BOSTON — It has been six months since Azerbaijani forces, under the guise of an ecological protest, blocked the Lachin Corridor, the only route connecting Karabakh (Artsakh) to Armenia, the only friendly country on its border. The governments in Stepanakert and Yerevan, starting on that day on December 12, 2022, noted that indeed, this was not ecological protest but a wily, aggressive move to speed the gobbling up by Azerbaijan of the remaining 30 percent of Artsakh that Azerbaijan had not seized after the 2020 war. The truth of that assertion was reconfirmed as the self-styled eco protestors, whose record of actions were replete with horror scenes of hunting animals and killing a dove in the process of setting it free, were replaced by an official checkpoint and military border guards.

Political scientist, journalist and international relations specialist Prof. Vicken Cheterian, when asked about the state of Karabakh and Armenia, suggested the leaderships of Armenia and Karabakh had to grapple with realities on the ground especially about their foreign policies to get on the right path — or even survive.

The Lebanese-born Cheterian is a lecturer in history and international relations at the University of Geneva, and at Webster University in Geneva. He is also a regular contributor to Agos in Istanbul, among other publications.

Lachin Blockade

In an interview from his office in Geneva, he made it clear that Armenia and Artsakh are facing formidable adversaries but show little initiative in combating their narratives or actions internationally. The results can be catastrophic for what little remains of Artsakh.

“It’s clear Azerbaijan is increasing the pressure step by step, and if there is no reaction from the side of Stepanakert, especially the side of the Yerevan, we can expect ethnic cleansing and the destruction of what is left of Armenian life and Armenian autonomous organizations in Artsakh. There is no doubt about it,” Cheterian said.

He expressed his disappointment with the leaderships of the two republics.

“We know the challenge but … we don’t see any serious effort to take responsibility for the defeat, to say ‘OK, we were wrong and want to change our methods,’” he said. What is needed, he said, is “a new degree of organizational leadership and mobilization. And that’s not happening either in Stepanakert nor Yerevan. To be honest, I don’t know what they are doing.”

He stressed that the Artsakh leaders need to take stock of what happened in 2020 and take responsibility for the loss, rather than “blaming outside forces.” In short, he added, there needs to be a thorough analysis of what happened.

“Were they overconfident? Did they underestimate Azerbaijan as a danger and overestimate the role of their allies? They need to reevaluate all that. They need to explain what went wrong. They need to articulate a new discourse around which to mobilize the forces of Karabakh. For the moment, I am not seeing this,” Cheterian said. “I don’t see a leadership in Karabakh that inspires confidence.”

Nor did he mince his words when it came to evaluating the Yerevan authorities.

He said: “We can say the same about Yerevan. They were saying something very different before the war and during the war. They were saying hakhteloo yenk [we will defeat them]. And what we received was a shameful defeat, a painful defeat. … The only explanation [by the government] was that there were traitors. This is not an explanation. Or that Russians didn’t help us. Were you expecting that they help us? Were they saying they would come to our help?”

And, he added, there has been no explanation after the defeat.

Karabakh Movement

Cheterian harkened back to the original Karabakh Movement launched in 1988 and stressed that Armenia must protect the small enclave, at all costs.

“Armenia’s raison d’être as a sovereign state is to protect Karabakh Armenians,” he explained. When the movement came to be in March 1988, he noted, it was because the “Soviet state was not protecting the life and security of Armenians in Azerbaijan after the Sumgait pogroms,” he said.

The thesis was “we need sovereignty to protect Karabakh,” he added.

Now, Armenia is abandoning that mission without an explanation, which “goes against history,” he said.

One question that often crops up is why no nation — not even Armenia — has recognized Artsakh’s independence after that republic’s overwhelmingly approved referendum for independence and eventual joining with Armenia, in 1991.

Cheterian explained that the initial argument under then-President Levon Ter-Petrosian was that if Armenia recognized Karabakh as an independent state, some doors may close.

“The argument in Yerevan was, if we recognize that independence, we are cutting the bridges of any possible negotiations with Azerbaijan,” he explained.

After the cease fire of 1994, Cheterian said, it was clear that without a permanent negotiated peace, a second war was inevitable. And playing a huge part in this second war was Turkey.

“What I morally, ethically, philosophically, existentially have huge problems with, is that Turkey, as a country responsible for a genocide against Armenia, took part in this second war,” Cheterian said. “Overall, we will not be able to understand the Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan without bringing in this Ottoman and Turkish dimension into our analysis. To be honest, I am very worried about the future of Armenia. A Turkey that does not recognize its moral and political responsibility in what happened in 1915, will always be a Turkey which is antagonistic toward Armenia. And an Armenia that has these two enemy nations is not a sustainable Armenia. It’s a very, very big problem we have.”

The leaders of Turkey and Azerbaijan have talked frequently since the end of the 2020 war of carving out the “Zangezur Corridor” in southern Armenia, to link Baku to the exclave of Nakhijevan and from there to Turkey.

