that the Armenian people will get rid of the Nagorno-Karabakh clan (a reference to the Republican Party, and the birthplace of its members Sargsyan and Karapetyan, as well of others) with the hope that any development could turn in their favour: the political instability generated by the protests in Yerevan and the fall of the Armenian government make Azerbaijan tremendously tempted to re-bring the Nagorno-Karabakh region under its control, but the only doubt is whether Aliyev should make a diplomatic attempt or to start a military operation. In the first case, it means that not only the Armenian government, but the Armenian society too, are ready to give up any claims over what the Armenians consider to be part of their historical land, especially considering that not only Nagorno-Karabakh territories are ethnically Armenians, but that Azerbaijan too denies the Armenian genocide, in support to its close ties to Turkey (and which actually makes Turkish and Azeris rather indifferent in the eyes of the Armenians). They simply hate each other, and if a diplomatic attempt did not work in the last 25 years, it is unlikely that it will with the Aliyev family still ruling in Azerbaijan. Furthermore, Pashinyan himself has interest in maintaining the Artsakh neutrality in this revolution, as well as the support of the Armenian people in view of possible anticipated elections. Thus, such a scenario, as it was in the past, is unlikely.
On the other hand, a military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh would mean a new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan where a crucial role is represented by the mediator between the two parts: Russia. Russia sells weapons and military equipment both to Armenia and Azerbaijan, attempting not to lose them as partners in the Southern Caucasus. But the partnership between Armenia and Russia on the one hand and Azerbaijan and Russia on the other are very different. In the first case, Armenia is a close ally of Russia, being member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Eurasian Development Bank and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and having a Russian military basis on its territory. The Armenian economy and energy supply are strongly dependent on the Russian Federation, as well as its security is. Furthermore, both Turkey and Azerbaijan closed their borders with Armenia, thus the Republic has open borders only with its Northern and Southern neighbours, Georgia and Iran. But if with this last one the relations tend to be friendly, Georgia is a partner which has some issues and leverages on Armenia. Indeed, Georgia is the country where the Russian pipelines directed to Armenia transit through (and due to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian issues, as well as the Georgian interest to become a member of the Transatlantic community – thus NATO and EU – there are frequent frictions with Russia) and is the only country Armenia can go through to access the Black Sea. Thus, as Armenians always remind, “our biggest problems are our neighbours”.
But Iran and Georgia are two important partners for Azerbaijan as well. Indeed, Aliyev has been playing his diplomatic cards rather efficiently, maybe also thanks to the presence of some favourable contingencies. On the Iranian side, Azerbaijan has recently signed an agreement with the Islamic Republic and Russia on a trilateral cooperation over economic and energetic matters, in perspective of the North-South corridor starting from the Persian Gulf and getting to the Baltic Sea. Moreover, Azerbaijan and Iran expressed their interests to enhance their military cooperation, in the spirit to put aside the territorial disputes and claims which keep them distant (it is worth remembering that the current territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan covers only the northern part of the territories populated by ethnic Azeris, while the southern part is under the Iranian sovereignty: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an ethnic Azeri himself, and in Iran Azeri represent the second largest ethnic group after Persians).
As for Georgia, the two countries are partners in GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) and have important energy relations, as demonstrated by the Baku-Tbilisi pipeline which further goes to Erzurum and Ceyhan, in Turkey, or to Supsa, on the Georgian coast, bringing the oil and gas from the Caspian Basin to the Black Sea and thus to the European market. But energy is not the only area of cooperation between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey: at the beginning of April the three countries signed a new military deal which further brings them closer in cooperating over defence issues, enhancing a strategy which welcomes the Georgian interests to get closer to NATO, the Turkish will to reinforce his presence in the region and crowns the Azeri strategy to completely isolate Armenia from all its neighbours. Furthermore, a trilateral dialogue with both Turkey and Russia is constantly kept by Azerbaijan, and the events related to the war in Syria like the Astana meetings and the Turkish military operation “Olive Branch” in Afrin seem to have strengthened this dialogue.
If Armenia is isolated, the instability in the country can only be profitable for Azerbaijan to have its territorial integrity respected. Indeed, the constant tensions on the line of contact between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Artsakh can easily give an excuse for Azerbaijan to intervene. In a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Azeri capabilities would probably bring Armenia to lose the confrontation, a Turkish intervention to support the Azeri military operation cannot be excluded (Yerevan is less than 20 km far from the Turkish border). But the main deterrent to an Azeri intervention is given by the alliance with Russia and the automatic mechanism of support provided by art. 4 of the Collective Security Treaty (a copy of art. 5 of the Atlantic treaty, thus immediate intervention to support the attacked ally against the military aggression of a third country). However, Russia has always tried to balance between the two parties rather than supporting Armenia against Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, Azerbaijan hopes for a change: since Russia would never risk to lose its influence in Southern Caucasus, the only way to get rid of Armenia as a Russian ally in the region is a re-orientation of the Armenian foreign policy westwards, as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine did. This way, Russia would stop supporting Armenia and would switch to Azerbaijan, which would become the only possible partner in Southern Caucasus, a vital region for the protection of the huge Russian territory (and which explains, together with its power policy, the interest to avoid that Georgia could become a member of NATO).
How can a re-orientation of the Armenian foreign policy happen? Looking at todays contingencies and past experiences, a coloured revolution led by the pro-EU opposition leader seems to be a good starting point. And probably that’s why the statements of the Russian officials have been really cautious over the issue, hoping for a settlement of the crisis within constitutional limits, but according to the will of the Armenian people. Russia is probably following the developments more closely than its silence suggest, because most of the precedent experiences of coloured revolutions in the post-Soviet space ended to undermine its influence in the area, thus its security: the Roses Revolution in Georgia led by Mikheil Saakashvili (who, by the way, expressed his support to the protests in Armenia) and the Orange Revolution and EuroMaidan in Ukraine still represent big problems for the Russian influence, power and security in the post-Soviet region. However, there has been a precedent where a coloured revolution did not bring the country to re-orientate its foreign policy, and this is Kyrgyzstan after the 2005 Tulip Revolution against Askar Akaev. The most likely scenario will follow this development: on the one hand, Pashinyan has already declared that, despite being some issues, Russia and Armenia remain “brother countries” and that he has no problem with the Russian military presence on the Armenian territory, nor it is his intention to leave the CSTO or re-orientate the Armenian economy out of the EAEU; on the other hand, Armenia does not really have the possibility to abruptly switch its foreign policy from being Eurasian-oriented to be Transatlantic-oriented, not only because the leverage and pressures Russia can exploit over the country are just too strong, but also because, as already said, Armenia strongly depends on Russia for its economic, energy and territorial security. Armenia cannot simply leave Russia as its main partner, nor it is its interest, in line with it has been since the Armenian independence. The small country continues to demonstrate its interest towards the European Union, and maybe if Pashinyan will be appointed Premier this interest might become even more rooted. However, a Eurasian path for Armenia still remains the most likely scenario.
So, what are Turkey and Azerbaijan waiting for? For Armenia actually going mad and throwing away the support of the Russian Federation to look for a European integration with no guarantee it will be better than the Eurasian one. In fact, if Russia stops protecting Armenia, the Caucasian republic will find itself completely isolated and the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan will be highly probably restored. Unless Armenia gives away Nagorno-Karabakh and her partnership with Russia to look for a European Integration, which will not arrive in less than 15-20 years, the political instability in Armenia will have less influence on the geopolitical developments of the Southern Caucasus than we might actually expect. If the “Velvet Revolution” will bring Armenia to a conflict, it will be only after having rejected the Russian protection, and this is strongly unlikely.