Recent events in Armenia may potentially change the course of dialogue in Nagorno Karabakh peace process, as popular demand of more hardline positions prevails in the street.

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

The hostage crisis in a suburban area of Yerevan, triggered by the armed takeover of a police station on July 17, quickly evolved into a popular anti-government wave and that may potentially impact the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process as well.

While external powers, namely Russia, United States and the European Union, are in their own verbal battle regarding how to interpret the events in Yerevan, the situation in the street may turn the storming of the police station into another homegrown political crisis deepening the divisive discontent in Armenian society. This will happen regardless of the pace of ongoing negotiations between the government and the armed group.

The two key claims of the group calling itself “Daredevils of Sassoun” (after an Armenian heroic epic poem), apart from the pro forma ultimatum calling for President Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, include the demand to release their inspirational leader Karabakh war hero Jirayr Sefilian (arrested on June 20 on charges of illegal weapons possession) and the unequivocal rejection of any possibility of withdrawal from territories around the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast at any stage in the peace process. Following Sefilian’s arrest, the Daredevils convened a press conference on July 4 and promised “an armed rebellion should the liberated territories be returned [to Azerbaijan].”

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Back in summer 2010, I interviewed Sefilian to reveal the partisan attitudes across the political spectrum on the issue of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Six years ago, Sefilian turned out to be only one of two partisan leaders (both with modest follower figures) among 23 interviewed in total, who appeared to have radical approaches to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.

Sefilian submitted then, and his allies maintained that position over the next six years, that “the de facto union between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh should be legalized as soon as possible.

They also rejected the OSCE Minsk Group’s Madrid Principles outright, laying blame on the Armenian government for mishandling the process ever since 1992. [The OSCE Minsk Group is in charge of finding a peaceful settlement for Nagorno-Karabakh – Editor’s note].

The common denominator among the Daredevils and the people in the street these days, who feel increasingly disenfranchised, is their rejection of what is referred to as “return of the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh” in the OSCE Minsk Group proposals, which are affirmed to have certain status according to Article 142 of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s Constitution, which was adopted in 2006.

It is true that Sefilian’s New Armenia Movement has a limited number of sympathizers in Armenian society, but it is their position on Nagorno-Karabakh that has dragged scores of people to the street these days, and that can well shape and electrify a more negative public attitude towards any possible plans of withdrawal – something that may eventually limit the flexibility of Yerevan officials at the negotiating table.

Scheduled for spring 2017, the parliamentary elections in the current political landscape will only make such a pessimistic prospect a more likely scenario, as political parties will try to attract “the man in the street” to vote for them. 

The Kazan edition of the Madrid Document, tabled during the June 24, 2011 meeting at the peak of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s personal efforts, is now being challenged in the Yerevan streets. Coincidentally, a local polling organization conducted a survey in Nagorno-Karabakh about the “return of territories,” reported by the Armenian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty a week before the armed attack in Yerevan. The circulation of this news, growing with details and legends, added further frustration among the public.

Even when this standoff is peacefully resolved, the hard learned lesson will suggest less room for maneuvering by the authorities – both domestically and internationally.

In other words, proper communication with the public shall not be disregarded as part of a more inclusive peace process. Quite probably, that had been the master plan, but the Four-Day War in April made it impossibly hard to manufacture consent on any peace deal involving a retreat from Armenia’s defensible positions along the Line of Contact.

Ten years later, reflecting on the reasons why the Key West peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh failed, now a professor at the University of Kentucky Carey Cavanaugh [former U.S. Co-Chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group – Editor's note] said on the record that no necessary homework had ever been done to prepare societies for a compromise settlement.

In fact, many calls of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs to work with societies and refrain from inflammatory rhetoric have hardly been followed in the last decade. In the words of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, Yerevan still remains “the ancient Azerbaijani land” and Armenians are still “enemy number one.” That triggers resentment in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to the same vicious circle.

This is why artificially facilitating the peace process and setting deadlines following the April war will bear no fruit.

Instead, it makes more sense now to focus on confidence-building measures, such as establishing incident investigation mechanisms and expanding the mission of Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk of Poland, as agreed at the Vienna and St. Petersburg meetings after the April Four-Day War. [Kasprzyk is the Personal Representative of the Chairperson-in-Office on the conflict dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Group – Editor’s note].

To conclude, it’s yet premature to forecast the short-term impact of what social media activists have already dubbed #ErebuniUprising on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Yet, two lessons for the peace negotiations, set to continue soon, can already be drawn.

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First, serious investment, including that of political capital, shall be made available to “sell” the peace deal to the societies, resume public diplomacy exchanges to bridge the estranged peoples and manufacture consent, together with local governments, for a mutually beneficial compromise. The narrative that the short war could have brought the societies to better understanding of the extent of devastation that may happen in a bigger war, and therefore will make it easier for the leaderships to close the deal, appears to be entirely false. The societies have to be worked with in parallel, and not while the ink is drying on a deal.

Second, significant pressure shall be exerted and first of all onto Azerbaijan to adhere to the peace process (one soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh was killed on July 23 by sniper fire) and refrain from inflammatory rhetoric that escalates the tensions. The Cold War-style brinkmanship, or the taking of maximalist positions, is not going to be effective, and that’s perfectly clear.

True, the career diplomats of the three OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries (Russia, France and the U.S.), as well as Ambassador Kasprzyk, all with their limited mandates, would not have anything new but their words issued through media statements and press releases, which by now have become just another item in the news feed.

Therefore the mediator countries shall perhaps consider involving more senior level people than just seasoned diplomats on a regular basis, to give peace a chance in this part of the world. The effective way to go there is obviously through building confidence that peace works.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.