PM says Armenia ready to recognize Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan
Armenia has long been on a trajectory of recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, but the prime minister's explicit statement still triggered shock and outrage.
Armenia's prime minister has, for the first time, explicitly stated that his government intends to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, drawing ire from the de facto authorities in the Armenian-populated region.
The Armenian government has been signaling its willingness to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh for over a year but it was only at a news conference on May 22 that Nikol Pashinyan actually said it in so many words.
"Armenia recognizes Azerbaijan's territorial integrity of 86,600 square kilometers, assuming that Azerbaijan recognizes Armenia's territorial integrity as 29,800 square kilometers," Pashinyan said. "Those 86,600 square kilometers also include Nagorno-Karabakh."
He reiterated that an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace agreement should secure the "rights and security" of roughly 120,000 Karabakh Armenians and provide "international guarantees" supervising Baku-Stepanakert direct talks.
During his May 17 address at the Fourth Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Pashinyan expressed his readiness to recognize Azerbaijan's sovereign borders, for the first time mentioning an area of 86,600 square kilometers.
This came three days after his fifth and latest EU-mediated meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, where both leaders reportedly agreed to recognize one another's territorial integrity.
The statements caused outrage and incomprehension in Karabakh, and in wide swathes of society in the Republic of Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh's legislature, the National Assembly, convened a special session on May 22 and adopted a statement blasting the Armenian leadership.
"Any statement by Nikol Pashinyan ignoring the sovereignty of the Republic of Artsakh, our people's right to self-determination and the fact of its implementation, as well as any document drafted on that basis is unacceptable and worthless to us," it read. (Artsakh is an alternate Armenian name for Karabakh.)
The statement further says that the peace agreement Armenia is preparing to sign is at variance with the wording of Armenia's declaration of independence, which mentions Nagorno-Karabakh, and the July 8, 1992 decision of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Armenia which says, "it is unacceptable for the Republic of Armenia to consider any international or interstate document which refers to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as part of Azerbaijan."
Karabakh's leaders have long accused Azerbaijan of pursuing a policy of "ethnic cleansing" by making life miserable for Armenians in the region in the hopes of squeezing them out.
Armenia began signaling its willingness to acknowledge Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory through a subtle rhetorical shift in early 2022. Then Prime Minister Pashinyan said on April 13 that Armenians had to "lower the bar" of their expectations around Karabakh, igniting protests.
And in October 2022 in Prague, Pashinyan and Aliyev agreed to start normalizing their relations based on the Almaty Declaration of 1991, under which the administrative borders of Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan form the basis for border delimitation and demarcation.
Leading figures in Karabakh have been issuing their own statements, too, some of them quite blunt.
Davit Babayan, advisor to Karabakh's president, said after the May 22 address that "Anyone who wants to shove Artsakh into Azerbaijan will shove Artsakh into a crematorium."
Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian-Armenian tycoon who moved to Karabakh in fall 2022 and served a brief and tumultuous term as the region's state minister, has been condemning Pashinyan's politics on multiple platforms.
"Pashinyan does not have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the people of Artsakh. His statement reflects his personal opinion, which he is trying to impose on the people," he said in an interview with the Netherlands-based Russian Dozhd TV on May 22.
Negotiations over the peace agreement have been going on for over a year in multiple formats. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after the recent four-day negotiations in Washington between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers that a peace deal was "within sight, within reach".
The Western-brokered negotiations cause fury in Russia, Armenia's strategic partner and a party to the trilateral agreement that ended the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Moscow has also been mediating a separate track of Armenia-Azerbaijan talks since the war and resents what it sees as interference in its backyard. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov recently accused the U.S. of pushing Armenia to "kick the Russians out of your [Armenian] territory and remove the [Russian] military base and border guards."
Pashinyan responded to these comments at his May 22 briefing, saying, "We are not receiving any signals from the West to break off relations with Russia or to oust Russia."
Armenian-Russian relations have indeed deteriorated since Azerbaijan's September 2022 incursion into the territory of the Republic of Armenia and the lack of response from the CSTO, a Russian-led military alliance that includes Armenia.
But the Russian-led negotiations continue as well, with Pashinyan and Aliyev due to meet in Moscow on May 25. The two leaders may meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Russian presidential spokesman Dmitriy Peskov, who added that Moscow was hopeful that that meeting would "yield results."
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.