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Unprecedented Uncertainty Ahead for Armenia
Unprecedented Uncertainty Ahead for Armenia
Politics and Security Hold Each Other Hostage in Nagorno-Karabakh
Politics and Security Hold Each Other Hostage in Nagorno-Karabakh
Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan attends a rally with supporters in the country's second largest city of Gyumri, Armenia, on 27 April 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Unprecedented Uncertainty Ahead for Armenia

Armenia's political crisis risks deepening internal divisions and security challenges. External actors should be prepared to offer support but avoid actions that risk the crisis transforming into a broader geopolitical contest.

Armenia has plunged into an unprecedented political crisis. On 1 May, parliament voted against the nomination for prime minister of Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of protests that compelled long-time leader Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation on 23 April. The ruling Republican Party proposed no alternative candidate but insisted its deputies vote against Pashinyan. On 2 May, large numbers of protesters poured into the streets again, this time in support of Pashinyan’s bid to win the repeat vote, scheduled for 8 May. In the evening of 2 May, after the ruling Republican Party unexpectedly indicated it might endorse Pashinyan’s bid for prime minister, he has tentatively put the protests on hold.

But as political actors scramble to position themselves, the political crisis is far from over. The ruling party has pledged to support a candidate for prime minister nominated by one third of the parliament. But if the 8 May vote is inconclusive, the country will be without the leadership it needs to deal with internal divisions and security challenges as it moves toward snap parliamentary elections, for which no date has yet been set.

Armenia’s political fragility also could risk contributing to an escalation of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory fought over by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces after its Armenian majority sought to secede from Azerbaijan at the time of the Soviet Union’s break-up, or heighten tensions between Russia and the West.

Head-spinning Changes

The pressures on Armenia’s political system are enormous. Failure to make a prime ministerial appointment on 8 May would open the door for the president, Armen Sarkissian, who has held the post since 9 April, to dissolve parliament and call snap elections in 30-45 days. These elections would be held under the code in place prior to Sargsyan’s ouster; Pashinyan, who has long demanded this code be amended, has threatened to boycott the vote unless he is made interim prime minister.

Pashinyan’s general strike and civil disobedience campaign has been peaceful. He promises to continue his campaign to bring down the ruling system, though he has now put protests on hold. On 2 May, the day after the parliamentary vote that initially appeared to block his path to the premiership, tens of thousands poured into the streets of Yerevan and other major cities, with Pashinyan urging protesters to obstruct access to “everything that can be closed”. Protesters blocked several vital roads, including the routes to Yerevan’s airport and to crossings into Georgia. By noon that day, all of downtown Yerevan’s streets, as well as the subway and railroads, were shut down. In some Armenian towns, there were reports that state officials abandoned their posts to join the street protests. Pashinyan has stressed that protests must remain non-violent, saying that “the finest hour of the Armenian people cannot be marred by any incident”. Later that day, confronted by the scale of the protests, the Republican Party announced it would not nominate its own candidate, but support a candidate – “whoever that might be” – nominated by at least one third of the parliament. Pashinyan then called off the protests until the day of the repeat vote, urging protesters to keep an eye on his Facebook page in case there was an urgent reason to reconvene.

The atmosphere on 2 May was calm, and that evening Pashinyan appeared upbeat. But many continue to be concerned about political volatility. “A week is a very long time, given the current tensions”, said a Western diplomat, “it is difficult to predict how the standoff will develop”. Some Armenians, too, worry that the country may see more twists and turns before a new prime minister is elected.

Pashinyan’s main strength lies on the streets. He still lacks a solid organisational base in formal politics.

