Author: Rasim MUSABAYOV, Member of Parliament, political scientist
Apparently, we will not see a breakthrough in the Karabakh settlement by the end of 2018. The so called “velvet revolution” in Armenia swept away the criminal and oligarchic regime of Serzh Sargsyan, who had intended to extend his stay in power as a prime minister by changing the constitution and manipulating parliamentary elections. Eventually, Nikol Pashinian, the leader of the street protests, became the head of the Armenian government and instead of solving the urgent challenges, started to revenge toppling the representatives of the overthrown elite and was more busy consolidating his own power. It turns out that the incumbent Armenian authorities pretend to speaking about the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict, while in fact, refrain from substantive discussion, putting forward obviously unacceptable proposals to change the negotiation format.
In the past few months, Pashinian has made many contradictory statements. He addressed to Baku to negotiate with the puppet regime of Nagorno-Karabakh, then made a provocative statement about the inevitable inclusion of this territory into Armenia. Obviously, Pashinian, who is accusing the Karabakhi Kocharyan-Sargsyan clan of corruption and lawlessness, fears a counterattack from radical nationalists for the alleged surrender of the “liberated territories”. To neutralise these risks, President Armen Sargsyan and Prime Minister Pashinian visit Nagorno-Karabakh almost every month for consultations with the political and military leadership of the separatist regime. By enlisting their own sons in the military service in Karabakh, Pashinian and his defence minister Tanian, put populism and loyalty to the so-called “Karabakh case” above international law.
In fact, Pashinian’s vague statements essentially illustrate his unpreparedness for meaningful negotiations. He and his government are not able to take responsibility for difficult solutions, which, in any form, as a first step imply the withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the occupied Azerbaijani territories. It is not surprising that Pashinian’s illusions about the ultimate victory of the “national movement and democracy” led under his personal leadership and the alleged guarantees that Armenia will receive both large-scale financial assistance and additional political and diplomatic support in the Karabakh settlement are dwindling off. On the contrary, Moscow, Washington, Paris and Brussels recommended not to destroy the negotiation format established under the OSCE Minsk Group and to stick to the agenda, which is based on the well-known Madrid principles.
In his farewell interview with EVN Report, the US Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills said that the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem without the return of certain occupied territories is impossible. “I was surprised when I first came here to find out that the majority of Armenians I have met were against the return of the occupied territories as part of the negotiation process. I am surprised that there is practically no discussion in Armenia regarding acceptable solutions and compromises,” Richard Mills said. A representative of the US State Department, Mr. Kent, who has recently visited Baku and Yerevan, explicitly stated that the four UN Security Council resolutions constitute the legal basis for resolving the Karabakh problem.
The words of American diplomats have become a cold shower for Armenians, who had encouraged themselves that after the recent power shift they would retain the support of Russia and at the same time expand understanding and support from the West. Pashinian and his government had to retreat from the loudly stated position to start negotiations from scratch, and with the participation of the puppet regime of Nagorno-Karabakh. During the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia organised by the co-chairs of the Minsk Group in New York back in summer this year, the urgency of substantive negotiations was underlined, and no hint was made about the possible connection of Nagorno-Karabakh to the negotiations. The Russian Secretary of the Security Council Patrushev has explicitly told his Armenian counterpart in Moscow that Moscow supports a phased resolution of the conflict.
Apparently, the populist slogans, which, albeit briefly, had a certain effect in Armenia, do not work in the international arena. During his numerous foreign visits, Pashinian was tapped on his shoulder in a friendly manner, said encouraging words, but could not guarantee the flow of money to Armenia contrary to his expectations. He was explained that in order to expand foreign financial assistance and, most importantly, investment, it is necessary to ensure a stable and long-lasting nature of the government, a coherent program of reforms and settle relations with the neighbours, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
EU and Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel recently visited the region, have conditioned Armenia's new government's request for large-scale financial assistance (Yerevan is dreaming about 1 billion euros) with the progress in the settlement of the conflict. Without this, Armenia will not be able to get out of the transport blockade and have access to markets. It seems irrational to inject large-scale financial support to Armenia when Yerevan is spending exorbitant and unbearable means for its weak economy continuing to hold Azerbaijani territories under the occupation. Therefore, Brussels limited itself to a meager financial handout, increasing the grant allocated to Armenia under the Eastern Partnership program, by only 10 million euros.
