Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held their fourth—although first “formal”—meeting, in Vienna, Austria, on March 29. The statement (Osce.com, March 29) following their talks, which were facilitated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, highlighted several crucial points that could be interpreted as positive, including an apparent agreement on “developing a number of measures in the humanitarian field.”
Immediately after sitting down with Pashinyan, Aliyev called on the press to wait for the forthcoming statement from OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, which would sum up the meeting (News.am, March 29). Probably, Aliyev abstained from sharing further comments so as not to inadvertently provide any meat to nationalist speculators on both sides and, thus, to not harm the outcome of the talks. Pashinyan was also moderate in his comments, calling the meeting “constructive” and “productive,” while adding, “there was no revolutionary or earthshattering developments” (Asbarez.com, March 29). The next day, Hikmat Hajiyev, the head of the Department of Foreign Policy Affairs of the Azerbaijani Presidential Administration, reaffirmed the initial positive reflections, noting, “the meeting gave new impetus to the process related to resolving the conflict” (Azertag.az, Azernews.az, March 30).
While both South Caucasus leaders continued to carefully avoid damaging the fragile but apparently positive outcome of their Vienna summit, subsequent remarks by Armenian Minister of Defense Davit Tonoyan threatened to shatter the accord. Meeting with the Armenian expatriate community in New York, Minister Tonoyan said that he has modified the “territories in exchange for peace” format. “We [Armenia] will do the opposite: ‘A new war in exchange for new territories’ ” (Amerikayidzayn.com, News.am, March 30). Tonoyan said that Armenia would increase its military assault units and divisions capable of relocating military activities to the territory of the adversary. He also stressed that “nothing will be conceded, [but] compromises are possible.”
Tonoyan’s statement was met by surprise in Baku. In response, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the remarks a provocation against the efforts of the Minsk Group and the international community for the peaceful resolution of the conflict (Mfa.gov.az, March 30). The foreign ministry’s statement also called on the Armenian leadership for clarification as to whether the minister’s words had been uttered with the consent of the government, or whether they represented personal improvisation in an attempt to cast doubt on, at a minimum, the essence of the talks and the joint statement adopted after the Aliyev-Pashinyan meeting. The rejoinder by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense was much harsher, calling Tonoyan’s proclamation irresponsible and signifying political chaos in Yerevan. The defense ministry further added, “The Azerbaijani army is capable and ready to bring all available strength and power down on the heads of the occupiers to achieve the goals set for the liberation of Azerbaijani lands” (Trend.az, March 30).
This was the second time in as many months (Lragir.am, February 26) that Tonoyan made aggressive statements undermining the positive track of recent bilateral negotiations (see EDM, March 4). And accordingly, it has raised questions in Baku as to the Armenian defense minister’s motivations behind such behavior.
The first possible answer is that Tonoyan’s statements are actually in line with the rest of the Armenian leadership, including Prime Minister Pashinyan himself. The goal in allowing the defense minister to make such bellicose remarks, therefore, could represent Pashinyan’s efforts to diminish or divert international pressure on him by demonstrating that he is not the only person responsible for stirring up Armenians’ passions about Karabakh. Last October, after United States National Security Advisor John Bolton’s visit to the region, Pashinyan blasted the US official’s suggestion that the Armenian leader’s victory in the upcoming snap parliamentary elections would be a good opportunity for the government in Yerevan to take “decisive action” on resolving the Karabakh conflict. “Bolton, or anyone for that matter, cannot speak on my behalf,” Pashinyan declared (Asbarez.com, October 28, 2018). In the past few months, Prime Minister Pashinyan has repeatedly insisted that he cannot represent or speak on behalf of the Armenians of Karabakh and, therefore, the negotiations format should be changed, allowing Karabakh Armenians to officially be a side in the negotiation (Arka.am, January 25). But ahead of the Vienna meeting in March 2019, the OSCE Minsk Group released a statement summarily rejecting the Armenian prime minister’s proposal: “continuous and direct dialogue [exclusively] between Baku and Yerevan conducted under the auspices of the Co-Chairs remains an essential element in building confidence and advancing the peace process” (Osce.org, March 9).
The second explanation for Tonoyan’s antagonistic comments is based on speculation regarding the internal dynamics of the new Armenian government. Media accounts suggest that, after the recent election, Pashinyan has still not been able to fully consolidate his power. Allegedly, he faces resistance from the old Karabakh clan forced out last year (RFE/RL, March 8, 2008; April 5, 2016) as well as from factions inside his cabinet. And the defense minister, as simultaneously a remnant of the old regime and a high-ranking member of the new government, may be one of the leaders of those factions seeking more power or even conspiring to replace Pashinyan (Vestnik Kavkaza, March 27, 2019).
Interestingly, ahead of the Aliyev-Pashinyan meeting in Vienna, Armenian and Russian media outlets heavily publicized news stories about an alleged “Bolton plan for Nagorno-Karabakh” (Eurasia.expert, February 13), claiming that Washington was increasing its pressure on Yerevan regarding Karabakh in order to obtain support from Baku against Tehran. Therefore, taking into account the first and second theories regarding Defense Minister Tonoyan’s comments, their timing as well as the place where they were made offer an interesting suggestion as to their true target audience.
Whatever the true reason behind Tonoyan’s sharp rhetoric, the Armenia government is clearly still dealing with fragile coalitions and competition of various political groups with relatively similar strength. And nationalist and populist rhetoric around Karabakh remains a powerful tool of political rivalry inside the country. This reality continues to politically restrict any group inside Armenia from undertaking the compromises necessary to achieve a resolution of the conflict with Azerbaijan (Moderndiplomacy.eu, May 2, 2018).