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Pashinyan’s Pivoting To The West A Failure, With Armenia Isolated Amidst Refugee Crisis

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Pashinyan’s Pivoting To The West A Failure, With Armenia Isolated Amidst Refugee Crisis

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Written by Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts

Since last week, thousands have been demonstrating on the streets of the Armenian capital of Yerevan against Prime Minister Pashinyan. The Armenian opposition demands he resign over the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis and over a real risk of losing territory which is considered to be a sacred homeland of Armenians to neighboring Azerbaijan. Amid the current political crisis and polarization, there are concerns about a coup.

Meanwhile, over 100,000 ethnic Armenians have fled from Azerbaijan to the country, which now struggles to absorb such a flow of refugees. Most of these refugees have very negative attitudes against Pashinyan. This is a humanitarian crisis which can escalate Armenia’s political turmoil and, furthermore, may also spill into Europe – which in turn is already overburdened with the Ukrainian conflict and Ukrainian refugees. The situation also has far wider geopolitical implications.

Armenia’s self-declared autonomous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, is located within the current borders of Azerbaijan. It has long been claimed by both South Caucasian nations. Artsakh has been considered by Armenians to be a homeland for over two thousand years and has maintained a mostly Armenian population throughout the centuries. It was assigned to the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic in the early 1920’s in the aftermath of the 1921 Treaty of Moscow. This was an agreement between Russia, then led by Vladimir Lenin, and the revolutionary National Assembly of Turkey, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, at a moment when the government of Mehmed VI (last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire) was recognized by most of the international community. The Moscow Treaty finally established friendly relations between the two countries that had long kept conflictual relations. Upon signing it, Russia recognized the then Turkish borders (as well as those of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia) – something which was later confirmed by the 1921 Treaty of Kars of October. These are the very borders still in existence, and to this day they have been a piece of contention between Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. In a way, such a border conflict is also a costly side-effect of Russian-Turkish rapprochement a hundred years ago. The relations between Moscow and Ankara are themselves not free of contradictions to this very day.

In 1989, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh demanded unification with the then Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic – to no avail. After the 1991 Soviet Union collapse, a war broke out in disputed region and Armenians achieved a partial victory with  the Republic of Artsakh coming into being in 1994 as a de facto autonomous region – albeit still recognized as a part of Azerbaijan by the international community. During this conflict, by the way, the Turkish authorities in Ankara supported Azerbaijan against Armenia. It did so again in the recent 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, an episode which might have dramatically altered the balance of Russian-Turkish bilateral relations.

After Armenian forces left the disputed region (as part of the peace agreement), Russian and Turkey in turn signed a deal thereby establishing a joint observation center in Artsakh, with around 2,000 Russian soldiers being deployed as peacekeeping forces in the so-called Lachin corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

On September 19, the Azerbaijani officials in Baku launched a military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh to dissolve what was an “illegal regime” from their perspective – and within 24 hours Armenia surrendered in what has been perceived as treason by many Armenians, especially in Artsakh.

The seeming Azerbaijani victory over Armenia, besides having put an end to ethnic Armenian de facto self-determination and being a humanitarian catastrophe, has the potential to tremendously complexify the already delicate balance of power in the South Caucasus, not to mention Russian-Turkish relations.

For Stefan Hedlund, director of research at the Uppsala University’s Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, the South Caucasus, between the Caspian and the Black Seas, is a key region to connect both north and south (Russia and Indian Ocean area) and east and west (China and Europe). Strategically located Armenia had been benefiting from an increase in trade with Russia (in the post-sanctions world) and could further gain from Eurasian integration. It could do so while maintaining a local version of “strategic autonomy” or multi-alignment. Rather, the Armenian authorities in Yerevan have been dramatically pivoting to the West while alienating Moscow – a clear sign of it, as I’ve written, are its intentions to join the International Criminal Court, a move described by the Kremlin as something that would be “extremely hostile” to Russia. The fact that Yerevan has recently held military drills with US forces is yet another sign.

In any case, Stefan Hedlund argues that Western mediation has failed and that the current crisis can backfire from the political West’s perspective, translating into a loss of Western influence, as “geopolitical circumstances in this strategically important region” have “shifted” into Turkey’s favor. As I wrote before, Turkey has greater ambitions for Central Asia (and even beyond). Armenia in turn has become increasingly isolated, and both the West and Ankara will likely try to use the Armenian crisis as bargaining chips in the context of the complex game Turkey plays within NATO – right now, Canada, for instance, is pondering whether to lift the embargo on Ankara. Meanwhile, the plight of the Artsakh Armenians goes on.

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