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Armenia’s Painful Probe

Critics say Yerevan’s investigation into the 2016 ‘April War’ with Azerbaijan is cover for domestic score-settling. by Ky Krauthamer 20 June 2019

When the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia spoke earlier this year of taking concrete steps to “prepare the population for peace” in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, some analysts cautioned against reading too much into the announcement.


Skepticism also greeted another surprising step by the young My Step alliance now in charge in Armenia: the decision to investigate a brief phase of fighting in the contested region that accounted for an estimated 350 deaths.


The situation on the ground in the region remains little changed since that flareup in 2016. Sporadic fighting continues almost daily with little purpose but to harass the other side. Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized internationally as belonging to Azerbaijan but has been under Armenian control, along with a protective curtain of surrounding territory, for more than 25 years. Small-arms fire and grenade attacks are common. An Azerbaijani soldier and a Nagorno-Karabakh soldier were killed as each side fired thousands of rounds during the course of the week ending 15 June, Caucasian Knot reported.


Now, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says, it’s time to ask hard questions about a conflict that has stoked tensions in the South Caucasus for a generation.


Commission to Probe 2016 Setback


The rise of Pashinyan and his anti-establishment movement last year, pushing out the old political guard that rose to power during the Nagorno-Karabakh war three decades ago, was the biggest political shock in Armenia since the fall of the Soviet Union.


Last month, the Armenian parliament – controlled by Pashinyan’s My Step alliance since last December’s elections – approved setting up a commission to investigate the 2016 “April War,” a brief but fierce uptick in fighting that raised serious concerns about the military capabilities of both Karabakh and Armenia itself.


“The time has come […] to get answers to a number of questions that are of concern to us all,” Pashinyan said as he announced the formation of the commission.


The probe could stir up recollections some in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh would rather see forgotten.


Nikol Pashinyan visits a military stronghold and congratulates servicemen on New Year. Image via Government of Armenia/Youtube.


Russia brokered an end to the 2016 flareup after four days of fighting in which some 350 combatants and civilians died, according to the U.S. State Department. In Armenian forces’ first loss of territory since the 1994 ceasefire, Azerbaijan took control of an elevation commanding an Armenian-inhabited village, rousing concerns about how to counter “an aggressively growing Azerbaijani military,” Eurasianet writes.


The investigation could also shine light on the extremely murky connections between the Armenian state and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh – or Artsakh, as it is known in Armenian.


Pashinyan Takes Aim


Yerevan does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as independent and claims to be merely an interested observer in its conflict with Azerbaijan. Armenia also denies sending materiel or troops to the military of the enclave, whose population has been almost entirely Armenian since the Azerbaijanis fled during the course of the war in the early 1990s.


This refusal to acknowledge its real interests in the region undermines Yerevan’s ability to negotiate with Baku, Azerbaijani analyst Fuad Chiragov writes for the conservative U.S. publication The National Interest.


When Pashinyan proposed allowing representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh to take part in the internationally-brokered Minsk Group reconciliation process, arguing that Yerevan was only a third party in the dispute, the internationals shot down the suggestion, Chiragov writes. In a statement in March, the Minsk Group co-chairs urged the sides “to refrain from statements and actions suggesting significant changes to the situation on the ground, prejudging the outcome of or setting conditions for future talks, demanding unilateral changes to the format without agreement of the other party, or indicating readiness to renew active hostilities.”


Pashinyan also faces charges from most sides except his close allies that he proposed the new commission mainly to settle political scores with his domestic foes.


“The commission can at least clear up some basic facts, for example how many soldiers were killed and when, but of course I am not sure this is the point of this commission,” Emil Sanamyan of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Armenian Studies told Eurasianet. “The point is to discipline Serzh and Bako,” he said, referring to Serzh Sargsyan, who was ousted from power in Armenia last year, and Bako Sahakyan, the de facto leader of Nagorno-Karabakh.


Sargsyan, like fellow ex-President Robert Kocharyan, is a native of the enclave’s capital Stepanakert. Kocharyan led Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s before becoming prime minister of Armenia and later, from 2001 to 2007, president. He was arrested in December 2018 in connection with the violent crackdown on protesters during the disputed 2008 presidential elections, when Pashinyan supported the losing candidate and served two years of a seven-year sentence for organizing unrest.


Whatever Pashinyan’s true motives for digging into the 2016 violence, few seem optimistic about any real breakthrough in reducing tensions with Azerbaijan.


Armenian parliamentary deputy Mikael Zolyan recently told the Russian daily Kommersant that the time was not ripe to talk of specific peacekeeping measures.


"Any detailed breakdown now will only do harm, so let the goal be abstract for now – peace," Zolyan said, as translated by Worldcrunch. "Later, when there hasn't been an incident on the border for two-three years, we can take the next step."

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL.
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