Azerbaijan, Turkey Watching Armenia’s Political Crisis

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 36

Protests against Pashinian in Yerevan's Republic Square, March 1 (Source: The Armenian Weekly)

Viewed from Baku and Ankara, the political conflict in Armenia pits military and civilian nationalists unreconciled to defeat in the Second Karabakh War (September 27–November 9, 2020) versus the armistice-accepting government of Nikol Pashinian. As the former seek to oust the latter from power (see EDM, February 25, 26, March 1), the governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey view Armenia as facing a choice between relentless hostility toward its Turkic neighbors or cooperating with them to lift Armenia from entrenched poverty.

The latter option, however, is conditioned on Armenia’s compliance with the terms of the November 10, 2020, tripartite declaration that ended the war. Those terms refer to the ceasefire in Karabakh and region-wide transportation projects in the South Caucasus that would include Armenia. Subject to Yerevan’s observance of the armistice terms, Ankara and Baku would lift the blockade they have maintained since 1993 in response to Armenia’s occupation and ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijani territories.

Baku and Ankara would clearly prefer to deal with Pashinian’s government in the interest of normalization of relations and regional cooperation. Simplifying their choice is the fact that Russia acts to consolidate the new status quo (at least for the time being); Moscow also clearly prefers to deal with Pashinian’s government rather than its opponents. While proverbially incompetent at governing, Pashinian complies with the armistice at this stage and does not thirst for revanche (he had provoked the recent war through political blunders rather than nationalist grand designs).

By contrast, the opposition rejects the armistice terms. Most opposition forces are associated with former governments inspired by past-oriented nationalism and territorial ambitions vis-à-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey. Symbolizing that legacy, former prime minister and defense minister Vazgen Manukian leads the 17-party opposition alliance (Fatherland Salvation Movement) while former presidents Robert Kocharian and Serge Sarkissian support the opposition unofficially with their still-considerable media and organizational resources. The opposition groups gathering on a daily basis in Yerevan’s Republic Square mainly represent the former regime’s political personnel, the national-patriotic intelligentsia, and retired military officers and war veterans.

The opposition portrays the armistice as shameful and unacceptable to Armenia, the retrocession of territories to Azerbaijan as an act of state treason, and Pashinian as an enemy of the nation, himself “a Turk.” Those opposition members see Turkey as betting on Pashinian’s government and the latter as playing Ankara’s alleged game. They are, moreover, suspicious of region-wide transportation projects with Azerbaijan and Turkey. The anti-government forces are, in effect, opposing armistice terms agreed upon between Moscow and Baku, supported by Ankara, and accepted by a Russian-approved government in Yerevan. The Armenian Armed Forces’ command has not expressed its views on the November 10, 2020, tripartite declaration, but the generals want the government that accepted those terms to resign from office (, Armenpress, Arminfo, February 24–March 3).

All this can only reinforce Baku’s and Ankara’s choice to bet on Pashinian’s government (albeit on the conditions stated) and hint at that choice publicly, though careful not to offer ammunition to Pashinian’s opponents.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has made known the authorized interpretation of the ongoing confrontation in Yerevan and the potential for region-wide cooperation from Baku’s perspective. In so doing, he has implicitly signaled Baku’s relative preference for Pashinian (warts and all) over his nationalist and military opponents. Addressing a large visiting group of international journalists, Aliyev offered the following theses (Azertag, February 26–28), with follow-up authorized commentaries echoing the same points (,, February 28, March 1, 2).

  • Armenia in its current crisis presents an “embarrassing, tragicomic” picture of mismanagement and disorder, both on the government’s and the opposition’s side. It is reminiscent of Azerbaijan’s own chaos in 1992–1993 under the Popular Front government. (Aliyev had already offered this analogy on the morrow of the November 10 armistice, “for the edification of today’s youth,” equating the Popular Front’s then-leader Abulfaz Elchibey and Pashinian as revolutionary demagogues too incompetent to govern.)
  • Armenia’s former leaders bidding to return to power today—Sege Sarkissian, Robert Kocharian and former defense minister (2008–2016) Seyran Ohanian—“are war criminals” who occupied Azerbaijani territories. The “Kocharian-Sarkissian junta” ruled Armenia for 20 years, “brainwashing it” and “leading it to the precipice.” Under their rule (1998–2018), “Armenia lost the main features of state independence, it came to resemble a colony.” The underlying cause for this was their “occupation policy” directed at Azerbaijan.
  • At the present time, however, the armistice declaration “is being implemented, and it must be implemented [a half-nod to Pashinian].”
  • Armenia has no resources for economic recovery unless it cooperates with Azerbaijan and Turkey; “there is simply no other way.” “Any attempts at non-compliance with the declaration would gravely damage Armenia. This is why I do not particularly worry that a change of government in Yerevan would stop the declaration’s implementation.”
  • The Russian president’s signature on the November 10 declaration should ensure Yerevan’s compliance with its terms. “Armenia’s dependence on Russia is ten times greater than it was before this war. Will Armenia dare to disregard the Russian president’s signature? [The onus is on the Kremlin to discipline its client.]”
  • Demonizing Azerbaijan has been counterproductive to Armenia in the first place. Innocent people in Armenia fell prey to anti-Azerbaijani propaganda. They will need time to understand and heal.
  • Azerbaijan needs a durable peace in order to restore and expand transportation routes and trade. In that case, Armenia will realize the advantages of peace. For this, “I warn, Armenia must fully implement the armistice terms, without attempts at revanchism.”
  • This will be a step-by-step process. If the Armenian government cooperates, “We may at some stage sign a peace treaty.”
  • A threat now exists that “a revanche party may come to power in Armenia and go to war against Azerbaijan… This would be a disaster for them” (Azertag, February 26, 28).

Turkey’s government, for its part, has refrained from commenting on Armenia’s power struggle except on the day when it broke out publicly in Yerevan, February 25. Many international observers initially perceived that event in Yerevan as a military coup. Ankara was no exception to that misunderstanding, but the Turkish government is especially sensitive to military coups, given its own—and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP)—experience with military interventions and coup attempts in Turkey itself (most recently in 2016).

In that light, and also as a declared general principle, Ankara hastened to condemn the perceived military coup in Yerevan. President Recep Tayyp Erdogğan, his top advisor İbrahim Kalın, spokesperson Fahrettin Altun and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu issued parallel, closely coordinated statements, condemning the perceived military coup attempt in Yerevan. According to Erdoğan, even if the people of Armenia seek the government’s resignation, overthrowing it would be unacceptable. “Any change of government in Armenia should be up to the people to decide” (Anadolu Agency, Daily Sabah, February 25, 26).

It became apparent within hours, however, that the Armenian generals’ move lacked the features of a military coup attempt (see EDM, February 25).

Other than taking a strong stand on the question of a military coup, the Turkish government has thus far withheld comments on Armenia’s compliance with the armistice terms or the country’s internal political situation.