The View from Yerevan: A Conversation with Richard Giragosian
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Some 15 months after 2020’s 2nd Karabakh War, the Caspian Post talked to Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian about the mood in Armenia and about hopes for long-lasting peace with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Richard is the founder of the Regional Studies Center, an independent geopolitical think tank, and before moving to Armenia 17 years ago, he had been a staffer in the US congress and a lecturer to US Special Forces.
Richard notes that, for Armenia, the war was an “unprecedented defeat,” after which the country spent a good six months facing a “state of denial” before starting to adjust to the new reality. Nonetheless, Nikol Pashinyan’s government managed to weather the post-war political storm and gain re-election in June 2021. Had Pashinyan lost, the election would easily have been seen as a vote of no confidence. But going to the people at such a crucial moment, and winning, has given the Armenian government a “rare commodity of legitimacy” and hence an opportunity for strategic vision. The fact that direct talks have restarted since September 2021, Richard considers “very welcome and commendable.” He describes Russia as having been the “only real winner” of the 2020 war and notes that Azerbaijan has recently made some “bold moves” in standing up to the Kremlin. However, he urges Azerbaijani leaders that the release of Armenian detainees by Baku is “an emotional, urgent need for the Armenian side to be able to move beyond the conflict.”
Nonetheless, Giragosian is “justifiably optimistic” that progress is coming. He believes there is an “accidental convergence of interests with [Russia and] the West” currently, which could play out in favour of more generalized regional peace, and eventually lead very helpfully to the reopening of long-closed Turkey-Armenian borders. This generally positive move would also serve Russia’s overarching strategic aim in the Caucasus region, which, thinks Richard, is “to marginalize and isolate Georgia.” That cause would be partially served if Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan mend fences, since Georgia would lose a great deal of regional transit trade.
At the same time, creating economic interdependence would benefit all players by deterring any impulse for conflict. Timing is important in any geopolitical situation, but now there is a particularly good window, suggests Richard: after the hiatus of the COVID pandemic will be a period of re-growing international trade connections ripe with opportunity.
He notes that, especially over the issue of reopening the borders with Turkey, there are some divisions between the country of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. The diaspora are more heavily invested in how to refer to the massacres of 1915, while for Yerevan, there are more pragmatic needs. Nonetheless, he predicts that the growing resilience of Armenia’s democratic credentials means that it’s increasingly likely that the country of Armenia will “emerge as a centre of gravity for the diaspora,” something that hadn’t happened much before “because previous corrupt Armenian governments were overly authoritarian.” As an American, he sees the “overly homogeneous” nature of Armenian society as tending to promote intolerance, and thinks that the reopening of closed borders will be one way of improving diversity of both people and ideas within the country.
“[in] the current reality… North and South Korea have more contacts and connections than Armenia and Azerbaijan.”
In the medium term, there’s no way back to the degree of mixing between Azerbaijanis and Armenians that was the norm in Soviet days. However, Giragosian sees little chance of a return to full conflict and is hopeful that the two sides will at least start talking more. Given that the situation starts from a position of less than zero, almost any advance in confidence-building and dialogue will feel like a victory.