Cheterian explained that he thought the corridor presents two problems, if it is created. First, he said, is that Armenia would lose autonomy over some of its southern territory and second, “Azerbaijan and Turkey want exclusive passage in southern Armenia, but what I want is normalization of relations and opening up of all communication,” between Yerevan and all the Turkic world.

If it happens, that might just whet the Azerbaijani appetite for more. Dating back to the older Aliyev, Heydar, Azerbaijani leaders have expressed the desire to absorb Armenia, he said.

“Now, we can hear official Azerbaijani circles talk about ‘Western Azerbaijan’ and ‘Western Azerbaijan’ is not Kars or Igdir, but it is exactly current Armenia. What they are doing is preparing the ground for future conflict,” he said.

“Even after they won, Azeri anger toward Armenia is not ending,” he said. “He [Ilham Aliyev] has the means to ask for more. Either there will be a new balance of forces that will stop him or he will go on,” Cheterian said.

As for overtures from Armenia to Turkey, Cheterian said, “I think what Pashinyan is doing is symbolically telling them we want to be friends.” While he said that is a positive move, it is not enough. “Turkey, being the country that we know under [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, they will not give anything in return for kind words.”

Instead, he said, Armenia needs to create leverage which will make it worth Turkey’s better attitude.

2020 War

The original war for independence, referred to as the first Karabakh war, roughly lasted from 1988 to 1994. The astonishing victory of the ragtag fighters against a much more organized enemy became the stuff of legend. The war in 2020, by contrast, was short, with a brutal defeat handed to the Artsakh and Armenian forces by Azerbaijani forces, aided greatly by Turkey. Between the two wars, more than 15,000 Armenians died.

One major factor, according to Cheterian, was Azerbaijan’s wealth from oil.

“The problem is that on the one hand, Azerbaijan, especially with Ilham Aliyev coming to power in 2003, and the pipeline being constructed in 2005, and oil money starting flowing Baku in 2006, started spending enormous sums on its army,” he said. “Plus, Ilham Aliyev, from the beginning, was not interested in diplomatic negotiations and he was threatening to take back what he considered his, by force.”

Cheterian added, by contrast, during this time, Armenia was not putting in “serious efforts neither diplomatically nor militarily.”

One problem, he cited, was that after independence, the Armenian armed forces’ structure was set up in a “very old fashioned” way. “They were structured after the first war on the Soviet model, very top down, very bureaucratic.”

In the first Karabakh War in the 1990s, he said, by contrast, the forces fighting were more along the lines of fedayeen volunteers who took action based on the needs they saw on the battlefield, in real time.

“In 2020, the Armenian army could not react …. It was a paralyzed army from its strategic thinking to organization to the battlefield. Basically, Armenia was preparing itself for a very different kind of war,” Cheterian noted, adding the government expected that after one week of war, Russia would intervene, despite no sign from Russia that it was willing to do so.

He also dismissed Armenia’s anger toward lack of action by the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Armenia is a member, suggesting it exists only on paper, and at the whim of Russia. The Armenian authorities had roundly criticized the organization and its member countries for not sending help.

“Yerevan should have known what Russia was ready to do,” or not, he said. “Armenia did not know because Armenia did not develop mature state institutions to be able to answer these questions. Armenia does not have proper diplomacy, or proper analytical services.”

Otherwise, he added, the military and political leaders of the country would have known the position or behaviors of all major actors, including Russia, the US, Iran, etc. when war broke out.

“This was not an army ready for the next war” in 2020, Cheterian said. “This is so surprising. I was not expecting this level of daydreaming,” he said.

He had even harsher comments for the Karabakh military leadership. “I don’t understand this from Karabakh Armenians. Every day, they were guarding trenches. They should have known that a second war was in the making. At least after 2016 it was evident.”

The four-day war of “2016 made it clear that Aliyev was serious about a second war,” he said.

From April 1 to 5, 2016, Azerbaijani forces without warning attacked Artsakh, near Martuni, killing around 90 Armenian civilians and soldiers, according to official sources.

“What Armenian political leaders are very good at is doing speeches but not problem solving,” Cheterian said, extending the shortcoming to Armenians to Karabakh and the diaspora.

“I believe that in spite of Turkey supporting Azerbaijan massively and Russia not coming to the support of Armenia,” the latter has to take responsibility for the defeat. “In Armenia there were no factories producing Kalashnikov bullets. This country was not ready. If they had prepared for a second war, they could have understood the weak points of Ilham Aliyev and they could have hurt him. Eventually, Armenia was defeated not by a modern industrial nation, but by a corrupt dictator who has only one weapon: oil and gas exports.”

“If we want to play the game of international relations, we need to understand the rules of the game,” he said.

International Diplomacy

Before the 2020 war, there was a lot brewing in the neighboring regions, including wars in Syria and Iraq, and unrest involving the Kurds, including the non-recognition of the Kurdish regional independence referendum in Iraq in 2017. In other words, the atmosphere was tense.

“We live in a period of international relations when only power relations matter. Discourse about human rights, women’s rights, environmental rights, is very nice, but they have no place in the real world of international relations,” Cheterian said.

