Armenia: recognizing Karabakh? The Armenian debate and the reaction from Azerbaijan

In the aftermath of the “4 Days War” in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian President, Serzh Sarkisian, declared that, in the case of resumed hostilities, his country would recognize the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. One month after, a bill titled “On recognition of Republic Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh]”, submitted by two opposition MPs, was approved by the Government and presented to the Parliament for discussion. Nevertheless, both political and media actors have bee equivocal about the suitability of the unilateral recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh. From the Azerbaijani side, it is remarkable the limited attention this event was given. In particular, President Ilham Aliyev, who in the past adopted a warmongering narrative, has not commented on this specific development.

Following the cease fire in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh consolidated itself as a de facto state after a bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Currently, its statehood remains completely unrecognized given that not even its Armenian patron has taken a formal stance in that direction. This choice has been mostly motivated by the commitment not to spoil the mediation effort of the Minsk Group, which is the OSCE group in charge of facilitating a resolution of the stalemate. For example, speaking to the representatives of the mass media in March 2013 President Sarkisian declared: “What will the citizens of NK and Armenia gain today if independence of NKR is recognized? (…) How dangerous will such a decision for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh be? (…) It means a slap in the face not only for the other side but also for the Co­chairs [of the Minsk Group]”. In brief, it is argued that recognizing Nagorno-Karabak would lead only to new troubles in the absence of tangible benefits. This position was widely shared by the Armenian political spectrum as demonstrated by the rejection of the various pro-recognition bills proposed by “Heritage Party”. However, in 2010 International Crisis Group pointed out that, in the case of resumption of full-scale hostilities, the de facto state may be recognized and a pact of mutual defense with Nagorno-Karabakh may be signed. After April 2016, political actors had to deal seriously with these issues.

“If military actions were to continue and escalate on a larger scale, the Republic of Armenia would recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh. With these words, on the 4th of April, President Sarkisian hinted at the possibility of formal recognition. However, after the end of the armed hostilities, no further declaration in this direction came from the Presidential office. By contrast, some actors in the opposition considered the time ripe to bring forward this issue again. = That translated into a bill called “On recognition of Republic Artsakh,” proposed by the opposition PMs Zaruhi Postanjyan (Heritage party) and Hrant Bagratyan (Armenian National Congress). On the 5th of May the Armenian government approved it for parliamentary discussion within 30 days. As expected, this triggered a debate not only in Armenia but also abroad.

Although most external powers did not openly comment on this decision, Russian officials manifested their opposition. Remarkably, at the beginning of May, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov, spoke against unilateral recognition. It is reasonable to say that the Russian stance may have influenced the public debate. At the moment, politicians from both the government and the opposition are adopting a prudent attitude. Prime Minister Abrahamian said that, with Azerbaijan respecting the cease-fire, there is no need to rush into recognition. Similarly, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edward Nalbandian, reassured external powers saying that: “The conclusion of the Government does not imply an endorsement of that initiative. (… ) [In that event], the President of the Republic of Armenia, would inform his partners in advance and, first of all, the heads of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries”. This moderate position is also shared by the bulk of the opposition. Armen Rustamyan, the leader of the ARF faction in parliament, declared that recognition should not be unilateral, but instead in line with the Minsk Framework. Similarly, a few days previously, former President Ter-Petrosyan stated that a premature recognition of Karabakh would irremediably jeopardize the effort of the Minsk group. Turning to the media debate, most Armenian newspapers agree that an early recognition would harm the interest and the long-terms goals of the country[1].

Given the sensitivity of the issue, Baku may be expected to react to such a move. However, it = composed behaviour adopted by Azerbaijan has taken observers by surprise. This is in striking contrast to the previously assertive narrative. Whereas in the past President Aliyev continuously reaffirmed the military strength of his country and the commitment to the re-conquest of the lost lands, recently his declarations seem more conciliatory and less in favor of resuming hostilities. Consistent with that, the reaction to the possible recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh has remained contained. Hikmet Hajiyev, the Foreign Ministry’s acting spokesperson, declared that: “By recognizing the separatist regime formed in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, Yerevan will put an end to the Minsk peace process and should this happen, the Minsk Group will possess no negotiating mandate”[2] Thus, no explicit declaration came from the President and the media debate remained limited. Speculating on the reasons behind that, it can be hypothesized that the country, which has been severely hit by the drop in oil prices, may be reconsidering its extra-assertive attitude and narrative of the previous years. The liberation of prominent political prisoners in the past months has already been read in this vein.

In sum, even though probably it will not have an immediate follow up, the Armenian debate on the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh is relevant not only for Yerevan but also for Baku. Thus, the fact that Armenia is acting cautiously makes new attempts of mediation possible. On 16th of May, the two presidents will meet in Vienna even though, given their irreconcilable positions, expectations for a breakthrough run low[3].

This research was supported by a FP7/Marie Curie ITN action. Grant agreement N°: 316825

Notes

[1] “Armenian press say Karabakh recognition matter of time, but not now”, BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, May 10, (2016).

[2] Russia & CIS General Newswire, “Recognition of Karabakh independence by Yerevan to derail OSCE Minsk group’s mediation efforts – Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry”, May 3, (2016).

[3] “Armenian press skeptical about “favorable” outcome of meeting with Azerbaijan”, BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, May 14, (2016).

 

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