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Four presidents and Nagorno-Karabakh: knot tightens inside Armenia

A few days ago, the Armenian president’s press office reported that Serzh Sargsyan visited Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the first president of Armenia, in his residence. The meeting was initiated by Ter-Petrosyan. The former and incumbent leaders had talked for an hour. They were discussing “only the recent developments on the Karabakh-Azerbaijani Line of Contact, probable breakthroughs in the negotiation process, as well as the need for national unification to meet that challenge.”

The information on this meeting may seem strange, but despite a general opinion, Serzh Sargsyan and Levon Ter-Petrosyan kept in contact even at the tensest moments of the domestic political confrontation connected with the presidential election of 2008. Therefore, this meeting of the two leaders was not sensational, in fact. Another matter is what they discussed.

Let us look back 20 years. Then, soon after the victorious for the Armenian side war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the then-president Levon Ter-Petrosyan came out with an initiative that proved quite unexpected. In his large article “Peace or War. It’s time to think” he set forth an idea of a comprehensive peace treaty between the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and Azerbaijan, with NKR remaining part of Azerbaijan formally. The then deputy minister of foreign affairs Vartan Oskanian (currently active oppositionist) even offered a formula: “de-jure part of Azerbaijan, de-facto independent.” It was suggested that NKR should have a high-level of self-government with all institutions and symbols of statehood, including the army that would be called the National Guard and a law-enforcement agency. There would be a special page in the passports of the NKR residents saying that they are citizens of a self-governing territory. Baku’s decisions somehow concerning any aspect of the life in NKR could be implemented only with the consent and knowledge of the president and parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was suggested also that the self-governing republic would have the right to open its own trade and cultural representations abroad. Besides, the Karabakh people would be represented in the Azerbaijani parliament, while the country would have its business quota from oil trade. International mediators and Armenia would be the guarantors of the implementation of these conditions.

Levon Ter-Petrosyan considered that plan the optimal concession towards which the mediators were pushing the conflicting sides. He supposed that it would be a proper and wise way out from the victorious war for the Armenian side and would let opening a new page in the relations with “our most natural and closest trade-and-economic partner Azerbaijan.”

However, many of the first president’s teammates were of different opinion. They believed his plan would mean surrendering the liberated territories. The then prime minister Robert Kocharyan, the influential defense minister Vazgen Sargsyan (was killed in a terror attack in the Armenian parliament in 1999), and some other major figures of that period sharply opposed Ter-Petrosyan’s plan. It was widely rumored that Levon Ter-Petosyan anticipated a strong support from Moscow, including from President Boris Yeltsin. However, he did not get that support. One can only guess at the reasons. Sources familiar with the matter then insisted that the “hawks” in the Russian leader’s entourage opposed Ter-Petrosyan’s plan and persuaded Yeltsin that it would deprive Russia of its important levers of influence on the situation in Transcaucasia.

Eventually, Levon Ter-Petrosyan tendered his resignation at the beginning of 1998. Robert Kocharyan replaced him on that post. Then something very curios happened. Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov came out with a very similar (inherently the same) plan of reconciliation of the sides. His plan was called “Common State” and approved by the OSCE Minsk Group was in no way different from Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s “defeatist” plan.  However, the Armenian side represented by Robert Kocharyan agreed to set that document as a basis of the peace talks. Then Nagorno-Karabakh was ousted from the peace process, though it was a full party to the negotiations under the ceasefire agreement of 1994.

Such background was needed to suppose what new moments of the talks within the OSCE Minsk Group Serzh Sargsyan and Levon Ter-Petrosyan could have discussed.   At a recent news conference in Yerevan, OSCE MG co-chair Igor Popov of Russia said, “there is no new document on the negotiating table.” Actually, the known Madrid Principles based on the “three fundamental principles and six elements” are in question.  The three principles are non-use of force, the people’s right to the self-determination, and territorial integrity. As for the six elements, Popov said, “two major ones are the return of the territories and determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status or the vice versa – determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status and return of territories. It is a single whole.” Under the term “territories”, they mean the regions in “the security zone” around NKR within its border of 1988.  A peacekeeping operation is discussed too, though it will be possible “after signing a peace treaty.”

However, earlier Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov said about some new aspects submitted to the sides. These “new” elements may reflect the elements of the “Common State” plan, as they make it more or less possible to exercise the rights of the Karabakh people to self-determination and formally maintain the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Lavrov told about the new aspects during his recent visit to Baku where President Ilham Aliyev strictly said he “will not allow establishment of a second Armenian state in the territory of his country.”

Serzh Sargsyan might have discussed all this with Levon Ter-Petrosyan, as the latter is familiar with the nuances of that settlement-scheme. However, this does not explain why the meeting of the two leaders was made public. Perhaps, it was done to demonstrate the “national union.”

All more or less leading actors in the current domestic political life in Armenia either participated in those complicate events 20 years ago or are well-informed of what happened then and are well aware what all this may lead to. It is commonly known that the above-mentioned Madrid Principle are not popular in Armenia (though Yerevan agreed on them) and much less in Karabakh. Specifically, these principles imply release of a number of regions and withdrawal of the Armenian forces from the well-fortified defense line, which the Azerbaijani side did not manage to break into during the “four-day war” of April 2-5, 2016.   If the Armenian side starts implementing this plan under pressure of the mediations, this may face a strong opposition of the public, a number of political forces, and the security officials, like it had already happened before. Of course, that protest movement will get a leader.  It may be Robert Kocharyan. His respond to the question if he is going to discuss the current developments in NKR with the incumbent president just confirms this assumption.

It is no secret that even hypothetical, until now, return of Robert Kocharyan to power in Armenia has always been a reason for concern for the political elite. These concerns may become more substantiated now when it has been admitted at the highest level that the country “faced a serious challenge” and many consider Kocharyan that very political figure able to meet that challenge.

Another matter if Levon Ter-Petrosyan is able to help demonstrating the “national unity” now, when he is not young already (has recently underwent surgery) and controls just a small faction in the parliament (Armenian National Congress).  Yet, as an authoritative negotiator, such as for instance, the second president of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma in the case of Donbass, Ter-Petrosyan may be quite useful.   

The game between the three presidents of Armenia – the first, the ex, and the incumbent ones – is around the Karabakh issue. It determines the domestic political situation in Armenia. However, there is another – fourth president - Bako Sahakyan of Nagorno-Karabakh. Much depends on him now, even in Yerevan. The knot has tightened inside Armenia, which is fraught with dangerous surprises.

On the other hand, the “four-day war” in Karabakh has activated the mechanism of peace efforts that, as the mediators say aims to change the status quo, because, as Lavrov said, no one is interested in the status quo any longer. Moscow, he said, would like to see Azerbaijan as part of the Eurasian Economic union (EEU) and CSTO. Since it is not possible in the existing conditions, these conditions should be changed.  Therefore, it is quite probable that Armenia and NKR will soon face rather serious collisions not only in the foreign policy but also inside the country.

As for Azerbaijan, its president Ilham Aliyev has received time - the most important thing in the current heavy social and economic situation in Azerbaijan. Further developments….in Armenia will show whom he should thank for that. 

Anush Levonyan, political analyst of EADaily (Yerevan)

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