Artsakh’s Independence Before Normalization: Reordering Armenia’s Priorities

The following comment is attributed to President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan conjecturing on the possibility of Artsakh achieving local autonomy when it is returned to Baku’s jurisdiction. “It may take a year, maybe 10 years, maybe 100 years, or it will never be possible. Time will tell.î That mindset that Karabakh will revert to Azerbaijani control is given credence by the continuing pressure by the Minsk Group representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for Armenia to accept another nuanced Madrid Proposal as the basis for negotiating a resolution of the Karabakh conflict. To accept these principles places the burden on the Armenian negotiators, effectively precluding our brothers and sisters in Artsakh from ever achieving a peaceful de jure independence.

Given that rather ominous outlook, the leadership in Yerevan remains hell-bent on implementing an ill-conceived policy that seeks to normalize relations with a government in Ankara that continues a decades-long national policy of denial, obfuscation, and revisionism with respect to the genocide of the Armenian nation that began on April 24, 1915. It should come as no revelation that the Turkish leaders have no intention of normalizing relations with Yerevan until the Karabakh conflict is resolved. The Turkish solution is simple: The liberated districts must revert to Azeri control and Karabakh’s ultimate status to be determined by a vote under conditions and at an indefinite time in the future. While Armenia seeks to appease Ankara on its western border, for what purpose one might ask, it is being outflanked on its eastern border.

These ongoing negotiations to achieve normalization are part of a well-conceived Turkish diplomatic offensive that seeks to force Yerevan into accepting compromises that are inimical to its political viability and future security. The soccer invitation by Armenian President Serge Sarkisian to Turkish President Abdullah Gul was part and parcel of this shrewd Turkish offensive. The invitation was anything but spontaneous by the Armenian president. The hesitancy by the Turkish president in accepting was part of the drama that set the stage for the current negotiations. Unwary Yerevan–better that said than to say they were party to this subterfuge–has little if anything substantive to gain from these negotiations. Yerevan has yet to produce any objective evidence as to how normalization will promote its present political-economic situation or long-term national security interests. An analysis of the limited and conflicting information that is available indicates that whatever gains may be anticipated will come at an exorbitant cost to Armenia.

If this is not sufficient reason to end negotiations, perhaps a more compelling reason is the need for Yerevan to reorient its priorities and view Artsakh’s independence rather than normalization as the key to its future. The loss of Artsakh would seriously weaken Yerevan’s position within the south Caucasus and would likely result in the disaffection of a significant number of diasporan Armenians. Yerevan must develop and enunciate a stratagem supported by the major political parties in tandem with Stepanakert that will maintain and strengthen the de facto independence of Artsakh as this coalition works toward its recognition as a free and independent political entity. Failure to develop a broadly supported stratagem creates a vacuum that facilitates the ongoing campaign by Ankara and Baku of comments from their leaders that seek to create the illusion that negotiations are progressing satisfactorily. This causes what they expect: confusion and consternation on the part of the Armenian political parties not privy to the negotiations, and an erosion of Armenia’s position in the negotiations. The lack of an effective response by Yerevan makes its leaders appear to be the intransigent neighbor while Turkey assumes the role of the cooperative negotiator. It is a shrewd gambit by Ankara that seems to be resonating with the principal players–the Minsk Group representing the OSCE, of which Russia and the United States serve as co-chairs with France, and by Russia and the United States as separate entities apart from their participation in the Minsk Group–as they continue to pressure Armenia to make compromises.

These nations want an open border–seemingly at Armenia’s expense–and a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict–at Karabakh’s expense–ostensibly to bring political and economic stability to the region. Political and economic stability in the south Caucasus is a legitimate objective. However, nowhere are provisions suggested to be implemented that would improve the economy of Armenia, its active participation in the ongoing economic development programs and projects in the south Caucasus, guarantees of free access to Black Sea ports in Georgia and Turkey or to address the various issues that are an outgrowth of the Armenian Genocide. Rather, both Armenia’s and Karabakh’s vital interests are being ignored in preference to those of Turkey and Azerbaijan. There is everything to suggest, based on the available evidence, that if the present set of circumstances prevail, Armenia and Karabakh will be relegated to political and economic servitude, their potential forever circumscribed by the interests of Ankara and Baku (see “The Roadmap to Normalization is a Roadmap to Oblivion for Armenia,î The Armenian Weekly, May 23, 2009).

The ultimate independence of Artsakh must be viewed as infinitely more compelling than the normalization of relations with Ankara. Failure to achieve Artsakh’s independence will be the death knell for Hai Tahd, which represents the Armenian nation’s legitimate demand for justice. The first link in that long-sought demand for justice is the recognition of Artsakh as an independent entity. Should that fail, Yerevan has no hope whatsoever that the normalization of relations with Turkey will be either politically or economically beneficial, or that its national security interests can be protected. With a defeat in Artsakh, what is it that normalization can yield? What incentive would there be for Ankara to ever offer no more than token responses to the legitimate Armenian claims of restitution, reparation, recognition (of the genocide), and rectification (of the boundary)? Whatever concessions that were finally made to Armenia would serve solely to burnish Turkey’s image as a nation willing to overcome its past in order to achieve political and economic stability within the south Caucasus. Turkish leaders know that this ploy would play well in the capitals of the European Union and the United States, whose governments are anxious to finally settle the “Armenian Questionî redefined in the context of their collective 21st century interests. Does anyone expect the nations that have recognized the Armenian Genocide to support Armenia’s cause under these circumstances?

