The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is passing through a rough patch. Armenia has vowed to recognize the breakaway region if Azerbaijan tries to make a break with the current negotiating format. Some local analysts, however, see powerful checks on Armenia's ability to take such unilateral action.
The United Nations General Assembly's March 14 passage of a resolution recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, and calling on Armenia to withdraw its troops from Azerbaijani territories, unleashed the latest round of rhetorical jousting. The measure was supported by 39 UN members; seven countries, including the United States, France and Russia -- leaders of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, which oversees the Karabakh peace process -- opposed the measure.
In the weeks since the UN vote, Azerbaijan has aired grievances with the existing negotiating format, and has expressed frustration over the failure of the Minsk Group members to support the resolution. That frustration, coupled with recent statements by President Ilham Aliyev touting Azerbaijan's growing military strength, have been interpreted in Yerevan as an intent by Baku to ditch the current negotiation framework -- and to attempt to impose a Karabakh settlement through the renewed use of force. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Azerbaijan has denied that it plans to abandon peace talks. Nevertheless, Armenia has rolled out its own diplomatic weapon: recognition of the self-declared Karabakh Republic as an independent country.
Though Armenia has supported the region's economy and defense structures since its 1991 independence declaration, formal recognition of Karabakh as a country has never seriously been floated as a policy option. According to Robert Kocharian, that scenario could soon change. "Azerbaijan made an attempt to test our toughness," the outgoing president told a March 20 news conference in Yerevan. "I have a suspicion that if they are convinced that Armenia and Karabakh have grown weaker, they will again make an attempt to achieve success."
But are such statements a bluff or a declaration of actual intentions?
In an apparent attempt to reinforce perceptions that he was serious, Kocharian, a Karabakh native and the region's former de facto president, on March 31 traveled to the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert to meet with the region's current leader, Bako Sahakian. On April 1, Kocharian was quoted as saying by the Panorama.am news website that while Armenian leaders pondered the recognition question, an immediate-term measure could be the conclusion of a formal Armenia-Karabakh security pact "for the neutralization of the Azerbaijani threat."
Kocharian's time in office is limited, however. On April 9, Armenia will inaugurate a new president, incumbent Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, a fellow Karabakh native who served as defense minister under Kocharian's Karabakh administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some analysts believe Sarkisian's ability to take bold action on Karabakh is constrained by domestic and foreign considerations. Given the need to calm domestic tension in the wake of the March 1 crackdown on opposition protestors, Sarkisian is seen as unlikely to opt for the internationally controversial move of Karabakh recognition, suggested Sergei Minasyan, deputy director of Yerevan's Caucasus Media Institute and an expert on regional political and military problems.
A former aide to Karabakh's former de facto president, Arkady Ghukassian, agreed. "Kocharian's words are just another attempt at blackmailing Azerbaijan, which may or may not be successful," said Manvel Sarkisian, now an independent expert in Yerevan. "They do not seem to have a prepared policy in this direction," he said in reference to the Armenian government.
Armenia's ability to recognize is further constrained by Yerevan's close ties to Russia, as well as the international flap relating to Kosovo's declaration of independence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As part of his strategy for solidifying his hold on power, Sarkisian traveled to Moscow in late March and pledged to bolster trade and strategic ties with Moscow. Thus, it would seem Armenia's actions stand to be influenced more than ever by Kremlin policy considerations.
Russian leaders of late have been outspoken critics of Kosovo's move to break away from Russia's cultural cousin Serbia: more specifically, the Kremlin has condemned the quick recognition offered by the United States and Western European nations of the new country's independence. This has created a dilemma for Armenian leaders, according to Russian media outlets. Apparently officials in Yerevan have mooted a scenario in which, if they actually were to take the step of recognizing Karabakh, they would also want to acknowledge Kosovo's independence in an effort to lend added legitimacy to their actions. Sarkisian, during his March 24 trip to Moscow, reportedly sounded out Russian leaders on this idea -- a sort of
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a freelance writer based in Yerevan. Sergei Blagov in Moscow supplied additional reporting for the story.