By Philippe Raffi Kalfayan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

This article is being written during a constantly-evolving diplomatic time, making the prospective analysis difficult. International politics has deteriorated considerably over the past 10 years; it is marked by the deepening economic and military competition between the great powers at the expense of multilateralism. This reality translates into rearmament strategies, the increasing lack of restraint shown by certain regional powers and a growing number of hot-spots, as the French Chief of Defense staff wrote in a report in October 2021.

The cynical calculations of global or regional powers are limitless. International law counts for very little compared to other strategic instruments of power: military, information, economics, technology. The analysis below does not focus on Armenia’s current domestic political problems, or on the possible clash between the homeland and its diaspora. The four leaders of the country since its independence in 1991 have all failed to build a doctrinal and coherent foreign policy, especially in relation to Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination as well as Armenia’s relations with Turkey.

The radically new directions observed under the current haphazard and ultimately useless frenetic diplomatic activity in Armenia, while the country is weaker than ever, may in such circumstances expose the entire nation to danger. Faced with increasingly emboldened neighbors, and noting that the law is not an effective remedy, Armenia needs to elaborate and implement a new legal-diplomatic paradigm.

I – Artsakh’s Self-Determination: An Uncontrolled Process?

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The self-determination process of the Autonomous Region (or Oblast) of Nagorno-Karabakh, which later became the Republic of Artsakh (NKR), has remained unachieved. Instead, now the very existence of Karabakh is threatened, a situation that is the outcome of Armenia’s mistakes, compounded by the NKR leadership, which has failed to create a sovereign state since 1991.

Armenia’s primary errors are its refusal to legally recognize Karabakh, the substitution of Armenian diplomacy for NKR in negotiations and stagnating in a diplomatic process (i.e. the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE] Minsk Group) which has been deadlocked since 1996.

Armenian diplomacy has followed rather than taken charge, either through a deep-seated sense of vassalage or through the conviction that it could turn the situation in its favor at the appropriate time if it plays the game. The mental complex that characterizes the Armenians and their leaders vis-à-vis foreign powers, which sometimes turns into naivety, has resulted in behaviors aimed at not displeasing any of the diplomatic partners (United States, France, European Union, and Russia), hence, an absence of clear objectives and doctrine.

Maintaining ambiguity in negotiations has its limits, as Armenia has learned. If this ambiguity destabilizes the opposing party and the mediators in the first row, ultimately it may backfire against the ones sustaining these ambiguities. Such is the problem for Armenia, for example, when it refused to recognize the independence of Artsakh, in order to play by the OSCE rules. (The latter did not allow for the annexation of Artsakh by Armenia.) Russia used that refusal to slap back at Armenia in 2020 when Vladimir Putin openly criticized the Armenian side for never recognizing NKR.

Missed Chances for NKR Self-Determination

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has given ambiguous speeches on the question of Karabakh’s self-determination and his actions have been similarly confusing. His comments on December 24, 2021 give the impression that Armenia is abandoning NKR to its own fate. The NKR leadership pretends to discover that their independence efforts have been called into question, while the discrepancies in diplomacy between Yerevan and Stepanakert are not new. Armenia stuck to the agreed principles of the OSCE, while NKR claimed its independence. Besides, the European Court ruled that the NKR is an entity under the effective control of Armenia (Chiragov v. Armenia). A substantiated legal opinion attached to Azerbaijan’s letter to the UN Secretary General in 2017 qualified NKR as a “puppet state.”

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A few days later (December 29), the Prime Minister held that his government aims to build “the Armenia of our dreams.” Hence he now reintroduced some ambiguous romanticism. It should also be noted that Armenia continues to invest in the remaining NKR territory. How consistent are these investments, admittedly humanitarian, in relation to the half-hearted political plan to abandon Artsakh?

If the current Armenian government maintains the vagueness of its intentions, its policy basically does not differ from the previous administrations. The negotiations are conducted without the participation of NKR Armenians — a blatant and continuous denial of their rights.

In behaving so, Armenia has locked itself in a trap. It had two opportunities to legally recognize Artsakh. The first and ideal occasion would have been before the ceasefire in 1994. Recognition then would have totally changed the nature of the subsequent diplomatic and security strategy. The second occasion missed was at the start of the Azerbaijani armed aggression against NKR at the end of September 2020.

