South Caucasus Programme Director, Conciliation Resources, and associate fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House
Defeat in the second Karabakh war confronts Armenia with its gravest crisis in a century. In addition to the human cost of lives lost and maimed, Armenia’s military capacity has been ravaged, and its doctrines of deterrence, strategic depth and self-reliance in Nagorny Karabakh are broken. Armenia is now the weakest player in a wider geopolitical dynamic reshaping the South Caucasus, a process in which its leverage and decision-making power are marginal.
Visions of Armenia
Beyond the battlefield, when we think about the salient visions of Armenia over the last 25 years this has been a double defeat. In the early 1990s, a national project led by the Pan-Armenian National Movement sought both to democratize and emancipate Armenia from the politics of eternal friends and enemies. Subsequently eclipsed by the outcomes of the first Karabakh war, that project resurfaced in a new iteration in 2018’s Velvet Revolution, a civic uprising focused on participation and clean governance. But due to the second Karabakh war, the Velvet Revolution now joins the ranks of democratic transitions in Eurasia engulfed in violent conflict, and with an uncertain future.
An alternative project sought to normalize the territorially “augmented Armenia” that emerged from the first Karabakh war as a viable and durable reality. Whereas the occupation of regions around Nagorny Karabakh was initially justified as a security imperative, over time a sense of ownership began to attach to these areas. This was clearly visible in standard maps of Armenia, which depicted areas occupied in 1992-93 as integral parts of a unified Armenian national space. Yet “augmented Armenia” has also been a casualty of the recent war, as all of the occupied districts have returned to Azerbaijani jurisdiction with the exception of a narrow corridor across Lachin.
But while both visions of Armenia have suffered defeats, neither is fatally wounded. A dynamic of competing visions of Armenia is likely to continue. For all the talk of turning points in Armenia’s road, it may well be that its future will continue to be an uncertain, two-steps-forward, one-step-back zig-zag between pathways. Yet these will evolve.
The first you might call the pathway of the “garrison state”, meaning a project to rebuild Armenia focusing on military capacity and innovation, and potentially building capacity for asymmetric warfare decades from now. This project would be centered on networks associated with Nagorny Karabakh and the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia. It would be a Eurasiaphile project, embedded in existing Russian-Armenian networks and, potentially, and a new cohort of Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh who might take up Russian citizenship.
An impetus towards an Armenian garrison state would not only by driven by Karabakh-focused aspirations, but a more generic sense of ontological insecurity driven by Turkey’s more assertive role, the newly exposed strategic ‘shallowness’ of Armenia’s southernmost Syunik province and the reiteration by the Azerbaijani leadership of historical claims to this territory. While “wide Azerbaijanism” – a narrative of Azerbaijan’s territorial truncation at the hands of Armenians – has for many years reciprocated “augmented Armenia’s” expansive territorial gaze, such claims now come in a much more threatening context for Armenia.
The alternative pathway might be called that of the “constitutional state”, which seeks to uphold the reformist agenda of the Velvet Revolution and re-orient Armenian national priorities from idealism to pragmatism. This would involve a greater emphasis on development, evoking Armenia as a ‘Silicon Valley in the Caucasus’, emphasizing institution-building and de-emphasizing irredentist visions, and rebooting complementarity beyond the European-Eurasian binary. However difficult this is to imagine today, the logical horizon of the “constitutional state” would be the normalization of relations with all neighbours. This is not to under-estimate the complexity and scale of the issues that still need to be resolved with Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, the constitutional state project seeks normalcy within a more coherent regional design.
The dialectics of the garrison and the constitution
Rather than the clarity of one of these pathways coming to define Armenia’s trajectory in the coming years, what may be more likely is that neither project will win out over the other, and Armenian politics will unfold as a complex dialectic between the two.
