Staunton, October 17 – For 29 years, Yerevan has refrained from calling for international recognition of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) as an independent country as a concession in order to allow for negotiations with Azerbaijan. But now that a new round of fighting has cast doubt on the future of such talks, some in Armenia are considering taking a different position.
Azerbaijan, of course, is totally opposed. President Ilham Aliyev has said that Baku will break ties with any country that declares that it recognizes the breakaway region as an independent state; and most major participants in the peace process, including Russia, have also made clear they are opposed.
But in response to the Azerbaijani advance, an increasing number of Armenian commentators are advancing the idea of “secession as salvation,” a principle that a territory has the right to secede if its population is being repressed or is at risk of being, as a possible basis for action.
And some of these analysts are suggesting that Yerevan might not have to go all the way to calls for international recognition of Artsakh but instead could seek an advisory opinion from the United Nations international court about the situation, something Armenians could use to press their case.
Given Azerbaijani opposition and Baku’s ability to press its case on the field of battle if Armenia were to take either of these steps and even more give the opposition of Russia and much of the international community to any change in borders, Yerevan is unlikely to press ahead.
But the fact that Armenians including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan are talking about this is an indication of how desperate Yerevan feels the situation now is and how they appear to believe that even mentioning this possibility may compel Baku or those who support Azerbaijan to avoid taking any more military steps that could provoke a much larger political crisis.
For the Kavkaz-Uzel news portal, Armenian journalists Armine Martirosyan and Tigran Petrosyan survey the current state of discussions about these possibilities among Armenian experts and politicians (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/355468/).
Aleksandr Iskandaryan, director of the Institute of the Caucasus, says that the latest round of fighting has made the recognition of Karabakh as an independent state more likely and that Armenia, which had refrained from doing so in order to make talks possible no longer has any reason to hold back.
Andrias Gukasyan, a Yerevan political scientist, argues that today, “there is no alternative to the recognition of independence” of the breakaway region. Russia is reluctant to do so because that would end its balancing act between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but there as elsewhere, many feel that Azerbaijan must be punished for its aggression. This would be one way to do that.
Armenian recognition alone or even with recognition from the unrecognized states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria means little, and few countries are prepared to be first, although once one breaks ranks others might quickly follow, Gukasyan suggests.
He argues that a compromise variant may be the best route forward. That would involve having Armenia seek an advisory opinion from the UN International Court much as happened with Kosovo. If the court declared that Artsakh’s declaration of independence in January 1992 did not violate international law, many countries would feel free to extend recognition.
Baku is very much afraid of such “a parade of recognitions,” Naira Ayruman, editor of the Russian version of the Lragir.am site. She says that France and Russia are the most likely even though both have been restrained about doing so up to now. At the same time, the United States might break the logjam.
Those in Armenia now advocating for recognizing Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) as an independent country have been encouraged by Pashinyan’s recent Facebook post in which he said that Yerevan must insist on the principle “secession in the name of salvation” as far as the breakaway region is concerned.
Such comments should be seen in the first instance as part of a complex diplomatic game rather than as a statement of intention. Just as Baku is using the threat of breaking ties with anyone who recognizes the independence of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), so too Yerevan is using the threat of promoting recognition to cause Azerbaijan to stop its advance.
Neither the one nor the other stratagem may work. Indeed, both could backfire. But they are perhaps just as important for the future as the movements of troops on the ground in the occupied territories.