The Misery of Zugzwang

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Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has protected the former Soviet republic of Armenia from Azerbaijan, Turkey and other regional powers. Now, however, as Russian President Vladimir Putin pours more resources into the war in Ukraine, his country’s close ties with Armenia appear to be unraveling.

The relationship began to sour when Russia failed to prevent Azeri forces from seizing the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia last year – forcing more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians from their homes. That happened despite Russian guarantees to uphold a 2020 ceasefire agreement, and in effect ended Russia and Armenia’s close military ties, explained the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

The shift, moreover – coupled with bizarre tensions between France and Azerbaijan involving the French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, as the Guardian reported – has handed the West an opportunity to expand its influence in the South Caucasus region, according to World Politics Review.

These changes have real geopolitical consequences.

Putin recently withdrew Russian troops from Armenia, wrote Politico. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that his forces would cooperate with the American military instead.

Two weeks later, when Armenian officials accused Russia of helping Azerbaijan seize Armenian territory, Putin withdrew his ambassador to Armenia in protest, added Radio Free Europe. In the meantime, Pashinyan sent aid to Ukraine and expressed interest in Armenia joining the European Union.

Armenia also joined the International Criminal Court, despite the arrest warrant that the court issued against Putin for war crimes in Ukraine.

“It is a remarkable turnaround for a country that used to get 98 percent of its arms from Russia and was seen as probably the most pro-Moscow of the former Soviet republics at the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991,” wrote the Guardian.

Still, instability in Armenia will likely complicate this change in direction.

Recently, Armenia and Azerbaijan began a historic process of demarcating the border between the two former Soviet republics: Armenia agreed to hand over to its neighbor four areas surrounding border villages in the Tavush region, areas seized by Armenia after the first war in Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended in 1994 and forced Azerbaijanis to flee, Al Jazeera wrote.

This transfer is part of a deal made by Pashinyan to secure a peace treaty between the two countries.

Many Armenians, however, see the border process and land transfers as illegal.

As a result, demonstrators have been taking to the streets of the Armenian capital of Yerevan over the past month, Sky News reported. Pashinyan has said he wants to avoid more conflict with Azerbaijan, but many of his constituents are outraged.

“We demand an immediate resignation of Nikol (Pashinyan),” demonstrator Artur Sargsyan told France 24. “I had fought in two wars with Azerbaijan and will not let him give away our lands.”

Leading the protesters was Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, who is from Tavush. Galstanyan worries that the land concessions would not only impact the three villages affected but the nearby infrastructure as well, thereby hitting a larger area. He added that he is concerned “the same pattern will be repeated in other regions occupied by the Azerbaijanis, in Siunik and Gegharkunik,” for example, Le Monde reported.

The archbishop, meanwhile, said he would give up his clerical post to run against Pashinyan if the prime minister doesn’t resign or lawmakers don’t impeach him, according to Agence France-Presse.

At the same time, Armenians are furious that Azerbaijan is razing residential buildings, churches and other culturally significant sites associated with former Armenian residents in Nagorno-Karabakh, renaming streets and landmarks – essentially erasing its past, wrote Eurasianet. The United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ) mandated that Azerbaijan uphold the right of return for Armenian refugees – but that’s less likely with Azerbaijan’s efforts to remake and repopulate it.

Pashinyan’s position seems strong, however. His coalition holds a large majority in parliament, while his opposition lacks public support.

That doesn’t mean Armenia’s position is strong, though. Pashinyan has been engaging and compromising in the border demarcation process with Azerbaijan as part of an effort to cement a peace deal because he worries about another war breaking out, with concerns fueled by the armed clashes regularly breaking out on the border, wrote the European Council on Foreign Relations.

What worries Armenians also is that their neighbor wants more, they say, pointing to statements by Azerbaijan’s leader, Ilham Aliyev, about Armenia as “Western Azerbaijan” even if he also talks of being close “as never before” to a peace deal, the BBC wrote.

The situation in the region is tense. That’s why an increasing number of civilians in Yerevan are taking up military training run by volunteer organizations, the BBC added. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl,” Nina told the broadcaster. “You need to know how to protect yourself in a country like Armenia, where all the borders can be attacked.”

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