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Armenian Gambit

24 September 2017 12:39 (UTC+04:00)
Armenian Gambit

By Alan Hope / Trend:

First-move advantage

On Sept 20, 2017, Armenian President, the “political chess grandmaster,” Serzh Sargsyan has started a new game of blitz, advancing his pawns in a minority attack, by charging the floor of the UN General Assembly session with ostentatious threats towards Turkey and wild accusations against Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Nalbandyan was left in a bad bishop position on the kingside of the chessboard.

Bishop’s opening

It all had started on Sept 18, when Nalbandyan had made a statement about a possible deal with Baku. That statement had an effect of a dropped bomb, igniting the Armenian society and causing a surge of discussions and disputes. Speaking to the attendees of the Armenia-Diaspora conference Nalbandyan had touched upon, perhaps, the most sensitive issue for Yerevan – the possible return of some of the occupied Karabakh territories to Azerbaijan and effectively placing them under the jurisdiction of Baku.

Bishop’s pawn

The next day, Nalbandyan’s Deputy, Shavarsh Kocharyan had tried to exonerate his boss. Playing the devil’s advocate, Kocharyan had expressed bewilderment at the “rumors and assumptions of the land hand over" and emphasized that minister’s statement, made in a speech dedicated to the negotiation process and the content of the so-called "updated Madrid principles," was, in fact, taken out of context.

Two Knight’s defense

On Sept 21 (the Armenian Independence day), the Chief of the Armenian Armed Forces Central Command, Movses Hakobyan commenting on FM’s statement in his interview to the RFE/RL said that, he doesn’t “know [of] such territories yet” and that Armenia would "need more territories to guarantee security.” Meanwhile, the Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan refused to comment on the issue, promising to raise it at the upcoming press conference.

Bad Bishop

Following day, Nalbandyan, commenting on the reaction caused by his statement, told the Voice of America that, at the time, he was replying to the conference attendee’s request for a more detailed presentation of the negotiation process and conflict settlement package offered by the Minsk Group.

Stating that he only “spoke about three well-known principles and six elements” of the deal and in that context referred to the possible return of the territories not inflicting any damage to the security system of the so called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,” Nalbandyan had accentuated that his words were deliberately misconstrued by, none other than, the Azerbaijani side, on the eve of the planned meeting with his counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov.

Game analysis

In the retrospect of the abovementioned, may Nalbandyan’s statement be considered as a preparation for Armenian concessions on the eve of the talks between the two ministers? Considering the history of the first Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s resignation, who had also advocated for the compromise, a positive answer to the question would mean considerable internal political risks, if not a political suicide, not only for a single high-ranking official, but for the entire power elite of Armenia.

Furthermore, the premise that the official Yerevan has made a decision on a desperate move, such as the unilateral concessions to the Azerbaijani side, doesn’t look much convincing on the eve of the governing system’s change (from the presidential to the parliamentary form) expected next year.

Why then did Nalbandyan make a statement that agitated Armenian society and provoked people’s discontent of the authorities? The answer lies with the geography of the audience it was intended for and the platform chosen by Yerevan for the message delivery.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Nalbandyan’s audience was not limited to Armenia, but included Baku, as well as the mediating countries. Firstly, Nalbandyan didn’t risk much by offering concessions in the format of a conference dedicated to the pan-Armenian agenda. Azerbaijan would not accept any such proposals due to the fact that its Constitution doesn’t envisage a referendum on a separate territory of the country. Moreover, Baku had never showed any intensions to reform country’s main law in the direction of regionalization.

Secondly, the Minsk Group’s peaceful settlement plan involves compromises and concessions from both sides. Albeit it was unanimously agreed upon by the West and Russia, the co-chairs’ consensus on the timeframe and the mechanism of the plan’s implementation has yet to be reached. Accordingly, the Armenian politicians who constantly cockfight each to re-emphasize their “machismo stance” on the conflict negotiations for the internal audience, usually “show readiness for compromises” when it comes to a dialogue with mediators.

Thus, Nalbandyan’s “statement of concessions” was designed to kill several birds with one stone. First, Armenia would “demonstrate its willingness to compromise” for the co-chairs. Second, Baku would never accept the proposal, exactly because of the way how it was formulated. Third, Azerbaijan’s refusal would create a chance to accuse it of reluctance to discuss the settlement. Fourth, if a new military escalation, like the one in Apr 2016, should occur in the future, Armenia would gain the "outstretched hand" card for the possible appeal to the international community. Finally, Armenia would gain the ability to include the “mutual concessions” concept as an integral piece of the negotiations equation, to counter Azerbaijan’s “unconditional withdrawal from the occupied territories” demands.

Pawns to promote?

Nonetheless, Nalbandyan's self-exonerating explanations in the press didn’t remove the acuteness of the topic for the domestic audience. His statement had matched in impact, if not transcended, Serzh Sargsyan’s last year's revelation of the fact that, on the eve of the Kazan summit in Jun 2011, Yerevan had actually agreed to the formula "territories in exchange for self-determination," rejected by the Azerbaijani side. Nalbandyan’s statement had, yet again, outraged already radicalized Armenian society and dug the governing regime into a deeper hole of eternal justification.

The governing elite’s new “chess game” was greeted by Armenian society’s indignation. The feeling, which was built upon the last year’s protests, fueled by the “treason of the people” slogans and ending in the dramatic confrontation at the police station takeover by the radical "Sasna Tsrer" ("Brave Sasuns") group, is still growing exponentially.

Society’s recent exasperation should have served as yet another reminder that the position of civil activists could be much more rigid than the approaches of government officials when it comes to the issue of conflict resolution. Nonetheless, the game, the outcome of which will be seen in 2018, is on, as Sargsyan, enjoying the first-move advantage, plays to ensure his regime’s political continuity.

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