Our history has dictated this war to us. Failing to win and preserve the independence in 1920, our predecessors left to the future generations a legacy of unresolved conflict with neighbors, which cannot be settled through simple compromises on both sides. This conflict concerns the right for the entire living space of the nation, and either we manage to keep it or we are forced to leave it eventually to seek security and prosperity elsewhere. Two thirds of our people, lacking enough strength to fight and opportunities to build a prosperous future on this land, have already left, and the same looms for those who stayed if we don’t find the key to achieving a sustainable peace.
Today we have two approaches put in circulation: one from the authorities, and another from the “peace as soon as possible party”.
The authorities’ approach is based steady defense of the de-facto frontline formed in 1994, reckoning that the adversary will finally accept the loss of the Armenian part of Artsakh and recognize it legally, in exchange for the return of territories not populated by Armenians. The “peace as soon as possible party” believes that maintaining the status quo is unrealistic. The adversary exceeds us in resources in such a proportion that investing into their military, diplomatic and human capabilities, eventually it will be able to break the status quo and impose a solution, which will be worse than the package we have on the negotiation table today.
The society faces two tough options. In their hearts, the majority of Armenian people are ready to defend selflessly the Motherland, liberated by blood, but in their minds, they are hesitant. The people see that the authorities, who were supposed to strengthen the security of country, instead have been working on strengthening their own safety and wealth. They see how much the adversary’s strength has grown over time and how they sting painfully our defenses, and they see our allies being indifferent and often cajoling the adversary. Even though today we bravely fight back the adversary on the battlefield, inflicting heavy casualties, will we be able to do that in several years, when combat robots attack our positions instead of the foot soldiers? What will happen to us if our Western border, until now peaceful, gets under artillery fire too, and Turkish missiles start falling down on Yerevan?
These questions are not a product of an idle mind, and it is no coincidence that theses of the “peace as soon as possible party”, although rejected by most of the people, still plant seeds of hesitation. The reality is that the status quo indeed cannot be maintained forever with the current approaches. Eventually, the adversary will find a way to break it, and we will face yet another “moral victory” of our history, once again on the expense of our living space.
However, the solution is not an immediate peace with the adversary either, no matter how counterintuitive this may sound, especially given that it has not expressed any desire for making a meaningful peace with us. The solution is to take this war to a different dimension, where the adversary would lose eventually its current advantage, and we will be able to force upon it a defensive tactic, instead of being the defending side ourselves.
Is this turn possible, and what should we do to make it happen? In order to answer this question, I would like to delve back into our not so distant history.
In summer 1992, newly independent Armenian and the Republic of Artsakh encountered the harshest crisis in their existence: the glorious liberation of Shushi was already behind, the adversary had seized the most of Martakert region and Artsvashen, and was preparing to cut the Lachin Corridor; the authorities in Yerevan were panicking and sending emissaries to Baku to ask for peace. However, just six months later, the Armenian forces liberated Martakert, and advancing the counteroffensive, liberated Karvachar as well and thwarted the adversary away from the Lachin Corridor. The adversary’s retreating army took a U-turn and went to “conquer” Baku, and using the vacuum of power, in one year Armenian forces liberated all territories that became afterwards the strategic security belt for the Republic of Artsakh.
What changed in that decisive half-year, and why is it important now? In fact, at that decisive moment we managed to win not only due to heroic fighting (we fought bravely before too but had to retreat against adversary’s superior forces), but because we were able to mobilize our own capabilities, and disorganize those of the adversary.
For our army, that half-year was a time of massive leap forward. The lightly armed volunteer forces were complemented by the regular troops of the Republic of Armenia, commanded by skilled officers who served previously in the former Soviet Union. Heavy weapons were delivered to Armenia from Russia, which quickly neutralized the adversary’s superiority in numbers. We managed to skillfully leverage the discord between the pro-Turkish and pro-Russian parties within the adversary, and to wage an offensive campaign without waiting for this discord to be solved. Once the adversary lost the upper hand, it no longer could fully recover. In just one and a half year, we had such a strong advantage that the adversary had to ask for a ceasefire, after suffering thousands of losses during the 1994 winter operations.
Can we apply this strategy is new conditions, and do we have a chance of a leap forward again? The current reality offers that chance, although as in summer 1992, this chance is not obvious.
Let’s start with the mobilization of our capabilities. In 1992, the main challenge was the creation of regular, well-equipped army - yet today it is far more complicated and multidimensional, and not limited to the army. Today’s war is made not so much on the battlefield as in the minds of people, and the adversary’s main objective is to plant hopelessness towards our country in each of us, so that we continue to leave it and surrender the battlefield without a fight. Therefore, the main challenge for Armenians today is to mobilize their capabilities both within and outside of the country in order to create a modern, dynamically developing nation, where the emigration will reverse and turn into repatriation already in a near future.
For simplicity, we can divide this main challenge into several ones: a democratic and lawful state, fast developing and globally integrated economy, safe and human-centric society, highly combat-ready and technological army, educated and competent population prepared to complement the armed forces quickly, and enterprising diplomacy. Can we have all this in circumstances of ongoing conflict, on the backdrop of current realities?
As in 1992, we have to search for the answer in the political system. The authorities of that time, formed on revolutionary enthusiasm but being deeply incompetent, didn’t have a clear image of the nation’s real resources (particularly, military experts and available armaments) and just didn’t see possible solutions from the situation. It began to change only when professionals took positions in the governments and armies of Armenia and Artsakh. Current Armenian authorities, formed mostly through years of wild capitalism, partly do not have a full view of the nation’s resources, and partly deliberately avoided their mobilization, until now as they saw real threats to their own political power.
Nevertheless, the shocks of 2016 put the authorities before a tough trade-off: either to continue the same policies that would likely end up in a massive foreign policy debacle, quickly turning into a deepest internal crisis, or to try to find a new modus operandi with those forces of Armenian society, which are able to ensure visible changes for the country but demand real voice in political decision making. We can see the emergence of new players in politics, economy and public life today. They have capabilities, qualitatively different from what current authorities possess, and these new players’ activity can give us a real chance to form and reinforce a new political agenda, following the parliamentary elections in 2017.
What should this new political agenda be to ensure the country’s progress? How realistic is it against the current security risks?
The country’s economic development in the upcoming years will be driven by investment activity in attractive sectors of economy, particularly, technology related. In its turn, this will create resources for development of other sectors. The broader Armenian society and the friendly countries possess those investment resources, and can invest them in Armenia, which itself already has the core of quickly developing technological companies to absorb them. For these investments to come to Armenia, the economic attractiveness of investment should be improved, while at the same time decreasing various sovereign risks. With high external security risks as a given, this means decreasing the internal ones as much as possible. The combination of these two vectors sets logically the main priorities for accelerating the economic growth:
A) Providing all economic agents with transparent and equal conditions for economic competition, regardless of their political influence;
B) Accelerated economic integration with European Union, Russian Federation and friendly states of Middle East, as well as with the United States, China and India, with the purpose of forming a regional technology hub;
C) Equitable taxation of wealth within the country for increasing budgetary revenues, as well as stabilization of external debt level and its gradual reduction;
D) Optimization of state expenses and reorientation towards education and defense, as well as formation of scientific and educational center of excellence in the region, re-equipment of the army with technology, while advancing own defense industry;
E) Rise of professional activity among women and their involvement in all sectors, including defense, with the aim of optimal use of human resources in the country;
F) Formation of independent and efficient judiciary and law-enforcement system, providing legal protection to all investors and citizens;
G) Support for repatriation as a way of bringing together the nation’s capital and capabilities, as well as a platform for integration between Armenian homeland and Diaspora communities;
These are difficult tasks to accomplish, but not impossible ones. It requires a drastically reformed system of governance, which is capable of and is motivated to work against the country’s challenges. We have not formed this type of governance yet, while the current system is sloppy, has fragmented capabilities and high corruption risks, and is intertwined with the oligarchic elite. Healthy and efficient system of governance can ensure fast economic growth even during a war, while a corrupt and demoralized system will eventually lead to a civil war even in peaceful conditions. Thus, the progress requires first and foremost reforms in the system of state governance, which is the key to solving all of the current problems and is defining our destiny. We have a historic chance today: the country has a many talented young specialists, ready to roll the sleeves and work for the modernization of country, provided proper political leadership. We can provide this leadership together, by leaving aside the deep-seated pessimism and forming the government we’ll be ready to trust, during the upcoming elections.
If we manage to modernize the system of governance in our country and get rid of oligarchic domination, we will accelerate growth in Armenia, just as we witnessed in our neighboring Georgia. Unsolved conflict surely brings more risks; nevertheless, this is just one factor from the point of attracting investments, which can be offset by the above mentioned ones. There is a number of fast growing countries that have faced the risk of armed conflict every day (such as Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, and the same Georgia). The next step in direction of a sustainable peace in this case will be full transformation of the Armed Forces, which will give us the opportunity to rapidly increase our fire power and eliminate any of the adversary’s advantages on the battlefield, while increasing protection of our servicemen. We can devote another conversation to this matter, though the experience of many leading countries shows that we have enormous potential for improving combat readiness of the Army, and increasing its fire power, in case of reasonable investments and efficient governance system.
