Nikol Pashinyan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Nikol Pashinyan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Earlier in 2018, Nikol Pashinyan made a historic entrance into the helm of Armenian politics after Serzh Sargsyan resigned in the face of large protests. While Pashinyan is making continued efforts to improve Armenia’s image abroad, an important question remains about his leadership towards the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.


On May 8th, 2018, Nikol Pashinyan, a relatively unknown figure in Armenian politics, became the Prime Minister following the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan. Starting on April 13th, Armenians began protesting the nomination of the incumbent Sargsyan for the PM’s post since many saw his rule as corrupt and steering the country away from Europe. At the same time, Armenians have suffered from low wages and living standards. As such, these widespread anti-government demonstrations came to be led by Pashinyan himself, in his Velvet Revolution that saw thousands of Armenians protesting against the corrupt rule of Sargsyan and the Republican Party of Armenia. Not only was this damaging for the ruling elites, but it has also paved the way for progressive and liberal change in the nation.


Pashinyan the Reformer?

Having injected the country with hope, Pashinyan has promised to eradicate the corrupt and nepotistic political elite, and introduce change and opportunities for the younger generations. In recent months, he has been dialoguing with Angela Merkel and attempting to slowly edge Armenia closer to Europe. Nonetheless, with Sargsyan gone, what does this mean for relations with Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh? Following Pashinyan’s stance as a reformer, there is a possibility that he may decide to shake up the balance in this major conflict in the Caucasus. Yet, the possibility of continuing his predecessors approach of ‘business as usual’ also has a great likelihood. To analyse these possibilities, we must first understand the backdrop for the conflict.


Nagorno-Karabakh: Conflict with no end in sight?

Nagorno-Karabakh, a region predominantly consisting of Armenians, was given to the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923. However, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, Armenian grievances led to a war against the claimants of modern-Azerbaijan beginning in the late 1980s, that resulted in 35,000 people losing their lives. The war culminated in a ceasefire in 1994 with no resolution since, creating a delicate situation in which Armenian forces are in charge of the region de facto, whilst the land is recognised as belonging to Azerbaijan de jure. Both countries are under a constant threat of war from one another, with sporadic bursts of violence taking place frequently over recent years.

However, since 1994, it can be argued that both sides have been intentionally delaying the resolution of the conflict. For Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev and for Armenia’s previous ruling elites, the status quo scenario has been seen as ideal. Essentially, both administrations find it difficult to convince the people about making compromises. The status quo scenario serves interests of ruling elites in both countries, whilst also being a means of invoking nationalism during certain periods such as the fighting in April 2016.

Although, with the resignation of Sargsyan and his cadres, questions remain about Armenian response in the future. Pashinyan is known as a progressive, keen to solve issues in the country, yet how important the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is for him is still unclear. Whether or not there will be change in Armenian policy and conduct can ultimately only be assessed by his actions and rhetoric in recent months, which have been contrasting.


A Mixed Outlook for the Future

Since he has been acting Prime Minister, Pashinyan is yet to produce a specific and well-planned policy regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the past few months have presented likely possibilities of the stance Pashinyan may undertake in the future.

One of his first official moves as Prime Minister was to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, where he highlighted his desire for a peaceful solution to end the frozen conflict and reiterated the importance of Armenia creating a ‘peace-oriented’ atmosphere to foster developments. Visits to the region are fairly common and serve the purpose of emphasising the links and Armenian nature of Nagorno-Karabakh. He also stressed the importance of the inclusion of representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh in any forms of peace negotiations. Pashinyan further qualified that the increased war rhetoric from Ilham Aliyev, the current President of Azerbaijan, is a ploy by the leader to distract his own population from their ongoing problems, such as a weakening economy and concerns over human rights.

Conversely, in a speech at the UN, Pashinyan adamantly contested that Karabakh must not be a part of Azerbaijan as the intention of the Azeri leadership is to apparently annihilate the Armenian people. Moreover, in a meeting with Russian-Armenian businessmen, he has been quoted as saying that he views Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) as being a part of Armenia in the future and that Azerbaijan should be questioned further about its intentions on producing peace resolutions. In an odd turn of events, Pashinyan’s son has decided to militarily serve in Nagorno-Karabakh, prompting him to call on Ilham Aliyev’s son to volunteer too, as neither side wants bloodshed or for their children to be injured. Moreover, in the last few weeks, following talks in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, it has been reported that both Aliyev and Pashinyan have decided to de-escalate border incidents. Most recently, however, and quite significant, is that there have been reports that both leaders have now established ‘operative ties’ – something unheard of previously.

Assessing these trends makes it difficult  to decipher Pashinyan’s overall policy. With the beginning of his government, there may have been new hopes for a change on Armenia’s position in the conflict, yet occurrences in the past few months point to the contrary. Although, recent developments do suggest positive steps towards a future peace resolution, something that has been unimaginable in recent years, it is too early to highlight how effective this will be. Ultimately, Pashinyan is yet to set out a  definitive plan and his rhetoric has been inconsistent. What is likely, however, is that Pashinyan may simply be focusing his attention on other matters and leaving this to consider at another point. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, it appears that it will be the maintenance of the status quo under ‘business as usual’. However, the sporadic nature of this conflict means one can never dismiss possibilities of peace or war and leaves uncertainty.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Kavar Kurda

Kavar Kurda is a graduate of University College London, obtaining his BA in Politics, Sociology and East European Studies. He is currently studying his MSc at London School of Economics and Political Science in Empires, Colonialism and Globalisation. He has previously worked in Parliament, the Kurdistan Regional Government Office and London-based think-tank, Institute of Ideas. He speaks English, Kurdish, Russian and Arabic and has a deep interest in Caucasian and Middle Eastern affairs.