The unrest spreading through Armenian could decide the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal.
On November 10, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia announced they had signed a peace deal that halted fighting in the disputed territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh.
– Popular dissatisfaction in Armenia with the decision to sign the deal will likely lead to the ouster of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan
– A post-Pashinyan government would be likely to annul the agreement
– If it holds, the new peace deal could preclude France and the US from significant involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh in the near future
– If the peace deal fails, factors such as the new peacekeeper presence could lead to increased and/or more direct involvement by Turkey and Russia
DECADES OF TALKS, DECADES OF BLOODSHED
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous area that has been largely populated by ethnic Armenians but fell within the Soviet border of Azerbaijan when the USSR collapsed. A bloody war that ensued between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1988 ended in 1994 with the territory’s de facto independence. Intermittent skirmishes have occurred in the intervening decades, but in July 2020, tensions flared after clashes in the border town of Tovuz, home to a section of the crucial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s controversial policy statements over the preceding months, including an assertion that Nagorno-Karabakh was indisputably Armenian and a stated intention to make the strategic city of Shusha the regional capital, also likely contributed to increasingly strained ties.
Armenian rocket fire in late September reportedly sparked a massive counter-offensive, for which Azerbaijani officials had allegedly been preparing for some time, and touched off over a month of fighting. A November 10 peace deal followed the failure of three externally-brokered ceasefires in the six weeks since the flare-up of violence. It also followed talks between Russia and Turkey — the main external allies of Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively — which signed an agreement to establish a joint ceasefire monitoring centre in the disputed territory. Russian peacekeepers have been deployed for a five-year period along the frontline and in the Lachin land corridor from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city, Stepanakert, which remains under Armenian control.
Azerbaijani forces had made major gains by the time the recent peace deal was reached, recapturing many strategic areas that it had lost control over in the original 1988-1994 war. Since 1994, the trilateral OSCE Minsk Group consisting of France, the US, and Russia had hosted regular talks and negotiations on a peaceful settlement to the protracted conflict and the flareups that followed. Azerbaijan’s recent military advantage, fueled by funds from the country’s energy industry, likely disincentivised the country’s compliance with earlier ceasefires in this most recent phase.
After the ceasefire terms were announced, Armenian protesters disaffected with the ceding of what they consider to be their ancestral land stormed the government building and removed Nikol Pashinyan’s nameplate from the prime minister’s office. Protesters, former and current Armenian political leaders, and 17 political parties have publicly demanded Pashinyan’sresignation, and a former national security official was recently arrested for allegedly plotting to assassinate the prime minister.
PEACE, PASHINYAN, AND THE POTENTIAL FOR RENEWED CONFLICT
Despite these calls for the prime minister to step down, the Armenian parliament has yet to take action. The parliament, which is dominated by supporters of Pashinyan, did not proceed with a proposed special session to discuss his resignation on November 11 due to a failure to reach quorum. However, as Pashinyan’s own ascent two years prior demonstrated, the Armenian opposition and the populace at large are fully capable and willing to utilise mass demonstrations to effect transitions of power regardless of the outcome of internal political processes. In 2018, Pashinyan rose to power on a wave of protests that thwarted former Armenian leader Serzh Sargasyan’s attempt to prolong his political dominance as prime minister after a decade as president. Given the comparative longevity of Pashinyan’s predecessor at the levers of power, the will and capabilities required on the part of the current premier’s opponents to oust Pashinyan would likely be far less. If the parliament continues not to act or ultimately decides not to remove Pashinyan, the public will likely escalate their protests, which could in turn lead to the second transition of power in as many years. Whoever would take Pashinyan’s place, likely a member of the political opposition, would have a mandate that centres on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and dissatisfaction with its current status. This stance would clearly be at odds with the recent peace agreement, which the new authorities may feel compelled to renege upon.
Should the peace hold and protesters fail to oust Pashinyan, the US and France may find their influence and leverage to be severely diminished. Paris and Washington are set to send diplomats to Moscow to discuss the conflict in the near future, but the lack of involvement of these co-Minsk Group parties in the Russia-brokered agreement means that they have no guarantee of involvement in its implementation. As the existing deal presents no concrete plan for reconstruction or restoring relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is possible that France and the US could advocate for a role in taking on these elements of peacebuilding. While French President Emmanuel Macron did state his commitment to forging a lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh several days after the ceasefire was signed, the outgoing administration of US President Donald Trump has demonstrated little political will toward this course of action. By the time President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January, US leverage will likely be even more limited. Regardless of the role of the Minsk Group going forward, Russia’s role in the ceasefire deal and its nascent peacekeeper presence in Nagorno-Karabakh will give Moscow the upper hand — and likely the final say — in deciding who will take part in enforcing the peace as well as how they will do so. This is also true of Turkey to a lesser extent, as Istanbul was likewise not an official party to the agreement.
If Pashinyan is ousted and the peace deal falters, the conflict could see increased involvement from external actors. This scenario may facilitate the reintegration of the Minsk format into the restarted peace process. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Armenia would “pay the price” if it violated the ceasefire and that Azerbaijan would subsequently resume its military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh. This statement suggests that Turkey would continue and even step up its backing of Azerbaijani military efforts, which has included training Azeri officers, holding joint exercises, and a sixfold increase in weapons sales in 2020 alone. A renewed fight in Nagorno-Karabakh would also mean contending with the recently deployed Russian peacekeeping force, with the potential for clashes to draw the Russian armed forces into a heightened military role in the conflict beyond indirect support. The outcome of such a development is as yet unclear, as both Russia and Turkey have so far eschewed direct military involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The fate of the most recent armistice and the role of various external parties to the conflict will likely hinge on the fate of Armenia’s embattled prime minister, with the potential for a serious escalation in scale. With Pashinyan’s avenues for remaining in power narrowing, the peace deal may prove short-lived.