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8 September 2023

De Facto Leader of Karabakh Armenians Steps Down

Following Arayik Harutyunyan's resignation as de facto leader of the former NKAO, the future of the region remains uncertain.

De Facto Leader of Karabakh Armenians Steps Down

Image: Arayik Harutyunyan/FB

Arayik Harutyunyan, the de facto leader of what remains of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), has resigned. Though many were skeptical, given similar pronouncements in recent months, Harutyunyan, who held the otherwise unrecognized position of ‘president’ of the mainly ethnic-Armenian breakaway region, was true to his word this time. He left office on 1 September, a day after announcing his intention to do so in a post made on Facebook. 

De facto ‘State Minister’ Gurgen Nersisyan and his advisor, Artak Beglaryan, also left their positions while ‘Security Council Secretary’ Samvel Shahramanyan replaced Nersisyan. The move is seen as a culmination of months of rumoured internal power struggle ongoing since Nersisyan’s predecessor, Russian-Armenian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan, was appointed to the position of de facto State Minister in November last year. 

Vardanyan was dismissed in February. Despite that departure, however, it was Vardanyan’s appointment as de facto State Minister that arguably led to the impasse on the Lachin highway that began on 12 December last year. It is this that remains partially responsible for the political crisis in Karabakh today, although others believe that Baku’s current focus on Lachin is also a direct result of the failure of Armenia and Azerbaijan to negotiate the latter’s access to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan.With Lachin and the route to Nakhchivan mentioned in the 2020 trilateral ceasefire statement, Baku had urged reciprocity in dealing with both. That remains a moot point, however, as there is no indication of whether the “Zangezur Corridor” will be launched anytime soon. As a result, access to Lachin remains limited.

In recent months, this situation has deteriorated further, with commercial goods and humanitarian assistance unable to enter Karabakh from Armenia, leading to a much-publicized limited availability of imported goods and concerns over the well-being of the population. The 15 June shooting from the Armenia side on Azerbaijani border guards stationed on the Hakari bridge saw Baku’s checkpoint on the highway almost totally closed down.

Traffic through Lachin became further limited with the discovery of contraband goods smuggled by the drivers of a transport company contracted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in July. As a result, even the humanitarian organization was prevented from transiting through Lachin. Medical evacuations and some agreed passenger travel has resumed since, but Harutyunyan is widely considered to have been unable to resolve the situation. 

Regardless of the reasons, however, Harutyunyan faced increasing criticism from the opposition and population for his perceived inability to tackle what could potentially soon become a humanitarian crisis for the most vulnerable segment of Karabakh’s population, especially as winter approaches and the apparent emergence of a black market divide society into the haves and have-nots. Hopes that Karabakh would engage in talks with Baku over its future have also been dashed.

As a result, as Azerbaijan continues to pressure Karabakh, and as it in turn refuses to buckle, there have also been long queues for basic foodstuffs such as bread in recent weeks. The supply and distribution of flour to bakeries, as well as vegetables from the regions, has become severely restricted because of fuel shortages on top of a situation that anyway saw staple goods already rationed. 

To address the problem, the international community has called for the re-opening of the Lachin highway and also for the opening of a second complimentary route.

This was most evident at the 15 July meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Brussels. “I emphasized the need to open the Lachin road, “European Council President Charles Michel said in a statement after the talks. “I also noted Azerbaijan’s willingness to provide humanitarian supplies via Aghdam. I see both options as important […].” A reported agreement between Baku and Karabakh on doing just that, however, fell through, given disagreements over the timing of both openings. Attempts also faltered after the detention of one Karabakh resident by Azerbaijani border guards on 29 July. He is accused of war crimes during the first Karabakh war of the 1990s, though his daughter denies the claims.

Writing on Facebook at the time of his resignation, Harutyunyan said: “My background and Azerbaijan’s attitude towards it are artificially creating a number of conditions generating significant problems with regard to our further steps and flexible policy. Besides, the defeat in the war and the resulting difficulties that emerged in the country, reduced trust in the authorities and especially the president, which represents a very serious obstacle to further good governance.”

But as the clock keeps ticking, hopes for an Armenia-Azerbaijan peace agreement this year look even more uncertain, with few options available to Harutyunyan’s successor. The main pressing issue relates to the rights and security of the local population as Baku seeks to integrate them into Azerbaijan.

According to constitutional changes introduced this year, seemingly in anticipation of Harutyunyan’s resignation, Karabakh’s de facto parliament has given itself the option of selecting his replacement for the remainder of his planned term in office. Whether or not this will settle Karabakh’s internal woes as the situation deteriorates further remains unknown, though many are skeptical. It is uncertain whether social cohesion and political stability can be maintained under the present circumstances. There are also accusations that Harutyunyan’s replacement might well be chosen from more hard-line elements associated with former de facto Karabakh president Bako Sahakyan, himself associated with the old guard of Armenia, former Presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan. Former Karabakh military commander Samvel Babayan, now leader of the largest opposition faction in the de facto parliament, has alleged the same in recent days. 

And on 5 September, in a post on Facebook, prominent activist Tigran Petrosyan aired even greater concerns, worrying that unless a candidate acceptable to the population (rather than the elite) is chosen, “[…] all other scenarios will lead to the polarisation of society and civil war.” he wrote. Petrosyan is the chair of Karabakh’s Anti-Crisis Centre, ironically established by Harutyunyan in April.

Whatever happens next, however, there is unlikely to be an end to the crisis in Karabakh unless direct talks between officials from Baku and representatives of Karabakh are held. Failure to do so, thus limiting Pashinyan’s space to distance the Armenia-Azerbaijan normalization process from Karabakh itself, could possibly derail a peace deal this year. Others believe the opposite, but the issue of Lachin and Aghdam, as a further step towards integration, remains central, including in the eyes of the international community. This could bring any new de facto administration further into disagreement with those international bodies working to negotiate a settlement of the three-decades-long conflict. On 6 September, four out of five of Karabakh’s de facto parliamentary factions, including the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation—Dashnaktsutyun, backed Shahramanyan’s candidacy as Harutyunyan’s replacement. Only Samvel Babayan, who publicly calls for talks with Baku as well as opening the Aghdam road, has not.

“European Council President Charles Michel has proposed a step-by-step approach which would reflect a sequencing in the full-fledged operation of the Lachin corridor and the opening of the Ağdam route,” it said in a statement. “Sequencing of these steps and the type of cargo that would be delivered by each of these roads, as well as attendant procedures, have been the core of the recent discussions. Dialogue between Baku and representatives of Armenians living in the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast will be essential in this regard,” it continued. “The rights and security of Karabakh Armenians must be guaranteed, and discussions on specific modalities should start as soon as possible.”

Without that, it is unlikely that Karabakh as an ethnic Armenian unit can survive, geographically isolated and reliant on transit through Azerbaijani-controlled territory as it is for commercial goods, humanitarian assistance, and medical evacuations. Until then, some analysts believe, Karabakh’s Armenians will either leave the contested region or a new war could break out as Baku’s patience wears increasingly thin.And while the position of whatever administration replaces Harutyunyan remains unclear, there is also no doubt in some circles that his departure from Karabakh’s political scene represents a new chapter in the breakaway region’s history. 

“President Araik Harutyunyan resigned, effectively becoming the last elected head of [Nagorno Karabakh],” Armenian journalist Garbis Pashoyan wrote on Aliq Media. “[…] Araik Harutyunyan, even with his failed and flawed experience, was the last embodiment of [Karabakh] statehood,” he concluded. With scheduled popular elections set for Karabakh in early 2025 already highly questionable, given Baku’s position on the matter, he could well be right.