Pashinyan’s Christmas Message
Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan appears to have significantly changed the dynamics of the peace process in the South Caucasus. He clarified publicly for the first time that Armenia need not necessarily demand independence for the former Nagorno Karabakh region as part of any future settlement with Azerbaijan. He also expressed interest in taking up an OSCE Minsk Group agenda for negotiations. He noted that he might have a chance to talk informally with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev while attending the December 28 CIS heads of state ‘informal summit’ meeting in St Petersburg.
From a global perspective, Pashinyan's stance appears to be logical and pragmatic - bringing improved hopes that a lasting settlement with Azerbaijan might eventually be achievable.
After all, any consideration of such independence has always been a red line for Azerbaijan and had never been on the table in any serious mediation efforts, even during the many years in which large swathes of Azerbaijan were under occupation by Armenia. It also makes sense through the pro-peace lens of a majority within Armenia. However, it lays bare a split in Armenian politics: a vociferous minority there, along with many in the diaspora, continue to demand the area’s nominal independence or its de facto incorporation into Armenia.
Though Pashinyan himself had appeared to parrot some of those views shortly before 2020’s Second Karabakh War, his rise to power in 2018 was initially through a peaceful revolution against a political clique sometimes dubbed the “Karabakh mafia.” In his first major communication as Prime Minister, Pashinyan had identified the need for some form of dialogue with Azerbaijan to resolve what was then perceived as a “frozen conflict” and had talked cautiously of “offering a way out of this deadlock.”
Nikol Pashinyan attends a rally in the town of Ijevan, Armenia, as leader of the opposition. April 28, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
After that, tensions eased somewhat between Baku and Yerevan, and in January 2019, the OSCE Minsk Group, tasked with finding a solution to the long-standing conflict, made a statement that seemed to suggest significant progress. However, as Yerevan concentrated on reforming Armenia’s economy, the rhetoric changed, and Pashinyan appeared to harden his posture. The 2020 war radically changed the situation on the ground. Having already won back its territories, Baku is no longer under particular pressure to consider the status of a region that it says no longer exists as a political entity.
Russia, whose peacekeepers are due to stay in the region until 2024, has suggested that the two sides might best avoid discussing the ‘status issue’ and work instead on humanitarian and other practical issues. Nonetheless, such a stance brushes over an important reality: before the 1990s, the whole Karabakh area had a mixed population. Considering the rights of the Azerbaijani population ejected from the region in the 1990s is another factor to bear in mind, a point also recognized by Pashinyan in his December 24 interview.
Pashinyan’s words have been portrayed as a betrayal, especially by the de facto local administration in Khankendi (known as Stepanakert in Armenian), home to most of Azerbaijan’s ethnic Armenian community. Meanwhile, Arman Tatoyan, Armenia’s Human Rights Defender, issued a joint statement calling Pashinyan’s position “extremely dangerous.” His assessment is based on an apparent assumption that Azerbaijan would not honour the human rights of its ethnic Armenian community once the territory was fully integrated into the fabric of the Azerbaijani state. One of Baku’s challenges in moving the peace process forward must be to disprove such fears and provide credible guarantees and protections for Armenian communities in the future. However, assuming that can be done and that opposition Armenians don’t force a back-track, the more supple message from Yerevan can only be seen as hopeful.
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Kyrgyzstan's President Sadyr Japarov, Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon, Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (L-R) pose during a photo op at an informal CIS summit at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS
On December 28, Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev were photographed side by side at the CIS photoshoot in St Petersburg. Of course, the situation was choreographed, but any chance for private communications between the leaders to build on the positive momentum of events should be welcomed.