Since his election as prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has said repeatedly that he sees Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) as a part of the Republic of Armenia in the future. There have been few reactions to these statements outside of Armenia and Azerbaijan, though they represent a clear departure from a more cautious rhetoric of previous Armenian leaders.
However, this is not the first time such a departure has been attempted.
Months after the change of Armenian government in 1998, then president Robert Kocharyan and his foreign minister Vartan Oskanian indicated a similar change in Armenia’s policy language. On June 17 that year Oskanian said that unless Azerbaijan recognized Karabakh’s independence, Armenia would do so unilaterally and move towards formal unification with Nagorno Karabakh.
The statement was met with criticism from the three mediator countries France, Russia, and the United States. In spite of the backlash, Kocharyan doubled down on the statement. “There is every legal ground for recognizing the independence of Karabakh and for its unification with Armenia. Events may develop that way,” he was quoted as saying on June 22.
According to a recently declassified U.S. embassy cable, the decision by French president Jacques Chirac to postpone his trip to Armenia was made because of these comments. The visit was going to be first-ever by a leader of a permanent Security Council member country to Armenia. It eventually took place later that year.
Kocharyan’s comments came as he dismissed efforts by Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States and one of Russia’s most influential figures at the time, to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This was after Berezovsky suggested that talks should take place on the basis of upholding Azerbaijan’s claim that Karabakh was part of its recognized territory.
The U.S. cable also refers to the July 9, 1998 press-conference by the opposition leader Vazgen Manukyan, in which he suggested two policy options: Armenia should propose a Karabakh-Azerbaijan confederation, have Azerbaijan reject this approach and take the blame for the failure of negotiations. Alternatively, Yerevan should continue to “insist that Karabakh is an indivisible part of Armenia, and mobilize the Diaspora to defend its position” against international pressure.
The Kocharyan government eventually preferred the former approach. In fact, as Oskanian revealed years later, Armenian officials had already pitched the “common state”-type of approach to Russia’s foreign minister Yevgeni Primakov. As anticipated, when mediators formally presented the proposal the following November, Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev rejected it. Aliyev also rejected the subsequent Key West proposal.
It remains to be seen what diplomatic strategy on Karabakh will define the Pashinyan government.