What will be the implications if Armenia recognizes the Independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic?

Pictured: The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s soldiers. Photo: RIA Novosti

On May 5 the Armenian government assessed the draft bill on the recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s independence (it is a disputed territory claimed by former Soviet republics Armenia and Azerbaijan). Nevertheless, the document contains very careful wording and implies that Yerevan will make decisions depending on the dynamics in the turbulent region.    

Does it mean that Armenia is trying to use the playbook, which Russia used in 2008, when it recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent? While trying to answer this question, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned against beating the alarm and proposed to stick to the wait-and-see approach.

However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that today Armenia’s leadership is talking about reassessing the status of Nagorno-Karabakh much more frequently than previously. At the same time, the country’s authorities try to be very careful in their rhetoric. After the military escalation in the region in early April, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan announced that Yerevan would recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as independent only in the case if its confrontation with Azerbaijan turns into a full-fledged war.  

On May 3 the website of Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharyan’s opinion. He said that the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh depends on the further development of the situation. “If Azerbaijan unleashes new military aggression, the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh will be included in the agenda,” he told journalists.

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Yet it would be reckless to deal with the Nagorno-Karabakh problem without taking into account the historical and political context. The problem perennially accompanies the whole history of modernday Armenia’s statehood, when it turned from one of the Soviet republics into an independent state.

The Armenian historiography is impacted by what some Armenian historians describe as “karabakhization”, which means that pundits and politicians assess Armenian history through the lens of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In particular, prominent Armenian experts Alexander Iskandaryan, the director of the Yerevan-based Caucasian Institute, and Babken Arutiunya, a professor at Yerevan State University, use the metaphor “karabakhization of historiography” to explain how Yerevan saw political shifts that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The origins of the future confrontation between Yerevan and Baku come from their disagreements over the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, predominately populated by Armenians, but claimed by the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic. As a result a movement for reunification of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh emerged between 1988-1991, but disappeared shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why did it happen?

Unlike other Soviet republics, Armenia tried to secede from the Soviet Union in accordance with its legislation to alleviate the challenges of integrating in the international community. And the Nagorno-Karabakh burden (in the case of their reunification) could become an obstacle for Armenia to win international recognition of its own statehood. That’s why its post-Soviet leadership preferred to support Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians politically, diplomatically and militarily without giving any legal commitments.          

Remarkably, many people from Nagorno-Karabakh succeeded a great deal in Armenian politics. Among them are the second Armenian president Robert Kocharyan, who headed the country from 1998 to 2008, as well as current Defense Minister Seyran Oganyan. The latter had also rich political experience in Nagorno-Karabakh as one of its ministers (interestingly, Armenia’s defense on the line of contact with Azeri troops was called “the Oganyan Line” going back to the well-known experience of Finnish Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim).

Likewise, current Armenian President Sargsyan had extensive political experience in Nagorno-Karabakh during the Soviet period. Moreover, during the 1993-1994 military conflict with Azerbaijan, he headed Armenia’s Defense Ministry. It was the time when the two hostile post-Soviet republics reached a ceasefire deal.

No wonder journalists dubbed the Armenian political elites as “the Nagorno-Karabakh clan”, which, however, has lost its previous clout today. The current president diversified his team and invited influential political figures, who are not related to Nagorno-Karabakh. However, ideologically, they unanimously support the self-determination of Armenians living in the breakaway republic and this is one of the top priorities of official Yerevan.

Oddly enough, the Armenian opposition is even more radical. It is partly because it is not involved in the negotiation process with Azerbaijan like the participants of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an international tool aiming to pacify Baku and Yerevan.

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So, the opposition can be more tough and emotional in its rhetoric. After all, its representatives Zarui Postandzhyan and Grant Bagratyan initiated the idea of recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence in May 2016. And it is not the first time they rigorously advocated this initiative. In contrast, the authorities repeatedly turned down this plan previously and waited for the right moment.

So, why does the Armenian government exploit the idea on Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence proposed by the opposition?  The reasons seem obvious: the early April military escalation in the region and Azerbaijan’s tactical military successes. Even though the previous status quo is not so far collapsed, it was severely damaged. Yerevan is doing all in its power to seek some guarantees against another military escalation.

This might be the reason behind Armenia’s reluctance to continue the negotiations and, probably, its attempts to reinvigorate the debate on recognizing the independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic. But does it mean that Yerevan is ready to cross the red line? It remains unclear.

After all, the unilateral recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence without a referendum means the violation of the basic principles promoted by the Minsk Group. If this scenario plays out, it is Armenia that will be accountable for violation. It is hardly likely to benefit from it because it won’t either strengthen the ties between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia nor raise their cooperation to a new level. In addition, it will give some advantages to Baku not only on the battlefield, but also at the negotiating table. So, the costs are very high.

Thus, Yerevan is raising its stakes, while demonstrating its decisiveness before the domestic audience and sending signals to the international community that its patience is not limitless. At the same time, the Armenian authorities remain cautious and seem to take the wait-and-see approach to prevent further escalation.

They are mindful about the risks of recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence. They understand that such a move might lead to another military confrontation. So, it remains to be seen if Yerevan will follow the example of the Kremlin, which recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent eight years ago.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.