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For Azerbaijan, Armenia’s Political Upheaval is a Double-edged Sword
For Azerbaijan, Armenia’s Political Upheaval is a Double-edged Sword
Unprecedented Uncertainty Ahead for Armenia
Unprecedented Uncertainty Ahead for Armenia
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev visits the Alley of Martyrs, a cemetery and memorial dedicated to those killed by Soviet troops during the 1990 Black January crackdown, in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on 20 January 2018. AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENCY / HANDOUT / Anadolu Agency

For Azerbaijan, Armenia’s Political Upheaval is a Double-edged Sword

Azerbaijan regards Armenia’s “velvet revolution” as both hopeful and worrying. Baku hoped Yerevan’s new leadership might bring a fresh approach to negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. But, thus far, to many Azerbaijanis that leadership sounds less flexible than its predecessor.

The springtime political upheaval in Armenia stunned neighbouring governments – not least that of Azerbaijan. Since 23 April, when mass demonstrations impelled Armenia’s long-time leader Serzh Sargsyan to resign, the Azerbaijani authorities have struggled to understand the implications for the three-decade-long conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Prior to Armenia’s “velvet revolution”, observers in the Azerbaijani capital Baku believed Sargsyan would continue indefinitely as prime minister. At the outset of the anti-Sargsyan unrest, the demonstrations were small, and Azerbaijanis remained doubtful that the unrest would force a change in Armenian politics. They drew comparisons to “electric Yerevan” – the 2015 protests in the Armenian capital against electricity rate hikes. Even as the demonstrations grew, the Azerbaijani authorities did not imagine that Sargsyan would step down. Every previous uprising in the region had had a “geopolitical colour” – some relation to the standoff between Russia and the West – and they did not know what to make of a popular revolt centred solely on national politics.

Baku wants to see a step-by-step formula for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with the return of some lands as negotiations continue.

Sargsyan’s exit was not unwelcome, however. On a key Azerbaijani demand vis-à-vis Nagorno-Karabakh – the return of seven Armenian-controlled districts adjacent to the territory – Baku had long viewed him as inflexible. Baku wants to see a step-by-step formula for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with the return of some lands as negotiations continue, so as to produce the first tangible results since the 1994 ceasefire and build confidence in the peace process. Yet Sargsyan – like Armenian leaders before him – stuck to a “land for status formula”. Despite adopting a formal position that the seven Armenian-controlled districts were “not Armenian homeland”, he insisted that those districts would be returned to Azerbaijan only after Nagorno-Karabakh’s status was resolved.

In recent years, Baku also had thought Sargsyan was damaging the settlement process by investing his political capital in trying to normalise relations with Turkey and reopen the Armenia-Turkey border rather than in resolving the conflict with Azerbaijan. Baku has always seen the border’s reopening as conditional on Nagorno-Karabakh progress.

These incompatible positions ended up foiling both Armenia-Turkey normalisation (despite Yerevan’s efforts, Ankara ultimately supported Baku’s stance on the border issue) and progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks, which are deadlocked. For several years, the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have met only at long intervals. Currently there are no plans for another meeting.

Baku thought that the surprise political transition in Armenia might bring a way out of the impasse. Were there progress toward resolution of the conflict, Azerbaijan might be willing to see Armenia join long-term regional integration projects, from the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway to the oil and gas ventures involving Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. But this initial optimism has faded. Azerbaijan now views the “velvet revolution” as a double-edged sword: it got rid of Sargsyan, but it also brought to power leaders entirely unknown to Baku whose statements on Nagorno-Karabakh, at least for the time being, sound harder-line.

A Cautious Azerbaijani Response to Armenian Upheaval

Prior to, and even during Sargsyan’s ouster, there had appeared to be a heightened risk of skirmishes along the line of contact between Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijani army. Several opinion makers in Azerbaijani media – some having misread the situation, others playing to nationalist sentiment to raise their profiles – called for military strikes to regain territory or held out war as an option had the upheaval in Armenia worsened. In Armenia, as noted in an earlier Crisis Group commentary, there were reports of Azerbaijani movements at the line of contact (which Baku denied). 

But in contrast to the pundits, most high-level officials in Baku remained calm in their statements. The Azerbaijani government feared Yerevan would provoke a confrontation so that the Armenians who had gathered on the streets to protest against the government would rally round the flag instead. It thus refrained from bellicose language, opting to “wait and see” how the Armenian tumult would end.

Baku rooted its caution in the perception that any military action, even a small provocation, would unify Armenians behind the government, possibly leading the demonstrations to dissolve. Similarly, Armenian protesters, led by the formerly obscure MP Nikol Pashinyan, who is now prime minister, seemed aware of that risk. Sasun Mikaelyan, a deputy from Pashinyan’s minority Yelk faction, said, “reports of Azerbaijani military activity are untrue”. Whether or not he meant it to, Mikaelyan’s statement echoed that of Hikmet Hajiyev, spokesperson for the Azerbaijani foreign ministry, who had said: “Allegations of the deployment of manpower and military equipment by Azerbaijan to the front do not correspond to reality”.

