The Fall Of Nagorno-Karabakh (News21USA): Tens of thousands of now homeless people have arrived in Armenia from the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, controlled by its emboldened adversary, Azerbaijan.
Swarms of protesters are filling the streets of the Armenian capital of Yerevan, demanding the ouster of the prime minister. Relations with Russia, a long-time ally and protector, have frayed amid mutual accusations.
Armenia now faces multiple challenges after being suddenly thrust into one of the worst political crises in its decades of independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Events unfolded with surprising speed after Azerbaijan launched a lightning military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian-majority region that has run its affairs for three decades without international recognition.
Deprived of supplies by Azerbaijan’s blockade and outnumbered by a Turkish-reinforced army, the separatist forces capitulated within 24 hours and their political leaders said they would dissolve their government before the end of the year.
That triggered a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians who feared living under Azerbaijani rule. More than 80% of the region’s 120,000 residents hastily packed their belongings and began a slow, grueling journey along the only mountain road toward impoverished Armenia, which is struggling to accommodate them.
Angered and exasperated by the loss of their homeland, they will likely support near-daily protests against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, whom the opposition has blamed for failing to defend Nagorno-Karabakh.
“There is an enormous amount of anger and frustration directed at Nikol Pashinyan,” said Laurence Broers, an expert on the region at Chatham House.
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The financially struggling Pashinyan government needs to quickly provide them with housing, healthcare and employment. While the global Armenian diaspora has pledged to help, this poses significant financial and logistical problems for the landlocked country.
Observers point out that one factor in Pashinyan’s favor is that any simmering anger against him is also directed toward Russia, Armenia’s main ally.
After a six-week war in 2020 in which Azerbaijan recaptured part of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories, Russia sent around 2,000 peacekeeping troops to the region under a Kremlin-brokered truce.
Pashinyan has accused peacekeepers of failing to prevent recent hostilities by Azerbaijan, which could also pose new territorial threats against Armenia.
Russia has been distracted by its war in Ukraine, which has eroded its influence in the region and made the Kremlin reluctant to challenge Azerbaijan and its main ally Turkey, a key economic partner for Moscow amid Western sanctions.
“Clearly, this Azerbaijani military operation would not have been possible if the Russian peacekeepers had tried to keep the peace, but basically withdrew,” said Thomas de Waal, a fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank.
The Kremlin, in turn, has tried to shift the blame to Pashinyan, accusing him of precipitating the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh by recognizing Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the region and of damaging Armenia’s ties with Russia by embracing the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been suspicious of Pashinyan, a former journalist who came to power in 2018 after leading protests that toppled the previous government.
Even before Azerbaijan’s operation to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia had vented its anger at Armenia for hosting US troops for joint military exercises and moving to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court after it had indicted Putin of alleged war crimes related to deportation. of children from Ukraine.
Bad feelings increased after the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, when Moscow attacked Pashinyan with harsh language that had not been heard before.
The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized “the inconsistent stance of Armenian leaders, who changed policy and sought support from the West to work closely with Russia and Azerbaijan.”
In what appeared to encourage protests against Pashinyan, Russia declared that “the reckless approach of Nikol Pashinyan’s team understandably fueled discontent among sectors of Armenian society, which manifested itself in popular protests,” even as it denied that Moscow played any role in fueling the protests rallies.
“Armenian leaders are making a big mistake by deliberately trying to break Armenia’s multifaceted, centuries-old ties with Russia, making the country a hostage to Western geopolitical games,” he said.
It is still unclear whether Pashinyan could pull Armenia out of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, a group of several former Soviet nations and other alliances led by Russia. Armenia is also home to a Russian military base and Russian border guards help patrol Armenia’s border with Turkey.
Despite the worsening rift, Pashinyan has refrained from threatening to sever ties with Moscow, but stressed the need to bolster security and other ties with the West.
It could be a challenge for the United States and its allies to replace Moscow as Armenia’s main backers. Russia is Armenia’s main trading partner and is home to approximately one million Armenians, who would strongly resist any attempt by Pashinyan to sever ties with Moscow.
“Economically speaking, strategically speaking, Russia is still very deeply embedded in the Armenian economy in terms of energy supply and ownership of key strategic assets,” Broers said. “It will take a lot of creativity from other partners for Armenia to expand its foreign policy.”
The future of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, which were supposed to remain until 2025, is unclear. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said its status must be negotiated with Azerbaijan.
Broers said Azerbaijan could allow a small number of Russian peacekeepers to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh to help promote its “integration” program of the region.
“This would save Moscow’s face,” he said. “This would underpin the integration agenda that Azerbaijan is promoting.”
Although peacekeepers did not attempt to prevent Azerbaijan from recapturing Nagorno-Karabakh, the presence of Russian troops in Armenia helps counter possible moves by Azerbaijan and Turkey to pressure Yerevan on some controversial issues.
Baku has long demanded that Armenia offer a corridor to Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave, which is separated from the rest of the country by a 40-kilometer strip of Armenian territory. The region, which also borders Turkey and Iran, has a population of around 460,000.
The agreement that ended the 2020 war envisaged reopening rail and road links with Nakhchivan that had been cut since the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but its restoration has stalled amid continuing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has warned that it could use force to secure the corridor if Armenia continues to obstruct the issue, and there have been fears in Armenia that the corridor could infringe on its sovereignty.
“I think there is extreme concern about this in Armenia, given the current dramatic military asymmetry between Armenia and Azerbaijan and given the fact that Russia has apparently abdicated its role as guarantor of security for Armenia,” Broers said.
De Waal noted that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev received Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Nakchivan on Monday and spoke about southern Armenia as a historical land of Azerbaijan “in a rather provocative way.”
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Despite Western calls for Azerbaijan to respect Armenia’s sovereignty, as well as strong signals from Iran, which has also warned Azerbaijan not to use force against Armenia, tensions remain high, he noted.
“The question is to what extent Azerbaijan and Turkey, perhaps quietly backed by Russia, are pushing this issue,” de Waal said. “Do they just try to force Armenia to the negotiating table or do they actually start using force to try to force Armenia to the negotiating table?” and get what they want? This is the scenario that everyone fears.”