Hello, and welcome to the Armenian News Network, Groong, Week in Review. We’re recording this show on December 5th, 2021. This week our topics are:
● Regional Geopolitics
● Turkmenistan / Iran gas swap deal
● Opposition Fizzles Out. Again.
To talk about these issues, we have with us:
Benyamin Poghosyan, who is the Chairman of the Yerevan based think tank Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies, He was deputy director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the Ministry of Defense from 2010 to 2016 and the Vice President for Research, at the National Defense Research University from 2016 to 2019.
Negotiations on the post-November 9, 2020, agreement continued this week. Last week, Russian President Putin had set expectations in Sochi that a more detailed agreement would be negotiated and possibly signed this week stemming from the announcements of Nov. 26, 2021.
Towards the end of the week, it became apparent that the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides don’t fully agree with each other. At least one point of disagreement seems to be the status and naming of the transport routes that are supposed to link Azerbaijan with Nakhijevan. Towards the end of the week, on Thursday, secretary of the National Security Council Armen Grigoryan stated in an interview with Azatutyun, that the commission on unblocking of the corridors has not yet reached agreement and mentioned Armenia’s opposition to any discussion based on the “logic of corridors”.
On Friday, Armenia’s Deputy PM Mher Grigoryan flew to Moscow for last minute urgent negotiations with his counterparts from Russia and Azerbaijan, but apparently the meeting did not achieve new results. An expected meeting between Ararat Mirzoyan and Jeyhun Bayramov that was slated to take place in Stockholm was nixed by the Azerbaijani side due to the planned visit of Armenian MPs to Artsakh.
1.1 (1:07) - Azerbaijan and Turkey are very loudly proclaiming that they will get a corridor, but the Armenian side keeps rejecting this. What Azerbaijan wants, regardless of what it's called, is basically communication between Azerbaijan and Nakhijevan without any controls (whether its customs, passport, or phytosanitary). Is Armenia’s public push-back simply related to terminology, or are they looking for substantive, meaning sovereign control over transit through their country? And if so, how realistic is Armenia’s bargaining position?
Benyamin: Terminology plays a role but definitely not a decisive role. Both Azerbaijani politicians and experts both privately and publicly stated that content is much more important than naming.
According to Poghosyan, Azerbaijani politicians & analysts believe that Armenia has accepted that Lachin (Berdzor) is part of Azerbaijan on the Nov. 9/10 document and since Armenians transit through the corridor without any control by Azerbaijan, then a reciprocal arrangement should exist for Azerbaijanis through Syunik. According to this logic, playing with the definition of the term “sovereignty”, it's possible to claim that Armenia would have sovereignty over a corridor in Syunik but still not exercise control or delegate control to Russia. In other words, sovereignty does not equal direct control.
1.2 (7:49) Another interesting revelation in Armen Grigoryan’s interview. He essentially claimed that Armenia has agreed to withdraw to the borders based on 1970s maps, while proclaiming that Armenia can negotiate delimitation and demarcation based on 1920s maps. Does this make sense?
Benyamin: Azerbaijani experts/politicians openly admit that this is blackmail, but it's their right, because Nikol Pashinyan has admitted that parts of the highway are in Azerbaijan. In fact, they use three examples of situations to justify their right for control-free transit through Armenia:
So, Armenia’s construction of alternative to Goris-Kapan only removes point #1 above (in the logic of Azerbaijani analysts).
All this means is that the decision based on ORAL agreements done in mid-December 2020, to give control of the 21km segment of the Armenia-Iran highway, was a strategic blunder by Armenia. No one understands until now what Armenia received in exchange for this compromise.
Also, all discussions that the alternative highway to M2 that was hastily built to bypass Azerbaijani blockade do not correspond to reality.
Which makes it even more puzzling. We know that Azerbaijan relies heavily on the military to complement its diplomatic efforts. So why give Azerbaijan such a huge military trump card like the Goris-Kapan highway. Anyway, moving on...
1.3 A visit of Armenian MPs to Artsakh was previously unannounced and seems to have been brought up during the negotiations. What is the significance of this visit as a negotiation tool? Could this be seen as a real threat, perhaps to even recognize Artsakh’s independence should negotiations fail?
Benyamin’s understanding is that there was some sort of agreement reached shortly before signing of the tripartite Nov.9/10 statement that top leadership in Armenia (prime minister, president, and speaker of the NA) will not visit Artsakh anymore.
Last week, Azerbaijani media and expert community stated that they had info that parliament speaker Alen Simonyan planned to visit Stepanakert on Dec. 3. And according to their logic this was a breach of their “unofficial” agreement.
Important to note that Azerbaijan seems to be tolerating the visits of individual MPs (since these have happened before and have been publicized), but they’re very sensitive to visits of the 3 high-ranking officials (which never occurred) and also, they’ve been very sensitive to visits of foreign and defense ministers.
After the visit of MFA, in January 2021, there was a very harsh statement from Azerbaijan. After this almost 11 months passed without any high-ranking officials visiting Artsakh. Then, on Nov. 6 there was one heavily publicized visit of the minister of defense to Artsakh and the official press release itself mentioned “Republic of Nagorno Karabakh.” This seems to be the first and only use of the term Republic of Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh in official documents.
Of course, the week after the visit to Artsakh the DM was sacked. Was this a reaction to the visit?
DM was sacked on Nov. 15. Benyamin doesn’t exclude this possibility but there could have been other reasons for the sacking.
1.4 Were the visits to Artsakh agreed upon with Russia, or does it throw Russia under the bus?
Russian peacekeepers are physically controlling the highway; thus, one thing is clear: “When you’re leaving the Tegh village of Armenia and entering the Republic of Artsakh (or unrecognized republic of Artsakh), in reality you’re entering the de-facto Russian controlled zone. Here Russian peacekeepers are making decisions. You may be the prime minister of Armenia, president of Armenia, whoever you want to be, the decision makers are the Russian peacekeepers and their commander sitting in Stepanakert or maybe the commander’s commander sitting in Moscow.”
Regarding why Alen Simonyan wanted to visit Stepanakert and why the visit was apparently canceled, there may be a few possibilities, but Azerbaijanis claim it was because of their demands (e.g., canceling the Bayramov/Mirzoyan meeting). Azerbaijanis claim that “After our warnings, Alen Simonyan decided not to go”).
Benyamin believes the “warnings” may have also included the terrible kidnapping and assasination of 65-year-old villager Seyran Sargsyan. In fact, Armenia is showing very muted reactions (only at the MFA level) to these cruel “Nazi concentration camp” style killings (3 in 2 months now). Technically all Artsakhtsis hold passports and have Armenian citizenship and Armenia should protect the rights of its citizens. Failure to do so will only encourage more such deliberate killings (perhaps even at a faster pace). At the minimum, Armenia should open a criminal case and file a request with Interpol to arrest the murderers.
Also, all these condemnations of Russian peacekeepers (that they’re not doing their job) are manipulation. If the Russian peacekeepers leave (for whatever reason), it will take a maximum of 2 weeks for there to be 0 Armenians left it Karabakh (Artsakh)
1.5 (22:48) So we know both sides are supposed to meet on Dec. 15 and the meeting in Sochi was claimed to be a last minute decision by Pashinyan? Was it really? And is Russia in a hurry to reach an agreement before the December 15 meeting in Brussels?
Benyamin doesn’t believe that the Nov meeting was impromptu and was probably being planned for several months. Pashinyan for whatever reason may have requested to cancel the meeting or postpone it by an unreasonable (according to Azerbaijan) amount of time and this may have triggered the harsh Azerbaijani reactions including the customs checkpoints on Goris-Kapan, Goris-Chakaten as well as the the Nov. 14-16 military escalation may have been meant to bring Pashinyan back to committing to the meeting.
Regarding the meeting in Brussels, it was being prepared for at least a month. This was Eastern Partnership summit and both Aliyev and Pashinyan will visit. It’ll be interesting to see if this meeting may happen or not. If it does, most likely it’ll focus on humanitarian issues.
Here again what is concerning is that Azerbaijan was very successful in raising the issue of mine maps to the same level as prisoners. The Nov. 9 statement mentions nothing about mine maps and specified the release of all prisoners. To add insult to injury, external actors are praising Azerbaijan for releasing some prisoners (only a fraction of what they have) and calling on Armenia to release mine maps. Another vivid example of diplomatic failure for Armenia after Nov. 10, 2020.
1.6 (27:35) What does Russia want out of this? Do you think they’re taking a balanced approach and are they interested in simply allowing the sides to come to an agreement? Do they favor a specific outcome? Talking about this, it's also worth mentioning that the topic of unblocking communications was one of the points discussed between Erdogan and Putin in a telephone call on Friday, apparently at Erdogan’s insistence.
Russia, if not fully, then at least is sufficiently satisfied with the new status quo and is heavily interested in cementing the post-Nov 9 status quo (if not a final agreement between Armenia-Azerbaijan).
It must be clearly understood that Russia has 0 intention to have direct military confrontation with Azerbaijan. Why? Because it will automatically mean an acute political crisis with Turkey and Russia has sufficient problems now (Russia-Ukraine border, Belarus-Poland border, Belarus-Lithuania border, etc..). At the end of the day, Russia still is able to navigate its relations with Turkey and come to some terms.
Moscow, Brussels, and Washington believe that opening up communications between Armenia-Azerbaijan will make military confrontation less likely.
1.7 (29:59) Would it be true then to say that if Pashinyan made even more concessions to Aliyev at Armenia’s expense, which at least in the short-term ended up pacifying the situation, then Russia would be for this?
Benyamin: I believe yes. And in fact, Azerbaijan also knows that Russia is interested in stability and is using this to its advantage by using Russia to put pressure on Pashinyan/Armenia to satisfy their 2 main demands:
● a) delimitation/demarcation with primary principle being mutual recognition of borders based on late USSR territorial borders and
● b) corridors that connect Azerbaijan with Turkey, even if they’re under Russian control.
1.8 (32:43) Doesn’t this mean that Russia is agreeing to a ticking time-bomb? If in the future Russian power is weakened, Azerbaijan and Turkey may use the pretext of the roads being a “critical infrastructure” in order to militarily invade?
This may theoretically happen in 10-15 years, but Russian military experts believe they have Turkey under control.
First, Russian experts believe that for the next 100 years, Russia will be militarily stronger than Turkey.
Second, the argument that Armenia is a bulwark against pan-Turanism is nonsensical to Russians. Pan-Turanism is being spread through other institutions (e.g. Turkish Institute for Cultural Studies).
“What do 80,000 people living in Artsakh have in common with potential increase of pan-Turkism ideology in Tatarstan.”
Russians believe they have a lot of instruments to punish Turkey should they misbehave, be it in Libya, Syria, or Turkey itself (e.g. through residual influence over PKK).
1.9 (36:41) In that case, why is Turkey itself putting so much importance on this corridor? Just to appease Azerbaijan?
Turkey hopes for a potential future, in 15-20 years (or somewhere near 2050), where Russia may be significantly weakened to relinquish control of the South Caucasus. And from the Turkish perspective, this is the first step in a long journey to transform the South Caucasus from a Russian backyard to a Turkish backyard.
However, this is a very long (and murky) game and Benyamin isn’t sure that even in the US, the think tanks can accurately plan for 30 years in the future.
1.10 Would opening corridors based on the principle of equal status allow Azerbaijan to arm Nakhijevan and Armenians to arm Artsakh?
No. First, we now can arm Artsakh only with Russian agreement. And if the new corridors are controlled by Russians, then Azerbaijan would be able to arm Nakhijevan only through Russian consent.
However, the issue is not comparable since Nakhijevan has a 10-11km border with Turkey (not to mention Iran) which could be used to arm it and neither Russia nor Armenia could do anything about it.
1.11 This week we also heard escalated criticism of Russia by Armenian politicians which may be worth mentioning. While this criticism has always been in the background, whether in the form of speeches in parliament or statements by Pashinyan or his ministers, this week the issue escalated to the point of soliciting a response from the Russian MFA.
Two incidents of note in this pattern:
● Alen Simonyan states that Russia could have “given” Artsakh to Azerbaijan through the Lavrov plan, slammed by Russian MFA. The Russian foreign ministry responded saying: "It is deeply regrettable that some Armenian politicians not only do not refute the absurd thoughts about the "surrender" of NKR by Russia, which does not belong to it, but, in fact, associate themselves with such baseless judgments."
● Amen Grigoryan took a potshot at Russia, claiming that the escalations in November started after Overchuk’s visit to Armenia on Nov. 5 and statements he made. We went back to check Overchuk’s statements, and it seems that the issue may have been in Overchuk’s response to Pashinyan’s statement about “no corridors”, mentioning that control over the roads needs to be exercised based on the principle of “parity”.
Could the timing of this increased criticism of Russia by Armenian authorities be a clue about a possible displeasure by the Armenian side of the Russian position in the negotiations?
First, the #1 party to be blamed is the Armenian government (the current Armenian government, but also the previous government). However, those who held government positions during the war and now will do everything to divert blame from themselves.
Second, in 2019 when Russia put their offers to Armenia & Azerbaijan (which itself was a slightly modified version of those from co-chairs that have been presented over time, starting from 2007), Benyamin is pretty sure that Russia communicated with Armenian authorities about the heavy imbalance in military investments between Armenia and Azerbaijan. “Either you accept the deal or we’re not able to prevent a large-scale war.” Benyamin is pretty sure that this type of discussion happened.
For Benyamin it's not rational that Armenia would reject the existing offers knowing full-well that war will start and knowing full well about the state of our military, then turn around to blame Russia for “selling” Artsakh.
Yes, we can say that Russia did not prevent war and Russia was asking us to give back the 5+2 territories outside of NKR Autonomous Oblast. But all suggestions put forth by the OSCE MG co-chairs included the handover of the 7 territories. So, if blame is going to be assigned, then all of the co-chairs (Moscow, Paris, Washington) were responsible.
1.12 Russia did not prevent war or could not prevent war?
Tough question, but after Armenia publicly, in April 2020, made a statement where it rejected ALL offers that were delivered to sides before May 2018, then it became much more difficult for Russia to prevent war. Armenia’s rejection meant not only rejection of the (real or fake) Lavrov plan, but also all offers from OSCE co-chairs (such as the Kazan document or updated versions of it).
After this rejection, Azerbaijan had an iron-clad argument to either: a) accept the status quo for an unspecified period of time or b) to start a war.
Benyamin could still not understand the rationale for the rejection, especially given the Pashinyan govt’s claims about the state of the army prior to the war.
● Blinken meets Lavrov to discuss tensions (including Caucasus)
● Blinken and Çavuşoğlu meet on the sidelines of NATO summit and talk about South Caucasus (among other things)Announcements that working group of deputy PMs failed to reach agreement so far
● Armen Grigoryan interview where he admits that it's OK for Armenia to withdraw to 1970s borders but negotiate based on 1920s maps.
○ Why withdraw to 1970s borders when 1920s is what you want?
○ In that interview he also took potshots at Russia (saying that the recent tension on the borders immediately followed Russia’s deputy PM’s visit to Armenia on November 5 where he made some statements)?
■ What were Overchuk’s statements? Was it related to “parity” in response to Pashinyan’s assertion about “no corridors”?
● Consistent anti-Russian statements by Armenian politicians
○ Amen Grigoryan took a potshot at Russia, claiming that the escalations in November started after Overchuk’s visit to Armenia on Nov. 5 and statements he made.
○ Vigen Khachatryan said it’d be unwise to leave CSTO but nothing can be ruled out.
In its efforts to overcome its political losses since the geopolitical power shifts in the South Caucasus since the 44-day war, Iran appears to be making deals with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to remain a player in the gas pipeline picture. To this end it seems to have struck a gas swap deal with Turkmenistan to provide Azerbaijan with Turkmen gas via its territory around the Caspian. Also, there were new developments from Iran about the North-South corridor, running through Azerbaijan (and not Armenia).
2.1 Do these recent announcements indicate a change in Iran’s stance on regional geopolitics, compared with a month ago when there were open military threats?
Benyamin published a paper on this a month ago.
This is a real hype! As long as there is no Armenia-Iran railway passing through Syunik OR there is no new cargo-capable highway connecting Armenia with Iran, then every discussion about Armenia as part of the North-South international corridor is science fiction and has nothing to do with reality.
● Direct Armenia-Iran Railway: very expensive and no plans (with accompanying investment) to build it anytime soon, despite Serzh Sargsyan promising in autumn 2008 that this would become a reality in 2 years.
● Armenian North-South highway: Only a small segment of it is complete
○ From yerevan to Artashat ~22km - COMPLETE
○ From Artashat to Meghri, nothing has been done:
■ Artashat - Sisian: Not planned, not funded.
■ Sisian to Kajaran could be built using EUR 600M from the EU aid
■ Kajaran to Iran border - not funded
■ Even if some miracle construction of the Sisian-Iran border segment of the North-South highway (with tunnels, bridges, etc…) is funded and starts in 2023, it won’t be complete until 2030 (best case). And this doesn’t even include plans for the Artashat-Sisian segment.
As far as Iran’s goals, it is coming to terms with the geopolitical reality knowing the limits of its power. The main goals for Iran are to prevent Mossad, CIA, etc… presence and activity on its northern border.
Iran is pursuing a stick and carrots approach:
● stick: threat of military action, shia activism, military exercises, etc…
● carrot: trade deals, diplomatic statements, etc...
So their policy is two-fold:
2.2 Is the volume of the Turkmen gas (2bn cu meters) significant?
Definitely not significant enough to strategically alter the South Caucasus gas market. 2bn cubic meters is basically equivalent to Armeina’s consumption of gas for one year. This is part of the carrot & stick policy.
Last week, the “Liberation movement” comprised of extra-parliamentary 5165 and Zartonk parties fizzled out. Karin Tonoyan, head of 5165, announced that their party is pulling out of the movement claiming that they’re not getting sufficient turnout on the streets. They also mentioned “cold weather”.
3.1 Is this yet another ridiculous miscalculation by the opposition? If you’re starting a protest movement in the middle of November, shouldn’t you expect cold weather? And since when is cold weather a valid reason to stop protests, especially given the gravity of their complaints against Pashinyan?
Benyamin: (not an expert on internal politics, but…) any political movement needs 3 types of resources: a) financial, b) people and c) external players (for small countries like Armenia).
Neither Zartonk nor 5165 have sufficient money nor external support.
Why does Land for Living (Aprelu Erkir), which was started a few months ago and is apparently backed by billionaire Ruben Vardanyan, achieve some success in municipal elections?
● Has money
● Has external connections (through Ruben Vardanyan’s network)
● Has people (was able to attract them due to the previous 2 bullets?)
Why was Kocharyan not successful in becoming a PM? After all he has financial resources, lots of human resources on the ground and is alleged friends with Putin, world’s most influential figure?
Benyamin: “My answer is that Mr. Kocharyan doesn’t want to be prime minister of Armenia now because he’s a quite smart person not to be a prime minister of such a failing country.”
3.2 Meanwhile, there’s continued pressure by the government to keep leaders in Syunik jailed.
In the case of Arush Arushanyan, the mayor of Goris who has been in jail since mid-July, Lusine Avetyan, head of the Karahunj community and the sole witness, on whose testimony the entire case of vote buying against Arushanyan is constructed, has withdrawn her testimony saying it was done under duress. Yet, Arushanyan still remains in jail.
This week, the government also arrested Ashot Minasyan (known as Ashot Yerkat) on charges that are more than a year old. Minasyan’s legal team argued that their client has been on good behavior while being out of jail for more than a year, but they failed to dissuade the judge from approving the prosecution’s request for pre-trial detention.
Is this random harassment of political opponents targeted at wearing down support for the opposition? Or is there more to this? We know for instance, that both Arush Arushanyan and Ashot Minasyan fought during the Artsakh war (with Minasyan being a veteran of all 3 wars) and led volunteer or paramilitary detachments. Could this be an attempt to reign in control over paramilitary units for instance?
Benyamin: I don’t think this is an attempt to reign in paramilitary units because Armenia doesn’t have such units.
Regarding the arrests and criminal prosecution of Syunik mayors, not being a lawyer, Benyamin can say from a security point of view that this definitely does not help make Syunik stronger. All of these events create domestic animosity, an unhealthy environment in Syunik, which makes Syunik weaker.
That was our Week in Review show, and we hope it helped you catch up with some of the issues in and around Armenia from this past week. As always, we invite your feedback and your suggestions. You can find us on most social media and podcast platforms, or our website Groong.org.
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Benyamin Poghosyan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh, Artsakh, Nikol Pashinyan, Ilham Aliyev, Vladimir Putin, Georgia, South Caucasus, Turkey, Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Communication channels, Corridors, Borders, Peace Negotiations, Politics, Turkmen Gas, Caspian, Pipelines, Nakhichevan, Nakhijevan, Syunik, Ashot Minasyan, Arush Arushanyan