The return of 15 detainees to Armenia, following the handover of Armenian landmine maps to Azerbaijan, was one of the few pieces of good news to come out of the conflict in recent weeks.
But coming as it did just a week before critical elections, many are asking: Was it a campaign ploy?
Azerbaijan has been demanding the mine maps from Armenia for months. In a surprise deal on the evening of June 12, the two sides announced an agreement: Armenia handed over maps from the Aghdam region in exchange for 15 of the detainees that Azerbaijan continues to hold (out of close to 200, according to Yerevan).
The ongoing plight of the Armenians being held in Azerbaijan has been one of the most sensitive issues in Armenia, and has weakened the position of acting prime minister Nikol Pashinyan ahead of the June 20 elections.
On the day the deal was announced Pashinyan celebrated it at a campaign rally in the Gegharkunik region, reading the names of the detainees one by one. He has continued to highlight the exchange at campaign events, calling it a “wonderful event.”
In turn, opposition figures lined up to criticize Pashinyan for using the sensitive issue of detainees to gain electoral points. Former President Serzh Sargsyan, who supports one opposition coalition, “I have honor,” said the maps were too valuable to get only 15 detainees in return. “And if it was possible to bring back the detainees in exchange for the maps, why weren’t they doing it during these eight months [since the end of the war]?” Sargsyan asked, “Were they holding it for the pre-election show?”
Artur Vanetsyan, the former head of the National Security Service and the prime minister candidate from the “I have honor” coalition, blamed Pashinyan for “cheap PR.” And Artur Ghazinyan, one candidate on the list of the “Armenia” coalition, led by former president Robert Kocharyan, wrote on Facebook that the handover of the maps amounted to treason: “The person who gave the maps to nikol [sic] committed a crime according to RA criminal code, article 299 (treason).”
Some analysts also were critical of the government’s deal-making abilities, for giving up the maps for relatively little in exchange. Political analyst Hrant Mikaelyan told local media that the maps indicated the location of about 97,000 mines: “Much more could have been obtained in exchange for these maps [...]. Azerbaijan saved $100 million with these, and we received 15 detainees whom we would have received regardless.”
Military analyst Leonid Nersisyan called the deal “insane”: “These maps were one of the main bargaining chips in the negotiations. But whatever it takes to win the elections,” Nersisyan wrote on Facebook.
The fact that the deal was brokered by the United States and Georgia, and not Russia – which usually mediates between Armenia and Azerbaijan – also was the source of some sniping.
At the Gegharkunik rally, Pashinyan said he received the offer to work on releasing the detainees from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and also thanked Georgian and EU partners for their efforts. Although he also pointed out Russia’s role as a mediator on other issues over the last months, some accused him of lying to the Russians about this deal.
Some anti-Pashinyan activists suggested conspiracy theories about the PM flirting with the U.S. Boris Avagyan, a notorious former senior official in the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh government with a reputation for spreading disinformation, said that the Armenian government had lied to the Russian peacekeeping forces about the maps and claimed – without presenting evidence – that the maps could have gained more detainees than Pashinyan managed.
But Pashinyan blamed the opposition for manipulating the topic: “It seems like there are forces which not only aren’t very happy, but are sad on this occasion,” he said during a rally in Ararat province.
Pashinyan acknowledged that some mine maps had previously been given to Azerbaijan – Armenian officials had previously been coy about whether the maps even existed – and that other exchanges had been mediated by Russians.
“Whatever small mine maps we have transferred to Azerbaijan until now we did exclusively through our Russian Federation colleagues,” Pashinyan said. He added that Yerevan had informed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the existence of the maps and sent examples to Baku.
Karine Ghazaryan is a freelance journalist covering Armenia.