Staunton, April 30 – Serzh Sargsyan’s departure from office under pressure from street protests appears to the demise of the “Karabakh clan” both economically and politically. Indeed, a major reason Armenians opposed him was the corruption associated with his regime and its business allies in Karabakh, the Armenian-occupied republic within Azerbaijan.
But Sargsyan’s departure and the end of “the Karabakh clan” may matter even more politically. Since 1991, all three past Armenian presidents – Levon Ter-Petrosyan (1991-1998), Robert Kocharyan (1998-2008), and Sargsyan (2008-2018) – either began their careers in Karabakh or made them as leaders of the Karabakh movement.
(Armen Sarkisian, whom Sargsyan selected to be president when he transformed the Armenian political system from a presidential one to a parliamentary one, also represents a break from the Karabakh clan in that he has made his career as an academic and a diplomat rather than as a political activist.)
That a Karabakh clan should have emerged in Armenia once independence was achieved represented the working out of a poison pill arrangement Stalin created in the 1920s in the South Caucasus: The Soviet dictator drew the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in such a way that each had an outlying region threatened by the other and thus a breeding ground for nationalism.
In the case of Armenia, that is Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian area that Stalin left within Azerbaijan, and from which the Armenian political class has sprung for most of the last three decades. In the case of Azerbaijan, that is Nakhchevan, the non-contiguous autonomy of that country that is where the Aliyevs hail from. Indeed, Heydar Aliyev at one point was called “the khan of Nakhchevan.”
This arrangement guaranteed that the regimes in the two countries would be far more nationalistic than would have been the case had the Armenian leadership come from Armenia proper and the Azerbaijani from the Apsheron peninsula near Baku and that the battle for Karabakh would define politics in both as it has since the late 1980s.
This is not to say that Armenians from Armenia proper or Azerbaijanis from across that country are not also focused on this issue given the number of displaced persons and the sense of national injustice felt on both sides. But rather it is to say that the political elites in both countries are more focused on the Karabakh issue than they might otherwise be.
The Russian government has exploited this situation, tilting now to one side and now to another, since 1988, something it undoubtedly has found easier to do with elites in Yerevan and Baku who define their national identities and tasks in relationship to Karabakh and the other occupied territories.
The rise of Nikol Pashinyan puts an end to the rule of “the Karabakh clan” at the very top of the Armenian political pyramid and likely undermines its influence both in economics and politics. Russian commentators are worried about that. One writes that “the end of ‘the Karabakh clan’” raises the question as to whether Armenia will remain Russia’s ally.
Armenia almost certainly will for geopolitical reasons, but Moscow commentator Denis Chistov’s approach to this question is instructive: he focuses on the loss of power of “the Karabakh clan” in the economy on which Russia has relied rather than on its possible political demise (versia.ru/ostanetsya-li-armeniya-soyuznikom-rossii).
That Moscow has counted on the set of corrupt relationships that define “the Karabakh clan” economically is no surprise: Vladimir Putin doesn’t divide economics and politics the way many other leaders do, and using economic leverage in this way is an effective means of forcing Armenia to tow the line.
But the loss of political power by “the Karabakh clan” carries with it two possibilities, one extremely dangerous and one more hopeful. On the one hand, those in Moscow and Yerevan who don’t want any change in the past arrangements of power will have every incentive to exacerbate the Karabakh conflict to return that issue to the center of Armenian political life.
And on the other, the appearance of a new Armenian president not so directly attached to the Karabakh question may open the door for new and more dramatic moves to resolve the conflict, something that would benefit both the people of Armenia and the people of Azerbaijan even though they would inevitably reduce Moscow’s role in the region.