It was a rough week for Armenians. In the wake of a sobering loss of territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, tensions have escalated between the military and the Armenia’s civilian government. Military leaders and the opposition have denounced prime minister Nikol Pashinyan for signing the peace agreement that saw large swathes of the disputed territory return to Azerbaijani control. There was even talk of a military coup. Our chief political scientist argues that the anger is a product of “built-in elements of instability” in the Armenian socio-political environment. Armenia, he says, is destined to remain a regional problem until it overcomes its own desire to reclaim a long-lost, and perhaps mythical, past.
Adnan R. Khan: What are some of these built-in elements of instability?
Ilter Turan: The current domestic debate in Armenia is about why the military effort failed rather than whether it was prudent to engage in a military effort to begin with. This points to a basic problem in current Armenian politics: irredentism. At one time, shortly after independence, Armenia had a leadership willing to keep the country within its current borders and make peace with its neighbors. Political has quickly shifted, however, and the competition now appears to be over who can pursue the irredentist goals more aggressively. As a result, we see an ongoing debate between the military and the government over who is responsible for the territorial losses while nobody is asking the most important question: Was trying to achieve political goals by military action in Armenia’s interests?
In a nutshell, the irredentism that seems to prevail in Armenian politics constitutes a built-In element of internal instability.
Because it challenges existing borders, this domestic instability also translates into a source of regional instability. When you have the Armenians trying to expand to neighboring areas, the inevitable outcome is an international conflict which draws in not only regional actors such as Russia and Turkey, but also the U.S. and some European countries, thereby escalating it into a bigger geopolitical issue.
Adnan R. Khan: But it seems that Armenia would like this issue to be internationalized. That’s part of its strategy, isn’t it?
Ilter Turan: Again, the Armenians seem to believe that international support will somehow enhance their ability to expand their borders. But in fact, what they don’t seem to recognize is that many countries might be willing to extend verbal support to their cause, and may even send some money and weapons, but no country is going to come in and start fighting for them. Understandably, Russia is most closely involved because Armenia was part of the former Soviet Union. The Armenians have come to rely on Russia for their security because they are too small and too poor a country to effectively meet their security needs. But when they try to create a security advantage for themselves, they end up having to rely on Russia. The problem is, Russia is an actor not just in Armenia, but in the Caucasus in general and it wants to preserve its position as the major actor and power broker in the region. If it commits itself too much to the side of the Armenians, it would make room for Turkey and others to expand their presence in Azerbaijan and possibly Georgia. So, the Armenian hopes that aligning with them will somehow entice the Russians to extend them support such that they can pursue expansionist aims is unrealistic.
Adnan R. Khan: How do you explain Armenia’s shift to an irredentist foreign policy?
Ilter Turan: A lot of it has to do with the diaspora, which is very interested in pursuing their dream of a Greater Armenia. And as we have discussed in our past conversations, the Armenian government, because of its security as opposed to prosperity orientation, has come to rely more and more on the diaspora to meet its material needs. This dependency provides the diaspora with the instruments through which it can influence Armenian politics, a reality which is problematical from a variety of perspectives, the first being what I have already mentioned; that is, the inability of the Armenian government to establish more friendly relations with its neighbors and enhance its economic prosperity. Second, it annoys Russia because it invites the intervention of the Americans and the French – countries where the Armenian diaspora is very influential – into the region.
Another, often overlooked, aspect of the diaspora is that it not only represents an ethnic group but also the membership of a national church. The Armenian Apostolic Church has its own concerns in environments like France and the U.S., where other powerful Christian churches welcome Armenians as members. It’s not particularly easy to survive as a separate organization unless you generate a very strong sense of attachment to the church and a sense of distance from others. As such, the church is also a driving force in reinforcing a strong sense of Armenian identity by working to sustain historical grievance that also includes a territorial dimension.