Armenia’s Change of Leadership Adds Uncertainty over Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia’s new government will likely adhere to long-held positions in its 30-year conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. But the two sides need more direct communication in the conflict zone. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 – Second Update early warning report, Crisis Group urges European policymakers to help forge these links to avoid renewed fighting.

Armenia has experienced political turbulence since mass demonstrations in April spurred its prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, to stand down after a decade in power, and the Armenian parliament selected Nikol Pashinyan, the protest leader, to replace him. Pressure on Pashinyan to enact reforms he pledged on coming to power is likely to sharpen after snap parliamentary elections, which are expected in the coming months and which his party appears set to win. With a busy domestic agenda, the new government is unlikely to make any major step toward resolving the country’s 30-year conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave Nagorno-Karabakh or revisit Armenia’s long-held positions on that conflict. The lack of any progress toward resolving the conflict risks leading to a renewed escalation; it could further frustrate Azerbaijan and potentially boost its desire for territorial gains through the use of force.

The priority for both Armenia, Azerbaijan and their respective allies ought to be to mitigate risks of such an escalation. Incidents in the conflict zone, which have intensified since 2012, would fast destroy any hope for a reset in stalled peace talks. In the medium term, the two sides need channels for more direct communication. Their leaders should resume regular meetings, which have not taken place since October 2017 (though the two foreign ministers met in July for the first time since the Armenian leadership change). Meetings between the leaderships could help develop a shared vision for renewed negotiations.

The European Union (EU) has long sought entry points for enlarging its role in Nagorno-Karabakh talks. The uncertainty created by Armenia’s change of leadership might open up some opportunities.      

In addition to supporting the conflict’s only mediating body – the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group – the EU could use its bilateral ties and the engagement of its special representative for the South Caucasus to help both countries establish channels of communication, even if informal, among stakeholders including their militaries, political advisers to the two governments and Armenian and Azerbaijani civil societies.

In 2017, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed in principle to increase the number of OSCE observers working in the conflict zone, but the sides remain at odds over aspects of the new observers’ deployment. To help resolve the impasse, the EU could offer resources and share its experiences from other conflicts, while vocally backing the increase.

The EU should reorient its peacebuilding activities toward stimulating greater public support for a future peace deal, particularly among youth groups and people living along the front lines and the Azerbaijani-Armenian international borders.

The EU and other international actors also might consider additional financial support, including for UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) efforts to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of a potential escalation.

Reducing Risks of Escalation through Communication

The new Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has a limited policy record on Nagorno-Karabakh. He is the first Armenian leader in two decades who played no personal role in the war, though he was born in Armenia’s Tavush area, near the eastern border with Azerbaijan, which has suffered a serious economic downturn due to the conflict.

Yet while Pashinyan lacks his predecessors’ links to Karabakh, he already has glimpsed in his short time in office the difficulty of policymaking toward the disputed enclave. He spent his first weeks as prime minister building trust with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto leadership, which had been loyal to Sargsyan, including calling for its greater engagement in the peace process. Those statements were poorly received in Baku, which is wary of what it perceives as attempts to “legitimise” those authorities, and in turn insists on the participation of representatives of displaced Azerbaijanis from Karabakh.

Pashinyan and his team thus far have mainly aligned with the traditional policy lines of their predecessors. That is unlikely to change while they remain focused on domestic reforms and keeping the transition on track. But, in an environment of deep distrust between the parties, the lack of clarity regarding Yerevan’s intentions toward the enclave risks increasing tensions. Some Azerbaijani officials already express frustration over the prolonged uncertainty, which, they believe, entrenches a status quo Baku desires to change.

Thus far, the two sides have prevented major incidents. But the risk remains of tactical moves by either side or inadvertent incidents spiralling out of control. Nagorno-Karabakh is among the most heavily militarised places in the world. Any escalation could create a humanitarian crisis. Around 300,000 people live in the 15km-wide zone along the Azerbaijani side of the line of contact. All of the 150,000 Armenians residing in Nagorno-Karabakh are within reach of Azerbaijani missiles and artillery shells. Renewed fighting could cause more destruction than the escalation over four days in April 2016, which led to more than 200 deaths.

A main worry is that communication between field commanders in and around Nagorno-Karabakh is non-existent. For years contacts largely have been limited to the highest levels – the two countries’ presidents and foreign ministers. Multilevel communication, including between the sides’ militaries, could help minimise risks of inadvertent escalation. Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s leadership should show more readiness to open channels between lower-level counterparts. For its part, the EU should explore opportunities to help build new lines of communication and deliver messages between the two sides. It also could consider facilitating targeted mediation on humanitarian issues that, among other things, might stimulate progress of official talks in the OSCE Minsk Group format.

In 2017, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed, in principle, to increase the number of conflict observers of the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office from the current six to thirteen. As yet, the sides have not carried out this important albeit limited step toward improving transparency along the line of contact. Baku fears the increase might further solidify the status quo in the conflict zone. It is reluctant to permit the deployment of the extra observers without concessions from Yerevan; Armenia’s new leadership rejects making any such concessions. The EU should commit to support the extra observers with funds and by sharing its ceasefire monitoring expertise.

Since the April 2016 escalation, the UN and ICRC have worked to reduce the potential human cost of a future escalation, including by supporting civilian protection initiatives and constructing bomb shelters in the conflict zone. The EU and other international actors should provide financial backing to this effort, as needed.    

A Reset of the Peace Process

Talks between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have been deadlocked since the April 2016 escalation. Armenia demands the determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as a precondition for accommodating Azerbaijan’s key demand – the return of the territories adjacent to the Armenian-populated enclave and controlled by Armenia since 1993. The two capitals disagree on Karabakh’s status, however. Yerevan advocates for its independence. Baku’s starting point is that the enclave needs to reintegrate into Azerbaijan.

These positions are very close to the two sides’ stances of almost a quarter century ago, when the bloody 1992-1994 war in Nagorno-Karabakh had just ended. Their intransigence today in effect sweeps aside the Madrid Principles, a formula to which the two sides agreed in 2007 for resolving issues at the core of the conflict (related to the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the return of the adjacent territories to Baku’s control and security arrangements). Since then, both sides have been backsliding, as both have built up their armies and purchased long-range missiles and other modern weaponry.

Escaping this stalemate will not be easy. It will require commitment from Azerbaijan and Armenia’s new leadership to enter talks and find a compromise solution, likely along the lines of the Madrid Principles. This also will require consistent efforts by mediators. But greater engagement between the two societies could help as well and here the EU can play an important role. The year 2019 will mark the end of its investment in two programs aimed at stimulating such dialogue: the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the Peacebuilding through Capacity Enhancement and Civic Engagement program. The EU should consider renewing these programs after a careful review of their impact. Such programs should primarily focus on youth groups – to help develop a vision of future peace between societies that have been divided for three decades – as well as people living in the frontline regions and along the Azerbaijan-Armenia international borders. A new long-term commitment to fostering exchanges between the two countries’ civil societies could start to bridge the existing gulf between the two sides and set a foundation for broader participation in discussions of peace.