After just over three months on the job, the departure of Ruben Vardanyan from the political scene in Nagorno-Karabakh is as unexplained as was his arrival on it.
On February 23, Karabakh’s de facto leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, announced that he was relieving Vardanyan of his duties as state minister. The firing brought an end to the tumultuous rule of the Russian-Armenian billionaire who, during his brief time in office, appeared to be the most powerful figure in the territory.
But he had no shortage of opponents, and there have been similarly many explanations for his ouster. Whether his removal was the result of pressure from Baku, Yerevan, Moscow, from inside Stepanakert itself, or some combination of those, remains an unanswered question.
One thing, though, is certain: Vardanyan’s departure removes a significant irritant in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, and many expect negotiations between the sides to gain pace now that he is out of the picture.
Many regional observers saw his ouster in the context of the ongoing Azerbaijani blockade of Karabakh, which was launched barely more than a month after Vardanyan took office. Vardanyan’s rise to power enraged Baku, which saw him as a Russian agent sent by the Kremlin to foil Azerbaijan’s efforts to regain full control over Karabakh.
At a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference in the days before Vardanyan was fired, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said his government was ready to negotiate with representatives of Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population. “But we can do it only when the Russian citizen-criminal oligarch […] Vardanyan is out of our territory,” he said.
It’s not clear what role Vardanyan’s presence played in Baku’s decision to launch the blockade; it had been regularly pressuring Armenia and the Armenians of Karabakh well before Vardanyan’s arrival in the territory as it seeks a comprehensive agreement to end the decades-long conflict in its favor.
But many on both sides thought Vardanyan’s firing may have been made as a concession toward reopening the road.
Azerbaijani analyst Ahmad Alili said that the move may have been less painful for Armenians than fulfilling what he said was Baku’s main demand vis-a-vis the road: that Azerbaijan be allowed to establish a checkpoint on it.
"Of the demands put forward by Azerbaijan, Armenia chose Ruben Vardanyan's 'resignation' in order to possibly obtain concessions in the process of installing a checkpoint on the Lachin road in the future,” Alili told the website Caliber.az. “Yerevan has decided that after meeting Baku's second most important demand, i.e. Vardanyan's dismissal, international mediators will put pressure on Azerbaijan -- saying that Yerevan is making concessions and Baku is not.”
An Armenian opposition member of parliament, Tigran Abramyan, said that Armenians risked falling into a “trap” set by Azerbaijan by acceding to Baku’s insistence that Vardanyan be removed.
“Opening the corridor should not be a goal in and of itself, we should not fall into the Azerbaijani trap, it’s very important to understand what price is being paid for the opening of the corridor,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Indeed, there was some small movement on negotiations on opening the road, which has been closed since December 12. Azerbaijani and Karabakh Armenian representatives met on February 25, mediated by officers from the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh, a spokesperson for Harutyunyan reported. The sides also discussed how to avoid the regular disruptions of natural gas supply that have plagued the territory since the blockade has begun. The pipeline supplying Karabakh with gas from Armenia passes through Azerbaijani-controlled territory and Armenian authorities accuse Azerbaijan of deliberately turning off the gas.
“As for the removal of the roadblock, according to our data, the Russian side continues to make efforts in that direction, and we hope that there will be a positive change in that regard in a short period of time,” the spokesperson, Lusine Avanesyan, said in a statement.
The blockade has been implemented by a group of Azerbaijani government-backed protesters, and their demonstration has continued uninterrupted.
Semi-official Azerbaijani sources suggested that Vardanyan’s ouster was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for Baku. In a number of interviews since his firing, Vardanyan has said he intends to stay in Karabakh, where he moved from Russia just weeks before he rose to power.
“We should not expect the quick end to the protests on the Lachin-Khankendi road,” a piece in the site Haqqin.az wrote. Khankendi is the Azerbaijani name for the main city in Karabakh, which Armenians call Stepanakert. “After all, one of the main demands of the activists has been fulfilled only partially – Vardanyan was ‘fired,’ but so far he hasn’t left the region.”
As for Vardanyan himself, in his recent statements he has not explained his firing but has repeatedly referred to disunity as a problem that perennially plagues Armenians. While he was most vocally opposed by Baku, he also had few friends in the Armenian government: He had long had good relations with members of the former regime in Armenia who now make up the political opposition there.
In a February 23 meeting of the Karabakh de facto government, Vardanyan quoted the early 20th-century Armenian nationalist leader Garegin Nzhdeh: “The fate of the Armenians would have been different if their leaders, instead of devouring each other, had declared war on their shortcomings." Vardanyan said today’s situation was “the same thing.”
The Nzhdeh citation indicated that “Vardanyan wanted to show that the real reason [for his firing] was not so much Azerbaijan’s demands, as much as the lack of will and strength of the [Armenian] elite,” Armenian analyst Hakop Badalyan said in an interview with the news site Caucasian Knot.
There has been no official comment on Vardanyan’s departure from Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Andranik Kocharyan, the chairman of the Armenian parliament’s commission on defense and security, said that Yerevan had nothing to do with his firing, but suggested that Vardanyan “came and left on his own.”
While Vardanyan’s ouster raised many questions, it may have answered one old one: Was he, as Azerbaijan regularly claimed, a Russian plant? The brevity of his tenure and unceremonious way in which he was pushed aside suggest not.
Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov suggested murky forces orchestrated both Vardanyan’s arrival and departure, but didn’t specify who they were.
“Since the first days we were saying that we are ready to speak with the Armenian population of Karabakh,” he told reporters on February 24. “But this man, who came to Karabakh or was sent, playing someone’s game, can not be someone for us to negotiate with. Those people, standing behind him, understood that the ‘Vardanyan project’ was not going to work.”
With additional research by Arshaluis Mgdesyan.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.