A Window of Diplomatic Opportunity

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The speed and magnitude of the Karabakh war of September 27-November 9 stunned the diplomatic world. Turkey had chosen the right psychological moment to strike. Russia was no less interested in the war, which would allow its peacekeeping forces into Azerbaijan’s territory.

Throughout the war, the US was embroiled in one of its most contentious presidential elections, not that otherwise it would have minded what was happening to Armenia and Karabakh. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had spared a single sarcastic sentence for the Karabakh war, stating: “We hope Armenians can defend themselves.”

Time was also of essence in Moscow and Ankara, since both were interested in bypassing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group format, which had been handling the simmering Karabakh conflict for the last three decades.

Now, with the elections over, the US is realigning its domestic and world agendas. At this time, the diplomatic world is catching up with the events that took place during the war in the Caucasus and that process will afford an opportunity for Yerevan to address its grievances and insist on its agenda which was ignored by all the stakeholders in the war.

Now, positive statements are being pronounced both in Washington and European capitals, favoring Armenia. The incoming Biden administration has its political plate full. Despite that fact, it has already addressed the Karabakh war and reiterated its pledge for the recognition of the Genocide.

Of course, these statements are more of warning shots to Ankara than rewards for Armenia.

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The European Union has also positioned itself along Washington’s lines.

At this time, it is incumbent for Armenian diplomacy to work overtime to take advantage of this window of opportunity.

Statesmen who have studied Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political decision-making processes in the past can easily forecast its ability to adapt to new situations and make Turkey’s political role relevant to President Joe Biden’s evolving policy for the Middle East and the Caucasus.

Even if Armenia exerted the same flexibility, its value and impact would not match that of Turkey, given the latter’s military potential and political clout.

During recent Senate confirmation hearings, in answer to Sen. Ed Markey’s question, the nominee for Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated Biden’s pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide. He also promised to “review US security assistance to Azerbaijan.”

This enforcing of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which has been waived by all presidents since 1992, should be welcome news for Armenia.

US Ambassador to Armenia Lynne Tracy has reinforced Blinken’s statements in an article published on January 20, saying, “The Untied States continues to call for the swift and safe return of the remaining detainees. We condemn the acts of atrocities connected within the conflict.”

The European Parliament has adopted a resolution whereby it has made its position very clear on the Karabakh conflict. Article 24 of the resolution states: “[The parliament] regrets that changes to the status quo were made through military force, rather than peaceful negotiations; strongly condemns the killing of the civilians and destruction of civilian facilities and places of worship; condemns the reported use of cluster munitions in the conflict; urges both Armenia and Azerbaijan to ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which comprehensively bans their use, without further delays; stresses that a lasting settlement still remains to be found and that the process of achieving peace and determining the region’s future legal status should be led by the Minsk Group co-chairs.”

Article 38 of the same Resolution condemns Turkey’s destabilizing role in the conflict, its military assistance to Azerbaijan and the injection of terrorists into the battlefields.

Both the US and Europe have been left out of the game, which was controlled by Russia and Turkey. The two remaining co-chairs, France and the US, have been demanding that their voices be heard, by reviving the negotiation format of the Minsk Group.

Once the Minsk Group revisits the issue, Armenia has to take up the current challenge to bring up its agenda forcefully and clearly. To begin with, it has to concentrate on Azerbaijan’s violation of the group’s core principles. The first principle was that there can be no military solution to the conflict. Therefore, Baku must be held accountable for its aggression.

In addition, as a result of that aggression, another principle has been accomplished by default: that of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. The last principle remaining to be resolved is the self-determination of the people of Karabakh.

Once the co-chairs convene, the focus has to be on that last principle, and that will not happen by itself.

Already, Russia, through President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, has been insisting that Karabakh is Azerbaijani territory, because Moscow has a very clear solution in mind — to offer its citizenship to Karabakh Armenians to obtain the right to hold on the Azerbaijan territory. Once its five-year mandate expires, under the pretext of “protecting its citizens,” it can itself annex the territory.

