Against the backdrop of increasingly more tense situation along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Ministry of Defense of the former is planning to hold training camps with the participation of more than 2,000 reservists from August 25 to November 25. The three-month trainings are planned to include exercises with motorized rifle, artillery, communications, reconnaissance, engineering, air defense, electronic warfare, etc. and meant to increase combative capabilities of the reservists and ensure their readiness for a potential escalation.
A total of 3,773 Armenian servicemen were killed during the 44-day war with Azerbaijan last fall, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said in giving the first official military death toll in the conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Speaking to lawmakers on August 24 to introduce the government’s new five-year plan, Pashinian said that the fate of another 243 soldiers remains unknown, while some prisoners have yet to return home.
A court in Yerevan has granted an appeal by Armenian prosecutors seeking the rearrest of a prominent surgeon charged with pressuring his subordinates to go vote in the June 20 parliamentary elections in which he ran on the ticket of an opposition alliance.
Prosecutors argued that Armen Charchian could influence other participants in his trial if he remained free.
Al Jazeera writes: Armenia has said three of its soldiers were killed and two wounded in border clashes with Azerbaijani forces in some of the heaviest fighting between the two neighbours since last year’s six-week war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Snap parliamentary elections, held on June 20, resulted in a decisive victory for incumbent Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s Civil Contract party: with 53.91 percent of votes in favor, it will receive 71 out of the 107 seats in the National Assembly, fulfilling Pashinian’s declared goal of obtaining a two-thirds majority yet again.
On June 1, 2021, Yerevan announced the suspension of the Armenian-Azerbaijani-Russian working group, which was established during the January 11 trilateral leaders’ summit and tasked with presenting action plans (including implementation schedules) to their governments regarding regional railroad and highway projects (see EDM, January 12). Mher Grigorian, Armenia’s deputy prime minister, who also co-chairs the tri-partite working group along with his counterparts from the other two participating countries, claimed that the reason for Yerevan’s suspension was a lack of “an appropriate environment” for effective work (TASS, June 1). “When the situation on the border is like it is, I do not think that constructive work is possible in this format. Contacts in this format have stopped; we will see what happens in the future,” he announced at a parliamentary meeting, referring to the recent escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the state border (see EDM, May 18).
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has been continuing construction work on the railway connecting Fuzuli district and Agbend (Zangilan district of Azerbaijan), which is planned to be followed by a railway connection between Agbend and Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave via the Syunik region of Armenia (which Azerbaijan calls the Zangezur corridor) (see EDM, April 5). In early June, Baku also announced the launch of highway construction that will connect the village of Ahmadbayli (Fuzuli district) with Agbend (APA, June 9). The 124-kilometer road is foreseen to be part of a larger highway project linking mainland Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan.
Although the Armenian government had not previously opposed the railway project via the Syunik region connecting the two parts of Azerbaijan, Yerevan has explicitly rejected both the highway and the “Zangezur corridor” ideas promoted by Baku (see EDM, May 24). Azerbaijan, for its part, expects Armenia to adhere to the trilateral ceasefire accord from November 9, 2020, and to provide conditions along the Zangezur corridor akin to those Azerbaijan has provided to the Armenian side at the Lachin corridor (EurasiaNet, June 4). The absence of an agreement on these and other issues between the sides has been further exacerbated by the recently heightened border dispute.
A meeting in Moscow between Armenia’s deputy chief of the General Staff, Arshak Karapetian, the head of the Armenian border service, Arman Gasparian, Azerbaijan’s head of external intelligence Orhan Sultanov, and the commander of Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Karabakh, Rustam Muradov, on June 2, represented a new format of interaction among the three sides, though the regional transportation projects were probably not on the agenda (Sputnik Armenia, June 4). The participating parties reportedly discussed de-escalation on the border and humanitarian issues; but no concrete outcomes were made public.
Hence, it seems that amidst the hotly contested and increasingly combative pre-election period in Armenia (the snap parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 20), negotiations concerning the Zangezur corridor and other transportation projects have been put off until after Armenians go to the polls.
Meanwhile, the proposal to establish a Russian-mediated Armenian-Azerbaijani international commission to settle the two South Caucasus neighbors’ border disputes has yet to be followed up with any concrete actions (Civilnet, May 20). On June 12, at a meeting with foreign diplomats, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev lamented that Baku’s proposal to start negotiations on border delimitation and the establishment of a final peace agreement had so far been ignored by the Armenian side (Moscow-baku.ru, June 12).
Nonetheless, a week prior to Armenia’s parliamentary elections, a major breakthrough had, in fact, been achieved between the two conflicting states. This development has the potential to positively contribute to the emergence of a constructive environment for negotiations over other issues, including transportation projects and a settlement of the shared border. Namely, Yerevan handed over to Baku maps showing the location of 97,000 landmines that Armenian troops had laid in the territories of the formerly occupied Agdam district of Azerbaijan; in exchange, Baku released 15 Armenian detainees(Mfa.gov.az, June 12). These issues had been among the top concerns of the two sides since the establishment of the Russia-brokered ceasefire on November 9.
The breakthrough came as a big surprise for most observers as Armenia had previously, at various official levels, denied the existence of any such minefield maps when presented with repeated Azerbaijani demands to see them (EurasiaNet, June 11). Following the recent swap, however, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian admitted that the maps provided to Baku represented only a tiny fraction of such charts owned by Yerevan (TASS, June 13). He also expressed hope that this constructive cooperation would continue—although he specifically refused to call what transpired an “exchange of maps for detainees” (Hetq.am, June 12).
This swap was possible thanks to the mediation of the United States and Georgia (see EDM, June 14), and as such, it represented the first major development between Armenia and Azerbaijan with no Russian involvement since the end of last year’s 44-day war. That said, there is little to no chance the West can continue to play an impactful mediating role between the two conflicting sides. In the aftermath of the parliamentary elections in Armenia, Moscow will do all it can to preserve its position as primary mediator in the post-war negotiations between Baku and Yerevan, including over key issues like the unblocking of regional transportation routes and border delimitation.
Leader of the Armenia Alliance and the country’s former President Robert Kocharyan greets supporters during a campaign rally ahead of the upcoming snap parliamentary election in Yerevan, Armenia June 9, 2021. [Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure via Reuters]
On June 20, Armenia’s citizens will be heading to the polls for a second snap parliamentary election in less than three years. While the December 2018 snap election was held in the aftermath of a popular revolution and brought Nikol Pashinyan to power, the forthcoming election is taking place against the backdrop of a disastrous six-week war with Azerbaijan and the continued demands by opposition groups for Pashinyan’s resignation. The triggers of the two snap elections were greatly different in nature, but equally important: The 2018 elections were about the promise of democratic consolidation while the June 2021 elections are about the future security of the country.
The September to November 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh ended with Armenia agreeing to what many observers in the country perceived as a “humiliating capitulation”, resulting in a shift in the power balance between the two neighbouring countries. After the initial shock of defeat, demonstrators started gathering in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, demanding the resignation of Pashinyan, calling him a “traitor”, and questioning his ability to provide safety and security to Armenia proper. Despite their best efforts, the demonstrators were not able to gather enough critical mass to force Pashinyan to resign.
In March 2021, however, Pashinyan finally buckled under growing political pressure and hinted that snap parliamentary elections could be held before the end of the year. A month later, he resigned and the National Assembly refused to elect a new PM, officially triggering a snap election.
After the date of the snap election was announced, Armenia’s political landscape witnessed a major whirlwind where existing political parties started coalescing to form electoral blocs. Eventually 26 political groups – four electoral blocs and 22 parties – were officially registered to run. The frontrunners among these groups are Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party and the main opposition Armenia Alliance headed by former President Robert Kocharyan. According to recent opinion polls, Civil Contract and Armenia Alliance are within a margin of error of each other to take the lead.
Many contenders will be taking part in the upcoming snap election for two main reasons. First, the crushing defeat Armenia faced in the war provided an opportunity for various political forces to challenge Pashinyan’s otherwise popular regime. Second, the incumbent administration, which has been in power for less than three years, does not yet have enough control over administrative resources to sway the upcoming election in its favour and make its reelection a foregone conclusion. This second point is especially important because, in almost every election that has taken place in Armenia in the past 25 years, incumbents have managed to utilise administrative resources to guarantee their and their allies’ victory, thus discouraging smaller parties from running.
With most of the parties having already published their electoral platforms, it is clear that the main issues in the June snap election are national security and the future of Armenia’s negotiations with Azerbaijan, especially the negotiations on the border demarcation between the two countries. In recent months, as border tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan increased, the issue of border security started to dominate the political and public discourse in Armenia.
As national security became a leading concern for many Armenians, support for Kocharyan and his alliance increased in public opinion polls. This is largely due to the former president projecting himself as a more seasoned statesman and juxtaposing that with Pashinyan’s lack of experience both in foreign policy and national security domains. The fact that Kocharyan has always presented himself as a “wartime leader” – he was the leader of the self-declared republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s and has been highlighting those credentials in his campaign – has made him and his alliance an obvious choice for most undecided voters and for those who view the country’s national security as a priority.
