Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 23

By Emil Danielyan

For most foreign politicians and observers, it is primarily the Armenian side which should have a vital interest in making serious concessions to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The military victories notwithstanding, the Armenians have suffered a dramatic decline in living standards that are now much lower than in Soviet times. True, the same happened in Azerbaijan. But Azerbaijan has vast oil reserves to ensure a rapid economic development and improvement of life. So, goes on the argument, the Armenians must reach a peace settlement with their neighbor if their country is to become an attractive place for foreign investors. But this seemingly rational argument should take into consideration other and perhaps more significant “irrational” factors underlying the decade-long dispute. Historical perceptions and aspirations of the Armenian nation are among them. Their consideration is necessary for understanding the nature of regional geopolitics.


A key question requiring answers is why the 1988 secessionist drive of Karabakh Armenians found enthusiastic support among their brethren in Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Mere claims on a piece of land was hardly the main reason why hundreds of thousands people took to the streets in Yerevan. They represented several generations which grew up in peacetime and in an urban society–generations well aware of their history and determined to reverse those setbacks. Nagorno-Karabakh symbolized the centuries-long territorial losses. Its return to Armenian control was part of a wider quest for “restoring historical justice.” Public opinion considered “Artsakh” (the Armenian name of Karabakh) as part of “historical” Armenia given to Soviet Azerbaijan by the Bolsheviks. The existence in Karabakh of many ancient monuments and a shared cultural heritage only reinforced this belief. This strong sense of national cause proved critical during the ensuing war with Azerbaijan.


A story about “iron ladle” (which has become a sort of adage for Armenians) may well sum up how the nation envisages its behavior in the international stage. It dates back to the 1878 Berlin Congress, convened by great powers to decide the fate of Christian peoples of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of a Russian-Turkish war. This resulted in the liberation of most Balkan peoples from the Ottoman yoke. Yet for Armenians it meant security guarantees on paper and a pledge by the Sultan to realize reforms in his Armenian-populated provinces–a pledge which never materialized. Armenian interests at the congress were represented by Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimian. Asked about causes of the failure upon his return home, Khrimian compared the congress with a dense kasha from which each participant was to get its share of spoils. The Serbs, Montenegrins and Bulgarians, he said, had “iron ladles” to do so, whereas the Armenian ladle was made of paper and therefore useless. The moral was clear: You can never achieve your goals and win respect of other nations without taking up arms to fight for freedom.

Armenian political thought largely holds that the absence of a proper “iron ladle” accounted for catastrophes suffered by the nation. The exclusive reliance on foreign protection, according to that thought, led to the loss of more and more territories, culminating in the 1915 genocide. Only after becoming a “powerful military factor” can Armenia guarantee its place in the community of nations. This would earn it real allies and make others reckon with it.

This belief has been reinforced by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where the iron ladle theory was put to the test. “So why should we give up something which has at last worked, has reversed the territorial shrinkage?” ask many Armenians. According to the same logic, every foreign policy step, including reasonable concessions on Karabakh, must be taken from a position of strength. “We no longer demand anything from the world. It is now the world which demands something from us.” These words of David Shahnazarian, a prominent Armenian politician, underscore the past decade’s significance for the nation.


Obviously this pattern of thinking does not bode well for a theory popular in the West. It holds that the collapse of the Soviet Union gave the Caucasus a historic chance to achieve peace and prosperity by becoming an international trade crossroads. The region is all the more significant geopolitically in view of the huge oil reserves in Caspian basin. With friendly relationships based on mutual respect of territorial integrity, the regional states could eventually be integrated in the world economy.

Supporters of the theory call, albeit to varying degrees, for a reduction of Russian presence in the region. Russian manipulation of ethnic disputes is a strong argument in favor of those supporters. The theory views economic development as a crucial tool for overcoming historical enmities. With economic benefits on horizon, it says, central governments will be more tolerant of ethnic minorities, while the latter will be more ready to accept the former’s sovereignty.

However, the theory’s emphasis on the inviolability of borders a priori makes the Armenian side wary. Returning Karabakh to Azerbaijani control has no perceived legitimate reason and is rejected out of hand. Karabakh Armenians are convinced that they will be driven out of their homes should Azerbaijani sovereignty be restored.

This position is part of a broader fear of being left alone and unprotected. Armenians fear that they would never be treated as equals even after ceding Karabakh, their main leverage to influence developments in the region. This first of all concerns Turkey, the number one perceived threat. With memories of the 1915 genocide still alive, Turkey’s refusal to recognize it precludes any reconciliation. Moreover, Ankara’s unconditional support for Baku in the Karabakh conflict and refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Yerevan is interpreted as a proof of its continuing hostility towards Armenia.

Also, it is widely believed that by virtue of its oil Azerbaijan will be treated by the outside world preferentially vis-a-vis Armenia. There seems to be little chance of Armenia sharing in the Caspian oil riches. It is unrealistic to expect a major oil pipeline running across Armenia even were the conflict to be resolved.

