Tuesday, 27 February 2024

Pashinyan Between Armenia and Azerbaijan: The Curse of Radical Changes

Published in Analytical Articles

By Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu

February 27, 2024

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan seeks a new path forward following Azerbaijan’s seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh and the radical shift in regional dynamics in the South Caucasus. His initiatives aim to revitalize Armenia and resolve longstanding issues, forging a new regional posture. However, domestic divisions and external challenges complicate his efforts. Azerbaijan has not responded to his calls for alternative cooperation while he remains skeptical of Azerbaijan’s overtures. Therefore, Pashinyan prefers to deal with Armenia’s domestic priorities and move carefully towards regional cooperation.

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BACKGROUND: After the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia has sought to establish a new political discourse in the region. This shift follows decades of isolation due to the Karabakh conflict, which excluded Armenia from regional projects and subjected it to significant Russian influence on the political front. Armenia is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and has had a limited ability to formulate independent policy due to Russia’s restrictive influence. However, this dynamic started to shift after Pashinyan became Prime Minister and especially after the defeat in the Second Karabakh War, marking a potential turning point for Armenia’s regional posture.

Pashinyan’s tilt towards Western countries was reinforced by Russia’s failure to support Armenia during the war in Karabakh. This was received negatively by the Armenian government and public, who felt that there was no point for the country in takin part in the Russian-led organizations. Therefore, a search for a policy independent of Russia in order to establish Armenia’s real place in the region began. As Russia’s focus on its war in Ukraine changed regional dynamics, Armenia acquired increased room for maneuver.

Pashinyan’s harsh criticism of Russia and his openly anti-Russian stance, especially within the CSTO, have been determining factors in this process. The government decided to increase the military budget to US$ 1.4 billion in a process that included the purchase of air defense systems and missiles from France. Subsequently, the signing of a strategic partnership agreement with Georgia and the offer to Azerbaijan of a non-aggression pact demonstrate Armenia’s seriousness in this regard. In addition, Pashinyan’s proposal to amend the constitution also indicates a desire for radical change. However, doubts remain that the steps taken will lead to concrete results. In particular, the different expectations of Azerbaijan and Armenia prevent the two countries from establishing a regional peace.

IMPLICATIONS: Pashinyan seeks fundamental changes in Armenia, encompassing both security and regional relations. The most important move in this regard is his initiative to change the constitution, driven by the belief that new geopolitical realities demand reform. While some Armenian politicians favor changes in governance, the judiciary, and other areas, others resist. Their primary concern is the current constitution’s link to the 1990 Declaration of Independence.

Pashinyan views the section “Reunification of the Armenian SSR and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” in the declaration document as a security threat to Armenia and an impediment to peace. This provision directly challenges Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, making it a contentious issue in the post-war situation. Pashinyan requires time to garner domestic political and social support for concessions on this point, as some Armenian politicians advocate for the continued existence of Nagorno-Karabakh’s breakaway government. As a result, the anticipated peace agreement with Azerbaijan, initially expected by the end of 2023, remains unsigned. This is not the only initiative requiring careful navigation by Pashinyan, as he also pursues medium and long-term plans for regional cooperation.

Armenia signed a “Strategic Partnership Agreement” with Georgia in January 2024, aiming to deepen bilateral relations in various fields, particularly security. Seeking to capitalize on Georgia’s strong ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan as well as its closeness to NATO and the EU, Armenia has declared Georgia a “historical friend” in this process. In recent years, Georgia’s offer to act as a mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia and its constructive approaches towards both countries have made it a reliable partner.

Georgia’s strategic location offers Armenia a crucial advantage in breaking free from its regional isolation. However, the Armenian leadership acknowledges the need for a multi-pronged approach. Pashinyan’s “Crossroads of Peace” project, unveiled at the Silk Road International Forum in October 2023, exemplifies this strategy. By establishing diverse transportation routes connecting Armenia to the Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Gulf Region, the project positions Georgia as a key partner in the northern leg. This underscores Armenia’s commitment to gradual regional integration, alongside addressing internal priorities like increasing the country’s military capacity.

