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Armenians Seem Determined to Misread Crimea

Views differ in Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh, but both fail to see risks in backing Russia's stance.
By Richard Giragosian
  • Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan. (Photo courtesy of R. Giragosian)
    Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan. (Photo courtesy of R. Giragosian)

For Armenians, history has always been a central pillar of identity. Even more significant for Armenians is the denial or selective misinterpretation of history, which have always triggered intense and immediate condemnation.

Given these tenets of identity, the recent determination of many in Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh to apply their own selective interpretation of history and to resist more mainstream interpretations of the Crimean crisis is bewildering.

Yet underlying this seemingly contradictory view of Crimea and its dubious referendum, there is an even deeper level of complexity. This is evident on several levels.

First, Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh and in Armenia proper, who are normally united, now differ in their perspectives on Crimea.

For many people in Karabakh, the recent referendum in Crimea is a validation and a vindication of their own quest for self-determination. This was most evident in the celebratory, joyous public reaction to news of the Crimean vote.

For Armenia, however, the Crimean issue has more to do with the country’s strategic “partnership” with Russia.

It was this perspective that prevailed in determining the Armenian government’s response to the Ukraine conflict, which had initially been cautious. It became ever clearer this week when Armenia openly backed the Russian position by voting against a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly that reaffirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and labelled as illegal the referendum that led to Crimea’s annexation by Russia.

To another degree of complexity, the implications of these two positions mean that both of them present greater challenges and greater threats than any possible benefits or dividends they might bring.

For Nagorny Karabakh, the danger of embracing the Crimean referendum is that its own argument for self-determination risks being diluted. There are three main reasons for this. First, in the absence of any real threat to Crimea’s security, events there were largely driven by Russian expectations and demands. In contrast, the core issue of Karabakh’s bid for self-determination has always been security, in the wake of a pattern of violence from Azerbaijan.

Second, the Crimean referendum itself was never really a question of “national” self-determination. Rather, it was one of “regional” self-determination, with no attempt to use Ukrainian legal, political or constitutional processes for this purpose. Here too, Nagorny Karabakh’s experience of dialogue and negotiation, and its experiment in using Soviet constitutional avenues make the Karabakh referendum starkly different.

A third key difference is rooted in the referendum itself. Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation and – in contrast to nearly all other cases of self-determination – never sought or even suggested any degree of outright independence. Against that backdrop, Karabakh’s current embrace of Crimea as an inspiration is more likely to weaken and dilute the essence of its own quest. Such a development would be a deadly blow to the sacrifice and tenacity of the Karabakh Armenians. It would weaken not only their case before the international community, but also their position vis-à-vis the mediators in the conflict.

The worst-case scenario for Nagorny Karabakh, however, has more to do with Russia than with Crimea. Newly-assertive and resurgent, Russia now seems to recognise no limits or restraints. With reckless disregard and disdain for the costs and repercussions of its actions, Moscow may select new targets and other objectives, including Karabakh.

Russia may now move to expand and extend its power and influence in the South Caucasus. Karabakh could be an appealing means toward that end. This route could involved a dangerous bid for greater if riskier dividends, in which Moscow would seek to transform the frozen Karabakh conflict into a hot war, with only Russia and its peacekeepers capable of direct and immediate intervention. Such a scenario would mimic Russia’s leverage in the phase prior to the August 2008 war with Georgia. In the frozen Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts, it was the deployment of Russian-led peacekeepers and the issuing of Russian passports that defined and defended Moscow’s interests.

The case of Armenia, meanwhile, is in some ways even more dangerous. By adopting the Russian stance on Crimea, Yerevan seems destined to become a prisoner in its partnership with Moscow. And as the West moves to impose greater sanctions against Russia, Armenia may become even more isolated, trapped on the wrong side of history.

Perhaps even more distressingly, Armenia may also remain constrained within the new Iron Curtain that Russian president Vladimir Putin seems intent on constructing within the borders of the former Soviet Union.

Richard Giragosian is director of the Regional Studies Centre, an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia.