Armenia: An Ethnocratic Regime (extraction from article: Who Gains from the “No War No Peace” Situation? A Critical Analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict)
Ethnicity and ethnic loyalty are at the centre of politics in Armenia. As Suny argues, there are historical similarities between the foundation of Israel and the establishment of Soviet Armenia: a part of the ancient homeland was Armenianised under the guidance of Russia with the migration of Armenians from Diaspora and forced deportation of Azerbaijanis out of the country. 51 As a result of the policy of nationalisation, it became the most homogenous Soviet Republic in which Armenians comprised 93 percent of the population. Nevertheless, the policy of Armenianisation continued after independence until Yerevan got rid of all its Azerbaijani population in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Parallel to Oren Yiftachel’s classification for Israel and other ethnocratic regimes, the regime in Armenia can be termed as an “ethnocracy” as it advocates for “the expansion, ethnicization and control of contested territory [Nagorno-Karabakh] and state by a dominant ethnic nation [Armenians].” 52 Therefore, the ethnic cleansing was ‘right’ and ‘necessary’ for the Armenian regime, as Azerbaijanis – perceived as Turks in the Armenian discourse – were collectively guilty because of the historical tragedies and the loss of the ancient homeland.
Although nationalism is a modern phenomenon, ethnocracies utilise religious myths to sanctify the contested territory and to essentialise physical and social boundaries. In line with this argument, Armenian national discourse employed religious narratives like “the first Christian nation, and a chosen people” to justify the claims on territories that once belonged to ancient Armenia as a matter of divine truth. 53 The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was articulated within the national discourse as a recurring expulsion of Armenians from their historic lands. The establishment of a historical link between the tragic events of 1915 and the loss of what they consider ‘the ancient Armenian homeland’ to Turkey with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict fortified the sense of fear and insecurity among people. 54 The Armenian society was made to believe in the narrative of what the ruling elite deemed a “second genocide,” and once again, the nation’s future was under threat by Turks (in this case Azerbaijanis, who share the same ethnic origin): “The risk of genocide would constantly hang over us, like Damocles’ sword, over the heads of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians. The Armenian people have already been victims of genocide, they will not tolerate a second.” 55 The national discourse, considering the existence of Turkey and Azerbaijan as a constant threat to the Armenian identity, had not been challenged thoroughly in the first half of the 1990s. Political leaders who revealed their willingness to compromise during the war years were either deposed or assassinated by militant nationalists. For example, Valery Grigoriyan, the Karabakh-Armenian leader who went to Baku with a group of nomenklatura leaders for negotiations to end the conflict under the Azerbaijan’s sovereignty in 1991, was murdered in Stepanekert by radical Armenians. 56
When the war ended in 1994 with the complete victory of Armenia, daily life was paralysed by refugee flows and energy crises. Isolations and war conditions devastated urban and industrial infrastructure. Between 1991 and 1994, the economy decreased 61 percent and it reached the level in 2004 that it had in 1990. 57 In this gloomy picture, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the leader of the Karabakh movement and then the first president of Armenia, realised that normalisation of relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan is the only way for Armenia to become a prosperous and healthy country. 58 As his senior advisor Gerard Libaridian underlined, “Ter-Petrossian could not see how Armenian or any other diplomacy could change the position of any other countries on territorial integrity and occupied territories.” 59 In 1997, he accepted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) proposal for a phased settlement, which proposed solutions for the occupied territories, blockades and refugees but postponed the question of Nagorno-Karabakh status and the Lachin corridor. On 26 September 1997, in an important press conference, Ter-Petrosyan expressed his support for a peace agreement by claiming that a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh and the opening of borders with Turkey were vital for Armenia’s prosperity, and he stated, “As long as Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved, Armenia cannot return to normality and live like any other European country.” 60
