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Can Sargsyan’s ouster trigger new wave of violence in the South Caucasus?

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On April 23, Armenian PM Serzh Sargsyan resigned after days of mass protests. He was a President for the last ten years and tried to continue to rule his country as a Prime Minister after the constitutional amendments. Some commentators rushed to express their satisfaction and evaluated the resignation of Sargsyan as a triumph of democracy. Yes, in fact, the broken promises, endemic corruption, and the widening gap between the country’s haves and the have-nots played a significant role in bursting anger of masses against Sargsyan. At the same time, the view of the events only through the perspective of democracy and will of people ignoring complex dynamics of power-politics inside the political elite, the oligarchic groups and regional politics prior and during Sargsyan’s resignation is very simplistic and half-finished approach. The commentators also tend to forget the negative socio-economic implication for Armenia that brought people to the streets, of isolation and closure of the 83 percent of all borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey as a result of the continuing occupation of territories of Azerbaijan. Understanding of these variables in Armenian politics properly is very important for making predictions for possible scenarios for Armenian domestic politics and Yerevan’s regional policies namely its approach toward the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The prologue of the downfall of Sargsyan has started long before his resignation, when the amendments to the Armenian Constitution of December 2015 were adopted and as a result, the country entered to the most important period of institutional and constitutional transition from semi-presidential system to parliamentary system where the Prime Minister will be a commander in chief of armed forces and the main person in executive power. This period was marked by fierce but silent competition and resistance between then Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan and former President Sargsyan over who will be a future Prime Minister. Obviously, Sargsyan’s desire to continue to rule the country as a Prime Minister has been met by the resistance of not only a former Gazprom executive Karen Karapetyan but also other political groups and the general public.

One of the important implication of the recent development and the transition of Armenian political structure from semi-presidential system to parliamentary republic are even more diffusion of power among many political stakeholders. Even before the recent events, one of the key elements of Armenian political system was the distribution of power among coalitions, political groups, oligarchs, civil society and influential lobby. Sargsyan in past ten years has been a successful equilibrium and a balance-player among these different stakeholders and has not been able to consolidate the absolute power in his hands. From a democratic perspective, it might look a positive element, but from a regional peace, security and stability perspective it will have a negative effect. In past twenty-five years, one of the main obstacles for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and substantial negotiations has been the weak government that is vulnerable to the outside and domestic pressures and lack of a strong leadership that could overcome all pressures, pursue substantive negotiations and accept the responsibility for unpopular compromises for a peace agreement and impose its will on the society. Diffusion and distribution of power among many rival stakeholders in Armenia have always been a major reason why the representatives of this country have not been able to take courageous and intrepid decisions and steps for the resolution of the conflict. The modern history of Armenia has a good empiric example of the consequences of an attempt to take bold steps in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in case of former President Levon Ter Petrosian when he was forced to resign from the office for his readiness to make compromises. On October 27, 199, there was also a mass shooting in the Armenian parliament that killed influential political figures who were ready and proponents of the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict like L. Ter Petrosyan. The consequent presidents from Karabakh clan Kocharyan and Sargsyan perfectly understood how dangerous can be for the future political career playing with Nagorno-Karabakh card and talks about compromises.

After the amendments to the Armenian Constitution of December 2015, the political fate of the Sargsyan became under the serious question and challenged because of political instability in Armenia that was triggered by events and failures of April 2016 in the frontline. After bloody skirmishes on the frontline in April of 2016, the possible scenario of comprises on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict instigated the political instability and the revolt of nationalist radicals who called themselves Sasna Dzres (Daredevils of Sassoun) that opposed any kind of comprises. The initiators of the 14 day hostage crisis, who were accusing the President for his readiness to betray the national interest of Armenians, was able to get strong public support from almost all dimensions of the society and the opposition that were unhappy with the overall policies of the ruling regime. This serious backlash made the President Sargsyan to abstain from any serious moves and thoughts about the compromise that could hinder his political future, at least for very sensitive period of power transition in the country. Instead of the language of moderation and peace-seeking, Sargsyan, especially for his domestic audience, opted for tough, nationalist and maximalist language obstructing any possible progress in the negotiation and returning to old dilatory tactics which have “successfully” procrastinated the resolution of the conflict for more than 23 years after ceasefire was reached in 1994.

