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Armenian support for Karabakh and Crimea’s ‘self-determination’

Armenia is using the Russia-backed ‘self-determination’ of Crimea to argue in favour of a similar process for Nagorno-Karabakh. In effect, it strays further away from a peaceful settlement, but draws nearer to its main ally.

August 18, 2021 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Saint Hripsime Armenian Church of Yalta. Photo: Demmarcos wikimedia.org

In Spring 2014, Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea became the first example of a European state seizing a neighbour’s territory since World War II. Of course, this naturally led to a crisis in relations between Ukraine and Moscow. With a huge 86 per cent of Russians steadily supporting Crimea’s annexation, there is little chance that the peninsula will be returned to Ukraine in the short or medium term. The Levada Centre, Russia’s only remaining independent polling organisation, wrote that “There is not a single other indicator carried out by the Levada Centre in the last seven years that has remained so stable”. Russia’s constitutional changes in July last year have made Crimea’s return even more unlikely, as they de facto extended Vladimir Putin’s term in office until 2036.

Since 2014, the UN General Assembly has adopted nine resolutions on the territorial integrity of Ukraine (2014), the human rights situation in Crimea (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020), and the militarisation of the region (2018, 2019, 2020). Interestingly, Armenia has voted against all nine UN resolutions on Crimea. Yerevan’s stable group of allies who have voted against these resolutions on Crimea of course include Russia. However, this list also includes China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, Serbia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

In November 2019, the Armenian Foreign Ministry told Russia’s propaganda news outlet Sputnik Armenia that Yerevan would not change its position on a resolution that was then being debated at the UN. The organisation simply stated that “Armenia voted the way it did in previous years”. Sputnik then went on to boast about this event in an article soon after: “Let us remind you that Armenia consistently does not support the anti-Russian UN resolutions on Crimea. So, in December 2018, Yerevan voted against the document on the “problem of the militarisation of Crimea””.

Armenia approaches the Crimean question from two angles.

The first is connected with the fact that Armenia is a member of every Russian-led integration project in Eurasia. This includes the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation), which is essentially the Kremlin’s answer to NATO. Armenia is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). This organisation closely mirrors the European Union’s Eastern Partnership.

Armenia receives the bulk of its military equipment from Russia and its officers are also trained in the country. Russia is Armenia’s leading trading partner. In 2019, nearly half of all money transfers made to Armenia came from the two million Armenians (the population of Armenia is only three million) living and working in Russia. Armenia, like other members of the CSTO and EAEU, must therefore fall in line with Russia when voting in international organisations.

The second is Armenian state officials continue to proclaim the right of ‘the Republic of Artsakh’ (as Armenia calls Karabakh) to ‘self-determination’. This is still supported by the state even after the country’s military defeat in last year’s 44-day war. Former Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan recently said that “the achievement of the rights of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to sovereignty on their land remains the chief task of the foreign policy of Armenia”.

Hayk Babukhanian, a former member of the Armenian parliament and ally of the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia, visited Crimea in 2019. He offered comment on the similarities of the two disputes: “There is a right of nations to self-determination, which is also used by Armenians in declaring their self-determination in Nagorno-Karabakh. I reject and condemn all neo-colonial aspirations, including by the Ukrainian embassy”.

In 2019, the Ukrainian Embassy in Yerevan warned Armenians travelling to Crimea who “repeatedly violated Ukraine’s legislation regarding visits to the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. In this regard we would like to remind you that Ukraine’s legislation envisages not only administrative, but also criminal responsibility for violating the order of entry to occupied territories”.

Armenia draws on Russia’s use of ‘self-determination’ to justify its annexation of Crimea. However, both Karabakh and Crimea have nothing to do with international law and everything to do with Armenian and Russian nationalism.

In her recently published book Russia and the Right to Self-determination in the Post-Soviet Space, Johannes Socher analyses how the dissolution of the Soviet Union was based on the “principle of uti possidetis”. In the post-Soviet context, this describes how former internal boundaries between Soviet republics became post-Soviet international borders when the USSR disintegrated in December 1991.

The constitution of the Soviet Union and Soviet republican constitutions only permitted republics to secede. As a result, autonomous units had no right to independence. Crimea was an oblast of the Russian SFSR (until 1953) and Ukrainian SSR (from 1954). After a referendum was held in 1990, the area became an autonomous republic. The 1998 Crimean constitution recognised the autonomous republic as part of Ukraine, meaning that any official changes to its status would have to be agreed with the Ukrainian parliament. Despite this, these Soviet and post-Soviet Ukrainian constitutions were ignored by the Kremlin in Spring 2014 when it invaded and annexed Crimea. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) had been part of Soviet Azerbaijan since 1923. In December 1989 the Soviet Armenian parliament voted for miatsum (unification of the NKAO with Armenia). The decision was annulled by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Following the outbreak of violence in November 1991, the Soviet Azerbaijani parliament then abolished the NKAO.

Azerbaijani state officials have ruled out reconstituting the NKAO because “according to the constitution and laws of Azerbaijan, there is no such region as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region”. Karabakh’s ethnic composition today is very different to what it was three decades ago, with only approximately 25,000 Armenians continuing to live there.

