The seizure of a police station in Yerevan might have serious implications not only for Russia, but also for Turkey and the entire Caucasian region. Here is why.

A man stands guard outside a seized police station in Yerevan on July 23, 2016. Photo: PAN Photo via AP

The public unrest in Armenia that resulted from a recent seizure of a police station in Yerevan by radical opposition activists should be a warning sign for all stakeholders, including Russia and Georgia, seeking a peaceful resolution for Nagorno-Karabakh. This territory has become the source of one of the thorniest disputes in the post-Soviet space, involving both Azerbaijan and Armenia in a long-standing conflict that recently spilled over into the Four-Day War in April.

The Yerevan incident in mid-July resulted in more than 50 people injured in clashes near a police station when armed men — those who seek to return Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia — held hostages during a tense standoff lasting several days. Even though the hostages were finally released, the seizure turned into large-scale public unrest on the streets of Yerevan.

This incident could put at stake Russia’s recent attempts to pacify Yerevan and Baku, as well as have important ramifications for the West.

The Yerevan incident through the lens of Nagorno-Karabakh

Moscow is not only the only stakeholder that could lose from the current protests in Armenia. The unrest in Yerevan might reverberate in other post-Soviet republics like Georgia, with its huge Azeri and Armenian minorities. Furthermore, it could be another test for the viability of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which was created in 1992 as an institution to foster the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The three co-chairs of the Minsk Group — Russia, France and the U.S. — are countries with either big Armenian Diasporas or extensive political ties with Yerevan. In 2007 they came up with a roadmap for achieving a peaceful settlement of the protracted conflict.

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Given Nagorno-Karabakh’s yearning for independence and Azerbaijan’s attempts to take hold of the disputed territory, the conflict reflects a fundamental tension between two basic principles of international law: people’s right to self-determination and the territorial integrity of a country. From a security point of view, Nagorno-Karabakh “remains one of the most dangerous challenges in the Caucasus,” according to a report of the Moscow-based analytical agency Foreign Policy.

Numerous Russian and foreign experts argue that the current mechanism of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — the OSCE Minsk Group — leaves much to be desired. The peacemakers have found themselves in a deadlock, trying to resolve the conflict without involving other participants of the peacekeeping process.

The OSCE tools have lost their power and prestige over the last twenty years, according to Thomas de Waal, a senior associate who covers the Caucasus region for Carnegie Europe. The international stakeholders have seen Nagorno-Karabakh slipping down their agendas and “have increasingly focused on managing the conflict rather resolving it,” he argues.

Moreover, amidst a mass military buildup in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and frequent clashes on the 160-mile line of contact and the Armenian-Azerbaijani international border, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pacify both sides.

“The rotating one-year chairmanship structure of the OSCE means that the chairman in office lacks institutional memory on the issue,” de Waal wrote. “Gradually, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, for whom the conflict remains the number one national priority, have become the chief conductors of the process and found ways to manipulate the OSCE mechanisms.”

However, at the same time, de Waal sees the Minsk Group format as “the only viable mechanism.” Dismantling it “would be an exercise of questionable merit that would take up valuable time.”

Likewise, Russian and Armenian experts believe that despite all its flaws, the Minsk Group format is the best way of dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Even though it fails to resolve the conflict and pacify Baku and Yerevan, it does prevent the tensions from spinning out of control, according to the participants of a Russia-Georgia forum on the problems in the South Caucasus, which took place in Batumi, Georgia in mid-July.

However, it doesn’t mean the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh doesn’t require new formats that will involve other important stakeholders. The problem is that the OSCE Minsk Group brings together only Russia, France and the U.S. Yet it is crucial that other international players “with a genuine interest in resolving the conflict are allowed to contribute more to the process,” as de Waal highlighted. He believes that the EU, Georgia, Iran or even China, one of the key investors in the region, should be more involved in resolving the conflict.

Meanwhile, Sergey Minasyan, the head of the Political Studies Department at the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, argues that there is no need to modify or expand the Minsk Group format, given that Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic are not eager to involve in this process a NATO member — Turkey.

