The agreement chiselled out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region adds some valuable lessons to the international diplomacy playbook. Armenia’s political woes are a timely reminder of the perils of overplaying your hand militarily when your national institutions have been eroded by deep-rooted corruption and poor governance. Europe should take note and learn from the Armenian government’s mistakes.
There is no doubt that the outcome of the agreement brokered by Russia is a poor one for Armenia as it represents a defeat which its people are likely to remain resentful about for generations to come. However, there is also little question that the Armenian leadership must bear a great degree of responsibility for the nature of this outcome, which was far from inevitable.
Over the course of the past three decades, the Armenian government in Yerevan made several significant strategic and diplomatic mistakes which have led to this military defeat. As such, it is simplistic and unhelpful to blame the plight of the Armenian people on Azerbaijan.
The truth is that their government has played its hand poorly on their behalf. It is now incumbent upon the Armenian leadership to accept responsibility for the circumstances in which the country finds itself, and behaves in a way that will advance the long-term interests of its people.
Since the Armenian army seized the enclave at the end of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s, the Armenian leadership has consistently failed to effectively leverage its position of strength to ensure long-term stability in the region. This has been most palpable in its conduct within the Minsk Group created by the OSCE, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States.
The Armenian government grew complacent about the status of the occupied territories, underestimating the degree to which Azerbaijan expected sincere compromise. In a series of summits, including in Madrid in 2007 and again in Kazan, Russia, in 2011, it was stipulated that a number of occupied territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh would gradually be returned to Azerbaijan. Obstinacy prevailed however as the Armenian position radicalised, further entrenching the Azeris’ desire for revenge.
Eventually, as has been evident in recent years, the positions of both sides solidified and seemed devoted only to maintaining this precarious status quo. In Yerevan the concept of compromise eventually dissolved entirely. Any mention of concessions became synonymous with both the surrender of national identity and – given the stakes had been needlessly raised – the possibility of incurring an existential threat.
Radical rhetoric became the name of the game on both sides. It was naïve at best and dangerous at worst for Yerevan to expect that Baku would eventually back down. The Armenian side in particular was guilty of indulging in a romantic fantasy of invincibility, buoyed by its successes in the fighting between 1988 and 1994.
The leadership in Yerevan’s greatest and most damaging complacency however resided in its misplaced faith in Moscow. Granted, the two countries shared an old friendship, and are bound by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) defence pact of 2002, a military alliance of six former Soviet states. Moscow’s allegiance also appears to be on display in the shape of a military base in Gumri that stations 3,000 Russian troops.
However, the CSTO pact does not apply to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Armenian government proved willing to believe its own bravado in comfortably assuming that Russia would come to its aid when push came to shove. The short conflict of April 2016 should have been a wake-up call for Armenia. It provided ample evidence of both Azerbaijan’s technological superiority and Russia’s reluctance to back them to the hilt.
The Armenian leadership chronically overestimated its own strength and underestimated that of its adversary. Throughout this time, its political institutions were being gnawed away by corruption and poor governance. The leadership drummed up support for the Nagorno-Karabakh cause to distract attention from this fact, all the while propagandising the strength of its position to its population.
Henry Kissinger once remarked that the bargaining position of the victor always diminishes with time. Yerevan should have settled the long-term status of Nagorno-Karabakh from its position of strength. Instead, the Armenian leadership failed to push ahead with domestic reforms and overstretched its military. Armenia now finds itself in the worst of all possible scenarios.
The international community must now ensure that Azerbaijan lives up to its side of the agreement. Crucially, Armenian human rights must be upheld, and their cultural sites respected. But Yerevan must also be held to the highest of standards. The Armenian government has routinely failed its people. We must not allow Yerevan to exploit the sympathies of the wider world to the detriment of its population.
Franco Frattini is a former Foreign Minister of Italy (2002-2004 and 2008-2011) and European Commissioner (2004-2008).