Foreign Policy Journal
October 31, 2013

by Vahagn Avedian

The outcome of the 2013 Azerbaijani presidential election was hardly
surprising to anyone. That the incumbent President Ilham Aliyev
would win a third consecutive term seemed predestined long before
the elections.

However, that he did not even bother to run an election campaign
and then won by 85% majority of the votes was perceived as being too
arrogant for the world to disregard.[1] The pronounced judgment was
quite harsh when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe (OSCE) and the US State Department, historically keeping a
deliberate smoothened criticism, assessed the election as flawed.

Usually the standard statement, regardless whether referring to
Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Georgia, opens with the elections being "in
line with international standards," just before amending a numerous
pages of "potential improvements."[2] However, the recent elections
in Azerbaijan simply did not leave any room for that diplomatic
smoothening. The OSCE called it "seriously flawed" while the US
State Department announced that it "fell short of international

Nonetheless, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)
and the European Union (EU) final report chose to turn a blind eye to
the shortcomings and called it "a free, fair and transparent electoral
process."[4] These positive attributes were in sharp contrast to what
the OSCE, the US Department, other NGOs and individual MPs in the
EU monitoring mission. One of these MPs was the Swedish Marietta de
Pourbaix-Lundin, who criticized both the election and the official
statement by the institution she represented.[5] De Pourbaix-Lundin
mentions her conservative MP colleagues from Great Britain and Spain
as examples for having shown poor judgment in this matter, and she
"regrets that the European Council so shamelessly chooses to turn a
blind eye to obvious violations."

That the EU would choose any harsher tone against Azerbaijan, the
alternative to Europe's dependency on Russian oil and natural gas,
roughly two months ahead of the Vilnius Summit would be unimaginable
[6] Stability (i.e. the flow of oil and gas) is historically given
the highest priority, and realpolitik still reigns supreme in our days.

It is hardly any secret that Europe, the US, and the OSCE have upheld
a balanced approach towards Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially
in regard to the Karabakh conflict during the past 20 years. The
criticism towards these two governments and their shortcomings has
been in almost perfect parity, where any differentiation that could
hint or be misinterpreted as favoritism has been carefully avoided to
uphold the image of perfect objectivity on behalf of the mediators
of the conflict. However, two recent events should act as warnings,
signaling the unsustainability of this flawed policy.

The first flagrant sign was the cold shower served by the Armenian
President Serzh Sargsyan's statement on September 3, 2013, about the
decision to join the embryo of the non-existing Eurasian Union,[7] i.e.

the Customs Union, rather than signing the EU Deep and Comprehensive
Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) as planned to take place at the EU Top
Summit in Vilnius during November.[8] Indeed, there was an apparent
fear that the planned meeting in Moscow on September 3 between Sargsyan
and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, would in fact end in such
a U-turn.[9] However, the last four years of EU-negotiations with
Armenia for signing the DCFTA and statements of incumbent ministers
and senior members of the ruling Republican Party, some as late as
the day prior to Sargsyan's Moscow visit,[10] all indicated that
Armenia had chosen the EU integration path. "Russia is our military
security choice, while the DCFTA is our economic choice," said the
Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharyan on August 13.[11]
That is why the Sargsyan announcement in Moscow came as a shock.

The analysts were quite unanimous that Sargsyan had been more or
less forced to make a choice during the closed session meeting with
his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Even though the details have
not been made public and the official Yerevan refuses to admit to it,
there are educated guesses that it was the future of Nagorno-Karabakh
as well as the Russian economic leverage over Armenia, especially
the subsidized natural gas price, which forced Sargsyan to make the
U-turn. The offer was simple: choosing the EU path would imply losing
Karabakh to Azerbaijan, prompted by the recent major Russian arms
sale to Baku,[12] along with a "cold winter", as had been hinted to
the Moldavian government.[13]

The question many ask in retrospective is how much did the EU do (or
rather not do) in order to remedy such extortion? It addition, the
most recent EU reactions to Sargsyan's announcement were also equally
irresponsible, when top EU representatives exonerated themselves
by stating that EU should "respect Armenia's will", i.e. Armenia's
choice to join the Customs Union.[14] The only problem is that the
announced decision was obviously neither Armenia's will nor in its
interest, at least if one would look at the aforementioned statements
made by officials in Yerevan prior to the Sargsyan-Putin meeting. It
was a plain "take it or face the consequences" ultimatum by Moscow,
for which the Armenian leadership had no solution.

