Friday, August 4, 2017

Armenia’s Karabakh Syndrome

(Photo: Twitter)

On July 17 I drove by the Special Police Battalion Barracks on Movses Khorenatsi street in Erebuni sub-urb of Yerevan, Armenia. There was a big crowd of policemen and policewomen gathered in front of the entrance with wreaths and flowers in their hands and in parade uniforms. By coincidence, I was witnessing the commemoration ceremony for 3 police officers killed on that place exactly one year ago by a group or “armed men” called themselves “Sasna Tsrer” (Daredevils of Sasun – medieval Armenian legend), who stormed the barracks with guns blasting and held hostage several police officers for over two weeks. “Armed men” were mostly veterans of the Karabakh war from the 90s and the Armenian society became divided in those hot July days by their desperate act. One side of the divide was convinced that they were terrorists who used violence to pursue political goals. The other side – including a number of opposition leaders and activists – claimed that they were heroes living in desperate times that required desperate acts, even the use of violence.

The demands of “armed men” were immodest – the Government of Armenia should resign because it is too corrupt and crooked; President should step down because he is of the same kind; their compatriots who were being held in prison should be released and – very interestingly – Armenia should not compromise with Azerbaijan on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict resolution. “Not a square centimeter, bought out with our blood, should be given to Turks” (a pejorative for Azerbaijanis), they declared. I was in Yerevan at that time as well and stayed not very far from the barracks in Erebuni. I could hear gunshots and explosions - especially at night time. I wrote about that event in this paper.

Fast forward to Armenia in Summer 2017 – Armenian society remains to be divided in understanding of the “Sasna Tsrer” act. What paradoxically unites it, is the so-called “Karabakh syndrome”. At least that seems to be one of the outcomes of the parliamentary elections that took place on April 2, 2017. All the political parties (coalitions) that made it to the Parliament (4) were united in their approach towards the Nagorno Karabakh conflict - there should be no compromises with Azerbaijan. The only party that run for the elections with a compromise programme on the Nagorno Karabakh issue – the Armenian National Congress (HAK) - did not make it through the threshold and to the Parliament.

There were two events from 2016 that shaped the programme of most of the Armenian political parties on the “Karabakh issue” prior to the elections. One was the violent act of the “Sasna Tsrer” group. The second was the fact, that the parliamentary elections took place exactly one year after the worst clashes along the Nagorno Karabakh contact line (1. – 5.4.2016) when hundreds of soldiers on both sides were killed in a short four-day skirmish that resulted in Armenia losing two highlands to Azerbaijan. It was the first minor military victory of  the Azerbaijani forces in 22 years since they lost the War over Nagorno Karabakh (1988-94).

This military event that went down in history as “the Four-Day War of 2016naturally stirred nationalistic moods on both sides. Azerbaijan thinks that the Four-Day War broke the myth of Armenian invincibility and they got appetite for some more of the Nagorno Karabakh territory. Azerbaijan is openly unsatisfied with the current status quo and lengthy diplomatic processes trying to find a compromise solution for over 20 years now with no end in sight. The country has been threatening to solve the conflict by force for a long time and at the same time investing huge amounts of money into procurement of new weaponry. Armenia on the other hand was fine with the status quo prior to the Four-Day War as its “protégé” – (theoretically) independent yet unrecognized “Republic of Artsakh” – was holding the whole territory of the historical Karabakh (in Armenian “Artsakh”) as well as the seven surrounding regions of Azerbaijan. Following the Four-Day War, there are strong voices that Armenia should retake the two lost areas with force.

This is a quite specific situation. Both sides are preparing for war and do not believe that diplomatic negotiations that have been going on for over 23 years by now will result in an acceptable solution. The tension has been growing on the contact line. Shoot-outs have been happening on a regular basis; and both sides have reported victims every week. The casualties are mostly young and inexperienced recruits of the conscription service aged 18 – 20 who should rather be sitting in school rooms than in dirty trenches. Each of these skirmishes has a potential to grow into something bigger. Given the lack of international observers and the weakening of influence of some important global players (the US and Russia being pre-occupied elsewhere) in the conflict region, there is a major risk that the conflict could grow into a full-scale war.      

A full-scale conflict would be devastating for both countries, no matter which one is the richer. But keeping one’s own citizens under this perpetual threat of the outside enemy helps solidify regimes on both sides of the contact line. While Azerbaijan is openly a hereditary authoritarian regime (now with the First Lady being also the country’s Vice-President), in Armenia there is at least a semblance of democratic competition – there is real opposition albeit quite weak at the moment. The real power, however, rests within the oligarchic system based on corruption and personal ties.   

The “Karabakh syndrome” therefore looms over the Armenian administration. On the one hand, it helps mobilize support and loyalty against a strong external enemy. But on the other hand, it limits manoeuvring space for the Armenian diplomacy to seek a compromise solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would be the a strongly preferred option by the international community (over the open conflict, obviously). This can lead to a deadly spiral with the already long process of mediated negotiations will continue to be hampered by uncompromising positions of both parties. It will lead to further frustration over the outcomes and consequently to potential further escalation of violence on the contact line resulting in more young lives perished in the process.  

No wonder that the country is preparing itself also for the possibility of war. The preparation consists not only of military exercises and drills but also preparation of the society. This includes also psychological preparation. The most interesting phenomenon I witnessed is the trending Armenian pop-music. In some of the most recent video clips of popular Armenian singers, there are usually back-up dancers dressed in Armenian military field uniforms dancing and cheering. The same pattern repeats in a number of the latest Armenian pop-music hits subconsciously glorifying soldiers and their role of “protectors of the Motherland”. 

In the meantime, arrested gunmen of the “Sasna Tsrer” are being tried in the court. The proceedings are criticized by the opposition who claims that those are political processes and amount to the mishandling of justice. Even foreign observers voiced their concerns about the fact that defendants are being beaten regularly by the court guards. On the other hand, the defendants refuse authority of the court and use the hearings for openly calling the public for another armed revolt in the streets.

Having witnessed events of the last summer first hand, every time I hear an explosion now in Yerevan in the night, I listen carefully to understand whether something is happening again or it is just fireworks. Luckily, so far it has been the latter. 

Ján Cingel
European Neighbourhood Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

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