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Nagorno-Karabakh seen from Yerevan

Interview with Armenian journalist Arshaluys Mghdesyan. Interviewer: Martina Napolitano

October 20, 2023 - Arshaluys Mghdesyan Martina Napolitano - Interviews

View over Yerevan. Photo: Meridiano 13 / Martina Napolitano

On September 19th, Azerbaijan launched an attack on the Armenian-controlled territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The offensive ended within 24 hours, resulting in the capitulation of the breakaway republic, marking the end of Nagorno-Karabakh’s history as a de facto independent state (it will officially cease to exist at the end of this year). A mass exodus towards Armenia has begun for around 120,000 people. How is Armenia reacting to the events in Nagorno-Karabakh? What are the country’s future prospects? We discussed these questions in Yerevan with Arshaluys Mghdesyan, who is political commentator for the Armenian newspaper CivilNet Online TV.

MARTINA NAPOLITANO: How is the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh being perceived in Yerevan and Armenia in comparison to the war and defeat in 2020? From an external perspective, there seems to be a prevailing sense of a climate of resignation, which emerged following the first hours of the Azerbaijani offensive on September 19th. Is this perception correct?

ARSHALUYS MGHDESYAN: It’s a hard question. I have the impression that we did not fully understand what happened in 2020, what kind of defeat it was, what Azerbaijan’s real goals were and with what methods Baku wanted to achieve them.

We seemingly regarded the defeat and the post-war status quo as something stable. We thought that the Russian military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh would be long term.

The political decisions were made with these assumptions, based on the condition of post-war Armenia, [specifically] the army, being in poor condition, as well as the internal political crisis and the 2021 elections. For at least six months after the war, Armenia went through an internal crisis. Then the difficult reform of the army and the war in Ukraine followed, and this changed the status quo.

We found ourselves in an ever-shifting environment that we thought would be stable, but we failed or didn’t have time to adapt. And this was the result.

Is there a sense of disappointment with Russia in Armenia?

In Armenia there is a sense of disappointment, a profound disappointment. But there were also unrealistic expectations. Already during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict there were signs that Russia never spoke out about the consequences of a possible attack on Armenia’s borders, which would have constituted an unacceptable violation.

It should have been recognised that the region was changing and Russia could act in its own interests. Therefore, yes, there is disappointment.

Can the European Union and the United States influence the situation?

We Armenians are always looking for a magic wand that can help us in times of need. But the safety of those who are sinking is first and foremost the responsibility of those who are sinking. There will be no saviours.

In this sense, we can say that the great powers act like deities. They may offer some kind of diplomatic assistance, but I have strong doubts whether they will take drastic measures against Azerbaijan or decide to resolutely support Armenia.

We failed to achieve what we wanted with Russia and we will not succeed with the United States or the European Union.

Here’s a recent example: US Congress Representative Samantha Power, who is now in Yerevan, previously stated that the United States would not tolerate another war against Nagorno-Karabakh. However, we saw that they easily tolerated it. They declare that a reaction is necessary, but they do not mention what exactly this reaction should be.

The fate of the world is not decided here, it is decided in Ukraine. That’s why there is such a severe conflict with Russia there. What happens here, fortunately or unfortunately, is not considered important.

So, we will not receive security guarantees from Europe.

The Nagorno-Karabakh issue has been discussed three times at the UN Security Council, yet there has not been a single statement from the member states regarding possible sanctions.

In Armenia, are there concerns that the conflict could escalate to involve the south of the country?

I believe that this is the most pressing issue right now. Attacking Armenia’s internationally recognised territories would be more complex. But there are many states in the world whose recognition hasn’t helped, from Syria to Ukraine.

Turkey and Azerbaijan will find all possible means to raise the issue concerning the road passing through Syunik province (which they refer to as the Zangezur corridor). They will try to force Yerevan’s hand through diplomatic channels or military actions, such as exercises and other types of manoeuvres near the border.

The Armenian province of Syunik, on the border with Iran, divides Azerbaijan from its exclave of Nakhchivan. Azerbaijan and Turkey have been pushing for the opening of an extraterritorial transport corridor through Armenia for some time. This corridor was also mentioned in the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war.

