Pashinyan and Sahakyan meet in Yerevan last December. Official photo.
Pashinyan and Sahakyan meet in Yerevan last December. Official photo.

Focus on Karabakh Editor Emil Sanamyan spoke with’s Hripsime Hovhannisyan about the January 22, 2018 meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders and need for harmonization of Armenia-Artsakh relations. What follows is a select translation of his responses.

“Although, Nikol Pashinyan called their 90-minute meeting ‘informal’, any such contact between him and Ilham Aliyev is significant as far as the Karabakh negotiations. There is no big difference between formal and informal meetings at this level. Historically, informal contacts were sometimes more effective in moving the process forward than formal contacts that could have been characterized by disputes and tensions.

“Pashinyan insists that he can not represent Artsakh, because it has its own separate government, but in effect he does that by the very fact that he is meeting with Aliyev to discuss Karabakh without any Artsakh officials present. And any inclusion of Artsakh representatives as a third party to negotiations does not appear realistic.

“If we look at the history of this conflict, the only times the Azerbaijani government was ready to negotiate with Karabakh Armenians was when some of their representatives were ready to acknowledge Azerbaijani sovereignty – in other words to capitulate – as happened during the Operation Ring in 1991. Or when Azerbaijan was under military pressure and sought to stop Armenian offensives – as happened in 1993 when Heydar Aliyev met with Robert Kocharyan.

“At this time, no such circumstances are evident and talk of NKR’s participation is likely to remain empty rhetoric. Moreover, under Bako Sahakyan, Artsakh visibly curtailed its diplomatic efforts in Armenia and abroad, basically delegating authority to speak for it to Serzh Sargsyan and his government. And this has not changed after Nikol Pashinyan’s election. Sahakyan hardly ever speaks and never publicly disagrees with Yerevan. This is very different from the past, when Kocharyan and Arkady Ghukasyan were much more outspoken.

“As far as the agenda of Aliyev-Pashinyan talks, it is most likely in its very formative stage. The two are still getting used to one another. They are different people. Aliyev has been leading Azerbaijan for many years, and Pashinyan became Armenia’s leader recently. There is a need for mutual adjustment. It could also be important for Aliyev to present to the Azerbaijani public that the new leader of Armenia, even though he is a revolutionary, is ready to negotiate with him. This is a form of legitimization. Aliyev wants to show that, yes, the revolutionaries take account of him, even though he is a dictator.

“Even if Azerbaijan suddenly became the most democratic country, a mutually agreeable solution to the conflict would be hard to achieve. The two sides’ declared fundamental principles are incompatible. So, the focus is really on managing the conflict and reducing violence. It should be noted that during Serzh Sargsyan’s presidency, level of violence was consistently growing, culminating in the April 2016 war. There has been some stabilization since 2017, even before the political change in Armenia, but Pashinyan’s election is another opportunity for the peace process, as he is not directly connected to the war and talks with him are not taken as negatively among the Azerbaijani public, as were the talks with Sargsyan or Kocharyan.

“There is no need to look for conspiracies behind these talks. Pashinyan has repeatedly made clear that he would make no agreements without public support.  Of course, leaders can say one thing in public and another in private. During Serzh Sargsyan’s time talks were focused on the so-called “Madrid Principles”, but most of the public found them unacceptable. There was and there will always be some public suspicion – encouraged by political opposition – that whoever is in charge could “sell out.” This is understandable outcome of political competition and natural distrust towards leaders. But it is desirable that any debates be civilized and informed. At this point, Pashinyan has given no reason for any kind of suspicion that he is ready to compromise on Artsakh.

“What is clear is that any future solution will mean Artsakh to be part of the Republic of Armenia and this is what Pashinyan has repeatedly declared. If this is the case, it would make sense to bring the political systems of the two republics – that already form one cultural, economic and security space – closer politically as well.  People of Artsakh have Armenian passports and are Armenian citizens, and as such they should have the right to participate in the Armenian political process. This would also make it possible for internationally recognized Armenian leaders to represent Artsakh in negotiations.

“In my opinion, in the absence of military-political pressure to insist that Artsakh is part of negotiations is not serious. Without recognition from Armenia and other states, without internationally-supported status to expect that Artsakh can represent itself in international structures, without Armenia, is not realistic. It is much more realistic to expect that Armenia’s leadership will represent national interests, including those of the Artsakh Republic.

“But whatever the format, the top-tier diplomacy is not enough for resolution, a much greater engagement with the Azerbaijani public is needed. I once asked Serzh Sargsyan why he, knowing the Azerbaijani language, did not address the Azerbaijani people directly, as for example Barack Obama did with Iran. He didn’t seem to understand the importance of such outreach. I think Pashinyan or others he might designate could speak to the Azerbaijan people directly, breaking Aliyev’s monopoly on talks.

“The Azerbaijani public needs to hear from Armenia directly. The solution of the problem can only be imagined after the establishment of normal communications and normal relations between the peoples, no one agreement between leaders can produce peace. In other words, the peace process should be more democratic.”