The arguments for not doing it were twofold. The first one was that a recognition would stop the diplomatic process and lead to war. The second argument was a political aberration: let other states recognize NKR and then we will do it. President Levon Ter-Petrosian held that position during his presidency and maintained it even during the 2020 war. Presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serge Sargsyan did not deviate from this policy. Prime Minister Pashinyan, however, took a radically different yet equally ridiculous stance: “Artsakh is Armenia. Period!” This was a provocation whose consequences we all know and which made no sense as Armenia’s official diplomacy was still supporting the Madrid Principles of the OSCE.

As a result of this series of strategic errors as well as a lack of political courage, the OSCE-driven negotiation process stopped short. Russia effectively holds the reins of the diplomatic process. However, Turkey is trying to challenge this control directly (normalization of relations with Armenia) and indirectly (acting on behalf of its principals, the West and NATO). Russia is facing serious geopolitical challenges (Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan). Hence, there is some exasperation in Moscow about the Armenians’ permanent solicitation and irredentism.

Is Artsakh Abandoned to Its Own Fate?

It is worth noting that Armenia took the initiative to bring Azerbaijan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), on the basis of the violation of the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. This legal move is a major shift in Armenia’s foreign policy and deserves praise.

Like any court case, especially in interstate proceedings with a diplomatic high profile, one should not expect victory or failure in the substantive examination of the claim, as there are counterclaims from Azerbaijan. This is quite common. The procedures could take many years and will be costly (several million US dollars). Meanwhile the advantages, which are mainly strategic in nature, outweigh the disadvantages. It provides an international forum for raising awareness about the serious violations of international law committed by Azerbaijan, in particular the crimes of torture and summary executions. It mainly offers a preventive effect: Azerbaijan cannot take the risk of repeating new serious violations, while the ICJ ordered interim protective measures. Its behavior had changed even before the court hearing. The merits of the action were confirmed by the quick release of prisoners of war taken in November without inflicting the usual arbitrary violence against them. Azerbaijan knows well the risks involved. In case it repeats past serious crimes, then Armenia would be in a position to seize the United Nations Security Council to report on the continued racial hatred and discrimination policy against Armenians, opening the road to external self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh, hence its independence.

Strikingly, Armenia opened a second diplomatic front, dialogue with Turkey, which is a risk by its own. This second front may reduce the room to maneuver on NKR since Turkey demands the recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

II – The Armenian-Turkish Dialogue: An Untimely Initiative

The idea of establishing a dialogue is in itself a good thing. However, several factors bode ill for the content and merits of the dialogue.

First, Armenia presents itself in the weaker position, as always, and offers up as their emissary someone with little experience who will face a seasoned Turkish diplomat, long practiced in the radical denialism of the Armenian Genocide.

Second, Armenia is moving down this path as the rift over these issues will further divide the Armenian Nation.

Thirdly, the opening of the borders and the development of land and air communications with Azerbaijan and Turkey will primarily benefit this latter. The economic and financial strength of Turkey and Azerbaijan combined is such that Armenia will be colonized economically and demographically. This can only accelerate the already alarming emigration of Armenia’s citizens.

Fourth, Armenia does not require any preconditions for the talks, while Turkey has its long set of requirements: any bilateral agreement will be subject to Azerbaijan’s approval; the recognition of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan by the Armenians; the abandonment of any irredentist national policy (NKR returns under Azerbaijani administration, confirmation of 1921 Kars and Moscow Treaties), and cessation of the policy aimed at the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Fifth, Armenia is not taking advantage of Turkey’s actual weaknesses. The latter is diplomatically isolated because of its geopolitical aims and its all-out military adventures. It is facing a quite unpredictable economic and monetary crisis domestically: the devaluation of its currency has triggered an uncontrolled inflationary spiral, which could lead to social unrest. Hence, its rapprochement with Armenia is part of a more comprehensive and temporary tactic, which aims to mend its relations with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. It looks very much like a veiled maneuver of seduction towards the United States, which holds the keys to the restoration of the Turkish currency. It also corresponds to a refocusing of alliances: the return to the US and NATO fold to thwart its Caucasian alliance with Russia. The two movements converge geopolitically. Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu’s recent participation in NATO talks on the potential attack of Ukraine by Russia is a clear message. It should always be remembered that Turkey is and remains hostile to Russia’s regional hegemony.