Bluntly put, it looked too good to be true when it seemed that
little Armenia had actually managed to eat the cake and have it
too. Until September 3rd, around 15:00 CET, it seemed that the
Sargsyan Administration had actually managed to walk the narrow
passage Armenian leaders have been forced to navigate through during
the last two millennia of Armenian statehood, jammed between rivaling
super powers. Presumably, Yerevan had managed to convince the Kremlin
that a viable and European-integrated Armenia is indeed the improved
ally Russia needs in the Caucasus. That is, until Sargsyan made his
announcement around 15:00 CET.

Armenia, contrary to all official statements and negotiations done
in that direction, had been forced to abandon the ratification of the
EU DCFTA due to its incompatibility with a membership in the Customs
Union.[15] There are no secrets that Russia has been intimidating the
EU Eastern Partnership members (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova,
Ukraine and Belarus) from choosing the EU over Russia. Measures such
as stopping the natural gas deliveries to Ukraine, banning Moldovan
wine import or hinting the approaching "cold winter"[16] were sharply
criticized by EU as "bullying attempts."[17] Armenia is indeed not
close to the same importance as Ukraine has for EU, or for Russia,
but the Sargsyan announcement was nonetheless a huge prestigious loss
for Brussels as it was an equally prestigious victory for Moscow,
since Armenia in its present state, unlike Ukraine, would probably
be more of an economic burden than a gain for Russia.

The episode was also an eye-opener and cause for real concern in how
the "friend" and the "big brother" can treat Armenia by humiliating
its closest "ally" in the Caucasus for the sake of making a point
about the EU and the remaining Eastern Partnership aspirers. Was the
EU equally naïve as Armenia to believe that Russia would not react as
it did? Given the fact that the Karabakh conflict is most probably the
key to unlocking this riddle, why did the EU do nothing substantial
during the last four years of the negotiations with Armenia to disarm
the Russian leverage, at least giving Armenia some room to maneuver
in this manner? A badly cornered Armenia with heavy Russian dependency
had virtually no choice but to yield.

The most tangible effect of the unsolved Karabakh conflict is the
embarked Turkish-Azerbaijani embargo on Armenia, closing 84% of
its borders, leaving only the borders towards Iran and Georgia open
for trade. The border with the sanction-burdened Iran (due to its
nuclear research dispute)[18] is less vital than the border towards
Georgia in regard to the import of fuel, gas, and grains. Armenia
experienced the vitality of the Georgian border during the week-long
Russian-Georgia-Russia war in August 2008, when the import of fuel and
grain into Armenia virtually ceased.[19] One can only imagine what
would have happened if the war had occurred during the harsh winter
period or lasted longer. The outspoken Azeri policy (in conjunction
with the Turkish embargo) is to force Armenians to choose "prosperity
without Karabakh or poverty with Karabakh,"[20] pushing Armenia
to the degree of destitution that "people will even stop thinking
about Karabakh."[21] This has been confirmed in numerous occasions by
President Aliyev himself, the latest from October 7, 2013: "We must
further keep Armenia isolated from diplomatic, political, economic,
regional initiatives."[22] The same applies to the Turkish policy,
which in addition to the Karabakh dispute, also aims at the issue of
forcing Armenia to drop its efforts for an international recognition
of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