Pashinyan’s political strategy may seem straightforward: he is calling for non-violent civil disobedience to upend the ruling system dominated by powerful oligarchs who have leveraged political office to monopolise swathes of the economy. After the 2 May mass protests, it also is becoming clearer how he intends to build political alliances. One political party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun, quit the Republican Party-led ruling coalition last week and some of its members now support Pashinyan. Another party, Prosperous Armenia, led by oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan, which was previously in an alliance of convenience with the leadership, has made clear it would join Pashinyan’s movement. Some deputies from both parties voted against Pashinyan on 1 May but he was optimistic by the evening of 2 May that the Dashnaks and Prosperous Armenia would support his nomination for the 8 May vote. For the moment, however, Pashinyan’s main strength lies on the streets. He still lacks a solid organisational base in formal politics.

The Republican Party’s strategy is muddier. On 2 May, acting Prime Minister Karapetyan called on all political forces to “demonstrate political will, resolve and flexibility and to sit at the negotiating table”. The ruling party’s readiness to seek a political agreement ahead of the 8 May vote appears a positive sign, but some diplomats and analysts see dangers ahead. The fact that it refused to nominate a candidate on 1 May but did not endorse Pashinyan means party leaders “are not ready to give in as easily as that”, according to one Armenian analyst. “Trying to set Pashinyan up to fail will likely be the name of the game after 2 May”, suggested one Western official. “As ominous as this sounds, chaos may well play in their favour. The Republican Party could then step in as the only actor that can guarantee stability”, another cautioned.

To minimise risks of confrontation, Pashinyan and the Republican Party, as well as other parliamentary blocs, must focus on inclusive political dialogue ahead of 8 May and start discussing arrangements for the snap elections and political transition that will stabilise the country.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Factor

As discussed in a recent Crisis Group commentary, Armenia’s instability also could fuel an escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. This conflict, unresolved for over 25 years, has been especially volatile since 2012. Intractable negotiating positions and a regional arms race contributed to deadly clashes in 2016. The risks are significant – neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is ready to compromise, and both feel a false sense of security about their prospects for military victory.

There are three specific dangers. Worried about a possible Azerbaijani incursion, Nagorno-Karabakh commanders may feel compelled to mount a pre-emptive strike, something they have considered since 2016. Such an offensive could also occur if commanders felt it was their last chance to push for the return of the two slivers of land that Armenia lost to Azerbaijan in the 2016 fighting. A pre-emptive strike might also be part of a political strategy on the part of Yerevan elites who fear losing out from a transition to consolidate the divided nation.

All sides should avoid any escalatory moves and keep open political and diplomatic channels.

Second, Azerbaijan itself may seek to take advantage of Armenia’s turmoil to attack in the conflict zone. On 1 May, Azerbaijani lawmaker Gudrat Hasanguliev, warning of risks of escalation, urged: “We must make a decision to make use of opportunities to liberate our territories in a timely manner”. That said, senior government officials have, in connection to the turmoil in Armenia, refrained from using belligerent rhetoric which is otherwise not unusual in the region. For now, this is a good sign. Diplomats working in the Caucasus suggest that some Azerbaijani leaders may perceive the country’s interests best served by letting a political crisis engulf its rival Armenia. The Azerbaijani leadership also seems to have been shaken by Armenia’s protest movement and the seeming ease with which Sargsyan gave up power, according to an Azerbaijani analyst.

Third, the risk remains of an incident spiralling out of control or a misreading of intentions. This danger is particularly acute at a time of heightened sensitivity and preparedness.

All sides should avoid any escalatory moves and keep open political and diplomatic channels. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs – Russia, the United States and France – and the European Union (EU) should remind actors on all sides how lethal renewed fighting could be. Given the political crisis in Armenia, Minsk Group co-chairs should – in addition to their existing formal channels – also pursue a conversation about the risks of an escalation over Nagorno-Karabakh with Pashinyan.

Reaction to Misrule or Geopolitical Standoff?

A number of Russian politicians have visited Armenia since Sargsyan stepped down, amid Russian media speculation that Western influence spurred the protests that unseated him.

Foreign powers should avoid actions that would risk Armenia’s transition getting trapped in fusillades of accusations of external interference for geopolitical gain.

