The revolutionary events in Armenia are approaching their logical end, and unless something totally unexpected happens in the upcoming couple of days, the protest leader Nikol Pashinyan should be elected as the country’s new Prime Minister, de-facto head of state. Unfolding in such an expected and quickly manner, this process was bound to confuse many observers and analysts alike and give way to a whole range of often contradictory explanations. However, here we will try to draw out the context of the Armenian revolution, and then investigate different scenarios of the new government’s policy towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and what they would mean for Azerbaijan.
First of all, it should be noted that the protest movement with a high degree of probability has domestic roots without any significant external support. The spontaneous rise of the protests, its enormous scope (according to some estimations, up to the 10% of the country’s population could have participated), as well as the behaviour of external actors suggest it. It is no secret that a mood of dissent had been strong in the Armenian society long before the revolution, and that the spectacular figures amassed by Serzh Sargsyan and his Republican Party, were achieved with the help of different kinds of machinations. Moreover, those who see a hasty withdrawal of ex-President Sargsyan from politics as something suspicious, may underestimate the institutional role of the Republican Party per se. It was not built on purpose to serve his narrow interests but rather represented a broad coalition of men of wealth and power who had a stake in the ruling regime. Hence, they were not interested in saving his power at the cost of radicalizing the situation in Armenia and turning it into a winner-take-all game. Moreover, Mr. Sargsyan’s awkward demeanour during his short meeting with Pashinyan on April 22, demonstrated his lack of charisma and a vision to resolve the crisis. The gradual retreat of the Republicans (initially they stopped supporting Sargsyan, then they agreed not to put their candidate for the Prime Ministerial position and finally, after voting against Pashinyan on the April 30 vote, announced that they would not hinder his election) suggests that most probably, the Party elite has been pursuing informal negotiations with the opposition as to their future in Armenia.
Russia’s officials have been neither very cheerful nor grim about the change of government in Yerevan. After a short flirtation with the idea to emphasize the illegality of the protests (as it happened twice in the case of Ukraine), they soon switched to a neutral mode and have expressed willingness to cooperate with any legitimate Armenian government. It is too ambitious to see Pashinyan as a kind of Armenian Saakashvili, a radical pro-Westerner who would immediately bring Yerevan out of the Collective Security Treaty and Eurasian Union. He did put forward such an initiative while being a leader of a small oppositional fraction- but it was clear then that it was doomed to fail and was rather a tactical issue, a way to convey the popular mood in the country. Indeed, protracted sociopolitical and economic stagnation in Armenia has come to be associated, among many things, with Russian dominance, so it was natural for opposition to be more pro-Western. However, given Armenia’s unwillingness to make concession either to Turkey or Azerbaijan, reliance on the Russian umbrella for preserving the military status-quo remains the only viable option. So, Pashinyan has already made a U-turn on that and announced that he would not be seeking withdrawal from the Russian organizations.
It should be also emphasized that hardly the West could have been a considerable factor behind the revolution. The U.S. has long relegated South Caucasus to the second or maybe even the third tier of its foreign policy interests, and with pragmatic Trump in the White House, Washington can hardly be expected to put serious stakes here. The depth of challenges faced by the collective West, including the internal problems of the EU, the Middle East and Ukrainian crises etc., has strongly weakened its stomach for pro-active projection of power in the zones not considered vitally important.
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Now let’s discuss the possible ways the change of government in Yerevan could affect the situation over Nagorno-Karabakh. Three scenarios can be delineated. The first, which as the most probable one can be taken as a baseline, presupposes little change in substance with rhetoric on the part of Yerevan slightly changing. As a leader who came to power riding the wave of popular protests, Nikol Pashinyan will most likely be inclined to do populist statements, and the topic of Karabakh, as the one important for any Armenian, is definitely a staple of choice. So, he may intend to sound more assertive and unyielding, appealing to the will of the people, or try to use his democratic credentials to justify the ongoing occupation of the Azerbaijani territory and Armenia’s “natural” right to them. However, if the new government sticks to the realistic foreign policy and remains within the Russia-controlled international organisations, it will have to abide by the “rules” that formed during the last decade and favour the status-quo with occasional outbursts of violence along the frontline.
In a pessimistic scenario, the Pashinyan’s government may overestimate its capabilities and start to behave more aggressively towards Azerbaijan. Taking into account that the peace process is probably at the all-time low (there were some minor steps towards reestablishing dialogue in 2017, but now that Sargsyan is gone, they may not endure), it would sooner or later entail another conflict of the kind of the 2016 “Four days’ war”, or even worse. However, it can be safely assumed that this scenario is likely in case Armenia, driven by the nationalistic spirit, drifts away from Russia- and then, Moscow will have little interest in helping to stop the fighting. Actually, voices that call for supporting Azerbaijan if Yerevan “betrays” Russia, can be already heard from the “hawkish” sector of the Kremlin and expert community. And bearing in mind the current military capacities, Baku could considerably alter the status-quo in its favour if this kind of escalation occurs. Though the West would most probably be interested in the immediate end of hostilities, its weaker capacity to influence the actors, compared to Russia, can make the escalation phase more protracted. Then, if Azerbaijan’s military advantage is converted into a battleground victory, Yerevan will have to accept the terms of peace much more favourable for Baku than those of the 1994 ceasefire.
Finally, in an optimistic but least probable scenario, Pashinyan’s government happens to gain a firm grip over the Armenian state and succeeds in conducting reforms, improving living standards and raising the popular mood. At the same time, he runs a smooth but gradual policy of drifting away from Russia and integration with the Western institutions. Then, in mid-term we can expect more constructive attitude towards the Karabakh conflict resolution to gain ground in the Armenian society, since 1) it would cease to be the last bastion of Armenian pride, which makes the people forget all the domestic hardships; 2) the government would not be pressed so much in is foreign policy by populist moods and could choose a more pragmatic approach. Though it is unlikely that Armenians ever admit the full-fledged rights of Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, but a positive momentum can change a lot and gradually bring the parties into a more cooperative stance. The nationalistic but pragmatic and pro-Western government of Ter-Petrosyan was able to build such a momentum, and the peace talks went on even under the Karabakh warlord Kocharyan, however controversial his figure was. So, the hopes are than in a few years some genuine positive changes could take place if the things go this way.