The Second Karabakh War exposed the need for significant reform of the Armenian military, focusing on renewal, securing reliable partners and implementing effective reforms. The “Motherland Defender Program” aims to address these concerns by boosting soldier morale through increased salaries, expanding career opportunities with new positions and modernizing training methods. Additionally, the program introduces innovative approaches by offering young women between the ages of 17-27 the option to voluntarily begin paid military service and potentially pursue it as a career, contributing to a more diverse and adaptable force.

This process is also shaped by the recent purchase of equipment from France and the country’s provision of consultancy for the modernization of the Armenian army. France, which will provide support for addressing the shortcomings of the Armenian army in the Karabakh war, is attempting to create a new security architecture in the region. France has also found an opportunity to increase its influence in the region as a reliable Western partner at a time when Armenia is voicing its dissatisfaction with Russia. While Armenia welcomes this support, Azerbaijan has expressed concerns about the potential for increased militarization and regional instability.

Pashinyan advocates establishing a dialogue with Azerbaijan that builds on mutual trust and positive engagement from both sides. However, a key difference lies in the timeframe for progress. Azerbaijan prioritizes swift implementation of its proposals, expecting immediate Armenian acceptance without preconditions or delays. The contentious Zangezur Corridor project, proposed by Azerbaijan after the war, exemplifies the difference in expectations.

The Zangezur Corridor project aims to establish regional connectivity by linking Azerbaijan to its Nakhchivan exclave through Armenia’s Syunik region. While the 2020 ceasefire agreement serves as the official justification for the corridor, a significant hurdle is the presentation of this project as a precondition for a final peace agreement. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev insists that opening borders between the two countries hinges on the realization of this corridor, presenting Armenia with a seemingly limited choice. Armenia, conversely, remains skeptical of this corridor and proposes an alternative route. Several civil and political groups within the country staunchly oppose the Azerbaijani proposal, citing concerns about territorial integrity or Azerbaijan’s territorial claims on Armenia. This resistance forces Pashinyan to remain cautious, recognizing the current difficulty in garnering public support for the corridor. However, Azerbaijan views this cautious approach as a delaying tactic.

Furthermore, Azerbaijan expresses concern over Armenia’s closer ties with France, particularly within the framework of a new security concept. Additionally, Azerbaijan criticizes the role of Western actors in post-war mediation efforts, arguing for a more neutral stance. France bears the brunt of this criticism due to its perceived dual role of providing arms to Armenia and attempting to mediate in the conflict. Azerbaijan also objects to French opposition to its full control of Karabakh. These complex issues has led to the expulsion of two French diplomats and the arrest of a French citizen accused of espionage, further straining relations between the two countries.

Amidst rising tensions, Armenia has proposed a non-aggression pact and border demilitarization as confidence-building measures, potentially delaying a formal peace agreement. However, finding common ground remains a challenge. Azerbaijan seeks more decisive action from the Pashinyan government and prefers direct or Georgia-mediated talks. In contrast, Armenia’s internal political landscape features varying perspectives and demands, presenting additional hurdles. These circumstances delay the process of negotiating a peace agreement and other issues.

CONCLUSIONS: The diverging expectations and approaches of Armenia and Azerbaijan is the most important factor preventing peace in the region. While Armenia has initiated a process of renewal, Azerbaijan, as the party with regional superiority, wants to make quick progress since geopolitical dynamics may change again and its desired results may otherwise not be achieved. While Aliyev is pleased with Russia’s declining influence in the region, he is uncomfortable with the active regional policy of some European countries. Pashinyan faces several obstacles to his new initiatives and needs to persuade Armenian public opinion to support his new policies. While most of these are popular, they also face fierce opposition from various opposition groups. Another challenge is to moderate Azerbaijan’s demands and build trust, even if only in the short term.

Pashinyan’s new policies are innovative and carry a unique perspective of regionalism. These initiatives could enhance Armenia’s regional posture but require partnership and time to gather support.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Dr. Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu is Assistant Professor at Joongbu University and Senior Researcher at the Institute of EU Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He studied and worked in Baku, Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Seoul as an academic and journalist. He is also co-editor of Contemporary Issues in International Relations: Problems of the International Community (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020).

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