Armenia’s 44-Day War: A Self-Inflicted Trauma (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 3

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (Source: Sky News)

The Armenian government of Nikol Pashinian represents the first case of a “color revolution”–emanated government lightheartedly going to war (Armenia-Azerbaijan war, September 27–November 10, 2020). Irrationally, this government waged a war of choice to perpetuate Armenia’s territorial gains achieved in 1994 at Azerbaijan’s expense. The aftermath of the 44-day war, however, reveals the full extent of Armenia’s self-inflicted trauma.

As the old adage has it, war is a test of the viability and legitimacy of the belligerent countries’ political systems. The autumn 2020 Karabakh war pitted a successfully modernizing Azerbaijan against an Armenia that missed out on its own modernization; a presidential power vertical system against one with the trappings of electoral-parliamentary democracy; and a Western-oriented state against one that had cast its lot with Russia.

Pashinian’s political movement had taken over power literally from the streets using anti-establishment, anti-oligarchic, anti-corruption slogans; and it turned the 2018 parliamentary elections into a plebiscitary landslide (see EDM, May 10, 2018 and December 10, 2018). This typical “color revolution,” however, carried forward the old regime’s national security and foreign policies. These involved cultivating a nationalist-military ethos in society along with irrational fears of Turkish designs on Armenia; holding to seven inner-Azerbaijani districts no longer as Armenian bargaining chips but as outright territorial acquisitions (which ultimately turned that irrational fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy); self-isolation and closed borders in the region as the price of keeping the territories, thus forfeiting Armenia’s chances to develop economically; and, as corollaries, driving Armenia into deeper military and economic dependence on Russia.

Consequently, Pashinian’s post-revolution government maintained Armenia’s military alliance with Russia and membership in Russia’s bloc system (Collective Security Treaty Organization, Eurasian Economic Union) without demur. This was not simply a tactical adjustment to earn Moscow’s acceptance of the new government but rather a continuation of the Armenian old regime’s strategic orientation toward Moscow.

In the negotiations with Azerbaijan, however, Pashinian’s government broke that continuity. It proved to be more aggressive and intractable (as well as less professional) in comparison with the authoritarian presidents Robert Kocharian and Serge Sarkisian of the previous 20 years. By moving to cement those territorial acquisitions (beyond Upper Karabakh) permanently, Pashinian showed that a democratic popular mandate does not necessarily correlate with pacifist inclinations. Mass democracy can, just as well, stimulate and reward politicians’ nationalist militancy.

Pashinian’s government repudiated the “Basic Principles” that had previously been worked out by the Minsk Group’s mediators (Russia, the United States, France) and had been accepted on the whole by Yerevan and Baku for a phased settlement of their conflict. Instead, Pashinian blocked the process, demanding that the unrecognized “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” (henceforth redesignated as “Artsakh”) participate in the negotiations in its own right. He ruled out the retrocession of Azerbaijan’s seven districts beyond Upper Karabakh without an agreement on Upper Karabakh’s legal status. Pashinian, nevertheless, declared more than once that Karabakh is Armenia or part of Armenia, practically reverting to the pre-1994 position that called for their merger. He thereby contradicted Yerevan’s and Stepanakert’s own ongoing quest for international recognition of Upper Karabakh. The then–defense minister, David Tonoian, announced a new doctrine of seizing “new territories in the event of a new war,” superseding Armenia’s hitherto defensive posture.

Armenian authorities announced plans to move Upper Karabakh’s administrative center from Stepanakert to Shusha, precluding the Azerbaijani expellees’ return there. In the adjacent seven districts, forcibly emptied of their Azerbaijani population since 1993–1994, occupation authorities accelerated the Armenization of the local toponymy, with maps showing those districts as parts of an enlarged Upper Karabakh/Artsakh. Officials began referencing these emptied districts as ancestrally Armenian, liberated lands (see EDM, November 25, December 1, 3, 7, 2020).

Both in the run-up to the 44-day war and during it, Yerevan rejected the land-for-peace tradeoff, whereby it would have retained control of the Armenian-populated Upper Karabakh indefinitely (pending a negotiated status) in exchange for retroceding seven Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani districts. By clinging adamantly to those districts, and doing so in a more provocative manner than the predecessor governments had, Pashinian’s government embraced an agenda of territorial aggrandizement far beyond the original goal of self-determination and security for Upper Karabakh. This stance reflected a broad consensus among Armenia’s main parties and political class. “Those who thought otherwise were characterized as defeatists and traitors,” noted the well-known Armenian-American historian and former presidential advisor (to Levon Ter-Petrosyan) Jirair Libaridian (The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, November 2, 2020).

Yerevan took up the challenge of war expecting to prevail. Pashinian’s September 27 declaration of the state of war in parliament reflected this over-optimistic assessment (Armenpress, September 27). It was inspired—as he later explained—by Armenia’s success in the July 12–16 clashes in the direct run-up to war, with (according to Pashinian) zero Armenian military casualties versus 15 Azerbaijanis killed in action, including a general (APA, July 14, 2020;, January 5, 2021). Moreover, “We believed that the army and the people would enable us to impose a ceasefire, rather than for us to be interested in a ceasefire, which unfortunately occurred,” as he revealed when conceding defeat and accepting the ceasefire (Armenpress, November 10, December 29, 2020).

*To read Part Two, please click here.