The aforementioned Azeri policy and statements clearly contradict
the declarations by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry "confirming
their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict,"
guarantying the safety of the Karabakh population and their democratic
rights in case the region is put under Azeri authority. In reality,
there are only a handful of imaginable scenarios in case Karabakh is
returned to the suzerainty of an Azerbaijan inflicting "prosperity
without Karabakh or poverty with Karabakh": 1) The Armenian population
will be forced away in the manner Nakhichevan was emptied of its
Armenian population, a policy which was underway in Karabakh as well
and a contributing factor to the emergence of the present-day conflict,
i.e., by impaired social and economic standards and negligence of
the region in order to force the unwanted population to leave;[23]
or 2) once the Azeri armed forces have been deployed, a swift ethnic
cleansing would get rid of the Armenian issue, either by killing or
driving them out of Karabakh. The second scenario would potentially
bring us back to the starting point in 1988, but with a much more
destructive outcome. The subsequent international criticism would
probably be swiftly abandoned for the sake of securing the energy
resources of Baku. The remaining alternative would be implementing the
existing OSCE Minsk Group's Madrid Principles, especially the article
stating that the "final status of Nagorno-Karabakh to be determined in
the future by a legally-binding expression of will [i.e., a referendum
in Karabakh]."[24] Keeping in mind the posture of Baku towards Armenia
and Armenians, there is no peaceful and viable solution to the conflict
other than the implementation of the Madrid Principles.

Armenia is not blameless in this situation. Let it be clear that
the Armenian administrations since the independence in 1991 have
failed capitally to create a stable domestic atmosphere that
could ease the economic sanctions. While the joint Turkish-Azeri
blockade does play a major role, not all shortcomings in Armenia
can be blamed on external hostile forces. The constant high level
of corruption and the post-Soviet oligarchy, quite symptomatic in
other post-Soviet non-Baltic states, reigns supreme in Armenia and
are the main impediments for the country becoming more attractive and
strategic to invest in, economically, and politically. The failure
of three consecutive administrations to remedy these issues is also
evident in the apathy which is now being seen in Armenia, but also in
diaspora. While consecutive alarming reports show the exodus of the
Armenian population in search of jobs, social security, and welfare,
neither the government nor the opposition has done much tangible to
remedy it.

However, the current apathy of the people, inside as well as outside
Armenia, could also be an ominous sign of rupture. Rather being a
sign of concession and approval, the silence could very well be due
to the sense of conceived helplessness and perplexity just before the
crackdown: the discontented population boils down to a critical mass
when those who were able to emigrate have left the country and the
people have been reduced to those who were not able to leave as well
as those who stayed due to their principal stand and patriotism. The
stage will be set for a revolution of some color. Whether it would
be orange, purple, or red will depend on the boiling point.

The second sign of the unsustainability of the EU's current policy
towards the Caucasus is the process and the outcome of the much
criticized Azerbaijani presidential election and the apparent
cover-up attempts made by the EU to conceal the backward movement
of Azerbaijan in regard to democracy and human rights. While the
increasing authoritarian rule in Azerbaijan should be viewed from its
apparent negative impacts on the Azerbaijani society in general, it
has even more perilous prospects for the Karabakh population, who are
currently subjected to the Azeri policy of submission by economical
humiliation. Needless to say, given that the Baku policy succeeds,
the subsequent Azeri-Karabakh relations will be neither sincere nor
lasting, and thus the stage will be set for a new reenactment of the
entire conflict.

Criticizing the democratic shortcomings of Azerbaijan does not
imply the imperfection of the same institutes in Armenia. Even if
the Armenian presidential election last February were judged as
"improved conduct," one should not rejoice too eagerly for the
positive assessments, remembering the low bar set by the events in
March 2008.[25] Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to keep Armenia
and Azerbaijan in parity, especially when approaching the issue
of Karabakh. The EU and the OSCE should criticize where needed
and praise where it is deserved. The non-nuanced and watered down
statements by these institutions have started to lose whatever shred
of credibility and authority they had. Nowadays, the media releases
the OSCE statements almost verbatim days prior to their official
release simply because they are a carbon copy of the toothless and
insignificant policy of the past 20 years.

The European indifference and inefficiency has also enticed Baku to
start testing the limits. One such provocation was the extradition of
the Azerbaijani officer Ramil Safarov, convicted to life in prison
in Hungary for murdering his sleeping Armenian colleague with an
axe during a NATO course in Budapest. Upon Safarov's return to Baku,
he was elevated to a national hero and praised for his actions.[26]
The boasting about having an annual military budget greater than the
entire GDP of Armenia[27] was a goal set by President Aliyev and
confirmed by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
(SIPRI), ranking Azerbaijan as the number one country in the world in
terms of the growth of country's military spending.[28] The arm race
does not bode well. While the previous clashes, which killed about
30,000 people and made almost a million refugees back in the 1990s,
was fought with outdated Soviet weapons, an armed encounter today
between armies equipped with the latest weapons would have much more
destructive power. Thus, the warring rhetoric of Baku in combination
with the escalation of fatal incidents on the line of contact during
the past 2-3 years is highly worrying. Aside from refusing to withdraw
its snipers from the line of contact,[29] Azerbaijan has started
testing the Armenian reaction and combat readiness, even extending
this by shelling Armenian territory and civilian targets far away
from Karabakh.[30]

The signs of the unsustainability of the European appeasement policy
towards South Caucasus are gathering fast, and unless the OSCE and
the other involved parties make a radical change, the situation in
the region will deteriorate rapidly, with potentially disastrous

Yerevan must choose reforms and rapid firm measures to halt the exodus,
infuse confidence into the diaspora and make the country attractive
for foreign economic and political investments. The current situation
reminds too well of the process leading to the loss of sovereignty in
1920, when an Armenia jammed between Moscow and Ankara and abandoned
by Europe and the US, ironically for the sake of securing their
share of the oil resources in Middle East, was forced to choose the
less perilous path of Sovietization by the Red Army over the certain
annihilation by the advancing Turkish army; the Armenian leadership
should not be keen on repeating this history. The EU, the US, and the
OSCE should differentiate between Armenia and Azerbaijan based on the
real facts at hand in order to bring an end to the Karabakh conflict;
that is, if they really want the conflict to end based on the values
heralded in their respective charters.

Russia has long been Armenia's closest ally and vice versa. Having
antagonized a NATO-aspiring Georgia while holding Azerbaijan in check
using the Karabakh card, Armenia is the only reliable Russian ally
left in the Caucasus; assuming that Moscow is not building the new
union in the very same manner as the previous time, i.e., by annexing
sovereign states, willing and reluctant alike. No one would benefit
from a Soviet Union 2.0 or a renewed Karabakh war. History is said
to teach us lessons. However, it has also been said that the only
lesson learned is that we don't learn anything from history.


[1] Kristin Deasy, Azerbaijan's Aliyev wins third
presidential term: Exit poll, Global Post, 9 October, 2013;

[2] E.g. see International Election Observation Mission: Republic
of Armenia - Presidential Election, 18 February 2013 Statement
of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, 19 February 2013;

[3] Election in Azerbaijan undermined by limitations on fundamental
freedoms, lack of level playing field and significant problems on
election day, international observers say, OSCE, 9 October, 2013;

[4] Presidential election in Azerbaijan: joint statement
by PACE and EP delegations, PACE, 10 October 2013;

[5] Henrik Sundbom, Lågvatten i Azerbajdzjan - och
i Europarådet, Frivarld Magasin, 22 October 2013;

[6] For the Vilnius Summit see The third Eastern Partnership Summit
in Vilnius, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania,