Yet politicians in the Caucasus are privately noting the EU’s relative non-engagement. For the EU, the priority is that the process remain calm and constitutional. In principle, it might welcome a more transparent political system in Armenia. But European leaders also are wary, an EU source has privately commented, of getting too involved, lest they lend credence to Russian fears. Another Western official in the Caucasus told Crisis Group the West was united in its caution: first, “there is the Ukraine syndrome”, she said, referring to the fallout of the 2014 Maidan uprising, during which Moscow accused Western powers of stoking street protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych; second, Pashinyan has not yet identified a clear plan of action. Certainly, all foreign powers must avoid picking sides. But external actors should not step too far away either – Armenian politicians may need counsel on the transition process or even some quiet mediation ahead of the 8 May vote, and ahead of the snap elections.

All foreign powers should avoid actions that would risk Armenia’s transition getting trapped in fusillades of accusations of external interference for geopolitical gain. That no political force in Armenia expresses any wish to change the country’s foreign policy orientation has helped avoid that trap thus far.

That said, a change of government provoked by street protests in Armenia could be perceived as a challenge to a number of post-Soviet regimes. Leaders in Azerbaijan, Russia, Belarus or Kazakhstan should not mistake it for a Western-inspired conspiracy. Western governments, for their part, are right to be cautious. They should remain focused on due process and strike the right balance in supporting Armenia’s transition over the coming months. That said, while emphasising their strict neutrality, they might consider offering technical assistance and advice for transcending the current political impasse, and for preparing the snap elections. For any external actor to even hint it is pushing for a specific outcome would, however, be asking for trouble.

An ​Armenian ​woman cuts wood near a ​camp set up for refugees who fled ​​from fighting between Azerbaijan​i​ and ​Armenian forces, on 2 June 2017​. NurPhoto/Celestino Arce

Politics and Security Hold Each Other Hostage in Nagorno-Karabakh

This week’s meeting between Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers is likely to centre on security issues, including numbers of international observers in Nagorno-Karabakh. But frustration with the peace process will grow unless both foreign ministers address the critical political aspects of a future settlement.

Sniper fire can hit almost every open-air spot in Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, an Armenian village in the Tavush region on the border with Azerbaijan. Nargiza, who runs a well-stocked shop out of an abandoned railway coach in the village centre, laments the locals’ fate: “We never feel safe. We hear shooting at night, and fear it during the day. My neighbours have stopped cultivating their vineyards. They were being shot at while at work.”

Nargiza means “daffodil”. It’s a common name in Azerbaijan and other Muslim cultures, but not in her native Armenia, especially since the start of the three-decade-long conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. As the two country’s foreign ministers prepare for a rare meeting on 18 January, Nargiza’s story is a reminder of how much is spoiled by the collateral damage of three decades of failure to resolve the dispute.

Security along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, and the Line of Contact (LOC) around Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent Azerbaijani territories controlled by Armenians, has been precarious since the 1994 ceasefire. Just a handful of Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers monitor the line, even though this is one of the most heavily militarised regions in the world. The costly and destabilising arms race, aggravated since the early 2000s by Azerbaijan’s oil and gas windfall, has been chiefly facilitated by Moscow, which sells weapons to both Baku and Yerevan. At the same time, Russia co-chairs, together with France and the U.S., the OSCE Minsk Group that steers the conflict settlement process. The downward spiral has grown deadlier since 2014, with increasing use of heavy artillery and renewed fighting in April 2016, which claimed at least 200 lives.

There is refreshed hope that diplomacy can prevent a new escalation, which in the worst case could provoke a regional conflagration ...

That fighting served as a wake-up call and opportunity to galvanise the stagnant peace process. In May and June 2016, President Sargsyan of Armenia and President Aliyev of Azerbaijan agreed on confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) – increasing the number of OSCE observers (likely from the current six to twelve) and creating a mechanism for investigating incidents – and taking forward substantive talks. But they failed to prevent another breakdown in confidence and negotiations in September 2016, when skirmishes broke out again on the conflict divide, and continued until preparations for a new summit began in the summer of 2017.  