It is an uphill battle but Armenian has to take up the challenge and dispute the identity of Karabakh’s territory.

To say that Karabakh is part of the internationally-recognized territory of Azerbaijan is a political statement which cannot be sustained by either international laws or history. When Baku annexed the Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to its territory in 1989, it committed an illegal act. Even when Stalin placed the enclave under Azerbaijan’s rule, he recognized the region’s identity.

The people of Karabakh obeyed the terms of the Soviet constitution to seek independence from Azerbaijan as well as the Soviet Union. But the strongest case for independence is Baku’s mistreatment of its minorities and the pogroms it has launched against Armenians. The Armenian people have no choice but to seek self-determination and secede from the grip of the tyrant.

When opinions vary so much, it will take tremendous effort and diplomatic skills to force the issue. Is Armenia ready for that?

There will be a contest between Armenia and Turkey to win over the European Union and the US. Turkey has already toned down its rhetoric and is negotiating with Greece and is planning to similarly engage with Cyprus.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu was in Brussels recently to reset the fraying ties with NATO. Pretty soon, Turkey will send its coterie of lawyers, lobbyists and diplomats to Washington to make nice.

Turkey’s economy is in decline and if the US applies further sanctions, the country’s economy will collapse.

Al-Monitor’s senior correspondent Amberin Zaman predicts that “Things will get tougher in the US-Turkey relations” because irreconcilable issues divide the parties, such as the demand for the extradition of dissident cleric Fethullah Gulen by Turkey, the purchase by Turkey of the S-400 Russian missile systems, US support to Syrian Kurds (YPG) and particularly Biden’s priority for human rights issues.

President Trump used to condone all despots’ rights to trample the human rights of their citizens. President Biden is changing course as Erdogan is moving to improve relations with Europe, but the latter will hit a snag there too, because human rights are a non-negotiable issue for the European Union. Erdogan has pledged a new package of human rights to dupe the Europeans but he cannot go too far in that direction because it may erode his Islamic base at home.

Turkey is also wooing Israel to ingratiate itself in Washington but thus far, no response, because Israel is facing new elections. Besides, the latter has found new friends in the region, while until recently, Turkey was the only Islamic state that was friendly with Israel.

Now, through the Abraham Accords, Israel has established relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, and Saudi Arabia is next in line.

In addition, Turkey’s support for Hamas in Gaza does not bode well with the administration of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Another component of Turkish overtures to the US is its readiness to take on Iran or Russia, just in case Washington decides to turn the screws on both and may need local surrogates on the ground. That is why Turkey is flexing its muscles in Kars, right across from the Russian base in Gyumri, through joint military exercises with Azerbaijan’s army.

Throughout this complex web of political issues, Armenia has to find openings to plead its case in Washington and European capitals.

However, it looks like Yerevan is beginning to take up the challenge in a misplaced manner. While a seasoned diplomat must be stationed in Washington in these trying times, the Pashinyan administration is toying with the idea of sending Lilit Makunts, a political appointee with no diplomatic experience, to Washington. Makunts is the head of Pashinyan’s My Step political party and her only previous experience was as culture minister. The current ambassador to the US, Varuzhan Nersesyan, is a career diplomat. It is the wrong move at the wrong time to downgrade your diplomatic representation at what is virtually the capital of the world. Unfortunately, this seems to be a pattern with Pashinyan in selecting his cadres at other ministries too.

Some concerns have been raised in the parliament concerning Makunts’ appointment. In the end, wiser heads must prevail to avert a self-inflicted wound to Armenia’s diplomacy.

Armenian-American advocacy groups will certainly play a role in Armenia’s rapprochement with Biden’s administration. They can serve as the extension of Armenia’s foreign policy arm, but Armenia has to help itself before the diaspora can lend a helping hand.

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