Azerbaijani president breaks Yerevan, Paris plans at Chisinau meeting
Serhey Bohdan's review
ANALYTICS 04 June 2023 - 16:30
On June 1, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Chisinau under extremely difficult circumstances. Pashinyan had to speak with two other foreign leaders, whose positions differed only in their degree of support for Yerevan, on the sidelines of the European Political Community summit.
But Pashinyan and his allies have failed to force the Azerbaijani government to change its position on the peace process. Experiencing failure on this front, Pashinyan dashed in the opposite direction and on June 3 decided to take another step towards normalising relations with his Turkic neighbours by joining the inauguration of the re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, the outwardly contradictory actions of the Armenian leader have more logic than meets the eye; they are often only a smokescreen or a distraction. Pashinyan is unlikely to play a leadership role in the peace process - he and a large part of the Armenian elite have been forced onto the path of normalisation with their neighbours as a result of Azerbaijan's actions.
A threefold numerical superiority
The Armenian leadership can in no way complain about the conditions of another informal meeting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in the Moldovan capital. It took place within the framework of the second summit of the European Political Community, a format invented last year by Pashinyan's best ally, French President [Emanuel] Macron. This had already created a certain atmosphere in Chisinau - the triumphant promotion of a "strategically autonomous" democratic Europe, which Pashinyan sought to exploit by portraying himself as a not yet recognised member.
In addition, Pashinyan tried to gain a basic numerical advantage at the negotiating table. This involved Macron, always ready to demonstrate France's global greatness through loud solidarity with a tiny "democratic Armenia" - always easier and safer than demonstrating it through actually defending its interests in disputes with, lets say, the US.
Macron was supported by German Chancellor Scholz, who shares Macron's beliefs. As recently as March, when speaking about Karabakh, Scholz stated the need "to reach a peaceful settlement of the dispute based on the principle of the territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the right to self-determination of the people of Nagorno Karabakh - all these aspects are equally important". Scholz surpassed even Macron and Pashinyan in this flirting with the Karabakh separatists and, on hearing these words in March, the revanchists in Armenia rejoiced and began to explain the German principledness and "punctuality"! However, the reference to the "right to self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh" was then removed from the website of Germany's chancellor and German government representative Wolfgang Büchner stressed that "the position of the federal government has not changed. Germany remains committed to the territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan within the internationally recognised borders".
The political weight of Pashinyan’s support team should not be exaggerated. Macron has already been mentioned above. Scholz is a compromise figure, further weakened by his party's dwindling ratings and the problems of his coalition government (which already looks like a minority cabinet). However, with regard to the meeting itself, the constellation looked difficult for Azerbaijan. Last time, when Pashinyan tried to pull off such a trick and hold a similar multilateral meeting at the 1st summit of the European Political Community in October, Azerbaijan could rely on the presence at the forum of another politician of a very serious caliber - Erdogan. You can treat the Turkish leader in any way, but if anyone has recently proved the ability to defend the national interests of his country in disputes with anyone - Russia, the USA, the EU, etc. - it is precisely the head of Türkiye. However, he did not turn up in Chisinau - it turned out at the last minute and President Aliyev suddenly had to face three counterparties at once, acting, so to speak, by prior agreement.
The result turned out to be indicative in terms of characterising the actors and their policies. Pashinyan and his allies failed to achieve absolutely nothing - the meeting ended without the adoption of any documents. Moreover, the Armenian leader and his friends clearly counted on booty - as the Armenian media emphasised, "at the negotiating table, all the participants, except for Ilham Aliyev, were" armed "with folders of papers". In fact, when preparing this kind of international negotiations, it is customary to thoroughly coordinate everything between the participants and to probe the ground regarding the possibility of achieving at least some results, so as not to put the politicians involved in these negotiations in an awkward position.
But this is exactly what happened in Chisinau and ended with embarrassment, because Aliyev did not give up. By the way, without papers, he could really come intentionally, showing that he does not intend to get involved in a deliberately unequal dialogue (rather a battle), when there can be no talk of fair conditions.
