The Risk of the Renewal of the Karabakh Conflict after the Velvet Revolution in Armenia
Author: Giorgi Bilanishvili, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation
For the Russian Federation, Karabakh is probably the most important conflict hotspot in South Caucasus. Mostly at the expense of this hotspot Moscow has managed to gain enormous influence over Armenia and especially its foreign policy. In Yerevan, they understand quite well that losing Moscow’s goodwill might be very costly to them and hence, they are forced to take the Kremlin’s interests into account very seriously. Consequently, nobody is surprised that Armenia remains a strategic partner of Russia to this day.
Azerbaijan believes that tense relations with Russia could seriously complicate the already difficult task of restoring the country’s territorial integrity. This is probably why Baku tries to avoid taking steps that would irritate Moscow. Azerbaijan’s foreign policy vector, also known as the non-alignment policy, is likely mostly predicated on this as well.
It is difficult to insist that Armenia and/or Azerbaijan would have had different foreign policies if there was no Karabakh conflict. We also cannot claim that the foreign policy vectors of these countries would be necessarily pro-Western. However, one thing is clear – the existence of the Karabakh conflict, excludes the formation of South Caucasus as a unified region in the political sense. Hence, South Caucasus, unlike the Baltic region, is merely a geographic term.
Additionally, it can also be said that the existence of the Karabakh conflict complicates a more active involvement of countries other than Russia in South Caucasus, be it neighboring (this especially concerns Turkey, of course) or Western states.
As for Georgia, for it the Karabakh conflict is not important due to the aforementioned conditions only. Despite the fact that the Karabakh conflict does not immediately concern us politically or geographically, its renewal entails serious risks for Georgia.
First of all, both Armenians as well as Azerbaijanis are compactly settled in Georgia. Second, the possibility of the direct involvement of Russia in military action in the case of escalation poses an imminent threat for Georgia, which is a land corridor connecting Russia to Armenia.
Hence, even though the processes taking place in our neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan are important anyway, their importance especially grows in the context of a possible escalation of the Karabakh conflict.
The arrival of Nikol Pashinyan to power as a result of a velvet revolution in spring is a highly important development, and not only for Armenia. For us, however, the main task is to assess whether this development could have any influence on the escalation of the situation in Karabakh conflict zone.
In reality, only three actors have enough political and material resources for the escalation of the Karabakh conflict: these include Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Apart from political and material resources, the specific interests of these actors in terms of escalation Karabakh at any given time is also very important, as these interests could grow due to certain conditions or on the contrary, reduce. Hence, we shall try to assess these specific interests.
Government of Armenia
In the context of the Karabakh conflict escalation, the Government of Armenia must be mainly interested in two issues. First, re-establishing control over small territories lost as a result of the April 2016 escalation in Karabakh, which would likely strengthen its positions in domestic politics. Second would be the facilitation of Karabakh’s international recognition through the escalation of the situation.
It must be pointed out that military escalation contains unjustifiable risks, first and foremost to the Government of Armenia itself. For further clarity, it is enough to refer to some small details.
Pashniyan’s predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan is clearly responsible for the loss of territories during the 2016 escalation. Pashinyan is not the political successor of Sargsyan and hence, he is free of that responsibility. And generally, Pashinyan rose to the position of the Prime Minister of Armenia through wide public support not a long time ago and he definitely does not need to artificially reinforce his positions.
As for Karabakh’s international recognition, this issue is even more complicated. Armenia’s ruling elite has always understood this complication very well, which is probably why Armenia itself has not recognized the independence of Karabakh to this day.
Without referring to the aforementioned facts, it is still quite clear that the new Government of Armenia has no interests in the escalation of the Karabakh conflict. It is currently focusing on battling corruption and instituting order in the country, which must be considered to be an entirely justified policy.
Government of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan started large-scale military exercises on July 2, 2018, involving about 20,000 military personnel, 120 tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as over 200 artillery pieces.
Before the beginning of the exercises, on 30 June, the Minister of Defense of Azerbaijan, Zakir Hasanov, stated that the military forces are ready to resolve the Karabakh conflict through forceful means, if the peaceful resolution of the conflict drags out.
Prior to this, President Aliyev’s official twitter account published the following statement: “The developments unfolding in the world confirm that the international law does not work. If it did, Azerbaijani lands would have been freed from the invaders long ago.”
Naturally, the aforementioned exercises were followed by speculations that Azerbaijan was beginning military action; however, they died down quickly. The General Staff of the Armenian armed forces made a statement about these exercises, clearly pointing out that there was no threat of direct military action.
In general, in Azerbaijan, the military spending of which is 3% of its GDP and is three times bigger than that of Armenia, military exercises of such a scale are frequent. Azerbaijan’s leaders also often make statements similar to the ones mentioned above.
In reality, the Government of Azerbaijan also clearly recognizes the risks of starting military action, as it knows that Russia remains a strategic ally of Armenia. At the same time, it also knows very well that it would have to pay a serious political cost in the case of possible military failure.
Hence, generally it is understandable that Azerbaijan is increasing its military potential and does not exclude the possibility of restoring its territorial integrity through force. However, at this stage, there are no clear indicators to prove that the interest of using military force has increased in Azerbaijan as a result of the regime change in Armenia.
Government of Russia
At the beginning, we already pointed out that it is important for Russia to keep the Karabakh conflict in its current form and hence, changes in status-quo are contrary to its interests.
At the same time, it would be a huge achievement for Russia to convince Azerbaijan to join the Eurasian Economic Union. In order to make this happen, one of the ways is to make a deal regarding Karabakh and seven Azerbaijani regions occupied by Armenia. In order to get such a deal, it might be in Moscow’s interests to slightly modify the status-quo in Azerbaijan’s favor.
However, objectively, such a deal would be quite difficult to achieve. Whatever Azerbaijan gets from it, it still has to concede something (Karabakh, at the very least), for which the Azerbaijani society is clearly not ready. At the same time, the Armenian public is also not prepared to give back even the occupied regions to Azerbaijan.
There is one more important factor remaining for Russia, specifically Pashinyan who came to power in Armenia through a velvet revolution and who, to put it mildly, is not well loved in Russia. Couple of examples is enough to prove this. Specifically, on the background of Armenia velvet revolution, a famous TV host and the Press-Secretary of Russia’s state company Rosneft, Mikhail Leontiev, made such an insulting statement towards the Armenian people, that he was later forced to apologize for it. As for another famous TV host, Maxim Shevchenko, he declared that the recognition of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region by the Assad regime was due to determined actions of the Armenian lobby, which, according to his assessment, served to derail the improvement of relations between Georgian and Russia.
It must be pointed out that Leontiev’s and Shevchenko’s absurd and exaggerated statements are no mere exceptions. They are only a part of the anti-Armenian hysteria, which followed the rise of Pashinyan to power among Russia’s so-called expert society.
It should also be noted that the problem is not in Pashinyan either. The conspiracy-obsessed Russian establishment is traditionally very concerned with the phenomenon of a velvet revolution. The concern, actually, are not just the conspiracy theories either. As it would seem, Russians understand better than others how vulnerable the “strong” Russian domestic political stability actually is.
Hence, Moscow must be interested that the new political situation in Armenia, created as a result of a “velvet revolution,” ends with failure. Consequently, we should not exclude the possibility of Russian facilitation of a limited-scale military escalation in Karabakh, the main goal of which will be to show the non-effectiveness of Pashinyan’s government, in order to later remove it from power.
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