[7] The Eurasian Economic Union is usually described as the grand plan
of Vladimir Putin as a competitor and alternative to the European Union
and is planned to be implemented in 2015. The Customs Union, initiated
in 2010, is a preliminary stage of the project and consists of the
member states Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. For a analysis of the
viability of the Eurasian Union see Steven Blockmans, Hrant Kostanyan,
Ievgen Vorobiov, Eurasian Economic Union: Less than favourable
outcome for economic integration,, 18 December 2012;

[8] Serzh Sargsyan announce aobut Armenia's decision to join Customs
Union, Armenpress, 3 September 2013;

[9] E.g. see On Agenda: Upcoming Sargsyan-Putin meeting likely to focus
on Armenia's EU integration plans,, 2 September 2013;

[10] E.g. see the dismissal of an Armenian Customs Union
membership by the senior member Galust Sahakyan in U-Turn: Official
Yerevan's 'desire' to join Russia-led Customs Union comes as 'big
surprise' for many in Armenia,, 4 September 2013;

[11] Yerevan says, 'Russia is our military choice,
EU our economic',, 13 August 2013;

[12] Azeri-Russian Arms Trade $4 Billion Amid
Tension With Armenia, Bloomberg, 13 August 2013;

See also Armenia rift over trade deal fuels EU-Russia tension, BBC,
5 September 2013;

[13] Among others see Kevork Oskanian, Armenia: A Miracle of Empire?

Sargsyan's Pauline Conversion,, 4 October 2013;

Naftali Bendavid and Laurence Norman, EU Stunned by
Armenia U-Turn, The Wall Street Journal, 4 September 2013;

[14] Lithuanian and Armenian Foreign Ministers
discuss Armenia's decision to seek Customs Union
membership, Lithuanian MFA, 9 September 2013;

[15] Statement on the pressure exercised by Russia on countries of
the Eastern Partnership, European Commission, 11 September 2013,

[16] Russia, unhappy with Moldova's EU drive, bans
its wine and spirits, Reuters, 10 September 2013;

[17] How Russia Bullies the EU's Eastern Neighbors, Carnegie Europe,
9 September 2013;

[18] E.g. see Iran's nuclear progress prompts call for tighter
sanctions from top Democrat, The Washington Times, 28 August 2013;

[19] See Armenia: Economy Hit by Georgian War, Institute for
War & Peace Reporting, Report News: Caucasus, 14 October 2008;

[20] Galib Mammadov, Nagorno Karabakh Conflict: Armenia's Victory
or Nightmare?, in Foreign Policy Journal, 13 October 2011;

[21] Enes Ibrahim, Armenia's aggressive policies main Obstacle
for the country's development, in, 31 October 2011; See also Ilham Aliyev, Karabakh's
independence will never be subject of Negotiations, Aliyev, in,
13 July 2011;

[22] Azerbaijani President: "Even top-ranking
Armenian officials admit that Armenia is not capable of
ensuring its security itself.",, 7 October 2013;

[23] See e.g. Vahagn Avedian, The Conflict of Nagorno Karabakh: The
Sovietization of the Caucasus and Stalin's Policy of Divide and Rule,
Stockholm, 2012;

[24] Statement by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries, OSCE,
26 June 2010;

[25] E.g. see Eight killed in Armenia protests, BBC, 2 March 2008;

[26] For the Safarov case see e.g. A Hero's Welcome for a Convicted
Killer Reignites Tensions, The New York Times, 4 September 2012;

[27] Aliyev Highlights Baku's Boosted Military; Yerevan
Concerned, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, 24 October 2013;

[28] Azerbaijan ranks first in world in growth rate of arms - SIPRI,, 18 April 2012;

[29] Azerbaijani Defense Ministry: "We won't withdraw snipers
from the front line, unless war ends",, 17 September 2013;

[30] Azerbaijan Fired At Cars In Tavush, Armenia. One
Conscript Killed, Three Wounded,, 22 October 2013;

From: A. Papazian