It is worth also to speak about our adversary. We should never underestimate it, yet overestimating is neither appropriate. Azerbaijan’s comparative success during the April war were mostly driven by a surprise factor and usage of imported, expensive high-tech weapons. Even in those conditions, the adversary suffered three times more combat losses, and our soldiers and officers excelled them in the open combat. Surprise factor has already diminished, while the technological advantage can be offset in several years, if we make reasonable investments in our part. Nevertheless, in a long-term perspective we should not only aim at restoring the balance of forces but also making use of the internal weakness of the adversary, and disorganizing their government system, as it happened in 1993. Of course, we cannot fully influence the internal developments there, but we should follow them watchfully, and try to make use of the trends that are favorable for us. Currently, there are several such trends, which started taking shape already in 2016:
A) Azerbaijan has already reached the peak of its economic capabilities, when it could afford 10 times larger state budget than us, and build such an advantage in arms purchase (the draft budget of 2017 in dollar equivalent is already lower than that of 2013 by 2,5 times). The country had economic contraction last year, as well as was hit by a deep financial crisis, as a result of which its currency Manat has devaluated by about 75%, bringing back the black market. The banking system has registered huge losses, and the unemployment has grown rapidly. All these factors show deepening internal mistrust and looming deadlock of the chosen development model. If the oil prices do not grow miraculously to the previous levels, the economic crisis may deepen even further.
B) Azerbaijan was able to get a maximal PR results from the April war, partly as a result of illogical and contradictory announcements from our authorities, and they have raised the level of expectations among the citizens of Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, those expectations have not fulfilled in the passing year, which gradually turns into a new wave of disappointment. The reckless diversion that took place in Chinari village last December, and the silence that followed it was no coincidence in that sense. Azerbaijani media had to conceal the incidents, because it did not bring the desired PR results. The future moves of the adversary will be mostly driven by the same PR logic, and if we are able to thwart those military provocations, we will put them against a hard trade-off of following the same course or losing face inside own country.
C) Azerbaijan is an Eastern-style autocracy. These kind of regimes are stable, when they have a strong autocrat at helm. Nevertheless, they tend to turn into chaos once the autocrat’s strength gets undermined, as it happened in Libya and Syria. It is still too early to speak about mass instability in Azerbaijan, though some tendencies in that direction are also visible. The Autocrat-President had to disorganize the State Security Service a year ago to protect his own authority from potential risks, and then, he has changed the constitution half a year ago to make hereditary power hand-over even easier. There is no assurance that this handover will take place easily; tough authoritarian governance brings about deep contradictions within the ruling elite, which may implode sooner or later.
D) Azerbaijan, unlike us, is a target for Islamic fundamentalism. Having mostly secular and corrupt ruling elite, yet vast chunks of poorly educated and destitute population, it gradually turned those elements against each the elite. The radical Islamic insurgency that took place in Nardaran town in 2016 reminded that the genie is out of the bottle. The government effectively received a new front inside the country, and the ensuing smaller cashes showed that suppression of Nardaran did not solve the issue.
E) Finally, Azerbaijan’s main geographic and political mentor, Turkey is having a hard times now. It is sliding deeper and deeper into an internal political crisis, turning into a full-blown strife, is becoming target for terrorists of all kinds, and is getting isolated from the traditional Western allies. As a result, Turkey, which supported Azerbaijan with enthusiasm during the April war, now has to be more cautious to avoid another conflict on its own borders.
It is too early to claim that the developments in Azerbaijan will destabilize the country, as it happened in 1993. Nevertheless, Azerbaijani government is weaker now by many measures than it was a year ago, when it instigated the April war, and its freedom of actions is not the same as well. The adversary will not be able to easily turn the clock back and return to the years of oil boom, while the accumulated negative momentum will continue to challenge the country.
In these conditions, we need to concentrate on solving our internal problems, and get ready for the moment when internal destabilization of the adversary’s authoritarian regime opens a way for us to initiate decisive strategic actions. We do not need to stick to the current status quo, instead, we need to consistently challenge it ourselves at opportune moment. This war will end only when the adversary will has to lose a lot more than Artsakh and accept our advantage.
Avetik Chalabyan is the Chairman of the Board of Arar Foundation. These views are his own.