We will observe the situation. Now it is difficult to say what will happen, but the possibility that they resolve the issue militarily cannot be excluded.

Iran and western countries could help us avoid such a scenario. On this issue, Tehran and the West have similar positions. The corridor is needed militarily and politically, first and foremost, for Azerbaijan and Turkey.

The road and, in particular, an extraterritorial corridor would be useful also to Russia. Since the 2020 peace agreement stipulated that this route of communication would be patrolled by Russian border guards, this would allow Moscow to maintain its presence in the region.

Iran fears losing its border with Armenia and consequently being surrounded by unfriendly countries. Last year, Iran opened a consulate in Kapan, southern Armenia, and the country’s authorities have repeatedly stated that Armenia’s security coincides with Iran’s security.

However, we should be cautious. Azerbaijan and Turkey could offer Iran something to change its stance.

Moving on to the internal political situation in Armenia, will Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan remain in power?

Yes, for now. In this period, many of the preconceptions we had before the 2020 war are disappearing. We used to think that if an Armenian leader had lost Nagorno-Karabakh or some other territory they would not have remained in power.

Despite the military defeat in 2020, Pashinyan not only remained in power, but he was also democratically re-elected in 2021. Even though now we have lost Nagorno-Karabakh, the government has not fallen.

This shows that the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is not as influential in domestic politics as it was in the 1990s, when it was a sacred, untouchable issue, which decided the fate of those in power.

This is no longer the case. The perception of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has changed in Armenian society.

People think it’s a closed matter, that it was just part of a propaganda narrative.

Armenians are reflecting on the fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has been used to justify corruption in Armenia. There were discussions like, “Okay, we can have bad roads because we spend money to defend Nagorno-Karabakh.” People accepted poor living conditions and tolerated sending their children to do military service in Nagorno-Karabakh, while politicians lived in luxury.

All this lasted a long time. Dissatisfaction grew and was silenced with propaganda discourse. The first sign of discontent was the war of 2016, when Armenians realised that not everything was going well. That something was rotten in the state of Denmark. Many doubts arose about the army, that it was not well supplied despite all the sacrifices.

Fast forward to 2020. After the defeat, the Armenian authorities began to say that they would support Nagorno-Karabakh, but not at the cost of sacrifices and debts.

Well, in this way the topic has lost its relevance in the eyes of Armenian society and these are the results. Even if many opposition figures have not yet understood this.

Anecdotally, while traveling around Yerevan I had the chance to speak to many people with relatives in Nagorno-Karabakh. Statistically, do most Armenians have personal contacts in Artsakh? How important is Nagorno-Karabakh for the average Armenian citizen?

It is undoubtedly important. Post-Soviet Armenia was conceived around the topic of Nagorno-Karabakh, and there are really many people with relatives in the region. But the sacralisation of Nagorno-Karabakh had the consequence of making it an almost untouchable subject. A normal discussion about the region was not possible. It was the exclusive competence of the [political] elite. And those elites strengthened their power in every way, using the very theme of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nonetheless, getting into conflict on this issue now is madness. I understand those who say that Nagorno-Karabakh had to be defended. But the government acted with the understanding that any intervention could potentially provide Baku with a justification to attack Armenia.

There are several small protests in Yerevan. Are the opposition forces united?

Two dynamics can be observed. On the one hand, there are protests from the parliamentary opposition, who want Pashinyan to resign. On the other, there are the nationalists, who are few and marginal but very loud.

Protest tent in Yerevan on September 25th. Photo: Meridiano 13 / Martina Napolitano  

This interview was originally published in Italian on the Meridiano 13 website and social media channels.

Arshaluys Mghdesyan is political commentator for the Armenian newspaper CivilNet Online TV.

Martina Napolitano holds a PhD in Slavic Studies and is lecturer for Russian language and translation at the University of Trieste. In her research and writing she particularly focuses on late Soviet and contemporary Russian-language culture. She is a translator, series editor at the Bottega Errante publishing house, and president of Meridiano 13.

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