Last year in Geneva, fearing unwanted speculations and accusations that might have put him again in defensive position ahead of very important political developments in the country former President Sargsyan rushed to the media to give comments few minutes right after the end of the talks with President Ilham Aliyev. During the meeting with the members of Armenian community in Switzerland in his statement for the media President Sargsyan made his best efforts to assure everyone in Armenia that he did not make any compromise and any compromise and concession are beyond of the talks. He stated that “no specific arrangements have been made about the settlement options. But they have agreed to take measures to ease the tension so that we do not have losses in the front line”. Then what angered the officials of Azerbaijan most was when Sargsyan ruled out any options of compromises boldly stating that “the only solution acceptable for us is that Karabakh be outside Azerbaijan. Never can any Armenian leader accept and implement other solution whatsoever”.

Unfortunately, after further power diffusion and distribution this kind of hard and populist stance will be a more dominant rhetoric from Armenian side in the negotiation process for the resolution of the conflict.  As the country will enter to the period of fragile coalitions and the competition of different political groups with relatively similar strength, the nationalist and populist rhetoric around Nagorno-Karabakh will be one of the tools of political rivalry. This condition will restrict any group from any courageous comprises fearing to be blamed in betrayal. Even if after all political battles and struggles there will appear a political strong-man it will not be easy for him to make any comprises even he will want to it. Ultimately, this condition will put the country in more political, regional and economic deadlock and dependence on external forces. Therefore, the western observers should be very careful, in their enthusiasm about Armenian events, since this movement will make Armenia and Armenians more nationalist rather than liberals, like in their national movement in the 1980-1990s.

Leading Research Fellow, Foreign Policy Analysis Department. Center for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

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Ukraine crisis through the prism of Armenian political discourse

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Armenia’s perplexing decision to side with  Russia on the Crimean and broader Ukrainian crisis – related issues has subjected the country to public and political backlash in Ukraine and beyond. Notably, pro-Russian narratives have been a salient feature of Armenian political discourse during the Ukrainian crisis.  This reached a point, where the Armenian leadership hailed the annexation of Crimea as a model exercise of the right to self-determination. Yet, the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” engendered a glimmer of hope that along with other changes, the new Armenian government may revise its unequivocal support for Russia’s controversial foreign policy choices and actions.  This provokes an inquiry into dominant narratives about the Ukrainian crisis in Armenian political discourse.

 Essentially, the escalation of Ukrainian crisis has reinforced Armenian political  leadership’s fears about the possible resumption of “Cold War” with ensuing consequences for small and war-torn Armenia. Former president Sargsyan even invoked the Ukrainian crisis  as a justification for Armenia’s decision to join the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). By confirming its allegiance to Russia, Armenia would avoid angering the Kremlin and prompting into taking punitive measures against its possible “disobedience.” A closer look at Armenian discourse, shows a tendency to treat Ukraine’s “outright defiance” for Russia’s strategic interests as  the core rationale behind the devastating crisis. No wonder, the Armenian leadership would condemn  the EU’s “recklessness”  and  ‘interference’ in the sphere of Russia’s privileged interests, which  inevitably  fuelled instability in the EU-Russia volatile neighbourhood. Sargsyan even attributed the setbacks of the EU-backed Eastern Partnership to its anti-Russian nature. It follows that by joining the EAEU, Armenia did not support the EU’s destabilizing policy and thus refrained from adding fuel to the fire. 