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“After all, Ankara is very biased and it openly supports Azerbaijan,” he told Russia Direct. “In fact, it is involved in the conflict because it carries out a transportation and communication blockade of Armenia. Thus, what all other external stakeholders can do at best is to try to save neutrality and foster the further work of the OSCE Minsk Group.”

Nagorno-Karabakh: Common agenda for Russia and Georgia

In fact, Nagorno-Karabakh could also become a common agenda for Moscow and Tbilisi, together with other challenges such as the increasing terrorism threat in the region. It might bring the countries together and, if not resolve, then at least alleviate their tensions over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

However, experts remain skeptical about this. According to them, pragmatism is hardly likely to prevail in this situation, given the different clout of Moscow and Tbilisi in the region and lack of mutual understanding over the Russian-Georgian conflict. In fact, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue doesn’t play a key role in Russia-Georgia relations. However, pundits don’t rule out the situational cooperation between Moscow and Tbilisi at the bilateral level.

“Institutionally, Moscow and Tbilisi won’t cooperate over Nagorno-Karabakh because there is no urgent need in such cooperation, but it doesn’t mean that Moscow cannot coordinate its initiatives with Georgia or other stakeholders like Turkey and Iran,” Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities and an expert on South Caucasus, told Russia Direct.

It is obviously important for both Georgia and Russia to prevent the resumption of military escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, but this agenda is hardly likely to bring Moscow and Tbilisi together, because there are other problems among their top priorities including differences over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, according to Minasyan.

Today most stakeholders are preoccupied with Syria and Ukraine and, as de Waal points out, remain “reluctant to engage more fully.” But they could regret it if the conflict turns into a full-scale war, which could be possible if Yerevan recognizes the independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Baku keeps provoking an escalation. In this scenario, obviously, there will be few winners, with the key casualties being Russia and Georgia.

In the case of Russia, both Armenia and Azerbaijan remain two of Moscow’s important strategic partners in military trade. For example, Azerbaijan continues to buy Russian weapons, including helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems, tanks and artillery systems. Likewise, Moscow sends armored vehicles and other military hardware to Armenia.  Military confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan would also mean the total failure of Russian diplomacy (and the OSCE Minsk Group format). It could also undermine Russia’s clout in the post-Soviet space.

Regarding Georgia, any escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh would lead to tensions within the country, given it brings together the Armenian and Azerbaijani Diasporas.

“The situation is very difficult for Georgia, because it has close economic ties with Azerbaijan and has some joint infrastructure and energy projects, for example, the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline,” said Markedonov. “Georgia depends on Azerbaijan’s energy and sees Baku as a strategic geopolitical partner. But at the same time it has huge Armenian and Azerbaijani Diasporas. That’s why Tbilisi — like Russia — tries to be above it and straddle between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

Nagorno-Karabakh: Underestimated challenge?

Most importantly, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could drag Moscow and Ankara into a new confrontation, given Turkey’s unequivocal support of Nagorno-Karabakh. After the escalation in the region in early April, Turkish President Recep Erdogan predicted that that Nagorno-Karabakh would come back to Azerbaijan, while former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutolgu said that Ankara “will do its utmost to accelerate the liberation of Azerbaijan’s occupied territories.”

Today Moscow and Ankara appear to be improving their relations, given the Turkish president’s recent apology for the downing of a Russian jet in late November 2015. However, the escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh could hamper their attempts at reconciliation, so no one should be interested in a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Both Baku and Yerevan would be under pressure to invoke the security assistance treaties they have signed with Turkey and Russia, respectively, and to try to drag Ankara and Moscow into a proxy war. These security dynamics make both local and international actors prisoners of the Caucasus,” warns de Waal. 

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Given that Turkey is a member of NATO, the local incident in Yerevan might reverberate globally and have grave implications not only for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also for Russia, Turkey and the West. But the unwinding series of events that started with the hostage seizure in Yerevan might severely hamper any peacekeeping attempts and provoke further escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is how a local incident in Armenia could become a regional conflict in the worst-case scenario.  

This article is based on discussions that took place at a forum on the problems of the South Caucasus in Batumi, Georgia, organized by the Gorchakov Foundation, a Russian organization focused on public diplomacy, and Caucasian House, the Georgian Center for Cultural Relations.