This turning point in Armenian politics resulted in a crumbling of the “historical block,” defined by Laclau and Mouffe as “a political space relatively unified through nodal points and tendentially relational identities.” 61 Ter-Petrosyan did not contend for a simple foreign policy change. Instead, he attempted to transform the meaning of Turkey in the national discourse from a constitutive outside to a vital neighbour for the prosperity of Armenia. However, Ter-Petrosyan and his supporters became victims of nationalism that they initiated with the formation of the Karabakh Committee at the end of the 1980s. Powerful leaders in the ruling elite resisted Ter-Petrosyan’s call to change Armenia’s policy towards Turkey and Azerbaijan, by depicting it ‘selling the country to Turks’. They united to protect the status quo by successfully manipulating the security of the nation to their advantage. Robert Kocharian – the former leader of Karabakh Armenians who was appointed the prime minister by Ter-Petrosyan to consider the Nagorno-Karabakh question in the full context of Armenia’s troubles – announced that he would not “give Karabakh to anybody… . No decision adopted in Armenia will be implemented without Karabakh’s consent, irrespective who is in power in Yerevan.” 62 His opponents accused Ter-Petrosyan of national betrayal because of his conciliatory approach and forced him to resign in February 1998. Kocharian was elected president in March 1998, and the government immediately announced that it would pursue ‘Hay Tad’ (Armenian Cause) in its foreign policy to support Armenia’s right to return to the territories in current Turkey where Armenians lived before 1915. Prioritisation of “anti-Turkism” and the recognition of “genocide” as foreign policy objectives of Armenia were further backed by the legalisation of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF and known also as Dashnaksutiun). ARF, a chauvinist party that publicly made territorial claims about eastern Turkey and was banned during the Ter-Petrosyan rule, had been the strategic partner of governments during Kocharian’s rule.
Ethnocratic policies have starved Armenia of the opportunities for regional integration and trade with its neighbours. The country is completely isolated by economic blockades with 85 percent of the borders closed by Turkey and Azerbaijan. According to the World Bank, with the opening of borders, Armenia’s exports would double in the short term, and its gross domestic product (GDP) would increase by an estimated 30 percent. 63 The legal uncertainty in which corruption permeates every aspect of daily life renders exploitation the only alternative for people to survive. This dynamic is both an outcome and supporter of the status quo. After the end of the war, well-known warlords established criminal networks and mafia organisations to benefit from the black-market trade across borders, created by economic isolations. The prospect of economic development as a result of peaceful solution is not seen as an incentive for groups who are benefiting from the current stalemate. Rather, they consider peace and normalisation of relations detrimental to their economic and political interests. 64 The former defence minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, Samvel Babayan, who had been the “de facto overlord and master” of Nagorno-Karabakh, became the most notorious example of the corrupt and illegal networks. During the war against Azerbaijan, Babayan and his followers looted the occupied territories and ironically sold the goods to Azeris in Iran. After the ceasefire agreement, with the help of economic isolation and his military power, Babayan established a monopoly over the cigarette and gasoline trade. In March 2000, he was arrested and sentenced to fourteen years for the attempted assassination of Arkady Ghoukasyan, the president of Nagorno-Karabakh. 65
Armenian politics has been hijacked by the Karabakh debate and the native Karabakh politicians who control Armenia to a much greater extent than the other way around. Over the last decade, Armenia’s top political figures have been Karabakh Armenians: former Prime Minister and former President Robert Kocharian and former Defense Minister, former Prime Minister and current President Serzh Sarkisian. Their policy is based on Armenia’s military superiority in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian forces located in the highland areas control the militarily strategic positions in the enclave that decreased the risk of war significantly. The price paid for this maximalist policy of keeping Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other Azerbaijani districts occupied is the marginalisation of Armenia from the development of regional rail, road and energy networks. Kocharian sought to balance Armenia’s “self-imposed isolation” by establishing strategic ties with Russia, Iran, and the United States. According to the prominent Russian newspaperNezavisimaya, “Armenia is the only country that receives weapons from Russia, money from America and cooperates with Iran.” 66 Although this strategy does not present a way out from the secluded situation of Armenian society, it keeps the supporters of the status quo in power and provides them with opportunities in an isolated economy, as long as they dismiss any argument for normalisation that would jeopardise their authority, as a danger to national security.