After an hour and a half meeting, [EU Council President] Charles Michel had a chance to get out with explanations - what was it all about? He found a way out, saying that, they say, it was only “preparation for our next meeting in Brussels on July 21” and added that the same issues were discussed in Chisinau as a couple of weeks ago in Brussels. And in general, they say, the next five-sided meeting will take place at the next summit of the European Political Community in Spain in October. In other words, Macron, Michel and Pashinyan would not mind constructing its analogue, meetings on the sidelines of the European Political Community, to replace the senseless OSCE Minsk Group that collapsed after 30 years of inglorious existence.
Paris clearly wants to take the leading place in this planned new format of Azerbaijani-Armenian negotiations. Not embarrassed by his failure at the Chisinau meeting, Macron simply constructed the reality he desired in a postmodern spirit, issuing a statement based on its results, and even without asking, making a reference to the position allegedly declared by his Azerbaijani colleague. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry had to point out to Paris that "the unilateral statement about the meeting made by the president of France does not reflect and distorts the positions of the parties".
How to survive in Yerevan
Watching the Armenian prime minister's actions in relation to the peace process, it is sometimes difficult to understand their logic - a lot looks like movement along a zigzag trajectory or in general “in the wrong direction”. But here it should be remembered that Pashinyan, in the process of a peaceful settlement, needs to simultaneously solve several serious tasks. And achieving success in normalisation with Baku and Ankara is not the most difficult of them. It is much harder for him to survive at the same time - both as a politician and as a person. It is not for nothing that Pashinyan appeared in Chisinau in a bulletproof vest under a suit, according to eyewitnesses. This is not the first time - immediately after the lost war, the Armenian leader, they say, even at a parliamentary meeting in Yerevan was wearing a bulletproof vest.
In connection with the negotiations and sometimes strange clarification of relations between Yerevan and its allies, it seems that Pashinyan and his team are using these techniques to convince the Armenian society, which has been told about “greatness” for decades, of the need to abandon the great power course, since, they say, the possibilities to continue it have been exhausted, and therefore external patrons, and not Pashinyan, should be responsible for the painful consequences of abandoning the aggressive course. Hence, probably, these attempts to transfer responsibility for the remnants of the separatist project to Russia..., Pashinyan hinted for the thousandth time that Russia is not inclined to interfere in the situation around the so-called "Lachin corridor", they say, if anything, then they are to blame. Hence the desire to conduct negotiations in all possible Western formats.
There is little to laugh about here — it is rather a tragic situation in which the whole society, infected by the virus of great-power nationalism, still does not find the strength to realize the perniciousness of the long-term path to “greatness”. This is clear to Pashinyan, and he has learned from the bitter experience of his predecessors who tried to move in this direction. For example, the first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, was overthrown in 1997 by representatives of the Karabakh clan for much more restrained attempts to find a compromise with Azerbaijan and abandon the expansionist policy. Now the stakes are much higher: Pashinyan is talking about a complete revision of the entire ideology of the Armenian state. At a meeting with the Armenian diaspora of Moldova, he noted: “We founded the Republic of Armenia twice (in 1918 and 1991). And both times, Armenia was partly perceived as an instrument for a more global goal (building a great power project and territorial expansion). But in our history, the Republic of Armenia in itself as a goal either did not exist or it was very small.”
This was not an isolated statement. Last week, Pashinian pointed out the abnormality of the misconception being formulated in Armenian schools about Türkiye's Mount Ararat (Agrydag) as "their country's highest mountain". He urged them to think about what this looks like from Türkiye's point of view.
In addition, on May 29, the scandalous map that had demonstrated huge territorial claims against almost all neighbours since the early 1990s was removed from the Yerevan underground. An LED screen was put up in its place, causing outrage among Armenian nationalists. The authorities had to backtrack half a step - already on June 2 it was announced that the map had worn out and would be better displayed on the installed screen. This is unlikely to be the case, rather they decided to remove the provocative object gradually.