As for appealing to the United Nations, the “UN is a big NGO.” The world does not have a global governance organization, only major players, such as the US, Russia, European Union, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, etc.

“If Armenia wants favors from these people, they should go and barter. That’s what Azerbaijan did. They went to these places and they bought people. What did Armenia do? They were not even in the room. Either you behave like a state or you don’t,” he said. “Armenia had other instruments. They could have used them. They did not do it.”

Such lackluster diplomacy is not only the fault of Nikol Pashinyan’s administration. Instead, he said, things have been working the same way since independence.

“I think the problems we have in Armenia are long term. Armenia has major problems, look at the map. And we closed our eyes,” he said. “This is the neighborhood we have but how can you tolerate 30 years of doing nothing? Armenia has a war with its eastern neighbor. It’s border is shut down. Armenia has a historical problem with its western neighbor and that border is shut down. Armenia has complex relations with Georgia.”

He added, “Even if you take South Caucasus as a system, Armenia is isolated. Georgia has very good relations with Azerbaijan. They have partnerships and business interests.” And again, he said, “Armenia is absent.”

By not doing anything, he suggested, “the only surprising element in this is that the problem [the war of 2020] didn’t happen earlier.”

Much rested on wishful thinking.

“The only idea that existed in Yerevan was that the Russians will come,” he said. There was never analysis about what would happen if Russia did not behave as expected, even though the signs were there.

“The idea that Russia will come and save us I could have understood in the early 2000s when Robert Kocharyan was president, but even under Serzh Sargsyan, relations were very strained. Serzh Sargsyan tried to create some balance between Russia and the West and he received a slap in the face on every occasion,” he added.

Armenia depended too much on Russia in every sector. Thus, he added, “Armenia became a burden for Russia,” while being able to offer very little in return for such reliance.

“We can say the same thing for the West,” Cheterian noted. “When it comes to hard politics, what kind of role can Armenia play as an important player for the EU, for Germany, the UK, for Italy? Look at how much oil and gas Italy gets from Azerbaijan and how many weapons Italy sells to Azerbaijan. In this kind of balance sheet, where is Armenia? Armenia is absent.”

An enclave whose history has been similar to Artsakh and whose fate (so far) has been very different, is Kosovo. When the ethnic Albanians in the Albanian-majority enclave in the former Yugoslavia voted for self-rule, they got the backing of NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The fate of Kosovo, Cheterian said, was sealed in Washington. “If you can go and negotiate in Washington and say that Karabakh is a special case and come and support our sovereignty, fine,” he said. “All these arguments will have no consequence until a major state, like the US, which is ready to support Karabakh being like Kosovo.”

Going Forward

Changes need to be made going forward to modernize the state, Cheterian noted, which he characterized as being still ingrained in the Soviet model.

In the first place, he said, “Armenia should realize that the state apparatus that exists in Yerevan is inefficient. We saw this during the war. The military didn’t function, the foreign policy didn’t function, the strategic thinking element didn’t function. This is because the Armenian state was inherited form the administrative structure of the Soviet Union.” He added, “This sector is non-functional. And this is why the Soviet Union collapsed.”

He added, “The way the Armenian state functions is that there are 4-5 people around the head of the executive. From Levon Ter-Petrosian to Robert Kocharyan to Serzh Sargsyan to Nikol Pashinyan, decisions are taken by the executive and his four or five friends. They are not the ministers. They are the close collaborators of the head of the executive.”

Therefore, he said, decisions are not made by the people tasked with creating policy. And now, with the disenchantment within the rank and file, making positive movement is even more difficult.

Second, he said, “The current leadership does not have political capital to do these reforms. To do such a reform, what we need first, is an internal Armenian dialogue — national reconciliation between different existing forces.”

The prime minister, he said, “needs to remobilize new forces. He should articulate … a minimal program between different forces that are contradictory … in the name of saving the nation, we need to make this initiative.”

This expansive approach, he said, has a precedent during the first Karabakh war. “After Azerbaijani attack in summer 1992, most of Karabakh was taken over [by Azerbaijani forces] but then there was a reformulation of the executive in Karabakh. Levon Ter-Petrosian brought his former friend and enemy, Vazgen Manukyan, to assume the leadership of the defense ministry. By creating this kind of large coalition of forces, Armenia might be able to mobilize even larger forces the diaspora,” he said.

An evaluation needs to be made, he said: “What is the moral and political limit that we don’t cross? If we cross them we stop being a nation.”

For the future of Armenia to be better, he said, the diaspora, as well as Armenia and Karabakh, need to be in the mix.

“The diaspora has no leadership, no independent thinking and no independent field of action” so it can be “a political factor” in the greater world, he said.

The diaspora can do more, he said. He suggested “Trying to organize over certain issues, try to create networks,” adding “create knowledge, political influence and get results,” he said.

Cheterian is the author of two books, War and Peace in the Caucasus, Russia’s Troubled Frontier (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers), and Open Wounds, Armenians, Turks and a Century of Genocide (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers/New York: Oxford University Press USA).

Get the Mirror in your inbox:
Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: