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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Armenian Rabin?




The failed assassination attempts on Major General Artsrun Markaryan, Armenia's deputy interior minister, on Wednesday in Yerevan, and on Romeo Kazaryan, head of the presidential security service, are evidence that political tensions are rising in the country.


Armenia's political establishment split up into two camps after President Levon Ter-Petrosyan said last October that he was prepared to compromise with Azerbaijan over the dispute in Nagorny Karabakh. Ter-Petrosyan approved the peace plan put forward in Minsk by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, which envisioned the de facto independence of the republic of Nagorny Karabakh and that it would formally remain in Azerbaijan.


The leadership of the Republic of Nagorny Karabakh considered Ter-Petrosyan's statements to be an act of treason. Public discussions of the problems in the region have recently become even more heated as the Nagorny Karabakh Republic and Armenia mark the 10-year anniversary of the start of the "national liberation struggle" of the Armenian people in the enclave in Azerbaijan. National patriots have said over the past few months that they intend to "avenge him for his treason."


You don't need to spend much time in the Armenian capital to feel how tense the political situation is. The demonstrations in the center of Yerevan begin as protests against betrayed investors in MMM-like pyramid schemes and end in slogans denouncing the abandoning of Armenian brothers in Nagorny Karabakh. The national patriots, including well known intellectuals, are demanding the dismissal of Ter-Petrosyan. The All-Armenian Congress in the Defense of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic has called on all Armenians throughout the world to work toward this end.


The domestic conflict in Armenia surrounding Nagorny Karabakh can be compared to the Arab-Israeli confrontation. The Armenian president has clear affinities with Itzhak Rabin, the first Israeli prime minister to take the bold step of breaking the old mentality of the majority of Israelis and promising land for peace. But Ter-Petrosyan, of course, has no wish to share the fate of Rabin, who was slain by a fanatic member of the opposition.


In his discussions with Russian journalists, Ter-Petrosyan acknowledges the role that Azeri oil plays in the region. It is not only a guarantee of quick economic growth, but an important factor in strengthening the pro-Azeri bias in the policies of world powers, above all the United States and Russia. He also considers that if Armenia continues to be partially blockaded by Azerbaijan and Georgia, it will not be able to develop. The stubborn refusal of the opposition to compromise over Nagorny Karabakh can only mean further isolation in the region, a militarized economy and an increased siege mentality on the part of the population.


Karabakh leader Arkady Gukasyan has characterized Ter-Petrosyan's position as a "pact between Yerevan and Baku." This has increased tensions between the autonomous republic and Armenia.


Ter-Petrosyan's position has also brought about cracks in the Armenian president's team itself. Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan, a former leader of Nagorny Karabakh, has said far from everyone agrees with Ter-Petrosyan and practically came out in favor of the proposals to settle the conflict put forward by officials in Stepanakert, the Karabakh capital. Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisyan said the problem was caused by the entire people and it is the people who should decide how to settle it. Moreover, this concerns not only the population of Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh, but also the Armenian diaspora.


Dark clouds are hanging more heavily over Ter-Petrosyan. Much depends on whether Kocharyan can work toward tempering the radicals' dissatisfaction with the president's stance on Nagorny Karabakh. Supporters of the president are also counting on outside help both from Washington and Moscow, which were two of three countries that co-chaired the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe meeting in Minsk.


They are putting their stakes on the Armenian lobby in Washington, which has demonstrated its effectiveness by helping to secure from the U.S. Congress $87.5 million in humanitarian aid to Armenia and $12.5 million to Nagorny Karabakh. Yerevan is also playing its geopolitical card with Russia (it lies on the southern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) as well as the Armenian diaspora in Russia.


Russian companies are no less interested in Azeri oil than their U.S. competitors. It seems, however, that the past failures of Russian companies in the skirmish for Caspian oil had led some influential politicians in the Kremlin to conclude that this is, to a large degree, owing to Moscow's "pro-Armenian bias" in its geostrategic position in the Caucasus.


As a result, the Kremlin has worked out two possible strategies. The first is to appease Baku and withdraw its support of Yerevan. (Oil companies, especially LUKoil, are lobbying for this.) The second strategy is to strengthen its military ties to, and presence in, Armenia.


The second option is supported by the argument that if Russia is losing the battle for Caspian oil, then the Armenians can always be used to exert pressure on the Azeris. Given last year's Armenian-Russian agreement on friendship, cooperation and mutual aid, including substantial military aid, it appears this strategy has gained the upper hand in the Kremlin. It is also clear that Baku has several levers of influence with which it can provoke changes in Kremlin's political priorities in the Caucasus.


Alexander Shumilin is a Moscow journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.