In the immediate aftermath of defeat, there are indications that ‘strongmen in waiting’ may be poised to return to Armenian politics. Yet Armenia is unlikely to become a garrison state. Externally, the combined threat of Azerbaijan and Turkey establishes an overwhelming power asymmetry imposing constraints on the plausibility of garrison statehood as a response. Internally, Armenia’s political economy presents deep structural obstacles to consolidated authoritarianism. Armenia consistently rated as an unconsolidated authoritarian regime until 2018. The regime that existed between the mid-1990s and 2018 survived in large part due to the coercive capacity inherited from the first Karabakh war, which was deployed in 1996, 2004 and 2008 to quell mass protest in Yerevan.
Yet for as long as the Karabakh conflict is not resolved and relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey are not normalized, Armenia will not be sufficiently emancipated of security threats for a “constitutional state” to truly take hold. Undiminished threat perception will sustain a conceptual dichotomy between security and democracy, or the notion that Armenia cannot be both democratic and secure. Insecurity will impose both real and rhetorical obstacles to the sustained implementation of reforms, and offer political opportunities to elites leveraging national security as a source of political legitimacy. The more that Armenia appears to be dominated by Azerbaijan and Turkey, the more such opportunities there will be.
In the coming years, then, there will still be plural Armenias, wrestling each other to define what Armenian interests really are. In that sense, words written by Jirair Libaridian in 2004 will still hold true: ‘the absence of consensus defines Armenian political life today.’
Insecurity in Karabakh/Turkish threat
Old guard / Karabakh elite
Asymmetric warfare after 20-30 years?
Domestic constraints on authoritarianism
Euro-Atlantic diaspora influence
Normalisation after de-securitisation?
Choices and the future
In considering the future, two outcomes of the recent war are also worth reflecting upon. The first is that Armenia is now released of occupation. Armenian control over the seven districts surrounding the former Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast’ has been justified in Armenian geopolitical culture as a security imperative. But even if not formally supported by Yerevan, new processes of settlement in these territories were ongoing over the last decade, further embedding an Armenian presence that was not seen internationally as legitimate (even if many of those settling in these areas were themselves victims of forced displacement). Dynamics in these territories were deepening a disjunction between the constitutional space of the Armenian state and a wider nationalist space of an enlarged homeland, diluting the claim of self-determination. These dynamics were dragging the Armenian state into a highly ambiguous, draining geopolitical project of territorial aggrandizement, yet without the resources, demographic mass and strong statehood that has enabled Israel, for example, to sustain settlement in contested areas of the West Bank. Armenia is now liberated of this possible future.
Armenia is also released from regional isolation. Both the 10 November 2020 trilateral declaration and the 11 January trilateral meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan affirmed the opening of all borders and communications routes. The rationale behind Turkey’s closure of its border with Armenia in 1993 – Armenian control of Kelbajar – no longer exists. To be sure, the obstacles to open and softened borders across the region remain formidable, none more so than mindsets hardened by the horrors of the recent war and the ongoing, unresolved issues such as the release of prisoners-of-war and other captives. Yet the commitments to open borders not only enable but demand that Armenia begins to think of itself as a transit state, and to elaborate and define its interests and optimal strategy accordingly.
There is a third release, which is the most important of all, yet which Armenia and Azerbaijan must forge together. This is the release from the conflict paradigm itself. For 30 years, zero sum perspectives dominated Armenian-Azerbaijani views on every issue (with the sole exception, ironically, of the fears that both nations held of a Russian-dominated peace process).
The conflict paradigm has become a comfort zone, offering a familiar palate of arguments and counter-arguments, mnemonic strategies and emotional triggers, all under-written by real-world insecurity. Now, potentially, there is an opportunity to temper the conflict paradigm.
As the winning party, a great deal now depends on what Azerbaijan does. Azerbaijan too faces choices, between an approach that seeks to dominate Armenia, and one that ultimately seeks partnership with it. The more the first approach is pursued, the easier the pathway to the “garrison state” will be in Armenia, and the continuation of both the Armenian-Azerbaijani rivalry and the foreign influence over both states that it enables. The alternative is a transformation in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, and with it the possibility of release from rivalry. This is a reminder that despite the prominence of great powers and geopolitics in the new realities in the South Caucasus today, the future of their relations and their region lies ultimately in the hands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis.