Sargsyan`s visit to Moscow: in the context of new regional realitiesEarly August marked intensified activities among Russia, Turkey, Iran and South Caucasian countries. The visit of the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow amidst these developments bring more questions.

Mr. Heydar Mirza, an expert in foreign policy and security studies with focus on the South Caucasus and Caspian region, shares his opinion on the recent developments in the region.

Interviewer: Fuad Shahbazov



Shahbazov: What significance does Sargsyan's visit to Moscow bear especially in the aftermath of the recent developments in Armenia? Does Armenian president try to demonstrate he still enjoys Russia`s support?


Mirza: My opinion is that Sargsyan’s visit has no considerable significance, separately or even as the aftermath of the recent armed protests in Yerevan. Armenia does not possess any observable degree of independence of foreign policy, that is the reason. But the visit was important if we approach the issue from different angle – as part of the events unfolded in broader perspective. I mean Vladimir Putin’s visit to Baku on August 8, his meetings with Azerbaijani and Iranian counterparts, then Turkish leader Erdoğan’s visit to St. Petersburg where he met Putin, and that was the next day, August 9. And only then, on August 10, Sargsyan visits Moscow. And I want to remind that Azerbaijani MOD Colonel General Zakir Hasanov flew to Moscow on August 13, immediately after series of this meetings, while yesterday, August 14, his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu urgently came to Baku, together with his deputy Anatoli Antonov. This, of course, puts Sargsyan’s visit into general mosaic, what cannot be unimportant.



What do trilateral meetings and important decisions of the Azerbaijani, Iranian and Russian presidents in Baku promise for the region?


First of all, let’s identify the contextual ground. The U.S. has continuously been passive in the region of the South Caucasus, and such an attitude is being observed for at least several years. You cannot bring whole of your regional focus to comments on “human rights and democracy” from time to time or to James Warlick’s “it is gonna be ok” style tweets. Geopolitics and regional security is much more than that. It is difficult to say what will be the role and place of the South Caucasus in foreign policy of the next administration in Washington. But we see what we see at the moment. Thus, it is not surprising that Moscow turns to be the major script author, mediator, and beneficiary of the conflict (resolution) in Nagorno-Karabakh. Second, we know the relations between the U.S. and Turkey are very bad at the moment as a consequence of the failed coup attempt in Ankara. It is rather unclear what the future of relations between Turkey and the West is, but the immediate outcome is that we are witnessing now statements and trends in relations between Ankara and Moscow unprecedented before. Yes, the major background is Syria. But Ankara and Baku are military allies. And at the same time, Baku is an important importer of Russian weapons. It is hard not to observe the obvious synergies. Of course, Armenia is Moscow’s number one ally in the region and member of CSTO. But Yerevan does not possess even minimal level of sovereignty in international relations to counterbalance these synergies between Moscow and Armenia’s local foes. This opinion is shared also among the vast majority of Armenian foreign policy experts.



And Iran...?


As for Iran, we have to bear in mind that since 1994, year of ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, a number of Iranian officials and experts underlined two points. First, all regional conflicts must be subject to resolution where major regional players, not distant actors, would be part of. Second, without Tehran’s participation in resolution no regional conflict can be solved. I think in case of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict this is of particular relevance. Iran has been balancing between Baku and Yerevan since early 1990s, it has always been an important economic partner of Yerevan, and Iran’s relations with Baku have periodically been subject to tensions. For example, intensive military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel could not be anything but irritating for Azerbaijan’s southern neighbour. And we know that 25 million Azerbaijanis living in Iran are always a hard issue too. However, recent years were marked with tremendous improvement in bilateral relations between Baku and Tehran; it started from a series of mutual visits on the heads of states level. Since early 2014 both sides have mentioned from time to time the necessity and willingness of cooperating in military sphere, something nobody would even imagine say in 2005 or 2010. At the moment, the bilateral commission on military-industrial cooperation is functioning on the level of deputies of ministers of defence. Finally, in one of his recent speeches after the successful four-day offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh in early April 2016, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev noted Iran among the sides important for Baku’s military success. I also remember the visits to Azerbaijan made by prominent Iranian ayatollahs, what could also be interpreted as a sign of improvement in bilateral relations. Things discussed between Putin and Rouhani in Baku had Syria and establishment of long-term North-South transport corridor through Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, in terms of resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh all that was mentioned above also creates a visible opportunity window for Baku. In general, the increasing activity of Tehran in the South Caucasus is natural and quite expected in the current regional context.



There have been speculations that the intensified activity of Russia in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue following the April clashes in the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontline will lead to some changes in status quo. Some experts even claim that the recent events in Armenia are indirectly related, as the protest of Armenian society, to the possible changes in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.


I would rather correct you: the status quo has already changed. It did change in early April this year after a successful limited-scale offensive of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. The status quo changed in terms of the theatre war – Azerbaijan managed to liberate eight (Armenian data) to 20 (Azerbaijani data) square kilometres of land in Nagorno-Karabakh, together with heights and positions important in military strategic terms. Armenian war veteran, retired general Arkadi Ter-Tadevosyan and a number of others on the Armenian side confirmed that the Azerbaijani operation was a full success and the limited number of Azerbaijani forces – two moto-rifle brigades, two tank companies, a limited number of artillery, and some special force units – could overcome, just in three days, the Armenian defence lines constructed for more than 20 years. Besides, the changes took place in psychological dimension of war and diplomacy. Baku demonstrated that war can be a solution, and this change is the major driver of the intensified peaceful resolution process now. Both sides lost more or less the same number of soldiers and officers killed in action during those four days – around 100 on each side officially; but Armenians officially lost 14 tanks, four BMPs, 17 artillery guns and howitzers, 30 armoured cars and vehicles; while Azerbaijani forces - one helicopter and one tank (damaged one a mine). And bear in mind, the Azerbaijani forces were attacking, this implies that they had to have more losses. Nevertheless, the result on the ground is totally different. That could not leave moods of the Armenian society unaffected. Finally, despite a number of initial lies on the results of “the April war”, the Armenian president had to admit loss of territories in Tartar and Fizuli. Look, on April 4, during his press-conference in Yerevan, Sargsyan repeated several times that “the Azerbaijani forces could progress as far as only 200-300 meters”, “I assure you”, he said. Then, Jirair Sefilyan, an Armenian opposition figure and war veteran, made statements that Sargsyan lies and around eight square kilometres had been lost, together with a number of strategically important heights and positions. And on May 17, during a press conference on the board of his airplane on his flight back from negotiations with Putin, Aliyev, and Kerry in Vienna, Sargsyan suddenly admitted exactly what Sefilyan had said before – loss of eight square kilometres. And that was exactly what caused an armed rebellion in Yerevan. Not corruption, human rights, or democracy. If you analyse profiles of the rebels, you will see that the leaders are people very far from “democratic values” or anything like that. They are former war criminals, terrorists, some of them are members of ASALA (Armenian Secret Army of Liberation of Armenia), and have terror activity experience also in Europe. As for “corruption”, “human rights”, and “democracy” cries – that was part of the propaganda directed towards the West. In terms of strategy, I think that the status quo established in 1994 was a constantly changing dynamic process for Baku, while for Yerevan it was a fixed position. It would be good for Yerevan if it had a different foreign policy positioning, a considerable level of sovereignty, rich natural resource base, demographics, or competitive economy integrated into the region and the world, like in case of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Then Yerevan could have been okay with this fixed position and say that time is on their side. But that is not the case, and through these two decades this fixed position has become a sort of a suitcase without a handle for them.



No backing to Armenia during the April war from its major ally Russia and from co-members within several organizations, as well as direct supportive statements of Belarus and Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan, has generated mistrust of Armenian society in Russia and Russia-led structures, such as the Eurasian Union, CSTO. Armenia`s calls on Russia to stop selling arms to Azerbaijan are also ignored. Are any changes in Armenia`s foreign policy expected in this context?


I think I partially answered this question before, at least indirectly. I can add the following. The region we are talking about is extremely complex. Much depends on strategic vision, intuition if you want, ability of political elites to bargain and compromise, and to identify strategic priorities. This, in its turn, puts certain requirements on the sovereignty of national politics and independence of political elites in decision-making. It is all interrelated. And strategic mistakes or sacrifices made in early 1990s by political elites in Armenia for the sake of a destructive myth, bring their negative fruits in that country. Look, for the last two decades all the focus of Yerevan’s foreign policy was on the recognition of the so-called “Armenian genocide” in the world. And? What did it give to Armenia? Complexity of this region gives no chance to political elites, whose worldview is constructed on the hundred year old destructive myths. That is why Armenia is so much isolated and has gradually lost the role of an independent actor in the region.