Ignominious post-bleak midwinter fall of Vardanyan
    Three points signified by the tycoon’s removal

    ANALYTICS  25 February 2023 - 17:48

    Orkhan Amashov

    Are we making too much of Ruben Vardanyan’s dismissal from the post of the “first minister” held within the separatist clique in Karabakh? Not if we view it as a necessary precondition, albeit insufficient on its own, before the restarting of dialogue between the Azerbaijani authorities and the local community in the region.

    The news of Vardanyan’s removal came as US Secretary of State Spokesperson Ned Price announced the forthcoming meeting of the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in Brussels. The impression given is that the dynamism engendered in Munich, where President Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held talks under the aegis of Washington’s mediation and later engaged in a panel debate, on 18 February, is being cultivated, with uncertainty shrouding the Kremlin’s response remaining a cause for a tingling apprehension.

    Having survived his bleak midwinter by the skin of his teeth in January, thanks to what many believe to be a last-ditch succour by Moscow, Vardanyan was eventually dismissed by Arayik Harutunyan, the self-declared leader of the separatist regime, on 23 February. His departure - at this stage, not from the zone of the Russian ‘peacekeeping’ contingent, but from the ranks of the “NKR” - being a direct result of the circumstances caused by the ongoing eco-protest on the Lachin-Khankandi Road, which started on 12 December 2022, and Baku’s resolute denouncement of him as an interloper of foreign origin, does not immediately amount to the beginning of the swift integration of Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijan, but largely signifies three key points.

    The restart of the dialogue

    Firstly, there is now a reason to believe that the dialogue between Baku and the local community in the region could resume in some form, reinvigorating the second track of the negotiations into motion. Vardanyan’s presence derailed the nascent Khankandi-Baku communication and measurably renewed the separatist fervour.

    The tycoon’s unenviable task was to be the worldwide face of Karabakh Armenians, internationalising the subject of the region’s future, building the foundations of its economic self-sufficiency and the grounds for long-term Russian military presence. Vardanyan's interviews given to global media outlets were not without traces of success, although his BBC Hard Talk trial, with a ruthless inquisitor in the shape of the inimitable Stephen Sackur, being a massive exception, outweighing the glories of others on an international level.

    But his mission failed miserably on the grounds of his inability to deal with the consequences of the eco-protest, causing rifts between Karabakh Armenians, with the fear of an uncertain future preying heavily enough on the minds of the region’s population, causing them to abandon the idea of clinging to the insipid clichés of Vardanyan.

    It is wholly implausible and to no avail to think now of how the Karabakh career of Vardanyan would have turned out, had he presented himself as a representative of the local Armenian community, ready to talk to Baku along the integration agenda. Irrespective of how he would position himself, for Azerbaijan, he was a Russian export, alien to the local community, and the folly of giving the benefit of the doubt to the Kremlin’s oligarchical transfer project would have even been too obvious to touch him with a barge pole.

    Moscow struggles to pull strings

    Secondly, Project Vardanyan indicated how Russia’s role in Karabakh could be harmful to both Baku and Yerevan and how the sides could align their interests in the face of Russian meddling. President Aliyev, in no uncertain terms, spoke of the tycoon’s essence and the sheer impossibility of engaging with him during the panel discussion on the sidelines of the Munich Security Security Conference, sending a direct unambiguous message to Pashinyan, in front of the world, to do what he could in his power to induce Vardanyan's send-off.  

    The tycoon’s removal also somewhat hints at a mode through which Baku and Yerevan could move along the two-track trajectory in the negotiations. Azerbaijan will not enter dialogue with Yerevan on the fate of Karabakh Armenians, for it is an internal matter. Yet Yerevan remains of the opinion that a peace treaty cannot be concluded without some guarantees for the region’s population.

    How could a compromise be achieved? This will inevitably require some readjustment in the positions of both sides, without compromising their key objectives. It is highly improbable that Baku will backtrack from the separation of the two tracks, but it is also conscious that an effective dialogue with the region’s local community may require some cooperation from Yerevan. The contours of the framework of the Baku-Khankandi process may need to be worked out with Yerevan, provided the latter’s role is limited to being involved in acquiescence as to how the dialogue should be constructed, subsequently sliding aside when it is duly underway.

    Amongst the suggestions made to this effect, the idea of an internationally visible mechanism monitored by an external observer without any prejudice towards Azerbaijan’s sovereignty remains one probability that could be built upon. Yerevan will want some checks and balances and guarantees that the process could be assessed. It then could strive for an arrangement linking a sufficient degree of progress in the Baku-Khankandi track to the necessary condition for signing a peace treaty.

    Such a course of action could be seen as a nuanced amalgamation of the separation of the two-track approach, a central precept viewed as indispensable by Baku and not counteracted by Yerevan, and the Armenian objective of satisfying the need to ensure the rights and security of Karabakh Armenians, albeit somewhat indirectly.

    Kremlin readjustment required

    Thirdly, the end of Project Vardanyan has also revealed the limitations of the Kremlin’s resources, with his protege being forced to an ignominious retreat. Moscow is and will be, for some lengthy time, a power to be reckoned with in the South Caucasus, with its ability to derail the Azerbaijani-Armenian peace process remaining strong, but visibly diminished. The “peacekeepers” stationed in Khankandi constitute a military footprint that Russia seems eager enough to entrench further. An antidote could be the approximation of the stances maintained by Azerbaijan and Armenia under the aegis of the Washington-Brussels format.

    The key limitation to this antidote is Russia’s counter-resources, out of which two seem more readily available. Firstly, it could use its presence in Karabakh and Armenia to provoke escalations, within or just outside the zone of the deployment of its “peacekeepers” or along the conditional interstate border between the two states, stirring an atmosphere of mistrust. Secondly, despite Nikol Pashinyan’s attempts to reduce the burden of Russian dependency and cosy up to the EU, at critical points, the Armenian Prime Minister has, so far, tended to give in to the Kremlin’s pressure and walk away from an agreed path with Azerbaijan. This form of Russian interference, after the Munich discussions and on the eve of the recently announced Brussels meeting, remains significant.

    Moscow has the option of readjusting itself to the current situation related to Baku-Yerevan dynamics, making itself a more attractive forum by not upsetting the course of the Brussels-Washington process, which, at present, appears too rosy a probability. The Kremlin is more likely to inveigh against the West's efforts as counter-productive. However, if it derails the negotiations outside its control and succeeds, the likely scenario would be along the lines of Baku pursuing a path of changing the situation on the ground, amongst other things, in the form of attempts to achieve the unilateral installation of a border checkpoint at the entrance to the Lachin Road. Time will tell, and Russia seems desperate. The road to peace remains thorny.


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