51. R. G. Suny, ‘Constructing Primordialism: Old Histories for New Nations’, The Journal of Modern History 73/4 (Dec. 2001) pp. 885–86.
52. O. Yiftachel and A. Ghanem, ‘Understanding ‘Ethnocratic’ Regimes: The Politics of Seizing Contested Territories’,Political Geography 23/6 (2004) p. 649.
53. R. Panossian, ‘The Past as Nation: Three Dimensions of Armenian Identity’, Geopolitics 7/2 (Autumn 2002) pp. 127–131.
54. While it is impossible to neglect the tragic Armenian sufferings as a result of massacres during World War I, whether to term these events as “genocide” is a highly politicised debate among Armenian, Turkish and other scholars. However, during the last couple of years, many objective academic works were published, especially Guenter Lewy’s seminal book, on the subject. This article uses the unbiased term of ‘the events of 1915’ except when referring to direct quotations and the usage of the term ‘genocide’ by other persons. See for a detailed analysis, G. Lewy, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press 2005).
55. From Ter-Petrosyan’s speech following the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Lisbon Summit in December 1996, quoted from T. Papazian, ‘From Ter-Petrosyan to Kocharian: Explaining Continuity in Armenian Foreign Policy, 1991–2003’, Demokratizatsiya 14/2 (Spring 2006) p. 241. Armenian political leaders repeatedly used this rhetoric to connect the events of 1915 and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in their speeches to illustrate that the only option for a solution is the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh since they believe Armenians and Azerbaijanis cannot live together. It must be stressed that two ethnic groups had not had any violent conflict during the long Soviet rule until 1987. In a similar way to Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharian raised this issue during his official visit to Moscow in January 2003: “It is impossible for Armenians to live in Azerbaijan in principle. This is a matter of some ethnic incompatibility… . A people that has lived through a genocide cannot allow its repetition. Such is the reality.” See R. Kocharian, ‘Russia’s Important Role in Regional Processes’, Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn [International Affairs] 2 (2003) p. 108.
56. E. Melander, ‘The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Revisited: Was the War Inevitable?’ Journal of Cold War Studies 3/2 (2001) pp. 70–1.
57. A. Sarian, ‘Economic Challenges Faced by the New Armenian States’, Demokratizatsiya 14/2 (Spring 1996) pp. 193–222.
58. When Armenia declared independence in 1991, Turkey was one of the first countries to recognise it. The border crossing between the two countries had been open until Armenia occupied the Azerbaijani district of Khojali and massacred a large number of Azerbaijani civilians in 1993. Diplomatic relations have not been established between the two countries as Turkey sets a precondition of official abandonment of Armenia’s territorial claims about eastern Anatolia.
59. G. J. Libaridian, The Challenge of Statehood: Armenian Political Thinking Since Independence (Cambridge: Blue Crane Books 1999) p. 66.
60. E. Walker, No Peace, No War in the Caucasus: Secessionist Conflict in Chechnya, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh(Cambridge: Harvard University Center for Science and International Affairs 1998) p. 29.
61. E. Laclau and C. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso 1985) p. 136.
62. Walker (note 60) p. 31.
63. E. Polyakov, ‘Changing Trade Patterns after Conflict Resolution in the South Caucasus’, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 2593 (2001) p. 37.
64. C. King, ‘The Benefits of Ethnic War: Understanding Eurasia’s Unrecognized States’, World Politics 53 (July 2001) pp. 524–528.
65. T. De Waal, Black Garden, Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York: New York University Press 2002) pp. 241–245.
66. Russian military bases secure Armenian territory against Turkey and Azerbaijan while Iran gives its support to Armenia against Azerbaijan. The U.S. has been reluctant to become involved in an irreconcilable conflict between oil rich Azerbaijan and Diaspora-financed Armenia. M. Malek, ‘The South Caucasus at the Crossroads’, in G. Hauser and F. Kernic (eds.), European Security in Transition (Burlington: Ashgate 2006) p. 147.