Armenia: Political Prospects for 1998

Groong: Review and Outlook, 23 December 1997


By Hratch Tchilingirian

In late December, the OSCE Ministerial Council in Copenhagen marked the end of Armenia’s yearlong efforts of political recovery subsequent to the Lisbon Summit in December 1996. Contrary to expectations and due to Armenia’s diplomatic efforts, the Ministerial Council did not make any substantive declarations concerning Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia characterized the outcome in Copenhagen as "positive," since it did not create "additional obstacles" for the peace process in general.

The resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict will continue to dominate Armenia’s political and foreign relations agenda in 1998. In the aftermath of the Copenhagen conference, the sides to the conflict and the Minsk Group mediators will concentrate their efforts on restarting the negotiations process, which were halted in November 1996. The key obstacle to the resumption of the talks remains Azerbaijan’s refusal to recognize Nagorno Karabakh as a side to the conflict without preconditions. The Azeri leadership has expressed interest in direct talks with Stepanakert, but only if Nagorno Karabakh , first accepts Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and returns the “occupied territories.” Karabakh Armenians argue that direct talks should start without preconditions and without predetermining the relationship of the one side with the other. In the short term, direct talks between Baku and Stepanakert remain highly unlikely. And yet in the long term, no serious progress will be made without full participation of the Karabakh Armenians in determining their status.

According to Armenian Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian at the Copenhagen conference, a final and lasting resolution to the Karabakh conflict is possible only if:

a) there is an agreement regulating the relations between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan, whereby Karabakh is allowed to maintain full control over its territory and its future;

b) security measures and guarantees are provided, which will unequivocally eliminate the possibility of military actions and make the peace process irreversible;

c) "geographic contouring" is allowed, to end Nogorno Karabakh’s enclave situation, that is, establishing permanent land link with Armenia.

While it remains to be seen how Baku would react to these proposals, Nagorno Karabakh is likely to have an influence on the presidential elections due to take place in late 1998 in Azerbaijan. The efforts of the Aliyev administration are likely to focus on establishing positive public opinion regarding the resolution of the conflict. If the negotiations drag on without concrete results, Aliyev may speak about the “military option” during his campaign, a) to show his opponents and the public his strength and determination to resolve the conflict by all means, b) to calm public frustration over the impasse and build favorable public opinion toward his administration, c) divert attention from existing socio-economic difficulties of Azeri society. However, it is unlikely that the threats of military attack will materialize, at least in 1998, since they would not only result in heavy losses for Azerbaijan, but, most important, would hurt its booming oil-based economy.

The temptation for Azerbaijan is to maintain the ceasefire and accelerate the oil-boom, justifying inaction by prosperity. The difficulty this poses is that each year that passes further solidifies Karabakh Armenians’ de facto independent status.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Security concerns, prevention of possible diplomatic pressures, energy supply, economic stability and development will be the key determinants of Armenian foreign policy in 1998. In addition to participation in multinational regional and international structures, such as CIS, NATO, European Council, Armenia is likely to continue establishing diplomatic relations within and outside the region, with special attention given to the development of bilateral and multilateral agreements. The Armenia-Greece-Iran relation is likely to be strengthened with further mutually beneficial economic, strategic and security arrangements.

Armenian-Russian relations, beyond the ratification and implementation of military agreements, will focus on energy supply arrangements and economic development. As for the Karabakh conflict and its resolution, Russia is likely to continue to exercise its unpredictable political influence on both sides to the conflict, determined by its own changing geo-political and strategic interests in the South Caucasus.

The United States has allocated $87 million foreign aid for Armenia for the fiscal year 1998. The Clinton administration’s failure to repeal Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, a promise Clinton made to President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, was a major victory for Armenia and the Diaspora’s Armenian lobby. Congress not only preserved the ban on direct U.S. government aid to Azerbaijan, it also approved $12.5 million for direct U.S. government aid to Nagorno Karabakh.

Armenia has created balanced relations with both Russia and the United States, by neither antagonising nor fully accommodating them. This policy is likely to continue.

DOMESTIC AFFAIRS: In 1998 the continuing factional rivalries and splits in both the ruling and opposition parties will dominate Armenia’s domestic political affairs. As seen in the second half of 1997, virtually all the major political parties-- among them the ruling Armenian National Movement, the Communist Party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the “National Unity” coalition (which no longer exists), and various factions in the parliament--experienced internal and external difficulties.

The dissentions and splits in the rank and file of the political parties haven taken place in the context of several key factors. It remains to be seen how these factors will effect Armenia’s internal politics.

a) All the opposition parties in Armenia have failed to develop a broader political base and agenda. Especially since the last presidential elections, they have made President Ter Petrossian and his administration the sole focus of their political activities. Their criticism of the government has been ineffective, with diminishing public support, since they do not offer viable alternative political or economic policies for Armenia. The scattered public support of the opposition parties is not a recognition of their policies or ideology, but is primarily an expression of dissatisfaction with the government.

b) The fact that there are 57 political parties and organizations for a population of 3.7 million is an indication that no party would be able to create large political and popular support in Armenia with proper resources for effective functioning. With a few exceptions, most political parties in Armenia are made of small groups of individuals or intellectuals who oppose the government or the leadership of their former party or organization.

c) The opposition has not been able to reconcile itself to the fact that the Ter Petrossian administration is there to stay for the next four years. Popular support for the opposition parties will depend on whether they are able to develop new and creative ways to address Armenia’s problems and move beyond criticism of the government. The collapse of the “National Unity” coalition is only one example of this problem.

d) There are indications that the Ter Petrossian administration is cautiously opening itself for dialogue with the opposition, especially with the ARF. The end of the “political trials”, notwithstanding the implications of the sentences, might pave the way for full restoration of ARF in Armenia.

e) The government has learned to appear more open and accountable to the public before major national policies are decided. To avoid political rivalry and negative public opinion, the Ter Petrossian administration has been discussing major political issues and policies, such as those concerning Karabakh, in wider governmental and parliamentary circles. This is a departure from past practice where a small group of presidential advisors and ministers determined significant national policies.

It is likely that a number of opposition parties will persist in trying to justify their existence by only criticizing the government. However, a larger number of parties will try to play a more constructive role in Armenian politics by reevaluating their agenda and realigning their relations with the government.

Creating consensus for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict, consolidation of political power, slow economic development, continuing low standards of living are among some of the challenges that Armenia faces in 1998. However, with relative victories at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Copenhagen and in Congress, Armenia’s domestic political affairs and foreign relations will appear to be on a positive footing to policy-makers in 1998.

* Hratch Tchilingirian is Director of the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation and a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Hratch Tchilingirian
Copyright © 2024 Hratch Tchilingirian. All rights reserved.