Armenia’s Crisis and the Legacy of Survival: A Response to De Waal

By Alexander Galitsky - | Friday, 19 August 2016

Earlier this month, Senior Associate at Carnegie Europe, Thomas De Waal wrote an article for Open Democracy titled "Armenia's crisis and the legacy of victory" (click here to read). The below article "Armenia’s Crisis and the Legacy of Survival" is Alexander Galitsky's response.

By Alexander Galitsky -

Political violence runs through Armenian history like a blood-red line” - Thomas De Waal

To the cynic, the Armenian nation-state as it exists today was built on a bedrock of insubordination and political violence. The ‘Daredevils of Sassoun’ in the 8th century, the fidayi of the 19th century, the revolutionaries of the early 20th century, and the Karabakh war following the collapse of the USSR - not a page of the history book is spared the violent fate of the Armenian people.

While ‘political violence’ is a convenient propagandistic label by which to delegitimise genuine resistance, it isn’t an innate desire for rebellion and terror which unites the Armenian people. The universal struggle of our people has been survival. From the birth of a nation through the bleakest days of its history, no one idea has inspired more hope than the promise of a free, independent and united Armenia.

The struggle for Artsakh has come to exemplify this plight. As a bastion of Armenian nationhood following the fall of the centralised Armenian state, Artsakh became a symbol of resilience and survival, and its liberation in 1994 ensured that the fate of the Armenian people was no longer in the hands of foreign oppressors.

Once the [Karabakh] war was won, veterans first took over Nagorno Karabakh and then Armenia itself.” - Thomas De Waal

Following the Armenian victory in the war of 1991-94, Karabakh became a crucial tool of social mobilisation for Baku. The humiliation of the nation’s civilian and military leadership following  defeat created an ongoing challenge to the government’s legitimacy. Renowned for its authoritarianism, profligacy and flagrant disregard for human rights, the credibility of Aliyev’s regime was in precipitous decline - and only the promise of restoring national dignity through victory in Karabakh was able to preserve the political status-quo.

Azerbaijan’s reaction only reaffirmed the Armenian perception of existential threat which has long plagued the nation. Azerbaijan’s escalating military spending - nearly ten times that of Armenia - did little to convince Artsakh or Armenia that their security had been guaranteed. And as Azerbaijan started courting both the West and Russia, the prospects of international recognition of Artsakh’s autonomy began to look further away than ever before.

For Armenia, the result was a harsh reminder of the continued threat Azerbaijan posed. The success of the Karabakh military elite in both Armenia and Artsakh was not the result of an ingrained political militarism; it was a reflection of the need to maintain constant defensive preparedness which arose in light of an ineffectual cease-fire and stalled progress towards conflict-resolution.

The ‘Four-Day War’ in April of this year confirms these claims. Reactions against worsening economic conditions and the proliferation of human rights abuses led Aliyev to attempt blitzkrieg tactics to break the line of contact in Karabakh and distract Azerbaijan from its economic woes.

The success of the conservative veteran class in Armenia and Artsakh is only a manifestation of the unfortunate reality of national security. The ambiguous political status of Artsakh has enabled Azerbaijan to use the political contest as a wellspring of credibility in times of domestic turmoil. As long as this is the case, political legitimacy in Armenia will be earned through the ability to credibly resist this external threat.

Armenia needs help from international friends and the more pragmatic parts of the diaspora to help it navigate a way forward.” - Thomas De Waal

If Armenia’s history hast taught her people anything, it’s that support can only come from within - not without. Centuries of occupation, subordination and assimilation under successive empires has not inspired the confidence of the Armenian people in their ‘international friends’.

Armenia has routinely fallen victim to South Caucasian geopolitics. To the North, a wariness of Russia’s self-interest seeking behaviour has undermined the reliability of the former patron. Azerbaijan is positioned to play a significant role in Russia’s attempts to bolster regional influence and project power through its “North-South axis” linking Europe to Asia. Furthermore, Russia’s continued sale of arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan has inspired little confidence in the great power’s willingness to resolve the conflict.

Looking to the West, the US has repeatedly failed in its duty as an ‘ally’ to the Armenian people. Faith in the US has waned amidst its ongoing political and military obligations to Turkey, and its developing economic ties with Azerbaijan. The US’s attempts to out-compete Russia’s regional energy trade has seen Azerbaijan assume the role of a vital node in the US West-East axis linking Turkey to Central Asia.