Another major fear is that the escalating Russia-USA confrontation over the Ukrainian crisis would adversely affect the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement.  Both USA and Russia are the permanent Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. While their relations get steadily deteriorated, there is not much to ensure their all-out involvement in moving the needle on long-standing Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Rather, by putting all their weight behind the Ukrainian issue, both Washington and Moscow would not do much to challenge the status quo in Karabakh. Overall, there are concerns that all the negativity accumulated throughout the Ukrainian crisis between Russia and the USA would inevitably get projected onto their  relations over Karabakh, thus making matters more complex.

Furthermore, a huge source of fears and concerns about the Ukrainian crisis, is the crippling effect of Western sanctions against Russia on the Armenian economy. As a result of heavy economic dependence on Russia, the latter’s economic downturns significantly compound Armenia’s economic crisis. Notably, as a single country, Russia is the main external trade partner of Armenia, being the destination for around 20 per cent of Armenian exports and source of 70 per cent of remittances. Russia also maintains lead in the realm of foreign investments in Armenia. There are more than 1,400 enterprises with Russian capital, which is over one fourth of all economic entities with involvement of foreign capital .Moreover, Russia is home to more than 2.5 million Armenian migrants, whose  remittances account for around 10 percent of Armenia’s GDP. Meanwhile, the depreciation of Russian ruble means that the remittances sent from Russia have decreased in value .  Moreover,  the ruble’s devaluation,  has led to the price increases in Armenian exported products to Russia  thus affecting trade volumes.

According to various estimates, the sanctions against the Russian banking sector, which has profound involvement in the Armenian economy, have adversely affected the Armenian economy and even contributed to electricity price hikes in 2015.

Besides, the sanctions against Russia have resonated with Armenia, due to its heavy dependence on Russian military equipment. The Washington’s intention of pressuring the foreign governments into relinquishing Russian defense acquisitions would put conflict-stricken Armenia between a rock and a hard place: while the country seeks to keep good ties to the USA, it is too crippled to cope without  the Russian weaponry.

Beyond that, the Armenian political discourse has long revolved around the narrative of “Crimea precedent” –  given that the “self determination” of Crimea would positively affect the resolution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Strikingly,  former president Sargsyan went so far as to frame the referendum in Crimea  as an exercise of peoples’ right to self-determination via free expression of will. Clearly, Sargsyan’s treatment of the Crimean “referendum” as a “model of self-determination” was bound to upset Armenian-Ukrainian ties. The situation came to a head in March  2014, when Armenia voted against the UN General Assembly   resolution on the “territorial integrity of Ukraine” declaring Crimea’s recent secession vote invalid. Thus, Armenia endorsed the legitimacy of an illegal and thoroughly rigged referendum.

Ukraine was quick to recall  its ambassador to Armenia for consultation, and summoned the Armenian ambassador to Ukraine over Yerevan’s shocking position on the annexation of Crimea.

Given former opposition leader Pashinyan’s critical stances on Russian coercive policies, it would be easy to resort to speculations about possible foreign policy changes, including Armenia’s on stance on the Ukrainian crisis.  Yet from the outset of his prime minstership Pashinyan confirmed Armenia’s unequivocal and unwavering support for Russian policies. Notably, at  his very first meeting with Pashinyan,  Putin stressed the necessity of keeping up the cooperation in the international arena, focusing particularly on UN, where the two nations “have always supported each other.” No wonder, post-revolution Armenia voted against another UN resolution on the de-occupation of Crimea in December, 2018. The resolution expressed grave concerns  over the Russian military buildup in Crimea and called on Russia to end its “temporary occupation” of the Ukrainian region.

Overall, consistent with his predecessor, Pashinyan keeps supporting even the most controversial Russian foreign policy actions, ranging from  the Ukrainian crisis to that in Syria, etc.