Sargsyan’s and Aliyev’s October 2017 meeting recommitted both to CSBMs and substantive talks. There is refreshed hope that diplomacy can prevent a new escalation, which in the worst case could provoke a regional conflagration, given Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s respective defence and strategic partnership and mutual support agreements with Russia and Turkey. But there is also a risk that meetings, if unproductive, will lead to a renewed sense of frustration with diplomacy, and a temptation to view the use of force as a legitimate means to solve the conflict.

People living near the divide are highly vulnerable, both now and in the event of a renewed escalation.

For this to be avoided, progress has to be made on security while political discussions need to resume. But as in many conflicts, security and politics hold each other hostage. The Armenian side insists on CSBMs before the substance of a future settlement can be discussed. “Who would discuss settlement while we are being shot at?”, an Armenian politician said to Crisis Group. Azerbaijanis, for their part, have been reluctant to commit to CSBMs that would risk cementing the status quo, without discussions on the content of a future deal.

The 18 January meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers will discuss an increase of the number of OSCE observers, according to diplomats close to the peace process. The sides are still at odds on modalities. Baku would at most like to see a light-touch arrangement with no change in the current offices, whereas Yerevan prefers a more hands-on arrangement, including new personnel with new duties. In Nagorno-Karabakh, sources told Crisis Group they seek a permanent OSCE field presence in heavily populated parts of the Line of Contact. Although it is a tall order for a dozen unarmed staff to monitor the full length of the line, and the impact of their presence on overall security may be limited, an increase in numbers would be a small breakthrough in a process that often struggles to secure as much as a date for the next meeting between the sides. The other CSBM on the table, an investigative mechanism, is far less likely to be agreed, diplomats say.

In Nargiza’s village, Nerkin Karmiraghbyur, on the international Armenia-Azerbaijan border well to the north of Nagorno-Karabakh, nobody has been killed or injured recently, but the climate of fear is common along the length of the conflict divide. In Armenia’s Tavush region, humanitarian agencies and local government have raised walls around the perimeter of schools and kindergartens to shield children from small arms fire. The local administration has built a bypass road – its exposed segments reinforced by a stone wall – to protect cars travelling between border villages. People move their beds away from windows exposed to the other side and Nargiza’s railway coach shop has old bullet holes in it.

In Nagorno-Karabakh itself, 7,000 of the region’s current 150,000-strong population live within 15km of the divide. Hundreds of thousands more people, many of them displaced by fighting in the 1990s, live similarly close to the line on the Azerbaijani side, where an incident in July 2017 killed an elderly Azerbaijani woman and her two-year-old granddaughter. People living near the divide are highly vulnerable, both now and in the event of a renewed escalation. Humanitarian aid workers are making contingency plans, and take a view that resumed fighting would have little regard for civilian lives.

The political aspects of a future settlement, based on mutual concessions, will have to be addressed with international security arrangements to guarantee them.

In order to prevent such a scenario, a discussion on security alone is insufficient. The political aspects of a future settlement, based on mutual concessions, will have to be addressed with international security arrangements to guarantee them. A possible road map to an even-handed settlement was developed a decade ago in the Basic Principles, which outlines principles for a settlement, including: return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing security and self-government guarantees; a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh; future determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status through a legally binding expression of will; the right of return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees; and international security guarantees, including a peacekeeping operation.

The principles continue to be accepted by both sides as the general umbrella for a settlement. In practice, they are shunned by people in both societies whose lives over the past quarter-century have developed around the conflict, and whose intractable discourses are in large part fuelled by their leaderships. As long as both leaders envision a settlement on their own terms only, security and politics will keep each other hostage. And men and women like Nargiza, on both sides of the divide, will remain in peril.