Additionally, by virtue of sharing borders with Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan has become a crucial platform of power projection for the US in a region of great strategic importance. Azerbaijan’s escalating cooperation with NATO, and refusal to rule out its eventual accession to the institution, has all but secured ongoing US commitment.

The US has also played a more direct role in undermining Armenian interests. In a bid to bolster its credentials as an humanitarian world leader, the United States led the establishment of the ‘Zurich Protocols’, an ineffectual attempt to lift Turkey’s blockade of Armenia.

The efforts were little more than political misdirection; they provided Obama and his administration an excuse for reneging on pre-election commitments to recognise the Armenian Genocide, and it allowed the US to more comfortably turn a blind eye to Turkey’s ongoing denial and dispossession of Armenian cultural and historical property.

Designed to serve US-Turkey interests, the protocols set a disastrous precedent for Armenia. The stipulation that the Armenian Genocide would be handed to a ‘Joint Historical Commission’ served to validate Turkey’s claims, undermining the severity of the great crime by attempting to strip it of its political relevance. Additionally, the protocols paved the way for Turkey’s involvement in the resolution of the Karabakh crisis, bolstering Azerbaijan’s position and threatening the prolongation of conflict.

As if a testament to the mistrust of foreign agents, much of the internal crisis of legitimacy which plagues the Armenian political system is the result of this foreign interference. Russia’s firm support for ‘parties-of-power’ has prevented the effective reform of institutionalised corruption and promoted the accession of the ex-Soviet class to political office.

Additionally, Russia’s attempts to maintain a precarious balance of sovereignty in Dagestan, Tatarstan and Chechnya have precluded the effective resolution of the Karabakh conflict on Armenian terms at risk of setting a dangerous precedent for its own federal subjects. Following this, Russia’s ongoing calls for mutual concessions in the Karabakh conflict have become a perennial source of uncertainty for Artsakh.

The OSCE Minsk Group, ostensibly designed to resolve the Karabakh crisis, has become a proxy for foreign actors in the conflict. The OSCE’s institutionalised inaction towards a political solution  has ensured that foreign interests - be they American or Russian - remain intact. This has produced the continued denial of Artsakh’s participation in political negotiation, furthering Azeri attempts to undermine the political agency of the state.

The suggestion that an exchange of territory for increased autonomy would be at all a satisfactory conclusion to the conflict is politically irresponsible. The implications of the Karabakh crisis extend far beyond the borders of the Transcaucasian states. The ongoing vilification of the Armenian people of Karabakh leaves them at constant risk of persecution by a government whose floundering legitimacy requires exclusion and subordination to reaffirm the ‘exceptionalism’ of its people.

Granting Karabakh autonomy under the administration of Azerbaijan not only places in jeopardy the basic rights of its indigenous Armenian inhabitants, but threatens to set a dangerous international precedent of appeasing oppressor states. The ideology which motivates Azerbaijan’s campaign against Karabakh is the same that informs Turkey’s campaign against the Kurds, and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.


The Armenian people suffer not from an ingrained militarist culture, but from an ingrained fear of existential threat. No sooner had Armenia achieved stable nationhood than it was threatened again by an expansionary Azerbaijan. From the outset of its independence, Armenia was victim to insecurity - interrupting the processes of nation-building and threatening political development.

While critics like De Waal could be deemed correct to observe the dominance of the military class in Armenia and Artsakh, they are wrong to draw conclusions about the nature of governance from this alone. If, as is claimed, the Karabakh war produced a crisis of legitimacy in Armenia by validating the authority of the post-Soviet military elite - one would expect the same phenomena to emerge in Karabakh. But this could not be further from the truth.

While international recognition remains the primary symbolic struggle of our fledgling republic, the legacy of victory alone cannot explain the survival of the state. What has sustained Artsakh is a unified national mission; a common desire shared by all citizens to preserve and develop a nation they can be proud of.

As a result, Artsakh has dedicated its national energy towards developing institutions of nationhood; a functioning representative democracy, internal political and social stability, and systems of economic empowerment. Artsakh now outpaces both Armenia and Azerbaijan in terms of GDP growth, employment, human rights, civil liberties and democratic legitimacy.

Artsakh represents a positive model for overcoming potential crises of legitimacy; demonstrating that national unity and resilience can produce social, economic and political development. However,  as Artsakh has proven, this can only occur when the impetus for reform comes from within.

For Artsakh, the prospect of waiting for an internationally mediated solution only places the fate of the Armenian people back into the hands of foreign actors. And, as history has shown time and time again, the solution to Armenia’s challenges can never come from the outside.

The author, Alexander Galitsky is an Executive Assistant at the Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in Australia.