Azerbaijan had good reason to be transparent about its intentions. In 2008, when Sargsyan first came to power, deadly fighting (which each side accuses the other of starting) along the line of contact had coincided with a police crackdown on demonstrators in Yerevan. Tens of thousands had been protesting the outcome of the presidential election; their candidate, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, had lost to Sargsyan. The fighting helped change the mood in Armenia, redirecting anti-government anger outward.

Elites in Baku also worried that any military activity at the line of contact would incur an international backlash, casting Azerbaijan in a negative light as the “velvet revolution” proceeded. They had hoped that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s cabinet reshuffle, his most significant to date, following his election win on 11 April, would generate some positive international coverage. Baku wanted to present this change as a first step toward reform at home. Instead, the Yerevan events overshadowed the cabinet reshuffle, leaving it almost unnoticed.

After Sargsyan’s departure, officials in Baku expressed concern that the Armenian demonstrations might inspire opposition groups in Azerbaijan, always a source of government anxiety. This concern had immediate consequences, namely parliament’s proposal to impose new penalties for violations of the already stringent rules about rallies and demonstrations.

Pashinyan’s Election and the View from Baku

Nikol Pashinyan was elected prime minister of Armenia on 8 May, with the backing of the Republican Party that had ruled under Sargysan.

The first misperception is that Pashinyan is a dove on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Overall, Baku recognises that, in the short term, the new premier is unlikely to adopt a radically different position on Nagorno-Karabakh from that of his predecessor. That said, opinion in Baku is marked both by potential misperceptions about the new Armenian premier and a number of fears.

The first misperception is that Pashinyan is a dove on Nagorno-Karabakh. Some Azerbaijani analysts cite as evidence his links to the former Armenian president, Ter-Petrosyan, who was forced to resign in 1998 by elite opposition to his perceived openness to compromise on the conflict. But in reality, little suggests Pashinyan is a dove, and though he backed Ter-Petrosyan against Sargysan in 2008, the two have never shared policy ideas on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Second, many in Baku believe that Pashinyan’s rise to power could signal a shift in Armenian relations with Russia. This partly relates to the new premier’s 2017 statement that Armenia should leave the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Russia’s counterpart to the trade agreements sponsored by the European Union. Yet this pronouncement should not be taken at face value: at the time, Russia had just sent a shipment of arms to Azerbaijan, and Pashinyan was speaking in anger. He did not support the later decision of his Yelk parliamentary faction to incorporate an anti-EEU stance into its platform. Indeed, since becoming prime minister, Pashinyan has taken pains to ensure he is not seen as anti-Russian. During a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on 14 May, he gave a speech providing assurance that “nobody has ever questioned the strategic importance of Armenian-Russian relations, or ever will”.

Many Azerbaijani experts nonetheless persist in misinterpreting the 2017 statement as a “policy of blackmail” aimed at extracting more from Moscow. They believe that when that gambit fails, Pashinyan will pivot toward the West, leading to a deterioration in Armenia-Russia relations that will benefit Azerbaijan. As the former foreign affairs minister, Tofig Zulfugarov, put it, “Azerbaijan should be ready for negotiations and war simultaneously, and wait for Armenians to make new mistakes”.

A pro-government analyst was blunter, telling Crisis Group, “there is an expectation that if Nikol Pashinyan makes one wrong move, Moscow will punish Armenia, and increase support for Azerbaijan. This support also would mean giving the green light to Azerbaijan to take back territories via military intervention”. In reality, however, a major shift in Armenia-Russia relations for now appears unlikely.

Baku also has a number of concerns related to the change in leadership. The first relates to the fact that Pashinyan heads a minority government vulnerable to challenge. He appears likely to call snap parliamentary elections – he promised to do so before he was named prime minister and a fresh poll would give him the chance of strengthening his position in parliament. At least until that vote, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue will likely remain a pressure point deployed by the opposition (which holds the majority in parliament) against Pashinyan – any sign that the new premier is insufficiently tough could be used to undermine him.

Once he does call for a vote, Nagorno-Karabakh could easily become the main campaign issue. In such contests, said Farhad Mammadov, director of the Azerbaijani president’s Centre for Strategic Studies, “we should expect loud populist, maximalist promises from political parties and leaders regarding the settlement of the conflict”. Pashinyan himself has promised to increase the military budget and made hard-line pronouncements on Nagorno-Karabakh that could be escalatory.

The second concern, in Baku’s eyes, relates to the negotiating format for talks on Nagorno-Karabakh. For now, that format names Armenia and Azerbaijan as the two parties to the talks, and designates the two countries’ leaders as the main interlocutors.