Meanwhile, the financial situation of Armenia continues to deteriorate. Under the current Pashinian government, the reserves of the Central Bank have decreased by 10%. There are difficulties with the collection of taxes too. US sanctions indirectly hit Armenia as well. Thus, the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who was on the US sanctions list, put in a difficult position his ARMENAL, which exported 70% of the more than $50 million worth aluminium foil to the US. The company was forced to cease the production and send workers on unpaid leave. Russian remittances have also decreased. Hopes for receiving loans from Moscow are diminishing both because of the difficulties in Russia and the distrust of the Pashinian government. Armenia's attempt to get eligible for the US-funded Millennium Challenge program has also failed. After all, due to manipulations with statistics, Armenia was artificially included in the list of states with incomes above average, and since the program is intended for the poorest countries, Armenia is no longer included.
According to political scientist and a US resident Agasi Yenokian (“The Karabakh reason for hasty elections” published in Armenian newspaper Aravot), there is a limitation in terms and content of the Karabakh issue, and Pashinian is not able “to change or postpone them because these agreements were reached outside of Armenia." Pashinian is wary to take part in the elections in May 2019, as it was originally planned, with the signed agreement on the Karabakh settlement, for the radicals and nationalists will immediately attack it. But he also understands that delaying the negotiations or evading them makes it very likely that there will be renewed large-scale clashes on the line of contact, to which he will be held responsible. It is not surprising that the government of Armenia, which seemingly supports the peaceful settlement of the conflict, in practice plans to increase defence spending by about 25% in the draft state budget for 2019. This will amount to $626.3 million, of which $100 million will be spent on military purchases on a previously allocated Russian loan.
Obviously, on the one hand, Pashinian is improving his arsenal and making populist statements on the Karabakh issue, but on the other hand, Armenian Foreign Minister, experienced diplomat Zohrab Mnatsakanian constructively engages in dialogue with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov. They have already had two meetings this year. It was announced that the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs would soon visit Yerevan and Baku to prepare another meeting of the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in December 2018. Pashinian took the advantage of the CIS summit in Dushanbe to negotiate with President Ilham Aliyev on measures to reduce tensions on the contact line and restore operational links between senior political and military leadership to prevent spontaneous exchanges of fire and incidents. Announcing this, Pashinian did not hide his satisfaction, saying: "We agreed, a reliable operative connection was established with the Azerbaijani side, and we can say that any information will reach the President of Azerbaijan in half an hour, and if they pass the information, it will reach me too."
Indeed, the situation on the contact line has become calmer but it is not to allow Pashinian to hold parliamentary elections without any problems, rather to create a favourable environment to accomplish concrete results by the end of the talks. Baku understands that only the government with a strong majority in the Armenian parliament can take on the responsibility for difficult compromise decisions. As Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov noted in his interview with RIA Novosti: “The change of power and the political turbulence in Yerevan have slowed down the process to a certain extent.” Nevertheless, he hopes that “in the near future the leadership of Armenia will be able to demonstrate the political will to continue the negotiation process in line with the existing format and on the basis of a well-known agenda.”
For obvious reasons, the visit of the US National Security Advisor Bolton to Baku attracted the attention of politicians, analysts and the media. In Baku, he noted that "the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from a strategic point of view is of great importance for us." Since Washington is urging all countries to refrain from buying weapons from Russia, Mr. Bolton noted that President Trump could suspend the effect of the 907th Congressional amendment banning the supply of weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia. In Yerevan, Bolton said that for Armenia the best way to ease external pressure would be to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He avoided answering the question of about the document prepared for the negotiations and its content, simply saying that he did not want to prejudge the events and was glad to see that Armenia supported the further efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group.
In short, we can observe a timeout in the settlement process, although both the parties to the conflict and the mediating powers are carrying diplomatic preparation work for intensive negotiations round. However, if Pashinian, who is expected to win the extraordinary parliamentary elections, adopts the tactics of delay and imitation of negotiations, it will not take long until the existing peace on the contact line is broken.