In this context, the acceptance of a half-hearted renunciation of pan-Armenian ideals seems to be dictated by a return to the first president’s doctrine. Former diplomatic adviser Dr. Gerard Libaridian’s presence and interviews in Armenia speaks volumes in this regard. It is a defeatist approach that pushes Armenia to negotiate with Turkey. It is not a realistic one, since he recognizes himself that Armenia has nothing to negotiate in return. What is the point of doing it then?

What Can Save both NKR and Turkish-Armenian Dialogue from Disaster?

III Diplomatic Fundamentals and Roadmap

First, Armenia’s strategic alliance with Russia is an inescapable reality. Its necessity is absolute, both for the protection of Artsakh and for that of Armenia. Changes need to be made, however, within that relationship. Armenia must stop behaving like a vassal and an eternal victim because of its economic and military dependence on Russia. It must stop being a burden for Russia, and instead prove that it can offer assets and has value.

The main asset of Armenia is the existence of a global Armenian diaspora across all continents. Numerous analyses and proposals illustrate the capacity of Armenians in the diaspora to provide know-how, to imagine models, including strategic financing, to contribute to the influence of Armenia. The scientific and technological skills of the Armenian Nation, which could be deployed in Armenia, would be an interesting asset. The second contribution would be diplomatic in nature. The diaspora and its members represent a useful bridge for Russia: a force of rapprochement between Westerners and Russia. It has become evident that United States, France and the European Union support Russia’s constructive role in the management of the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This solidarity is unique and in contrast to other points of tension between these same countries and Russia. This Western acceptance of Russia’s role in the South Caucasus is directly influenced by the presence of an active Armenian diaspora in those countries.

Second, Armenia should refuse to sign any agreement with Azerbaijan, including on the lines of communication in southern Armenia, until all Armenian prisoners of war currently held in Azerbaijan are released. It is a question of honor for Armenia and for the whole nation. It is also crucial for restoring the trust of the citizens in its homeland. They must be ensured that in any circumstance they may rely upon the state to protect them (as is the case in United States or France). And perhaps it should go without saying that those same prisoners, once released, should not be arrested in Armenia, as they are now!

Third, any negotiation with Azerbaijan cannot and must not erase with the stroke of a pen the serious crimes committed by Azerbaijan. A hasty and unbalanced negotiation could jeopardize Azerbaijan’s liability and resulting fines. Azerbaijan will undoubtedly demand Armenia’s renunciation of all interstate claims. It must become a bargaining chip.

Fourth, Armenian-Turkish dialogue is not taboo. On the contrary, the “liquidation of the past” will necessarily require a political agreement; it just needs to be prepared seriously and responsibly. The current process is too hasty and inopportune.

As former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vartan Oskanian recalled, one cannot enter this dialogue without setting conditions, particularly when the other party, Turkey, sets its conditions. To reach a compromise, one has to set the bar at the right level. This is a basic principle of successful negotiation. Armenia is therefore within its rights to lay down its pre-conditions; otherwise it would be condemned to give in more than what Turkey initially requests.

Fifth, the future of Karabakh cannot be resolved by a simple application of the principle of territorial integrity (inclusive of internal democratic self-determination), or by external self-determination (secession). Neither case complies with the legal conditions. Due to the ambiguity of Armenia’s policy and Azerbaijan’s military aggressiveness, the immediate priority is to guarantee the safety of the remaining population of Karabakh. The security of the territory and its Armenian population is currently ensured by Russian peacekeepers. This interim solution shall be consolidated by placing the entire region of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast under a Russian protectorate, based on a clear and well-defined mandate from the United Nations Security Council. This solution would have the advantages of easing the immediate tensions, delaying the negotiation process, bringing some stability to allow the return of both Armenian and Azerbaijani displaced families to their homes, and observing the behavior of the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities to each other.

The next step is to find a compromise solution that satisfies both parties. Artsakh will have to use this respite to rebuild all the bases of its autonomy, including toward Armenia. Azerbaijan, too, will have to use this time to end its policy of institutionalized hatred and racial discrimination. If they fail in their respective goals, the two entities will have to bear the consequences.

This solution depends above all on the will of Russia. It is up to Russia to properly assess the risks and benefits of such an option. Their presence in this region in the medium to long term is at stake.

 

[Philippe Raffi Kalfayan, based in Paris, is a Lawyer, Lecturer in International Law and a former Secretary General of FIDH (International Federation of Human Rights). He is a regular columnist for the Armenian Mirror-Spectator.]

 

 

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