Armenia is an Isolated Democracy in Crisis

The National Interest
Nov 1 2023

If the United States and its democratic partners fail to stand with Yerevan and stand up to Baku, the broader consequences for the region could be dire.

by Mark Dietzen

Time is running out to protect the rule by law from rule by force in Europe’s southeastern frontier. Azerbaijan’s takeover of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh—resulting in the mass exodus of its native Armenian inhabitants and the dissolution of the enclave’s institutions—signals a dangerous trend in the South Caucasus. Armenia now faces a dual threat of further external aggression and greater internal strife. Without support from the United States and other democracies, Armenia’s democratic gains may be at risk—and the government may be pulled further into the autocratic orbit of the Kremlin.

A predominantly ethnic Armenian region that has been an object of contention for centuries, Nagorno-Karabakh, enjoyed special autonomous status within Soviet Azerbaijan. During the final years of the Soviet Union, Armenians fought to secede from Azerbaijan, winning the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, resulting in the formation of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh, the historical Armenian name for the region. The entity has never been internationally recognized. 

Over the next three decades, neighboring Armenia provided pivotal security assistance and economic access to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and the region existed as a de facto independent state within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. A tenuous ceasefire held for much of that time, albeit with frequent skirmishes along the border. 

In 2020, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out, claiming an estimated 7,000 lives over six weeks. This time, Azerbaijan emerged the victor, taking large swaths of territory and surrounding the remaining Armenian-controlled regions, save for a single corridor with Armenia. Russian peacekeepers oversaw a brittle ceasefire agreement, which included significant Armenian concessions. Two years later, Azerbaijan orchestrated a nine-month blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, severing its access to Armenia and the rest of the world. Food, medicine, and other crucial supplies became critically low, forcing the population to live in increasingly dire conditions. Baku even blocked Red Cross humanitarian aid to Nagorno-Karabakh in breach of all international agreements. 

This was merely a prelude to September’s brutal seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh, undertaken in violation of the 2020 ceasefire agreement. Azerbaijan has demanded that the Armenians choosing to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh “reintegrate” into the Azerbaijani state, with President Ilham Aliyev claiming that “all their rights will be guaranteed.” Given Azerbaijan’s years of state-sponsored demonization of Armenians, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh were not inclined to believe his promise. As a result, nearly all of the 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh fled to Armenia over two weeks.

The government of Azerbaijan has not only violated international law and established diplomatic agreements—its actions pose an existential threat to Armenia’s democracy. If the takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh is not met with an adequate global response, President Aliyev and fellow autocrats will be encouraged to continue to use force to achieve political ends. 

There are growing concerns in Armenia that Azerbaijan may again attempt to use force to install a so-called “Zangezur Corridor” across sovereign Armenian territory, which would link Azerbaijan with its landlocked region, Nakhchivan, which lies between Armenia, Iran, and Turkey. In addition to violating Armenia’s sovereignty, this could cut off Armenia from its southern border with Iran. There is precedent for this fear: In 2021, President Aliyev even went so far as to threaten to install such a corridor “whether Armenia likes it or not.”

Crucially, Azerbaijan enjoys the backing of Turkey, while Russia—Armenia’s traditional protector—has been missing in action. This is due in part to the Kremlin’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and frustration with Armenia’s westward shift, as evidenced by Yerevan’s accession to the International Criminal Court last month in defiance of Moscow. During his speech at the UN General Assembly on September 19—the day Azerbaijan began its takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on Armenia to open the “Zangezur Corridor.” Then, on September 25, Aliyev and Erdoğan met in Nakhchivan, where President Aliyev indirectly referenced a corridor through Armenia. 

This development would undoubtedly have wider geopolitical consequences. Armenia would risk losing access to its southern border with Iran since Azerbaijan would have the ability to close the corridor, as it did at Lachin in Nagorno-Karabakh. Such a scenario could leave just one of Armenia’s international borders—Georgia—open to trade. If this happens, Russia’s interest in the conflict could be reactivated, as the Kremlin is reluctant to lose its South Caucasus link to Iran, which could lead Russia to increase its military presence in Armenia. 

External threats combined with internal tensions could put severe pressure on Prime Minister Pashinyan, who has steered Armenia in a westward direction since taking office in 2018. The sudden influx of an enormous population of refugees poses major political and economic challenges for Armenia. Prime Minister Pashinyan’s government will no doubt face angry questions about why Karabakh was lost and must be prepared to offer reassurances that Azerbaijan will be held accountable for this outrage. 

Armenians will need affirmation that the government can provide for their security following Russia’s failure to stop Azerbaijan’s seizure of Karabakh despite the Russian peacekeepers stationed there. What’s more, there is a threat that a deteriorating security environment could erode the government’s progress in strengthening democratic institutions if illiberal voices can exploit the situation to win political power and restore Armenia’s dependence on Russia.

The democratic world has a clear interest in ensuring that Armenia’s democracy survives this crisis and that Azerbaijan’s actions are justly punished. To begin with, robust humanitarian assistance must be provided for Armenian refugees. During a recent fact-finding mission to the region, USAID Administrator Samantha Power promised $11.5 million in humanitarian assistance. This is a good start, but significant humanitarian assistance will need to be sustained over the coming months—and even years—to help refugees transition to their new lives in Armenia. 

The United States and other democracies must also prioritize programs that support Armenia’s further democratic progress, including efforts to strengthen the rule of law, continue legislative reforms, and advance citizen-centered governance. Additionally, as Yerevan works to resettle tens of thousands of newly arrived refugees, support will be needed to assist them in preparing proper documentation of the human rights violations inflicted during their exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh. These records are vital to any future legal action against Azerbaijan. 

Washington and Brussels must also demonstrate their commitment to Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Holding Azerbaijan accountable for its outrageous violation of international law must be the first step. Punitive sanctions should be imposed on Azerbaijan, including its senior leadership, making it clear that aggression against Armenia will come at a high cost. U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan should also be suspended immediately. In the interest of a long-term settlement, the United States and EU should also dispatch senior envoys to Ankara to engage Turkey in international efforts to resolve outstanding issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan through political dialogue. 

Finally, the United States and its democratic partners should engage Yerevan in new strategic discussions, which include opportunities to deepen security cooperation, following the first-ever U.S.-Armenia bilateral military exercises in September. Russian troops will soon leave Nagorno-Karabakh, but their presence in Armenia will continue until Yerevan has reliable security alternatives. We must pursue a long-term strategy that reorients Armenia away from Russia and towards the community of democracies. 

Armenia’s democracy is in danger. If the United States and its democratic partners fail to stand with Yerevan and stand up to Baku, the broader consequences for the region could be dire. Strong political, economic, and security support will be crucial to ensuring that Armenia can continue on the path of democracy and that autocrats in Baku and beyond think twice before pursuing further acts of aggression. 

Mark Dietzen is the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) resident program director in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he leads IRI’s Belarus and Baltic-Eurasia Inter-Parliamentary Training Institute (BEIPTI) programs. He previously led non-profit, democratic development efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh. The views expressed are solely those of the author.