The Populist-Driven Foreign Policy of Armenia is a Call for Regional War

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Baku, 7 September 2020 –

For classical realists, the interference of masses in shaping foreign policy brought about the disastrous events (e.g. two world wars) of the first half of the twentieth century, and therefore, they advise diplomats to lead public opinion rather than follow it. This premise, which is arguably more applicable in fledgling democracies with immature state institutions, is indeed a two-way street.

In some cases, the leader brought to power by popular action or vote tends to make populist moves to satisfy popular demand and raise more electoral support. If replicated in the sphere of the management of foreign policies, this leads to nationalistic and populist maneuvers in foreign policy with a great risk of regional or sometimes even global ramifications.

The foreign policy of Armenia since the so-called Velvet Revolution of the April 2018 is an apt example for this theoretical proposition. Populist tendencies of the new government of the country led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist without substantial experience in the statecraft or diplomacy, were noted by observers shortly after he took over the premiership. These observations, however, pointed primarily to his internal policies.

For instance, in the beginning of his rule, Pashinyan promised to boost the less than 3 million population of Armenia to 5 million by 2050, while a latest demographic report by the United Nations Organization expected Armenia’s population to shrink by 913,000 to 2,039,000 by 2100. FIFA World Cup, GDP increase by 15 times, development of at least five technology companies whose value exceeds $10 billion, reaching the top twenty countries by the army’s combat readiness index and top ten countries in the intelligence service are among the unrealistic objectives he has promised to a nation who has long been suffering from economic decline and demographic crisis.

Although this populism might endanger the domestic socio-political and economic stability of Armenia in the mid to long-term, Pashinyan’s application of this approach in the area of foreign policy might turn out to be arguably much more grievous for both Armenia and the wider region. Having failed to realize most of his promises concerning the economic development of the country and demonstrated a not so successful fight against the humanitarian and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pashinyan embraces populist declarations concerning the policies of Armenia vis-à-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey, in an obvious attempt to create a rally-’round-the- flag effect.

His "Karabakh is Armenia, period” statement in August 2019, which was an outstanding abandonment of the tradition of former Armenian governments to deny Yerevan’s control over the occupied territories, was the first major manifestation of the adoption of populism at the highest level of the political administration. The sharp criticism of this statement by the Co-Chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, the main international mission tasked with the coordination of the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have apparently not sufficed to convince Pashinyan of the impermissibility of populism with regards to his country’s conflict with Azerbaijan.

In the months following the outbreak of coronavirus in Armenia, the extensive use of populism has gained momentum in the foreign policy narratives of Pashinyan’s government. This has arguably reached its hitherto peak this summer when Armenians rushed to mark the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Sevres of August 8, 1920 that was an attempt by the Allies of World War I to liquidate the Ottoman Empire and share its territories.

According to the treaty, the north-eastern parts of modern Turkey were planning to be given under the control of Armenia. If realized, the Republic of Armenia would have covered a territory of over 160 thousand square kilometers, with a marked difference from the present size of less than 30 thousand square kilometers.

The treaty, however, never came into force and was soon replaced by another treaty – the Treaty of Lausanne – by which the international borders of the modern Turkey were officially recognized. Hence, the Treaty of Sevres does not bear a legal relevance today but apparently not for the government of Armenia. Addressing a "scientific conference'' on the anniversary of the treaty, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared that "Although the Treaty of Sevres was never implemented, it continues to be a historical fact, which reflects our long journey to restore our independent statehood. We are bound by duty to remember it, realize its importance and follow its message.''

In the course of the government-sponsored campaign concerning the anniversary of the treaty, a long list of officials, including the President of the country, stressed its importance for the modern-day Armenia and its wider national interests.

The celebration of a treaty that has no legal force but is only a relic of the colonial past of the humanity is not only a matter of populism at its finest, but also the manifestation of the embedded expansionism in the Armenian vision of the region. It is important to note that some sober-minded Armenians realize the dangers posed by these reckless statements.

For example, Jirair Libaridian, who served as senior adviser to the former President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, warned Pashinyan’s government against "being obsessed with dreams”: "I don’t know if our leaders did so knowingly, but the statements by the President and Prime Minister of Armenia were equivalent to a declaration of at least diplomatic war against Turkey.''

Against the backdrop of the implicit adoption of territorial propositions of the Treaty of Sevres as its foreign policy goals, Armenia has also rejected other documents that envisage the resolution of the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict and the restoration of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territorial integrity. Most importantly, over the last months, the Armenian government has rejected the Madrid Principles, a settlement formulation proposed by the OSCE’s Minsk Group.

This formulation has been widely seen as the most feasible way to bring about peace in the region and recently endorsed by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as a "very important step in implementing the [United Nations] Security Council resolutions”, that demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Disputing the whole essence of the negotiations, in April 2020, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry denied the existence of any document on the negotiating table.

With the rejection of the documents proposing formulations to put an end to the long-standing conflict between the two nations of the South Caucasus and celebration of a defunct treaty loaded with expansionist and irredentist claims, the government of Armenia demonstrates the clear nature of its foreign policy vision. Jirair Libaridian rightfully concludes that "This was possibly the last step that will, in the eyes of our opponents and the international community, define the Karabagh problem as a question of territorial expansion''.

Truly, the populist-driven foreign policy course of the incumbent government in Yerevan encourages the Armenian people for more expansionism and aggression against the neighboring countries, promising nothing peaceful but the resumption of military hostilities with drastic implications for all the people of the region.

Vasif Huseynov

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