There has been an ingrained belief  among the Armenian leadership that Armenia only benefits from Russia’s restoring greatness and its greater involvement in its “Near abroad.”  All these goes into Armenia’s inferiority complex of a weak and small state, bound by neighboring Turkish-Azerbaijani hostilities.  It is in this context that Russia is broadly perceived as a pivotal security ally in Armenian political thinking  and in public consciousness.  Overall, there is a broad consensus among the representatives of Armenian political elite that the acute threats posed to Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey prompt to put heavy reliance on Russia. Thus, despite some resentment that Russian policy may generate, Armenia has to abstain from ‘provoking’ Russia’. Otherwise, the latter would ‘hit where it hurts’, by arming Azerbaijan, increasing gas prices or even mistreating the Armenian community in Russia. That said, Armenia’s solidarity with Russia on Ukrainian crisis comes as an unsurprising consequence of the enormously asymmetric nature of Russian-Armenian relations.

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Lithuania’s voice in NATO is getting stronger, Karoblis is happier

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Lithuania’s voice in NATO is getting stronger but pushy. It uses new arguments to attract NATO attention to fulfill its individual goals. And it should be admitted that Lithuania successfully exploited its military weakness to obtain military strength.

About 500 troops are deploying to new training facilities in the country and will stay through the winter in preparation for a massive divisional exercise in Europe that will see 20,000 U.S. troops in Europe known as Defender 2020.

The troops deploying to Lithuania this October are the 1st Armored Battalion of the 9th Regiment, 1st Division, along with 30 Abrams tanks, 25 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and 70 wheeled vehicles to the Gen. S.Žukauskas Training Area in Pabradė.

Defender, which will strain the beleaguered U.S. logistics system, will move thousands of U.S. troops from forts in the United States to sealift ships that will take them to Europe, testing investments in European security.

Lithuanian authorities do not hide their satisfaction with U.S. troops arriving. “The geopolitical situation in the region hasn’t changed,” Giedrimas Jeglinskas, Lithuania’s vice minister of national defence, said in an interview with Defense News. “For us this is a great thing. We see that the U.S. is in the region, and U.S. presence is the biggest deterrent that we could ever hope for. We’ve said for a long time that we want U.S. soldiers on our soil — and we can argue about whether its permanent rotational forces or a permanent rotation — but the fact is that they are there.”

But even such steps are not enough to Lithuania. Thus, Lithuania’s Minister of National Defence Raimundas Karoblis calls for NATO to deploy air defences in the country. In order to achieve another aim – to have reliable air defence – Karoblis insists that that NATO should deploy air defence measures to Lithuania in order to protect the international battalion stationed in the country.

It is interesting that Lithuania has moved from requests to strong political recommendations.

“It was already agreed during the [2016] Warsaw Summit, and it is not implemented. This issue was also raised by several commanders of the battle group,” Karoblis told journalists during a joint press conference with visiting German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on October, 10.

Huge NATO is almost cornered by small Lithuania

Germany leads the international NATO battalion deployed in Lithuania since 2017, with around 600 German troops stationed in Lithuania as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP).

Karoblis said air defence measures are primarily necessary to protect the foreign troops serving in the battalion, since Lithuania does not have necessary systems for that.

“It’s about the security of the soldiers who are deployed here,” the minister said.

So, NATO has no chance but provide necessary defence for their soldiers.

On the one hand, Lithuania shows its commitment in defending foreign troops properly. On the other hand, it defends its own troops and territory at the expense of others.

In this particular case Lithuania creatively developed the way how to attract the Alliance possibilities to strengthen Lithuania’s own military capabilities. It is paradoxically, but in this case Lithuanian Military Independence is equal to Lithuanian Military Dependence on others.

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Surprise signing of “Steinmeier formula”: Causes and consequences

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The news about the so-called “Steinmeier formula” having been signed by all members of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) came as a big surprise. All the more so, since the September 4 agreement by the political advisers to the presidents of the Normandy Four countries to endorse the proposal made a big buzz in the world media, and set off a storm of angry outrage in the Ukrainian press with a number of political and public figures, as well as representatives of nationalists all but calling President Vladimir Zelensky a traitor. Former President Leonid Kuchma, who represents Ukraine at the Contact Group, refused to sign the formula during a group meeting on September 18. In a bid to rectify the situation, they started talking about the existence of some alleged “Zelensky formula, whose contents was never made public.

