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Nagorno-Karabakh and the failure of Armenia’s ‘colour revolution’

Dreams of an Armenian Karabakh seem to be permanently shattered

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A billboard in Yerevan featuring the flags of Armenia and the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, October 7, 2020. Photo by Garik Avagyan/Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday was Armenia’s independence day. This year, however, there was very little for Armenians to celebrate. Just one day earlier, the authorities of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh had in effect capitulated to Azerbaijan following a brief offensive by the Azerbaijani armed forces. The future of the region’s predominantly Armenian population remains uncertain, but the province’s complete integration into Azerbaijan is now inevitable and dreams of an Armenian Karabakh seem to be permanently shattered.

Despite its Armenian population, Nagorno-Karabakh became part of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic as a result of a decision by the Soviet government in the early 1920s following the Bolshevik conquest of the Caucasus. Armenians, however, never reconciled themselves to this decision and when the Soviet Union began to unravel in the late 1980s, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh lobbied for their territory to be transferred to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the dissolution of the USSR, newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan fought what became known as the First Karabakh War, which resulted in an Armenian victory. Nagorno-Karabakh became de facto independent, while Armenia gained control of a swathe of Azerbaijani territory around it.

Subsequent diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan failed. Azerbaijan bided its time, built up its armed forces, and in 2020 launched the Second Karabakh War, recapturing part of Nagorno-Karabakh. Poised to recapture the rest, the Azerbaijanis halted their offensive after the Russian Federation brokered a ceasefire which saw the Armenians hand back the Azerbaijani territory around Nagorno-Karabakh. This kept what remained of the latter out of Azerbaijani control but dependent on a narrow corridor through Azerbaijani territory protected by Russian peacekeepers.

In this way, the Russians saved Nagorno-Karabakh from complete conquest. This did not, however, earn them much gratitude from Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who had come to power in 2018 as a result of what has been called a “colourless colour revolution.” Since the 2020 war, Pashinyan’s relations with Russia have gone from bad to worse, and following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Pashinyan and his government have sought to reduce their dependence on Moscow, hinting that they would leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which both Armenia and Russia are members, and more recently announcing the holding of joint military exercises with the United States. Last year Pashinyan also caused a stir by seeming to recognize Azeri sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan has now stepped in to exploit the situation, launching an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh that after just one day of fighting forced the Karabakh authorities to agree to completely disarm. The region’s reintegration into Azerbaijan is now bound to follow. Artin DerSimonian of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft comments that Azerbaijan’s actions are a direct consequence of the fact that “the Russian army is pinned down in Ukraine” as well as of “Prime Minister Pashinyan’s unwillingness to directly engage Armenian forces in this fight.” Azerbaijan’s victory seems complete.

Pashinyan and his followers are attempting to blame Russia for this debacle, claiming that Moscow allowed Azerbaijan to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh in order to discredit Pashinyan, remove him from power, and install a pro-Moscow Armenian government. The thesis is an odd one. There is, after all, no good reason why Russia should fight Azerbaijan when the Armenian government itself has proven unwilling to do so. Absurdity has, however, never stopped people believing conspiracy theories, and this one may help Pashinyan deflect blame to some degree. Whether it helps him enough, though, remains to be seen.

For while some Armenians may blame Russia, many others point the finger at Pashinyan himself. Dr Pietro Shakarian, a postdoctoral fellow at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, argues that “Pashinyan’s premiership has been a disaster for the Armenian people.” Until recently, says Shakarian, “Pashinyan was able to cling to power by relying on an array of manipulative populist tactics. However… his recent recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan became widely viewed among Armenians as an unambiguous act of betrayal. … Today he is almost universally disliked in the country.”

Pashinyan came to power on the back of a wave of protests against the corruption of what was called the “Karabakh clan,” a group of Armenian politicians who originated from Nagorno-Karabakh and who had run Armenia for many years. These included Presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan. According to Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman of the Centre for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan, “hatred towards the ‘Karabakh clan’ started to be projected on Karabakh as a whole.” Consequently, many Armenians were reluctant to fight to defend it.

Beyond that, Pashinyan gave the impression of wanting to rid Armenia of the problem of Karabakh, viewing it as an impediment to his desire to turn Armenia politically westwards. Poghosyan notes that Pashinyan’s “primary goal is to normalize relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, which will decrease the dependence on Russia and bring Armenia closer to the West. From this perspective, Nagorno-Karabakh was more a liability than an asset.” Pashinyan’s detractors, therefore, accuse him of betraying the people of Karabakh in pursuit of his broader pro-Western and anti-Russian political ambitions.

Dr. Shakarian comments that the loss of Karabakh puts into question “Russia’s whole position in the Caucasus.” “Many Western war hawks understand this,” and will seek to exploit it, he says. By contrast, Dr. Poghosyan is somewhat more ambiguous about the likely geopolitical consequences, arguing that it is harder for Armenia to turn westwards in practice than it is in theory. According to Poghosyan, “The only way for Armenia to move out of the Russian orbit and move towards the West is to accept some protection from Turkey and, in a midterm perspective, replace Russia with Turkey as a primary economic and security partner of Armenia. It will result in at least de facto Turkish and Azerbaijani control over the southern part of Armenia. … Will Pashinyan go for that? No clear answer exists.”

Equally unclear is Pashinyan’s political fate. Both Poghosyan and Shakarian express some doubt that the protestors who have now come out to demand Pashinyan’s resignation will be able to sustain their protests for long. Pashinyan himself, meanwhile, is insisting that he will remain in power. What is clear, though, is that like so many other so-called colour revolutions, the Armenian revolution of 2018 has not ended well.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.


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