The struggle with Azerbaijan for control of Karabakh keeps Armenia poor and insecure. Karabakh is a small region in Azerbaijan with an Armenian population but no border with Armenia proper. The latest round of conflict over Karabakh began in 1987, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were still part of the Soviet Union, and intensified after independence in 1991. Russian-backed Armenian forces now occupy Karabakh, but Azerbaijan retains nominal sovereignty.
Largely because of Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan are on opposite sides of a South Caucasian political fault line. On one side is Azerbaijan and Turkey, and by extension the United States, and NATO. On the other, Armenia and Russia, and by extension Belarus and the Commonwealth of Independent States. That is bad news for Armenia. Armenia needs peace with Azerbaijan and détente with Turkey to break out of the diplomatic and commercial isolation of the Russian sphere of influence. But nationalist feelings run high, and Russian influence and money ties are complex. A politician plumps for peace at his peril.
Robert Kocharian attained Armenia’s presidency when nationalists, backed by the defense ministry, forced Levon Ter-Petrosian to resign the office in early 1998. Kocharian, a Karabakh native, promised a harder line than Ter-Petrosian, who had come to favor a role in the Karabakh dispute for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Using the OSCE was a Russian idea. The Russians hoped to control the OSCE process, and Russia led the “Minsk Group” of nations–Russia, Belarus, the United States and France–that the OSCE designated to mediate the issue.
Kocharian turned away from the OSCE, but after less than a year in office he surprised his backers with conciliatory moves that ignored Russian interests. In April, at the summit in Washington celebrating fifty years of the North Atlantic alliance, Kocharian began what became a series of bilateral talks with Azerbaijan’s President Haidar Aliev. The two presidents by October had made important concessions of principle. They agreed that a solution in Karabakh would have to give expression to both Azerbaijan’s insistence on territorial integrity and Armenia’s demand for self-determination.
But the assassination in November of Armenian Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian apparently weakened Kocharian’s position and damaged the peace process. Sarkisian, a key figure in the ouster of Ter-Petrosian, was the country’s strongest political figure, able to dominate nationalists in the defense ministry and business interests linked to Russia. Kocharian could move toward peace in Karabakh so long as Sarkisian protected his political flank against the nationalists. With Vazgen Sarkisian now replaced by his brother Aram, a political novice, Kocharian is far more vulnerable to hardline and pro-Russian pressure.
So the bilateral talks with Haidar Aliev did not resume at the Istanbul summit, even though the happenstance of alphabetic order placed Armenia and Azerbaijan side by side at plenary sessions. Instead Kocharian advanced his own collective-security plan for the South Caucasus, which would allow Russia to maintain troops in the region indefinitely. A rival Azerbaijani plan would exclude all foreign bases but would give the United States a regional-security role, along with Russia and Turkey. More depressing than these just-for-show schemes was the inclusion in the summit’s final declaration of a call for revival of the Minsk Group. That would be a step backward for peace, and for Armenia.