Until the “formula” was actually signed at the October 1 meeting by the Contact Group, there had been neither announcements of, nor preparations for this. What happened between September 18 and October 1, which eventually prompted President Zelensky’s decision to sign the “formula”?

The UN General Assembly, during which Vladimir President Zelensky finally met with President Donald Trump, advised him to establish closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and settle differences together. Shortly afterwards, the White House published, without securing any prior agreement from Kiev, the transcript of a telephone linkup between Trump and Zelensky. This was followed by the resignation of the US Special Envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker.

These two important developments are a clear sign of Washington’s utilitarian attitude towards Kiev. However, even if they did influence Kiev’s further actions, they only served as a catalyst. Finding himself on the brink of a diplomatic scandal with France and Germany, Zelensky needed to make good his campaign promises and move fast to maintain his lead over his political opponents (presidential elections – parliamentary elections – government formation – exchange of prisoners – signing of the “Steinmeier formula”- a meeting of the “Normandy Four”).

The signing of the “Steinmeier formula” at the Contact Group opened the way for a summit of the heads of state of the “Normandy Four” is open, and this is the most significant and, maybe, the only result of the October 1 signing. 

The signing of the “Steinmeier formula” is seen by Ukrainian media as an act of treason. Why? Because they are afraid. Of what?

“Do you know what the sense of this document (Minsk agreements – D.B.) was? That it will not be implemented. The sides had different interpretations of the text of the agreements, which gave Ukraine time to contain Russia, which faced additional Western sanctions. (…) Decentralization will be interpreted as federalization, local elections will be held, which the OSCE, being financially dependent on Russia, will formally recognize. At the same time, the constitution will be changed and the law on special status implemented, this time in full. Only after this (according to the Minsk agreements), will Ukraine restore control over its border. After all, it is clear that Moscow will only implement the first part of the agreement. (…) The authorities there will be formed by the Kremlin. Next up is a nationwide election in Ukraine. And the key to parliament is in the hands of the Russian authorities,” the Ukrainian website lb.ua news writes. 

In this logic, even the OSCE plays on Russia’s side. The main thing for Kiev, however, is that the documents will never be implemented.

Moreover, according to Russian experts, Kiev has ample opportunities to sabotage the Minsk agreements even after they have been signed. 

Andrei Kortunov gives his own picture of how the situation may develop further:

1. The Ukrainian law on the special status of Donbass will soon expire. A new law will be adopted, and what it will look like we do not know.

2. Kiev’s formal consent to the “Steinmeier formula” is not entirely obvious.   It says that it endorsed only the general principle of the formula. Moreover, given the strong efforts being made to undermine the Ukrainian position, just how the preparations for the summit will go depends on the political will of the Ukrainian leadership.

3. Disagreements remain, in particular, concerning the special status of Donbass.

That being said, the process has still moved forward. I do hope that all participants in this process will show maximum flexibility, so that it keeps moving on, which would probably provide some tangible results in the next three to four months.”

In a sober assessment of what happened, the OSCE Special Representative Martin Sajdik, noted that the signatures are not under one common document, but under separate letters. This means that theoretically, each side could stick to its own interpretation of the formula. As for the local elections in Donbass, Sajdik continues, there are many questions that need to be answered before the elections:

“There is still much work to be done on this issue within the contact group and in the ‘Normandy format,’” he told reporters. “A lot of work remains in the political subgroup of the contact group. It is in it that it will be necessary to talk about the holding of elections.”

He added that many questions remain open, including the security of the upcoming procedure; and that the “Normandy format” summit could be the first step in this direction.

As for the “Steinmeier formula,” it is only a mechanism which, as part of diplomatic cooperation in the “Normandy Four” format, symbolizes the participants’ readiness to resolve the conflict in southeastern Ukraine and determine the future status of the republics of Donbass. It does not guarantee the implementation of the Minsk accords though. 

