Change of power in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh settlement

Change of power in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh settlement

Protests in Armenia that began in March of this year culminated in resignation of Serzh Sargsyan from the post of prime minister. Acting government headed by Karen Karapetyan is still in power, but after leader of protests Nikol Pashinyan wasn't elected to the post of prime minister, protests continued with renewed force. The ruling Republican Party understands that this process will eventually lead to early parliamentary election, and it will be better for them to organize elections themselves, without giving control over this process to "people's candidate."

A new elite will begin to form in Armenia in the short term, if not this week. It will determine new composition of parliament and government. Before the announcement of early elections and election race itself, we can expect a fierce fight between political parties and blocs, especially since resignation of Serzh Sargsyan lead to reset of relations between main political actors. Now political history of Armenia enters a qualitatively new phase.

In geopolitical context, processes that take place in Armenia are unpredictable and steps of main geopolitical centers in the country and the region will be tactical. The main issues that concern expert community are, among others, further geopolitical orientation of Armenia and influence of the change of power on process of settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Geopolitical orientation of Yerevan has been considered pro-Russian for many years: Armenia is a full fledged member of the EAEU, the Customs Union and the CSTO, Russia's state concerns are monopolies in energy and transport sectors, migrant workers annually send hundreds of millions of dollars to Armenia. Due to closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan (due to the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict), Armenia doesn't have access to oceans and only has access to Georgia and Iran. Sanctions against Iran and low level of cooperation ties make access to Iran basically useless. Armenia's main trade partners are Russia and the EU, access to which is provided by Georgia. Vulnerability of Armenia's economy comes from transport isolation, since most of the commodity turnover with Russia depends on weather conditions on the Georgian-Russian border. On the other hand, security factor has always more important for Armenia compared to economic one. This factor made Serge Sargsyan join the EAEU and the Customs Union in September of 2013.

It should be recalled that current leader of the protest movement of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan was an author of legislative initiative on withdrawal of Armenia from the EAEU in 2017, which was blocked by the republican majority at that time. Along with Russian direction, Armenian foreign policy improved relations with the EU and the US. A new agreement was signed with the EU, the largest diplomatic mission of the United States in the entire post-Soviet space operates in Armenia, two Armenian parties: the Republican Party and the Heritage Party are members of the European People's Party.

In other words, leader of protests and the most likely candidate for the post of prime minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan has no personal "history" with Russia and statements about inevitability of alliance with Russia and membership in the EAEU and the CSTO are tactical and he may back off after elections and formation of a new government. Representatives of the Republican Party reminded Pashinyan of his last year's statements, trying to show population the lack of consistency in his views.

A crack in relations with Armenia can affect the entire perimeter of Russia's regional policy. Considering difficulties in relations between the US and Russia, as well as the presence of "hawks" in the US government, gradual withdrawal of Armenia from Russia's orbit can be considered as one of the measures aimed at weakening Russia's influence in the region. It's also important to recall statement of the US ambassador to Armenia about possible multi-billion investments in alternative energy, which will help Armenia's energy sector to become less dependant on Russia.

Settlement of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and internal Armenian processes were inextricably linked for 25 years. Resignation of the first president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan, transfer of power to leader of the Karabakh separatists Robert Kocharyan, and then to Serzh Sargsyan, who also took part in the Karabakh events, the Armenian parliament shooting of 1999, when speaker of the parliament and prime minister were killed; 2016 Yerevan hostage crisis, resignation of the Hovik Abrahamyan's government in the fall of 2016 - all os these are milestones in the history of Armenia, which had effect on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process.

Negotiation process intensified after the meetings between Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan in October of 2017 and foreign ministers in January of 2018. After the January meeting, a time-out was taken due to transition of Armenia from presidential to parliamentary form of government, as well as presidential elections in Azerbaijan. Co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, Russia's foreign minister spoke about new ideas that were discussed at the negotiation table and could be discussed after elections.

But negotiations require two legitimate sides. As of today, there's still a period of uncertainty in Armenia, which will likely end in continuation of confrontation or announcement of early parliamentary elections. But the settlement process can't move forward without participation of one of the sides, and Armenia can't participate in negotiations in the short term. On the other hand, there's a justifiable concern that government that will be formed in Armenia after early parliamentary elections will begin negotiations without taking into account existing developments, proposing its own agenda.

There's no doubt that there will be loud populist, maximalist promises from political parties and leaders regarding the settlement of this conflict during election of new prime minister and possible election campaign. Representatives of the army, basically participants in the Karabakh movement, may also participate in this process, trying to influence Armenian voters through provocations on the contact line between armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. Such provocations will lead to response of Azerbaijan's army.

In the end, first of all, change of power in Armenia and process of final formation of the new government will negatively affect intensity of the settlement process. In this context, activity of international mediators, in particular co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group - Russia, the United States and France - is very important. But the question is, will co-chairs continue to pursue coordinated position, like they did before, in particular after the escalation in April of 2016, or events in the region and in the world will affect this platform.

Second of all, there were always provocations on the contact line, however, in current realities of Armenia they will be perceived more emotionally and can lead to unpredictable consequences. When it comes to political crisis in Armenia, Azerbaijan wants new authorities to soberly assess realities of the region, since the country can't develop with closed borders in the west and the east, which are also its longest borders that make up 75% of all borders of the country. Any provocations on the contact line will receive response.

Third of all, in the short and medium term, geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus region will be subject to desire of involved parties to change balance of power in the region in the context of growing contradictions in the Russia-US and Iran-US formats.