1 May 2011
Will Armenia Use the ‘Window of Opportunity’ for Democratization?
The possibility of large-scale fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh seems to be a real threat. A number of experts, including those from the International Crisis Group, recently voiced their concerns. The conflicting sides do not seem ready for a compromise solution, and do not even wish to limit their militaristic rhetoric. After the presidential meeting in Sochi on March 5, it took less than two days for some Azerbaijani officials to announce that the joint declaration signed in Sochi does not exclude the possibility of a military solution.
However, Azerbaijan is not likely to launch a war in the near future. The instability in the Arab world somehow reduces the risk of war in the South Caucasus, as the revolutions in some Arab countries and the civil war in Libya have already caused a sharp rise in oil prices. Apparently, a price decrease is hardly conceivable in the short-term perspective. Since large-scale fighting would threaten the export of hydrocarbons and cause even higher prices, Azerbaijan’s government should now be under strong pressure from the West and is unlikely to start a war. Besides, neither the West nor Azerbaijan are interested in letting Russia and Iran grow stronger economically and geopolitically because of the oil price spike.
So, on one side, events in the Arab countries and the growing price of oil have reduced the threat of war and created more favorable conditions for more radical moves made by the Armenian opposition. On the other side, it seems that the Armenian government and its main patron – Russia – may be interested in short-time fighting. That could be the reason why there have recently been some hints about the possibility of a preemptive strike by Armenia as finding a peaceful solution remains unlikely, and renewed war is possible.
Russia would be the main winner of a short war, as she would gain more from expensive oil (presently profits from hydrocarbons constitute for more than half of Russia’s budget revenues) and would have an opportunity to deploy “peacekeepers” (that would mean de facto occupation of Armenia and the overall impossibility of a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and regional cooperation in the South Caucasus). Certainly, the international image of Russia would suffer, but the experience of 2004-2008 shows that if a barrel of oil costs around $150 or even $200, Vladimir Putin will not bother about international image. The Armenian authorities, in their turn, may consider that a “preemptive” war would prevent opposition activity or even hope that a war might lead to recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. As fallacious as such hope may be, the possibility of its existence should not be excluded.
Concerning the political situation in Armenia, it may be noted that the threat of a new war has been one of the factors supporting Serzh Sargsyan’s regime. The opposition has abstained from radical actions for years in order not to risk military defeat because of internal instability. From this point of view, the Armenian government has been the main beneficiary of Azerbaijan’s militaristic rhetoric. Thanks to the fortress-under-siege mindset, it has been possible to shape Armenia’s economic model for maximum benefit of those in power. The need to maintain a large army (one of the largest in the world in proportion to the country’s population) creates enormous opportunities for corruption; absence of a perspective of development induces emigration; incessant emigration increases the amount of money transfers from abroad; an over-appreciated national currency permits collection of hard currency from the people; emigration also reduces the number of people willing to unite against the government; at the same time, emigration makes ballot stuffing during the elections easier; and finally, dependence on Russia grows, since Russia remains the main destination for the emigrants.
Will the developments in the Middle East trigger a new wave of democratization in the South Caucasus? There may now be a “window of opportunity” for the Armenian opposition, as Azerbaijan is less likely to begin large-scale fighting and, at the same time, the internal economic and social situation has brought the country on the verge of mass protests. Assuming snap elections were held, if there was to be no overwhelming election fraud like in 2008, Armenian voters would certainly get rid of the present regime. But in addition to mass mobilization, the Armenian opposition needs to break the image of a pro-Russian force and show readiness to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to obtain the much-needed support from the West. Such support has been virtually absent, as the West should not be deeply interested in replacing Sargsyan’s regime with even a democratically elected, yet another pro-Russian one that would also procrastinate and avoid conflict resolution. There is no use in discussing whether the lack of support for democratization from the West is due to the latter’s realpolitik approach or is perhaps just moral relativism. Instead, a proactive attitude should be adopted and readiness to perform much-needed reforms, solve the conflict, and engage in regional cooperation should be demonstrated. It remains to be seen whether the “window of opportunity” will be used, or disappointed hopes will continue stimulating emigration and depriving the country of human capital – the indispensable factor of development.