Relations with Azerbaijan will be the key foreign policy issue faced by the new government, regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Big decisions on future relations with Azerbaijan will have to be taken soon after the new Armenian government is formed after the 20 June, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for KarabakhSpace.eu.
On 10 May 2021, the Armenian Parliament did not elect a prime minister for the second time in a row. According to the Armenian constitution, Parliament was dissolved, and the President signed a decree to hold snap parliamentary elections on 20 June 2021. It is not easy to predict the precise results of the elections. However, we may assume that Armenia will not have a single-party government after the elections. The likely scenario is that either the incumbent prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, or the second President of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan, will form a coalition government. Another possible outcome of the elections could be the repeat of an Israeli or Bulgarian scenario. In that situation, parliamentary parties fail to form a stable coalition, and at the end of the day, another early parliamentary election may be held.
Relations with Azerbaijan will be the key foreign policy issue faced by the new government, regardless of the outcome of the election. It will need to clarify its stance towards the future of the unrecognised Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) Republic (NKR), the demarcation and delimitation of borders with Azerbaijan, and the opening up of regional transport and communication routes in line with the 10 November 2020, and 11 January 2021, trilateral statements of the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian leaders. In reality, all three issues are intertwined, and a decision on any of them will impact the fate of others.
Since the end of the 2020 Karabakh war, Armenian leaders have reiterated that war did not solve the conflict, and the Minsk Group Co-chairs should resume high-level negotiations to determine the final status of Nagorno Karabakh based on the principle of people's right to self-determination. However, the Armenian position is ambiguous. Armenian leaders reject the possibility of Karabakh being part of Azerbaijan, but they do not clarify Armenian positions regarding the borders of Karabakh. Should Karabakh be independent within its current borders established by the 10 November 2020 statement, within the 1988 borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR); within the borders of the September 1991 declaration of independence, which includes the territory of NKAR plus the Shahumyan region of former Soviet Azerbaijan; or within the borders before the September 2020 war? It is obvious to everyone that Azerbaijan will not withdraw from any territories, which it took as a result of the 2020 Karabakh war, or, in other words, any changes of the new status quo can be reached only through a military campaign. Armenia, neither now nor in the medium term, is able to launch a successful military campaign in Karabakh. However, the new government of Armenia should fix its position on the issue of the borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Obviously, recognition of NKR with its current borders is unacceptable, and Armenia should declare that Azerbaijan occupies parts of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. This declaration may cover the entire territory controlled by NKR immediately before the 2020 war, or refer only to territories of former NKAR plus Shahumyan region, and a corridor connecting NKR with Armenia. Failing to clarify Armenia’s stance on this issue may increase the uncertainty about the future of Nagorno Karabakh and may contribute to the emigration of the Armenian population from the territories currently protected by the Russian peacekeepers.
Another problem in the tray of the new Armenian government is the delimitation and demarcation of the borders with Azerbaijan. Baku has in recent weeks been using the absence of agreed borders as a pretext to organise incursions into Armenian territory, as was the case with the Azerbaijani army units penetrating the Syunik and Gegharkunik regions of Armenia on 12-13 May 2021. Armenia should not avoid the process of demarcation and delimitation, but should not allow Azerbaijan to use it as a tool to gain from Armenia recognition of its control over Karabakh. The Armenian government should declare that it is ready to start the demarcation and delimitation, but at the beginning of the process Armenia should state that demarcation and delimitation will not cover the borders adjacent to those territories, which Armenia considers as occupied territories of the Republic of Artsakh. If Azerbaijan rejects launching the process under such conditions, Armenia should apply to the international community, stating that Azerbaijan is obstructing the efforts to reach lasting peace and stability in the region. Simultaneously, the Armenian army should prevent any attempt of Azerbaijani soldiers to penetrate into Armenian territories. The events of 12-13 May, when Azerbaijani armed forces penetrated up to 4 km into Armenian territories without any resistance, are unacceptable and should not happen again.
The third issue in the top foreign policy list of the new Armenian government is the opening up of transport communications between Armenia and Azerbaijan under the 10 November 2020 and 11 January 2021 statements. Armenia should not avoid this issue. Yerevan is in urgent need to boost its economy, and the opening up of transport communications would contribute to this. However, Armenia should clearly state that as long as the Azerbaijani leadership, including President Aliyev, will not renounce its many statements about the so-called "Zangezur corridor" and threats to open that corridor by force, Armenia will categorically reject to provide Azerbaijan any routes towards the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region via the Syunik region of Armenia. In this case, Armenia should state that it does not back down from its obligations under the 10 November 2020, and 11 January 2021 statements but offers other routes to connect Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan.
Article 9 of the 10 November statement stipulates that the Republic of Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and that the construction of new transport communications linking the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with the western regions of Azerbaijan shall be provided. There is nothing in the statement that transport links or the new transport communications should pass only through the Syunik region. Armenia should state that in full accordance with the 10 November statement, it is ready to provide Azerbaijan safe transport link to connect with Nakhchivan through the Vardenis - Sevan - Yerevan - Eraskh highway. As for the railway connection, Ijevan – Yerevan – Eraskh railroad can easily connect Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan.
These are some of the first issues the new Armenian government will have to deal with once it is formed following the 20 June elections.