Dr. Artyom Tonoyan

WATERTOWN — The May 22 declaration by Armenian Premier Nikol Pashinyan that Armenia acknowledges Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including what remains of Karabakh, has the Armenian world reeling. The 30-some year quest for independence and perhaps eventual joining up with Armenia, as far as the latter’s leadership is concerned, is done for good.

But can Armenia make that decision for Artsakh, that the republic’s time is done?

One scholar who has studied the Caucasus and is the editor of a recent volume, Black Garden Aflame: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in the Soviet and Russian Press, Dr. Artyom Tonoyan, Visiting Professor of Global Studies at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, is not so sure.

He said, “Armenia has the right to recognize the moon as part of Uzbekistan, but there is a legal provision that Armenia cannot unilaterally recognize Artsakh as part of Azerbaijan.”

Instead, he said, Armenia, he said, “has the obligation to succor the aspirations of Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh.”

The enclave had been given to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic by Stalin in 1923.

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With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the leadership of the Armenian-majority Karabakh organized a referendum in 1991, so that the residents could vote about their fate. They overwhelmingly voted for independence from Azerbaijan.

Karabakh residents and leaders used the same methodology that the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan had used to secede from the Soviet Union. Thus, the interpretation is that if the latter were legal, so is (was) that of the former.

Of course, this declaration and Armenia’s support for it resulted in a bloody war from 1991 to 1994, with the Armenian side winning handily. In the ensuring 30 years, constant negotiations had been going on through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Minsk Group), to determine once and for all Karabakh’s status internationally.

However, Karabakh never tried to legally join the republic to Armenia.

“They tried to play the international game. Armenia never wanted it to be a territorial issue. The approach was that this was a human rights issue, that the lives of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh are threatened, thereby the people of Nagorno Karabakh, which had legal grounding being a subject of Soviet Azerbaijan, and the Soviet Union, they had the right to secede. It was looked at not as a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan — which was a smart thing to do. Initially they wanted Nagorno Karabakh to join the motherland, but the way they started playing the game was that Karabakh had agency and were separate, with the goal of joining Armenia at a later date,” if they wanted, Tonoyan explained.

While the recent statement by Pashinyan set off a storm in the Armenian world, in essence, he has made similar statements before.

Said Tonoyan, “This is not new. He has been signaling this and the people around him have been signaling this for quite a while. It’s been a year since [the] Prague [meeting with Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev] that this has been said, but with never [citing] such precise numbers regarding the territorial size of Azerbaijan. The most important impetus on this was this the recent meeting in Washington, that the Armenian foreign minister and the Azeri foreign minister, under the auspices of [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken met in Washington DC. I guess they had reached some agreement on this,” he said. The “welcoming Pashinyan’s statements,” “you cannot but draw a straight line from those negations to Pashinyan’s statements and to the support that the State Department’s officials are throwing Pashinyan.”

“Pashinyan has given his commitment to making pronouncements at this juncture,” he said. “And this was said right before his trip to Russia. This was another way of Pashinyan putting pressure on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to sort out what’s happening with the Lachin Corridor and allow Armenian goods and services and Karabakh goods and services free travel between those countries.”

Shortly after the announcement, representatives from the UK, US and NATO, visited Armenia. The timing of those visits certainly were striking.

These actions, Tonoyan said, did arise from the pronouncements by Pashinyan, who was sending signals to the West. “I think it’s Pashinyan’s wish to see Armenia be decentered from Russia. I think this is part of the game that is played. I don’t know how wise it is, but that is what is happening,” he said.

The ultimate purpose seems to be reducing Russia’s sphere of influence in the Caucasus; Armenia is one country in the region dependent on Russia and Russian help.

“Pashinyan has always had this idée fixe that much of Armenia’s problems are because of its close ties and entanglements with Russia. Some may say he has Russophobic tendencies. He wants Armenia out of Russia’s orbit and this is the price he is willing to pay but I am not sure this is the price that  the Armenian people must pay,” Tonoyan stated.

Lachin Corridor

The Lachin Corridor, linking Armenia and Karabakh, was closed by Azerbaijan in December. More recently, the Azerbaijani side has constructed a checkpoint there, indicating that they are not going anywhere.

At first, when Azerbaijan blocked Lachin corridor, the only link the enclave has with Armenia, and therefore the world, the US and even the UK, which he said “has been all too cozy with Azerbaijan for decades,” as well as France, made statements against it.

“The Azeris are quite good playing this game. They know there is bigger fish that is being fried, in Ukraine, and so they can wait out any pressure from the west,” he said.

“Everyone is ok with the results of the conflict. Everyone wants this conflict to go away and insofar as it serves to weaken Russia’s positions in the south caucus, the Azeris are pretty good at conveying this, that whatever they are doing, they are meant to reduce Russia’s role in the South Caucasus.”

If they are not needed in Armenia, then they can leave the South Caucus.

“For them, Armenia doesn’t nearly have the geopolitical significance or the weight to them that the Azeris do,” he said. “The western powers are just fine with it.”

And what would happen once the corridor opens, if it does?