Until recently, that meant the presidents and the foreign ministers. But now that Armenia has moved from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government, the prime minister (briefly, Sargsyan, and now Pashinyan) is Yerevan’s main representative. More to the point, parliament has veto power over even a basic formula for peace. The prime minister will have to put any decision up for a vote. A premier reluctant to make peace could stand by as deputies voted no on a prospective agreement. Even one ready to risk his political career for peace would need to win parliamentary backing.

For Baku, the participation of Karabakhi Armenians in talks about the territory’s status is acceptable only if Karabakhi Azerbaijanis displaced from their homes by war are also present on an equal footing.

For Baku, more troubling still for the negotiating format is the new Armenian leadership’s stance, made official after Pashinyan became prime minister, that the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities be represented in talks over the enclave. Pashinyan had made this demand in April 2016, when he was an MP. At that time, officials in Baku interpreted him as playing domestic politics in reaction to the Sargsyan government’s losses in the war; since the ex-leader was of Karabakhi origin, and presented himself as a defender of de facto Nagorno-Karabakh, he was vulnerable to attack on that point. But they take the reiterated demand much more seriously.

For Baku, the participation of Karabakhi Armenians in talks about the territory’s status is acceptable only if Karabakhi Azerbaijanis displaced from their homes by war are also present on an equal footing. That demand, in turn, Yerevan rejects. The format has implications for status: Yerevan argues that Karabakhi Armenians need to be present as representatives of a nation that claims self-determination outside of Azerbaijan; Baku argues that, at a minimum, both ethnic communities need to be present to discuss self-determination within Azerbaijan. If and when talks resume, they could bog down in this dispute.

As for Pashinyan’s statement regarding the Karabakhi Armenians, senior Azerbaijani officials interviewed by Crisis Group said, “this will be perceived as a reason for war. The de facto Nagorno-Karabakh is an interested party and so should not be at the table in the negotiations, like the Azerbaijanis of Nagorno-Karabakh. This was agreed upon back in March 1992 at the OSCE (Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe) Ministerial Council meeting in Helsinki, where the Minsk Group was established”. If the new Armenian premier pushes hard on this point, Baku will dismiss him as uninterested in negotiation. It will then likely wait for the outcome of Armenia’s snap elections, if they take place, before taking any action. But one of the biggest reasons for past escalations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been the parties’ lack of faith in negotiations to deliver concrete results. If there is a sense that talks are stalled, non-diplomatic options, including the tactical use of force, may become more tempting.

Any escalation on the ground, even if small or inadvertent, could result in numerous casualties.

Baku’s third concern is the possible reopening of the airport in Nagorno-Karabakh. The airport has been ready for business since May 2011, but it remains non-operational due to warnings from Baku. The senior Azerbaijani officials said, “the reopening of this airport would constitute a casus belli”. In reality, however, Pashinyan has as yet made no statement on this topic.

Most dangerous would be de jure recognition of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities by Armenia, which is unlikely, but if it happens would be viewed as extremely provocative in Baku and could even spark some form of escalation. During the April 2016 escalation, Armenian MPs introduced a bill to that effect, but the majority shelved it.

Any escalation on the ground, even if small or inadvertent, could result in numerous casualties, given the high combat readiness on both sides of the heavily militarised line of contact and the risk that outside players would be dragged in.

Refrain from Provocations

The Azerbaijani side has lately been using bold rhetoric of its own, naming Yerevan and other parts of Armenia, where Azerbaijanis lived prior to the breakup of Soviet Union, as historical lands and invoking a right of return. This talk is not new, but in 2018 it has become a cornerstone of President Aliyev’s speeches on Nagorno-Karabakh. On 18 April, Aliyev stated, “we would like the world community to know that not only Karabakh, but also present-day Armenia is historical Azerbaijani land”. This statement triggered a wave of emotional criticism on the Armenian side, where it was perceived as an open threat. 

In interviews with Crisis Group, Azerbaijani officials soft-pedaled Aliyev’s intent, saying, “these statements mention only that Azerbaijanis live in these territories and they have rights. This is a response to the maximalist position of Serzh Sargsyan on Nagorno-Karabakh, rejecting the return of lands. In this way we are setting our maximalist position”. Whatever the case, in the interest of building trust with the new Armenian leadership, Baku should desist from this rhetoric.

In the interim, the two countries should convene an urgent meeting of their foreign ministers. It would also be useful to upgrade (rather than overhaul) the negotiation format. At present, talks depend exclusively on high-level meetings. Separate meetings between personal representatives of the Armenian prime minister and Azerbaijani president could reduce the risk of misunderstandings during the intervals when the leaders and foreign ministers are not talking. These personal representatives could serve as a back channel, ensuring that any messages are accurately transmitted and understood. Such a format was useful in the 1990s, helping build trust and resolve thorny issues. At the same time, the Minsk Group co-chairs and the European Union should step up their engagement with both sides to reiterate the importance of refraining from provocations during the pause in negotiations.

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.