Loss of Nagorno-Karabakh weakens Armenia, abandoned by Russia and the West: ‘Everyone is afraid of another war’

Azerbaijan is increasing its demands on the government of Nikol Pashinyan after regaining control of the territory, while the opposition has called the prime minister a ‘traitor’ for seeking peace negotiations

Tanks and weapons of the Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, on display in the Azerbaijani town of Signag, October 30, 2023.
Tanks and weapons of the Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, on display in the Azerbaijani town of Signag, October 30, 2023.Associated Press/LaPresse (Associated Press/LaPresse)
Andrés Mourenza

Surrounded by an aura of defeat after the debacle of Nagorno-Karabakh, accused of being a traitor by the opposition and abandoned by his ally Russia, by the West, and by the diaspora, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan will this week at the European Community Political Summit in Granada, Spain, attempt to advance towards a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, which is increasing its demands toward the government in Yerevan, buoyed by its military victories and recovery of control over the enclave. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh are scattered across Armenia, where a population jaded by a conflict that has lasted more than three decades is now fearful of the possibility of fresh Azerbaijani attacks.

“Pashinyan has sold us out. A few years ago, he came to Artsakh [the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh] and said ‘Artsakh is Armenia’; now he says ‘Artsakh is Azerbaijan.’ He deceived us,” said Susana Gevorkian, who fled the Armenian enclave — located in territory internationally recognized as Azerbaijani — a few days ago. She was one of over 100,000 people who, demoralized, hungry and traumatized, have crossed the border to leave what was until a week ago a territory populated by around 120,000 Armenians. Some experts believe the migratory flow could “destabilize” Armenia, a country of around 2.8 million inhabitants with scarce financial resources.

The opposition blames Pashinyan directly for the defeat: both in the 2020 war, which forced the Armenian Armed Forces to withdraw from the territory they controlled around Nagorno-Karabakh, and in the 24-hour campaign by Azerbaijani forces launched on September 19 that resulted in the capitulation of the enclave. Haik Mamiyanian, a deputy with the opposition Republican Party, has stated that Pashinyan “destroyed the Armenian Armed Forces” by means of purges and that he failed to mobilize the full power of the army in 2020, and after the defeat, “lied” to the population in order to be reelected in 2021, promising terms of negotiation with Azerbaijan which he has not fulfilled.

By recognizing Baku’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh this year, Pashinyan has given Azerbaijan a free hand to “occupy” the region, and has also antagonized Russia, Armenia’s strategic partner, with a “terrible” foreign policy, said Mamiyanian, who described the prime minister as a “traitor” and “illegitimate” ruler, who “is not qualified to negotiate a peace treaty with Azerbaijan.”

As such, Mamiyanian stated that after a pause in recent days to focus on helping displaced people, his party will resume protests, which two weeks culminated in riots with dozens of arrests, including opposition leaders. “The only way to get rid of Pashinyan is with street protests,” says the MP. “The differences between us are considerable. There can be no unity with traitors.”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses the nation on September 24, 2023.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses the nation on September 24, 2023. ARMENIAN GOVERMENT PRESS SERVICE (EFE)

“Hybrid war”

Sources close to the Armenian government are of the opinion that these protests are part of a “hybrid war,” behind which they see the hand of Moscow, which they accuse of not having come to Armenia’s aid when it has been attacked by Azerbaijan despite collective defense treaties. It also accuses Russian peacekeeping troops deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh after the 2020 war of nothing to stop the lightning Azerbaijani offensive last month. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has not attempted to veil its hostility towards Pashinyan, who it accuses of responsibility for the loss of the Armenian enclave for having allied himself with the West.

Neither has this rapprochement with the European Union and the United States brought Armenia much in the way of security. Beyond the pledge of a few million euros to contribute to the needs of refugees and a few communiqués expressing concern, only France has committed to selling arms to Armenia “so that it can defend itself.” The European Commission considers Azerbaijan “a reliable partner” for its energy supply, as an alternative to Russian gas.

“After the war in Ukraine and with this new Cold War between the West and Russia, it is impossible for a small country like Armenia to maintain a balance of relations with both blocs. And, right now, neither Russia nor the West is willing to defend us militarily; perhaps the only country willing to do so is Iran, because it fears the increase of Azerbaijan’s influence in the Caucasus and, with it, of its partner Israel,” says Benjamin Poghosian, an analyst at the Applied Policy Research Institute (APRI) in Yerevan.

There is growing fear among the Armenian population that Azerbaijan will now directly attack Armenian territory, something Poghosian considers “quite likely” if Baku does not achieve the desired results at the Granada summit on October 5. The Pashinyan government maintains that to ensure Armenia’s survival it is necessary to secure peace with Azerbaijan and normalize relations with Turkey, which would make it possible to reopen the eastern and western borders — closed since the 1990s — and break its isolation. “But for this, Azerbaijan is demanding concessions. It has already destroyed Nagorno-Karabakh, but it seems that this price is not enough; now it is demanding more,” says Poghosian.

As the Armenian government has gradually stepped back from its earlier red lines, Azerbaijani objectives have increased: Baku is demanding a corridor through southern Armenia, the “de-occupation” of several tiny Azerbaijani enclaves on Armenian territory, which are unpopulated but through which strategic Armenian roads run, and the return of Azeris expelled by Armenia in the 1990s.

“We know that some concessions are inevitable. The problem is that, with Azerbaijan, after every demand comes a new one. In the end, what will it ask for, that we hand over Yerevan?” says Anna Pambukhsyan, director of the Democracy Development Foundation: “That is why I do not believe that the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh is the end of this conflict. It can resurface at any time. Everyone is afraid of another war.”

Armenia announced last week that it will raise its defense budget to 7.3% of GDP, or about $1.36 billion. Even so, that is only around half the military expenditure of Azerbaijan, a more populous and wealthier country. “Even I, who have always been a pacifist and have been involved in reconciliation processes with Azerbaijani colleagues, am now of the opinion that we must rearm. We are facing an existential threat,” says Pambukhsyan.

The analyst does not believe that the opposition demonstrations will bring down the Pashinyan government: “The population trusts the opposition even less, because those leading the protests are members of former governments that are also responsible for the current situation. So, if the current government manages to deal with the humanitarian situation of the refugees and moves forward with certain reforms that offer more social justice, it will gain enough support to maintain power.” The rulers who preceded the current prime minister, Robert Kocharyan (1998-2008) and Serzh Sargsyan (2008-2018), who are now pulling the strings of the protests, were known as “the Karabakh clan” because they both came from the enclave. For years, they controlled the machinery of power in Armenia, reliant on certain oligarchs and the security forces, until a revolt against corruption five years ago elevated Pashinyan to government.

The diaspora — some nine million Armenians live overseas — has always been a major player in the country’s politics and an indispensable driver of investment. After a short honeymoon at the beginning of his government, the powerful expatriate organizations in Europe and the United States have turned their backs on the Pashinyan government and moved closer to the opposition parties, as well as maintaining a much tougher stance on Azerbaijan’s demands. “It is true that the government has not been able to establish a good dialogue with the diaspora, but sometimes the diaspora does not realize the delicate situation we are in,” says Pambukhsyan: “Here we are fed up of burying 19-year-olds, and they are not going to lose their children in combat.”

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