The oil factor engenders a certain degree of skepticism about the West, which is suspected of placing its economic benefits above Armenian interests. Speculation about Turkey replacing Russia and serving as a bridge between the region and Europe is received with apprehension in Armenia. All this adds to the Armenians’ grudge against the European powers for having in the past deterred Russia from conquering the eastern Ottoman provinces, where most of the Armenians’ ancestors lived. Russian rule would have guaranteed their physical existence. The theme of Europe’s “betrayal of Christian brothers” emerges from time to time in Armenian political discourse. Not surprisingly, every statement by a Western official upholding Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh is taken painfully. An extreme viewpoint regards this stance as specifically “anti-Armenian.”

These factors make the Armenians seek close military ties with Russia. First, because Moscow, unlike the West, offers security guarantees against Turkey. Second, Russian short-term interests in the region necessitate a militarily strong Armenia. On the one hand, this strengthens Yerevan’s position in the unresolved conflict. On the other, the presence of Russian troops gives it an overall sense of security. Yet such unilateral dependence also carries long-term security risks, which causes Armenia to seek political and economic integration with European organizations. This double-edged policy is not based on a clear-cut strategy and is rather reactive to ongoing developments. On the Karabakh issue, it often involves maneuvering between Russian and Western interests. As for regional cooperation, Armenia underlines its interest in getting involved in the European Union’s TRACECA project aimed at building new trade routes between Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia. It has already submitted eight different programs. This is accompanied by the insistence that interests of all regional state are taken into account, meaning that there will be “no unilateral concessions” on Karabakh. All in all, it appears that the unresolved ethnic disputes in the Transcaucasus will seriously hinder the realization of ambitious regional programs.


Pragmatic considerations too play a role in the importance of Karabakh for Armenians. The disputed region not only expands Armenian-controlled territories but also alleviates their unfavorable geographical position.

According to local defense analysts, particularly vulnerable is Armenia’s southeast Syunik province, sandwiched between Azerbaijan proper and its Nakhichevan exclave. They say that the control of Karabakh, adjacent to Syunik, rules out that threat and even puts central Azerbaijan within the potential reach of the Armenian military. That, these analysts argue, is a guarantee of peace between the two traditional foes.

For hardliners, the Karabakh war has stamped out the Armenian inferiority, which had derived from previous defeats. “Giving away” Karabakh after already losing 80 percent of the historical homeland would deal a deadly blow to the nation’s self-confidence required for survival. In their view, without Karabakh, Armenia would be a weak state with few citizens willing to defend it.


For ordinary Armenians, the period of military bravado is over. The enormous hardships suffered throughout the conflict, coupled with moral fatigue, make a normal life their top priority. For Karabakh Armenians, the current status quo means not just economic deprivation, but, more important, a constant threat of renewed fighting. Most of Karabakh’s male population is still in the military, hardly a sign that peace has arrived. But the alternative offered to them so far–a return to Azerbaijani rule–is even more unacceptable. The absence of an alternative also applies to the residents of Armenia, who face a tough dilemma: whether to press on with their demands that Karabakh be given independence or to agree to it being given broad autonomy within Azerbaijan. The latter is apparently what former President Levon Ter-Petrosian implied during his famous news conference in September 1996, even though he did not state it explicitly. It is this sense of ambiguity which most probably stopped the Armenian public from supporting his ideas. He said the Armenian side should make serious concessions if it is to achieve economic development. But he did not say what specifically it should give up and gain in exchange. The fact that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) peace plan he advocated hinged to a large extent on security pledges by the international community made it look risky. If the secret plan indeed envisaged restoration of the pre-1988 situation, it would be unacceptable to most Armenians. Not least because of the big sacrifices which were made to change that situation.

Nonetheless, public opinion in Armenia and Karabakh is ready for a compromise settlement. Outright independence is no longer a must for the governments in Yerevan and Stepanakert. They now call for a “unconventional” status for Karabakh which would involve a “horizontal relationship” with Azerbaijan, excluding any subordination. Andorra, a tiny principality sandwiched between France and Spain, is being mentioned lately by Armenian diplomats as an example of such unique solutions. Andorra is headed by two “co-princes,” the French president and Spain’s bishop of Urgel. Another example drawing their attention is a provision in the recent Northern Ireland peace accord envisaging cross-border bodies (jointly with the Republic of Ireland) in the province. But perhaps the most enthusiastic approval is given to the Bosnian case, where two equal entities enjoy virtual independence, each having its own army.

This position appears to enjoy considerable public support. At least there has been no visible pressure on the government to take a softer line. No compromise is likely on two issues–further existence of Karabakh armed forces and a land corridor with Armenia.

The idea of an “unconventional” settlement of the conflict is apparently being met with growing understanding from the international community. A new peace plan, put forward by the OSCE Minsk Group in early November, calls for a “common state” between Azerbaijan and Karabakh. Details of the plan are being kept secret, but officials in Yerevan have said the relationship between the two entities is to be governed by a special accord. The Armenian side’s reaction to the Minsk Group’s proposals has so far been largely positive, even though Yerevan and Stepanakert have yet to (as of November 17) respond officially. Media reports have quoted a key aide to Azerbaijan’s president as criticizing the idea of a “common state” for being “ambiguous” and not guaranteeing Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh. It is not yet clear whether the statement reflects Baku’s official position. Whether a breakthrough in the peace process is looming on horizon will be known in the coming weeks, when the parties are expected to present their official replies to the mediators.

Emil Danielyan is a freelance writer and political scientist based in Yerevan.