“It’s a very complex question. I am sure some of the population would be willing to leave and who am I to blame them,” he said, adding wistfully, “For heaven’s sake I left Armenia.”

He added that in the absence of “a strange statehood and statist traction, leaving our countries has become a part of our DNA, as unfortunate as it is.”

Not all would settle in Armenia, he noted, saying “given how disgusting Armenia’s government’s position has been”

Tonoyan said that Aliyev is hinting that the Lachin Corridor is not closed, because “the people of Nagorno Karabakh can actually freely move to Armenia,” but, of course, he never said Armenians are able to go to Karabakh.

Aliyev was basically saying, Tonoyan explained, that “Armenians of Karabakh are free not to go back and forth but there is free movement to go out,” he added.

“I am sure you will have very small numbers who are tired of it and will get Azeri passports and stay,” he said; the “nightmarish” scenario regards those who want neither, meaning “they will put up some fight. I don’t even want to contemplate that because we know no one will come to their rescue.”

In hushed tones, he added, “We will have a fait accompli where this population has been massacred and they [the Azerbaijani government] have achieved their strategic goals that they have always contemplated,” he said. “The Armenian army, having been defenestrated, I just don’t see any willingness to do anything about it.”

The same goes for the Armenian churches and monuments that Azerbaijan is destroying. They do it “because they can.”

Azerbaijan, he noted, has “created a reality on the ground” and those who can do something about it, choose not to do so. “The only entity that could do something about it is Armenia. It’s our territory. It has historically meant something quite significant for our history, and culture and we’re not doing anything because sometimes we’re incapable, sometimes we’re unwilling,” adding that the Russians, Americans and Iranians are not willing to do it. “They are getting away with murder,” he added.

One reason for this international laissez faire attitude is the Iran factor. “Azerbaijan has positioned itself as a regional player that can parry both against Russia and against Iran. It represents the objectives of the West to separate these two from each other and not allow them to connect in any meaningful fashion, At the same time, we have to keep in mind that Azerbaijan facilitates this communications network between Russia and Iran through the railway that they are trying to construct,” he said. “They are good at playing this game.”

While the West seems to be delighted with having Azerbaijan as a proxy in the South Caucasus, that country is also cozying up to Russia.

In fact, the day before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Russia and Azerbaijan signed a much ballyhooed strategic pact in Moscow, pledging fealty to one another.

2020 War

The fortunes of Karabakh reversed after the disastrous war of 2020 launched by Azerbaijan, which saw the abject defeat of Karabakh and Armenia. The Armenian army, which until then had boasted a stellar reputation, was left in tatters.

Noted Tonoyan, “I think the war was completely mismanaged,” he said. “Your army is as good as your leadership. If your leadership is mercurial and can’t make up its mind, can’t delegate properly, what can the people fighting on the ground do?”

He also referred to the much circulated recent comments by Anna Hakobyan, the premier’s wife, who claimed that the Armenian army lost the war partly because there were 11,000 army defectors. She has not provided any proof regarding the numbers.

“It was very insensitive, very offensive. My nephew wasn’t a defector and he paid the price,” Tonoyan said.

Pashinyan’s “future depends on the will of the Armenian people,” Tonoyan said.

In Armenia, he said, the “cannon fodder” love “the cannoneers who lob bombs at them,” he said. “His political future depends on whether the people of Armenia will say enough is enough. We’re tired of this,” he said. He said a recent poll by the International Republican Institute suggested  the majority is unhappy with his management of the Karabakh war.

This wasn’t there even last year, he said.

“This is the consequence of that idee fixe. The most tragic part of this is that he had two clearcut examples from which he did not draw any conclusions. … He never thought it would become an example himself: Georgia and Ukraine,” he said.

In the war with Russia, Georgia lost South Ossetia and Abkhazian, and as for Russia’s current war, “look what Putin did with Ukraine,” he said. “Putin unleashed the dogs of war on that country.”

Tonoyan said that Pashinyan is wrong if he thinks by handing over Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Armenia’s territorial security will be respected by either Azerbaijan or Turkey. If Turkey decides to take a chunk of Armenia, they could possibly get away with it, he lamented, adding, “Look what Turkey did with Syria and Iraq and who did anything? Who is to tell they won’t do the same to Armenia under some pretext?”

He added, “Aliyev is not a good faith actor and the government of Armenia, half-witted as they are, they assume that they are dealing with a good-faith actor, which is not the case,” he said. “I know he [Pashinyan] is trying to message the international community that we are peaceniks, that we don’t want war.”

He further explained, “Aliyev doesn’t look at Armenians as adversaries. He looks at them as foes to be vanquished, to be destroyed. … Aliyev looks at Armenians as an existential threat rather than equals,” he said.

Armenia’s government and population, Tonoyan said, have historically been wrong to belittle this adversary.

“The Armenians have always looked on at Azeris as these unsophisticated villagers who are not up to the task of challenging Armenians,” he said. “There has always been this cultural supremacy.”

That sort of attitude, he said, led to a skewed interpretation of reality.  “You end up underestimating your enemy and that’s the worst thing you can ever do. That led to Armenia letting its guard down.”

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