Both Russia and Armenia signed numerous CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) documents recognising the territorial integrity of its members. In 1994, Russia, Armenia, and other former Soviet republics in the CIS signed the Declaration on the Respect for Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity, and Inviolability of Borders. Four resolutions of the United Nations Security Council adopted in 1993 recognised the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

The delimiting and demarcation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border on the principle of uti possidetis was impossible when the USSR disintegrated. This is due to the First Karabakh War, which led to a fifth of Azerbaijani territory being occupied by Armenia between 1994 and 2020. This changed in the Second Karabakh War last year, when these territories were retaken by the Azerbaijani military.

Without Armenia’s agreement to negotiate its border with Azerbaijan based on the principle of uti possidetis, no post-conflict peace treaty will be signed. A peaceful environment is therefore dependent on Armenia recognising the principle of uti possidetis. This means that the country would recognise Karabakh and the seven surrounding districts as sovereign Azerbaijani territory. Without Yerevan’s recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over these territories the ongoing low intensity conflict will continue. There is also the possibility that these tensions could descend into a ‘Third Karabakh War’. It should be remembered that the Second Karabakh War in September-November 2020 was preceded by a four-day war in 2016 and military clashes in Summer 2020.

Yerevan’s inability to let go of Karabakh, where only a relatively small number of Armenians live, will only result in major geopolitical and economic repercussions for Armenia. Turkey and Azerbaijan’s borders with the country have been closed since the First Karabakh War in the early 1990s. These frontiers will not re-open until Armenia and Azerbaijan sign a post-conflict peace treaty in which the former Soviet republican boundaries are recognised as international borders. Armenia only has two main allies in the area. These are its trade and energy partners Russia and Iran. Whilst Armenia does not share a border with Russia, it does possess a small 44 kilometre border with Iran.

Armenia’s relations with Georgia have been marred by “mutual mistrust and suspicion, largely due to the majority Armenian populated Javakhk region. Georgia treats the Armenians of Javakhk region with suspicion, due to the former’s alleged intentions of seceding from Georgia and unifying with Armenia”. Georgia’s Verkhny Lars checkpoint border crossing is the only overland route through which Armenia can export and import goods to and from Russia.

The re-opening of Turkey and Azerbaijan’s borders would give Armenia a greater ability to pursue a more balanced foreign policy between Russia and Iran on the one side and the EU and the West on the other. Armenia’s relations with Georgia would also improve.

Iran has been the only non-Russian alternative for Armenia. It is therefore not surprising that there have been several instances in which Armenia has helped Iran evade international sanctions imposed by the US and other Western countries. Perhaps due to the sizeable Armenian diaspora lobby in the US, Washington has not imposed sanctions in response to instances of Armenia supplying arms to Iran. These were ultimately transferred to terrorist groups in Iraq and used to attack US troops. Yerevan has also supplied biochemical equipment to Iran, assisted in decoy schemes to provide aircraft to Iran’s civilian airlines, and provided air and banking services respectively to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian government.

Russia’s Crimean referendum in March 2014 has never been recognised and international sanctions will remain in place indefinitely. Nearly 40 countries will attend the launch of the Crimean Platform on August 23rd in Kyiv. This initiative was set up by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to raise international awareness of Russia’s occupation.

Armenia is ignoring these international sanctions and increasing its economic, financial and tourism ties with Crimea. In June, Armenia’s Nordwind Airlines launched direct flights between Yerevan and Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. Sanctions busting has also been organised by delegations travelling back and forth between Armenia and Crimea. In March and April Crimean delegations visited Armenia to prepare celebrations for the ‘Day of Crimea’, which is “dedicated to the seventh anniversary of the reunification of the peninsula with Russia”. “Self-determination” in both cases – Crimea and Karabakh – is actually more to do with “reunification” with Russia and Armenia respectively.

The two delegations discussed boosting trade between Crimea and Armenia in areas such as “special medical equipment that disinfects air, electrical equipment and other industrial products”. A Sputnik Armenia report on the April visit stated that “representatives of the Crimea intend to visit Garni, to hold a presentation of the products of the Crimean enterprises and travel agencies”.

Over the last three decades Armenian security policy has been heavily dependent on Russia and Iran. This has naturally prevented the country from pursuing a balanced foreign policy between Eurasia and Europe. The source for this restrictive foreign policy can be found in the inability of Armenian nationalism to recognise former Soviet internal republican boundaries as post-Soviet international borders. In voting against UN resolutions denouncing Crimea’s occupation, Armenia therefore sees Karabakh and Crimea’s ‘self-determination’ as two sides of the same coin.

Moving forward after last year’s war, Armenia has two choices.

The first is to negotiate the delimitation and demarcation of its border with Azerbaijan based on the principle of uti possidetis, which would lead to a post-conflict peace treaty. Turkey and Azerbaijan would re-open their borders with Armenia and provide it with greater possibilities for trade, economic growth, and energy independence. Armenia could become more involved in the EU’s Eastern Partnership which, as has been shown in the case of Ukraine, would boost Armenian trade with the EU.

The second is for Armenia to simply ignore potential border negotiations and demand the ‘self-determination’ of the ‘Republic of Artsakh’. Armenian foreign and security policy would subsequently continue to be dominated by Russia and Iran. Without the practical benefits of the Eastern Partnership’s DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement), the Armenian economy would remain stagnant and even more of its population would emigrate (two out of five million Armenians currently live in Russia). The low intensity conflict currently taking place between Baku and Yerevan could escalate into a Third Karabakh War, which would be disastrous for Armenia.

Armenians need to make a choice. Hopefully it will be for peace and reconciliation with their neighbours and perhaps even European integration.

Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. He is the author of Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War, which is set to be published soon by Routledge.

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