That being said, it should be noted that Kocharyan is carrying a lot of baggage from his time as Armenia’s president (1998-2008). He is, for example, conveniently omitting from his election campaign the fact that during his tenure as president he did not take initiatives to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict peacefully even though he had an opportunity to do so.
Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, many in Armenia still hold Kocharyan responsible for the police using deadly force to disperse demonstrators in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election. It was during these protests that Pashinyan himself was active as a member of the opposition and was briefly imprisoned. When he became prime minister, Pashinyan ordered an investigation into Kocharyan’s responsibility for the March 2008 violence that resulted in the deaths of two police officers and eight protesters.
Finally, a major question in the minds of many people is the role, if any, Russia would play in the upcoming elections. All indicators show that Moscow is in no rush to support either Pashinyan or Kocharyan. Russia, having established boots on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh in the form of Russian peacekeepers, has become the de facto security guarantor of not only that region but also of Armenia itself. Moreover, Russia’s hold over Armenia’s embattled PM, along with the close ties Kocharyan has with Moscow, make the election results of no consequence for Russia’s strategic interest in Armenia.
The above factors raise the possibility that the upcoming elections will be more about the personal rivalry between Pashinyan and Kocharyan than determining the path Armenia will follow in the post-war era.
However, the reality is that regardless of who wins these elections, democracy will be the biggest loser and democratic reforms will be curtailed in Armenia. Continuing to argue that democracy and security are incompatible and are mutually exclusive may lead Armenia to lose on both fronts.
The released Armenian POWs. [Facebook page of the PM of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan]
Azerbaijan on Saturday (12 June) released to Armenia 15 prisoners of war captured last year during hostilities over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, under a deal mediated by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and saluted by the US and the EU.
According to the foreign ministry in Baku under the deal Yerevan reciprocated by providing Baku with maps of minefields in the conflict zone.
The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that the US was “grateful” to the Government of Georgia for its “vital role in facilitating the release”, and Garibashvili said he was “proud” of the role his country played in close coordination with US Acting Assistant Secretary Philip T. Reeker.
Fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in September 2020 over Nagorno-Karabakh, claiming around 6,000 lives over six weeks.
The war ended in November with a Russian-brokered ceasefire under which Yerevan ceded swathes of territory it had controlled for decades.
On Saturday, “Azerbaijan handed over to Armenia 15 detained Armenians in exchange for the map of 97,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the Agdam district,” one of the territories Armenia has ceded to Baku, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
The ministry also thanked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, top US diplomat for Europe Philip Reeker, European Council President Charles Michel, and the OSCE Swedish chairmanship for their roles in the negotiations.
“Our brothers returned to their families thanks to the efforts of Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, our Georgian brothers as well as our partners from the US and EU,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told journalists.
He said he had earlier “provided Azerbaijan with a certain number of minefield maps through Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.”
Garibashvili’s office said in a statement: “An important step has been made towards the amelioration of the security environment in the South Caucasus region.”
A senior EU diplomat said Michel helped broker “parallel humanitarian gestures” prior to the agreement’s announcement.
Michel considered it “a first step towards renewing confidence, an effort the EU is ready to fully support”, the diplomat added.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell also welcomed “the actions taken by Armenia and Azerbaijan and facilitated by Georgia”. He said that these gestures would “hopefully open the path for further cooperation between the sides and the ultimate release of all Armenian detainees, as well as the handing over of all available maps of mined areas to avoid further civilian casualties.”
Russia, which has deployed peacekeeping troops to Karabakh, also welcomed the move.
“Wonderful and long-awaited news. We welcome such steps,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram.
The mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most heavily mined places in the former Soviet Union.
Seven Azerbaijani troops and 18 civilians have died and 110 have been wounded by mines in and near Nagorno-Karabakh since the ceasefire, the Azerbaijani government says.
Both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces planted mines during a bloody conflict in the early 1990s.
Tensions have been again running high since May, when Armenia accused Azerbaijan’s military of crossing its southern border to “lay siege” to a lake shared by the two countries.
Pashinyan at the time asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for military support.
Moscow said it would help with the delimitation and demarcation of the neighbours’ borders.
The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said last month that Azerbaijan was ready for pace talks with Armenia, while Pashinyan announced later the two ex-Soviet nations were holding discussions on the delimitation and demarcation of their shared borders.
Ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed, and the ensuing conflict has claimed around 30,000 lives.
Through a series of territorial encroachments Azerbaijan is applying maximum pressure in advance of a formal demarcation of its border with Armenia.