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Democracy as newly-found but misleading bedrock of Armenia’s foreign policy narratives

Armenia has undergone some transformations in the aftermath of the governmental change brought about by the popular upheaval in April 2018. Not only its domestic politics but also its foreign policy has been affected in this process. Democracy has become the buzzword for the new government of the country. Describing the reform initiatives as the triumph of democracy, the new government, led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, puts democracy on the top of its agenda addressed both domestic and foreign audience. His government is keen to reap maximum benefits from this narrative in both internal and external politics amidst the country’s overwhelming economic challenges and troublesome international relations.

This modification in Armenia’s foreign policy narratives has become much more noticeable over the last few months. The expert community and foreign policy officials of the country demonstrate a conviction that Armenia has become the landmark of democracy in the region and this has no way but should affect other democracies’ attitude to Armenia.

For Nikol Pashinyan, the democratic build-up in Armenia should even affect his country’s ties with Turkey, its western neighbor which has closed its borders with Armenia in protest to the latter’s occupation of part of Azerbaijani territories. He believes  that “If Turkey considers itself a democratic country, it should welcome the triumph of democracy in its neighboring state and start a dialogue”.

This is also presented as a “game changer” in the country’s territorial conflict with Azerbaijan which remains unresolved since around three decades. For example, Richard Giragosian, Director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center (RSC), talking about the prospects for settlement of the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict, asserts that “There are several recent developments that actually contribute to changing the climate or environment to make it more conducive to negotiated resolution. First is the democratic revolution in Armenia and recent democratic elections in Nagorno-Karabakh [that] raise the level of optimism over accountability of democratic-based negotiation from the Armenian side.”

This approach, presenting exclusively Armenia and its subordinate structure in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan as democracy and highlighting this as a development with the potential to change the regional affairs, contains both foundational and practical flaws making the entire narrative misleading and counter-productive.

First and foremost, it is important to note that one of the pillars of democratization is about providing equal rights to all the citizens and ensuring inclusivity in social and political life. A state which discriminates against a certain segment of its population due to their ethnic, religious, cultural or any other characteristic deprives it from the right to call itself democracy. The attempt to build democracy under these circumstances resembles the dark pages of human history when human rights meant to privilege only one group of population based on race or ethnicity, as exemplified in the white and black segregation in the United States before the 1960s.

Armenia and the subordinate political regime it has established in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, having expelled the Azerbaijani population from their historical homelands through violent ethnic cleansing and genocide, falls into this category. Around one million IDPs from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan live now far from their homes and continue to be denied to their fundamental rights.

As an IDP from the occupied Kalbajar region of Azerbaijan, I am appalled by those statements of the occupant regime about the establishment of democracy and other liberal standards in the territories once my mother gave birth to me with great hopes and expectations in mid-1989 but soon was forced to take me through the freezing mountains of the Lesser Caucausus fleeing from the Armenian shootings in April 1993, having left behind everything we had. It is hard to imagine how the Armenian leaders dare to talk about democracy while thousands of people like me and my family remain deprived of the right to live in their homeland.

This situation, being antithesis to democracy, contradicts all the statements of the Armenian government about the rise of democracy and need to be borne in mind by all international observers engaged with the region.

Secondly, the optimistic statements of the Armenian experts and officials about the potential impact of the internal changes in Armenia on the settlement of the conflict are delusive and arguably meant to draw international support to the country’s unlawful position. Paradoxically, Armenia’s leaders, on the one hand, do not shy away from provoking nationalistic sentiments amongst the Armenians and reinforcing the popular attachment to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, on the other hand, attempt to convince the international community that the Armenian government elected by these citizens will be more willing to reach an agreement with Azerbaijan.

Most prominently, by making the notorious “Karabakh is Armenia, period” declaration in Khankandi, part of the Armenia-occupied internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan, in August 2019, Pashinyan demonstrated the true nature of his policies with respect to the conflict. Important to note that he made this declaration to an audience shouting “miatsum,” or “unification,” the nationalist slogan that gained momentum in the early years of the conflict as Armenians fought for Nagorno-Karabakh to break away from Azerbaijan and get it unified with Armenia. He has reiterated this position on many occasions since then.

This is no aberration to his general political strategy which is based on making populist goals to recruit electoral support and distract the attention of the citizens from domestic problems. Pashinyan seeks to persuade the Armenians of the seemingly unrealistic objectives regarding domestic politics of the state. For instance, he has promised to boost the less than 3 million population of Armenia to 5 million by 2050, while a latest demographic report by the United Nations Organization expected Armenia’s population to shrink to by 913,000 to 2,039,000 by 2100.  FIFA World Cup, GDP increase by 15 times, development of at least five technology companies whose value exceeds $10 billion, reaching the top twenty countries by the army’s combat readiness index and top ten countries in the intelligence service are among the unrealistic objectives he has declared since taking the power in mid-2018.

This demonstrates that the developments in the Armenian politics since the forced governmental change in 2018, has not changed the country’s policies concerning its conflict with Azerbaijan and as such delivered no positive push for a breakthrough. Quite the contrary to what the Armenian leadership and its expert community claim, Pashinyan’s government provokes nationalism and other aggressive sentiments in the country, making the peaceful resolution all but possible.

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Vasif Huseynov

Dr. Vasif Huseynov is a senior fellow at the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations. His book titled “Geopolitical Rivalries in the ‘Common Neighborhood’: Russia’s Conflict with the West, Soft Power, and Neoclassical Realism” will be released soon.

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