Opinion: On perception and interpretation, and the prospect of the Kaliningradisation of Armenia

"When playing on Armenian vulnerabilities, both Azerbaijan and Turkey should take into account that each step aimed at increasing fears in Armenia leads to a new level of dependence on Russia", writes Alexander Petrosyan in this op-ed. "In the end, everything is a matter of interpretation and perception", he argues.

Over the last few months, since the very beginning of the escalation of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, when the latter encroached on Armenia’s sovereign territory in the mid-May, the main discourse on both sides has been on delimitation and demarcation of the state borders accompanied by an aggressive rhetoric fuelled by Azerbaijan on the so-called ‘Zangezur corridor’.

Ilham Aliyev has been continuously stressing the Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement of November 9, pointing to its 9th clause which states that ‘all economic and transport connections should be unblocked and Armenia shall guarantee Azerbaijan secure transport connection with the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic’. Moreover, the Azerbaijani side has been insisting to have a full peace treaty based on recognition of mutual territorial integrities, which would set Azerbaijani hands free from the Russian peacekeeping mission. Azerbaijan claims that the negotiations are on the corridor, which as they understand would be legally on the same level as the one in the case of Lachin. Armenian officials deny this and state that nothing is being discussed in the logic of corridors, which they understand in a legal context. For Yerevan, these are just roads under its sovereign control and any other option is out of discussion, considered as Yerevan’s red line. Even the main mediator, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Overchuk, excluded discussions on ‘corridor’.

But why do both sides talk about peace, delimitation and demarcation, economic prosperity of the region, but at the same time continue clashing in public on the terms that provide the basis for the way forward?

The discourse of peace can be heard on both sides of the frontline. Pashinyan claims that he has received a mandate during the recent snap elections in June in order to pave the way for a new ‘era of peace’. All his cabinet and supporting media are engaged in depicting the bright future which is ahead for the region as soon as transport connections start working. Forgetting about the rhetoric during the war and before it, Pashinyan tries to position himself as a pragmatic leader who relies only on rational choice for the emerging situation. In the post-war regional reality Armenia finds itself in the Russian claw, hopelessly aspiring normalization with Azerbaijan and Turkey. And it's not only Pashinyan who is trying to adapt to the new realities, but also Aliyev, who wants to show his readiness for normalization, as was seen recently when he spoke about peace prospects with Armenia during the Global Baku Forum. Despite the fact that both leaders are talking about peace, they don’t go beyond mere statements. Moreover, the incessant military drills of Azerbaijan next to the borders with Armenia, and the issue of Armenian prisoners held in Baku are still hindering obstacles for sincere dialogue.

The victorious mood in Baku, supported by Ankara, prompts Azerbaijan to abuse the vulnerabilities of Armenia for maximizing its gains. However, for the Armenian side, defeated in the last war, but slowly showing recovery, the rapprochement with Azerbaijan has a clear red line: any possible peace deal will be rejected if it casts doubt on Artsakh’s (Nagorno-Karabakh) status issue. In contrast, this approach and the attempts to reactivate OSCE Minsk Group aren’t welcome by Baku. Azerbaijan keeps claiming that the Karabakh problem is resolved, despite the statements of the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs, that the status issue is still unresolved and needs to be clarified.

Another factor which hinders the prospects of establishing trust is the pushing forward of the idea of the so-called ‘Zangezur corridor’, which would connect Baku and Central Asia with Ankara and Europe, initially even explicitly threating to open a corridor by force. Armenian domestic discourse since then has been dominated by concerns that Pashinyan’s defeated government, after losing the war and conceding Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, now is in charge of giving up Syunik, the southern region of Armenia neighbouring with Iran, which is known in Armenia as ‘the road of life’. The concerns and the fears started mounting since the end of October, when Tatul Hakobyan, a famous Armenian journalist, leaked that Armenia and Azerbaijan are going to sign two documents on November 9. This information has triggered contradictory sentiments within the Armenian society first of all because of the chosen date, as it coincides with the first anniversary of the ceasefire agreement, which has traumatized the Armenian society. Secondly, Hakobyan, citing Aliq Media’s reliable diplomatic sources, mentions that the first document would be on demarcation and delimitation and the second one on the unblocking of the regional communication roads based on the achieved understanding within the trilateral working group of Deputy-Prime Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia.

The opposition led by former president Robert Kocharyan, started harsh criticism against Pashinyan blaming him of treason and calling for an anti-government demonstration on November 8 as they put it ‘to upset any possible attempt of betrayal’. Pashinyan is accused of signing a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, which, according to them, would put an end to the Artsakh/Karabakh status issue.

Pashinyan, at the beginning was trying not to comment on this matter just avoiding the topic. But now both his parliamentary faction members and the Foreign Affairs Ministry representatives deny the fact of ongoing negotiations and the signing of new documents on November 9. But even if a meeting isn’t scheduled at this moment, the memories of last year’s unexpected (at least for the Armenian society) ceasefire agreement are still making Pashinyan untrustworthy with this regard.

Given his inconsistent political behavior and also the weaknesses typical to any defeated leader, any kind of discourse on peace or normalization is seen as an act of unilateral concession undermining the credibility of his motivations and statements. The second aspect of accusation includes the ‘corridor’ issue. This is probably the most central aspect of this process. For the sake of truth, it should be mentioned that the corridor issue or so-called “Meghri alternative” dates back to the 1990s. In Armenia it’s widely accepted that the terror attack in the Armenian Parliament on October 27, 1999 was for  the purpose of preventing its realisation. This approach has been promoted by the first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan who stated during the presidential campaign in 2008 that the former Prime-Minister V. Sagsyan and the Speaker of Parliament K. Demirchyan saved Meghri with their lives. The vision of handing over Meghri or even tolerating some sovereign rights over its southern border with Iran, makes Armenian society agitated. This kind of prospect has even been labelled as ‘Kaliningradization’ meaning that Armenian would end up being a Russian exclave similar to Kaliningrad.

So, when playing on Armenian vulnerabilities, both Azerbaijan and Turkey should take into account that each step aimed at increasing fears in Armenia leads to a new level of dependence on Russia. Given the pro-Russian sentiments in wide circles of Armenia, nobody excludes that over time unification with Russia could find wider support within Armenia. From this point of view, prospects of joining the Union State of Russia and Belarus, or even worse the Kaliningradization of Armenia is a matter of time, if the current approach of Turkey and Azerbaijan becomes a long-term strategy.

The most probable outcome of the ongoing process, whether it’s concluded on November 9 or soon after, promises even more Russian presence. Without full control over the Syunik passage, Russia wouldn’t be able to establish a balanced control over Armenia and Azerbaijan and to silence the region for a while. Azerbaijan demands a compromise, namely to have at least Russians to control their transport roads to Nakhichevan in similar arrangement to the one in Lachin. Therefore the claim from all sides that they have achieved what they want can be regarded as manipulative but not incorrect. For Armenia, the routes which will pass through its land will continue to remain its sovereign territory. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, would interpret its achievement as their ability to force Armenia to step back and to force Yerevan to agree on Russian control, similar to that of Lachin. In the end, everything is a matter of interpretation and perception.

source: Alexander Petrosyan is an independent analyst based in Brussels.
photo: Since the 44 day Karabakh War Armenia and Azerbaijan eye each other from close proximity as they monitor contested borders.
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