For Yerevan the issue that must be confronted is not whether Karabakh is part of the negotiation process, but the constant pressure to have the Madrid Proposals serve as the basis for negotiations. No matter how these proposals are nuanced , they are the same proposals that were introduced in 2007 and they still speak to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Completely ignored is the principle that supports the inalienable right of an ethnic minority to seek independence from the rule of a despotic government. There is no part of international law that precludes Artsakh from being recognized today as an independent country. If the principle of territorial integrity was so sacrosanct Kosovo could not have been recognized by the United States and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could not have occurred (see “Is Artsakh’s Cause Less Than Kosovo’s?î The Armenian Weekly, May 10, 2009).

Even a cursory examination of these principles leaves little doubt that they are skewed against Karabakh’s independence. The first principle requires the withdrawal of the K
arabakh Defense Force from the liberated territories that form Karabakh’s security zone. Withdrawal from these lands would cause the Line of Contact (LoC) to contract to the borders of the Karabakh districts. This would make the defense of Karabakh immeasurably more difficult as well as effectively cutting it off from both Armenia and Iran. The Lachin Corridor cannot be viewed as a dependable link to Armenia if the Kashatagh and Lachin districts (Kelbajar) are occupied by Azerbaijan. The Lachin Corridor road under the best of conditions is a fragile link to Armenia and can be easily severed once the security zone is occupied by the Azerbaijan military. An international peacekeeping force under the aegis of the United Nations might be an option. However, their effectiveness judged by the past performances of such peace-keeping forces in similar situations too numerous to mention is not reassuring. They normally have neither the capacity nor the mandate to effectively challenge any military action that the host nation may decide to take. What is the status of the occupied eastern margins of Martakert and Martuni and the district of Shahumian? Will they revert to Karabakh’s control or continue to remain under Azeri occupation?

A second principle speaks to the return of internally displace persons (IDP) to the liberated districts as well as to Karabakh itself. What of the Armenian IDP’s that are in Karabakh who fled from Baku and Sumgait and the districts of Shahumian and the eastern border regions of Martakert and Martuni that are presently occupied by Azeri forces. Then there are those Armenians that left Azerbaijan for Armenia or Russia. These people are the only legitimate refugees of the war to liberate Artsakh, although the term is incorrectly used by Baku to identify their IDP’s.

This requirement to resettle the IDP’s combined with a third principle that suggests a future plebiscite to determine the status of Karabakh all but insures that the people of Karabakh will never achieve independence. When this plebiscite will take place will be determined by whom? When will it be held? What geographic regions will be included? Karabakh only? Or will the voting include all of Azerbaijan as a referendum on whether or not Karabakh should be granted some form of local autonomy? Actually none of these questions are relevant simply because Karabakh’s independence will never be one of the options. Possibly Aliyev’s off repeated threat of a military solution may be the more desirable option (see “The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict Revisited,î The Armenian Weekly, August 16, 2008).

The loss of Artsakh would represent a catastrophic political and psychological setback for Armenia and for the creditability of the ARF. Hai Tahd and the socioeconomic and political reforms that define the ideology of the ARF would have been seriously tarnished. That may be a harsh assessment, but it is closer to the truth than ignoring the consequences of Artsakh’s demise.

Artsakh not only would represent a significant victory in the Armenian nation’s determination to obtain justice, but it strengthens the country’s strategic position athwart the Russian-Iranian north-south axis and the Turkish-Azerbaijani west-east axis. At any moment Russia has the capability to occupy Georgia which is Turkey’s only land connection to Baku and beyond. The neutralization of Armenia and the reversion of Karabakh to Azerbaijan would provide Turkey with an important alternate route. There can be no doubt that Turkey desires to extend its political and economic influence across the Caspian Sea into central Asia and beyond. This is the old pan-Turanian (or Pan-Turkic) dream resurrected.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent charge that the Chinese government was committing genocide in Xingtiang (Sinkiang) against the ethnic Moslem Uighurs speaks to that objective. The United States, Russia, and the European Union should consider that Turkey’s geostrategic interests will ultimately run counter to their respective geostrategic interests. From the Balkans to Chinese Xingtiang and from the south Caucasus to the Gulf of Aden, there is no country within this vast region that can compete on the ground with Turkey. This includes both Israel and Iran.

No one questions the fact that Yerevan is not dealing from a position of power. However, President Sargsyan courts disaster if he continues to carry on negotiations without broad based political support and a degree of transparency. Allaying suspicions and the need to engender support from the diaspora is an absolute necessity. The ARF is well positioned to make an important contribution if Yerevan accepts the need not only to reposition itself with respect to its objectives, but to develop a plan of action that speaks, first and foremost, to the de jure independence of Karabakh. If not, then this difficult burden must fall on the ARF to represent the people of Karabakh in their epic struggle to become a free and independent entity.

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