Moreover, a statement issued by representatives of the unrecognized republics demands a step-by-step roadmap of what needs to be done now.  They believe that the signing of the “Steinmeier formula” should be viewed as recognition of the right of the people of Donbass to determine their own fate. This is the bottom line of the joint statement made by the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR), Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik.

“Yesterday, thanks to Russia, Germany and France, Ukraine finally signed the Steinmeier formula, which guarantees Donbass a special status. Thus, it   recognizes the special right of the people of Donbass to independently determine their fate. It is up to us to decide what language to speak, what kind of an economy we need, how our judicial system will be formed, how our people’s militia will protect our citizens, and how we will integrate with Russia. This is our business and our goal, and we will continue negotiations in Minsk in order to ultimately achieve self-rule and self-determination,” the statement says.”

The signing of the “formula” provoked fierce resistance on the part of the advocates of the so-called “Poroshenko’s course,” as the “party of war” considers the signing as a sign of surrender. Meanwhile, the European Union and its leading members welcomed Zelensky’s move. Paradoxically, Ukrainian parties, which support European integration, such as European Solidarity, Golos and Batkivshchyna, took an anti-European position. The nationalists brought about 2,000 people to the streets of Kiev and in many other cities (200-300 people in each city), who chanted “No surrender!” and called for the impeachment of President Zelensky.

In an October 2 appeal to Ukrainians protesting against the signing of the “Steinmeier formula,” President Zelensky said: “Today there is only one platform where these issues can be discussed at the highest level. This is a meeting in the Normandy format … This formula says only one thing – namely, exactly when the so-called law on the special status of the Donbass should work. It will after local elections have been held there according to the Constitution of Ukraine, the laws of Ukraine, and after the publication of the OSCE report that the elections were held in line with internationally recognized democratic standards.”

Political advisers to the leaders of the “Normandy Four” can confirm the signing of the “Steinmeier formula.” At their meeting, the heads of state of the “Normandy Four” can agree the “formula” as the initial mechanism for the implementation of the Minsk accords.

However, it is Kiev, who holds the key to the implementation of the “formula,” or rather, the Minsk agreements as a whole. Political decisions taken on the international level need to be followed up by the Ukrainian parliament, which should pass laws on the special status of the unrecognized republics, and an election law, after which local elections should be held.  President Zelensky has a majority in the Verkhovna Rada and can amend the constitution in such a way that it outlines the special status of the unrecognized republics of Donbass.

Depending on the intentions of the Ukrainian leadership, the situation may develop according to several scenarios:

1) Zelensky uses his majority in parliament to push through laws, necessary for the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

2) Zelensky fails to muster parliamentary support, since his majority is not solid enough. 

3) Zelensky receives parliamentary support, the laws are passed, but the Minsk agreements are interpreted in such a way that only Kiev can arrange. For example, “special status” is interpreted as part of a decentralization policy. The implementation of the Minsk accords is put on hold again. 

In the first scenario, the adopted laws will need to be implemented, which could prove extremely difficult.

In the second scenario, President Zelensky could say: “The elected representatives of the Ukrainian people failed to support the implementation of the Minsk agreements. I did all I could, but ‘everything is possible.’ Therefore, it is necessary to amend the Minsk agreements and look for a new formula of their implementation. And this is the third scenario.

Kiev’s intention to implement exactly the third scenario became very much evident during Vladimir Zelensky’s press conference, which he convened to clarify his position regarding the signing of the “Steinmeier formula.” Following are the main points of Zelensky’s address:

The “Steinmeier formula” is agreed upon, but not signed.

“Red lines” regarding Donbass Ukraine will not be crossed.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces will not surrender.

Nobody can influence the president’s decisions.

There will be no local elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in the presence of any armed forces on their territories.

Elections are possible only after the border between the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and the Russian Federation goes under Ukraine’s control.

The exact date of the meeting in the “Normandy format” will be agreed shortly.

The signing of the “Steinmeier formula” has created more questions, which could be answered during the summit of the heads of state of the “Normandy Four.”  

From our partner International Affairs

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