In general, there are enough radical Armenian nationalists who are outraged by the process of normalising relations with their neighbours and are able to shoot the Armenian prime minister for this. An additional risk factor should be taken into account - Pashinyan is not only working to normalise relations with neighbours, but also quite openly seeks to ensure a radical reorientation of Armenia towards the West and away from Russia. He demonstrates this line literally every day - in an interview with CNN Prima News, the Armenian leader said that his country is not an ally of Russia in the war with Ukraine. If we recall how revanchist circles are trying to stake on Russian businessman Ruben Vardanyan, who is close to the Kremlin, hinting not only at rapprochement with the Russian Federation, but also at the possibility of Armenia joining the Union State of Belarus and Russia, it becomes clear that revanchists who want to eliminate Pashinyan, they can easily find support abroad.
Salvation in Baku and Ankara
Revanchist circles cite with satisfaction the results of public polls on the streets of Yerevan, allegedly proving the intransigence of the Armenian society - they say, only one out of 25 agreed with the return of Karabakh to Azerbaijan. But the survey itself - with a manipulative formulation of the question in the public space of a society with minimal tolerance - does not prove absolutely anything. Otherwise, Pashinyan and his party, with their controversial, but still progressive revisionism of the ideology of Armenian nationalism, would not have received the support of voters over and over again in elections. People are clearly fed up with Pashinyan's predecessors, who led Armenia into a dead end with their expansionist nationalism.
Of course, the processes of change are slow. But change in Armenia may accelerate once communications are unblocked, when money starts to circulate in the region again, resources start to move and people start to communicate. A working group co-chaired by the deputy prime ministers of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia, Shahin Mustafayev, Mher Grigoryan and Alexei Overchuk, held its second meeting in a fortnight in Moscow on June 2. It was devoted to the resolution of purely technical issues relating to the unblocking of communications in the South Caucasus, mainly concerning the procedures for crossing the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The momentum that could develop in the event of success in rebuilding communications can be gauged from one incident last week. Armenian journalists tried to provoke the head of the Syunik region (Zangazur), Robert Ghukasyan, into criticising the restoration of communications, but received an unexpected response. He practically refused to speak about the "possible risks" after unblocking the route for the movement of Azerbaijani cargo through the south of Armenia: "We have not thought about it and we have not had time to plan the risks. And then he started talking about utility: "The fact that there can be a railway is naturally very important for us. It is also very important from an economic point of view".
In principle, the entire peace process in the South Caucasus was set in motion only by strategic and economic factors that did not come out of nowhere but were created by Azerbaijan. First the crushing military defeat and then the gradual deprivation of the separatist project in Karabakh of any economic basis forced the Armenian establishment to finally think about revising its policy and ideology. To this should also be added a change in the international situation - the Azerbaijani government has patiently spent decades building an international strategy on all fronts, from its regional neighbours to the US, the EU and the Russian Federation. And it has worked - attempts by Pashinyan's team to draw external forces into a confrontation with Azerbaijan have so far had very limited success. To cite a recent example, on May 30 the US officially backed President Aliyev's latest steps in the peace process, in particular his amnesty. This has angered not only revanchist circles in Armenia, but even US-funded "civil society" organisations. Yerevan tried so hard to position itself as a key ally of the West, and still the State Department agreed with Baku's position!
Unsurprisingly, faced with problems on all fronts, the Armenian government in recent years has had to increasingly rethink its policies and seek peace with its neighbours. This is not to say that there were not forces and people in Armenia before then thinking about the fundamental fallacy of the previous course and the need to seek peace with its neighbours, but alas, the Armenian government's turnaround in policy was not due to them, but to the material reality which forced politicians in Yerevan to look for a pragmatic way out of the impasse. Even now, therefore, peace and the restoration of the region's unity, for which Azerbaijan is fighting, is not something inevitable. Changing conditions in the region and the interventions of external superpowers and blocs can disrupt the normalisation processes. But, as the meeting in Chisinau showed, in addition to military force, Azerbaijan also has diplomacy that can resist attempts to undermine peace.
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