Armenia enters new fighting over an old dispute, and the fledgling democracy’s pursuit of legitimacy is playing a role. Not only was legitimacy instrumental in the ouster of former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, it has been instrumental in the rhetoric of Nikol Pashinyan, his replacement.
In the Caucasus mountains, sandwiched between Azerbaijan and Armenia, lies a region which has not known peace for decades. The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, ethnically Armenian but located within Azerbaijan’s borders, was a fulcrum of tension between the two countries even before their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. A protracted war between them, killing 30,000, resulted in the creation of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). Since then, the dispute remains a front-and-center policy issue, spurring excessive security competition. Low-level conflicts occur regularly along the heavily-guarded Line of Contact, yet neither the territorial map nor the conflict’s fundamentals have changed much since 1994.
In 2020, the dynamics of conflict and legitimacy have driven Azerbaijan and Armenia into a new war along the Line of Contact. Novel conditions, internal and external alike, pushed escalation past a point of no return. This article assesses the domestic drivers of conflict from the Armenian side; Armenia experienced a recent popular uprising, whereas Azerbaijan’s authoritarian system has changed little. This focus does not imply that Yerevan is any more culpable for the conflict than Baku (Azerbaijan is currently understood to have initiated).
Why did this particular iteration of the conflict escalate far further than those that came before? This article frames the latest Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a narrative of legitimacy pressures surrounding Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in 2018. That April, Serzh Sargsyan was peacefully ousted after a series of demonstrations throughout the country. Amid growing discontent over economic mismanagement and corruption, protests were triggered by Sargsyan attempting to effectively abolish term limits by remodeling the presidential system into a parliamentary one, as happened in Russia and more recently Kazakhstan. In Armenia, the attempt was met with intense public backlash. Days of protest ended with Sargsyan’s resignation and the election of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan. Democratic indicators trended upwards for Armenia; over one year, the country jumped 17 places in the EIU Democracy Index rankings.
Sargsysan, who is from Nagorno-Karabakh, was known in Azerbaijan as a hardliner. Initially, Pashinyan’s stance seemed more moderate. The end of 2018 saw a momentary thaw in relations with Baku—the first step, observers hoped, towards the negotiation of compromises. Cautious enthusiasm broke down almost immediately, however, when it became clear that Pashinyan was continuing an uncompromising stance.
Support for Armenian unification with Nagorno-Karabakh was a focus of 2018’s protests. In addition to economic woes, the public was angry over the outcome of the most recent fighting in 2016. The “Four-Day War” had few territorial consequences, although Azerbaijan retook some peripheral Armenian-occupied land. Azerbaijanis regard this as a national success; Armenians remember it as a critical failing.
Due to permanent tension with wealthier Azerbaijan, an extraordinary proportion of Armenia’s economy has gone into militarization. It ranks sixth in the world in defense spending as a fraction of GDP. Leading up to 2018, there was a sense that economic development had been sacrificed for military expansion. However, support for unification remains high in Armenia.
For a country in flux, one constant is the ethnonationalism whose flames have been fanned by successive leaders. The original war, still quite alive in the public consciousness, is reawakened with every new outbreak of fighting. Over half of Armenians view Azerbaijan as their country’s greatest enemy; as many as 90% of Azerbaijanis feel the same about Armenia. This situation has delivered the incentives for tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh to boil over into large-scale full conflict, involving high-tech weaponry and foreign involvement. Nationalism, stoked by Sargsyan, became a factor in the movement to oust him, remaining a potent force in Armenian politics. With revolution still fresh in the public memory, Pashinyan’s nationalism stands as a rare example of regime continuity.
As Lipset describes, legitimacy is an intangible social understanding, cultivated through consistent government functioning. Countries which experience grassroots regime transformation are faced with immense legitimacy challenges in the aftermath. New democracies in particular must contend with the risk of reversion:
After a new social structure is established, if the new system is unable to sustain the expectations of major groups (on the grounds of ‘effectiveness’) for a long enough period to develop legitimacy upon the new basis, a new crisis may develop.— Seymour Martin Lipset, Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy
Pashinyan thus faced a delicate dual mandate of demonstrating both departure from and continuity with the old administration. Pashinyan’s Azerbaijan policy demonstrates this dilemma. His opposition status required him to shore up patriotic credentials by doubling down on old stances; his role as a new democratic leader required him to build governing credentials by operationalizing those stances with greater efficacy than before.
Looking back on 2018, it is clear that pro-democracy reform in Armenia did not come bundled with reductions in nationalism. The moment of diplomatic ambiguity following the Velvet Revolution appears to have been more about strategy than transformation: the risk of an opportunistic Azerbaijani offensive presented incentives for Pashinyan to keep things cool during a period of vulnerability. Once in office, Pashinyan took the hardline stance of his predecessors. Like Sargsyan, he makes constant incendiary claims, including denial of Armenian involvement in a 1992 massacre of Azerbaijanis. Unlike Sargsyan, Pashinyan is a master of social messaging—a skill honed in the Velvet Revolution, when the movement gained critical mass via hashtags. Pashinyan’s online presence is as polished as it is nationalistic.
It would be inaccurate to suggest legitimacy pressure directly drove the Pashinyan administration to war, not only because Azerbaijan apparently initiated this iteration of fighting. Ethnonational conflict is the status quo, and it carries considerable inertia. Pashinyan’s swift intervention to shift Armenian foreign policy might have averted the present course of events; but talk of compromise is virtually political suicide among a citizenry which largely supports unification. The 2018 interim period probably represented the last opportunity to make peace with Baku. Since then, the conflict has assumed a life of its own, self-escalating despite the international community’s pleas. Tweeting to announce Armenia’s full mobilization and martial law on September 27, Pashinyan signed off “For the fatherland, for victory.” On the same day, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev tweeted: “We will be victorious! Karabakh is ours!“
In chemistry, the “fire triangle” describes three conditions necessary for combustion: fuel, a spark, and oxygen. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the fuel is old tinder: decades of nationalistic sentiment accreted over time, from a post-Soviet war that never really ended. In 2020, the spark seems to have been Azerbaijan, itself motivated by global instabilities and informational shadows cast by the coronavirus pandemic. With each incendiary tweet, each slur, each refusal to back down, both leaders blow fresh oxygen into the fire. Now it is self-sustaining. Facing a declaration of martial law and a war without a foreseeable end, prospects for democratic consolidation in Armenia are shaky. The consolidation of conflict, however, is a done deal. For any post-revolutionary regime, the struggle for legitimacy is always a dangerous game. The Pashinyan administration chose to play by doubling down on an age-old hatred; the consequences could not be more tragic.
Note: the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a rapidly changing situation, with conflicting information and daily developments. (At the time of writing, estimates of the death toll range from one to ten thousand). For the most recent updates on the situation, I recommend Al Jazeera’s live daily coverage of the conflict.
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