Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan (L background), Russia's President Vladimir Putin (front), and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (R background) meet to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement at Constantine Palace
The level of political and military developments occurring in the last two years in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh is unprecedented since the Bishkek protocol was signed on May 8, 1994 which led to a ceasefire in the region. In the latest political developments in the disputed area, the referendum on amendments to the constitution was held on February 20, 2016 in which 87.6 percent of participants voted for the new constitution and only 9.7 percent were opposed. The main topics discussed in the amendments to the constitution of the Nagorno Karabakh are: changing the type of regime from “parliamentary- presidential” to “full presidential’ by abolishing the post of prime minister and fully transferring the executive power to President, and changing the name of the area from “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” to “Artsakh Republic” that for the Armenian, these changes were done with the aim of preserving the Armenian identity in this region.
The referendum on amendments to the constitution of Nagorno-Karabakh is the third referendum in the region since its declaration of independence and autonomy in the early 1990s. Before, two referendums were held in 1991 (on the independence) and 2006 (on the Constitution), and 5 presidential elections and 6 parliamentary elections have also been held in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. However, representatives of the European Parliament, the Bulgarian parliament, parliaments of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Dniester were present to monitor the referendum on amendments to the constitution of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but states such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Russia rejected and condemned the referendum, and announced that it would lead to greater complexity in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
The referendum on amendments to the constitution of the Nagorno-Karabakh took place a year after the referendum on amendments to the constitution of Armenia in December 2015. Referendums on amendments to the constitution of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh are different in terms of form, but are almost similar in terms of the substance. The difference between these two amendments is the change from the Armenian presidential regime to a parliamentary regime, but it is from parliamentary to presidential regime in the Nagorno-Karabakh. But their practical similarity is the consolidation and continuation of the political position of the ruling party and the centralization of political power which are both criticized by the Armenian opposition. As the referendum on amendments to the constitution of Armenia held last year, a referendum on amendments to the constitution of the Nagorno-Karabakh was also opposed by some Armenian political parties. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) is considered the most serious opposition for both referendums held in Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region. For the opposition, these amendments lead to weakening democracy and stabilizing the position of the ruling party. But, in contrast, proponents believe that given the special circumstances and external threats, the concentration of power and the transfer of more powers to President are essential for dealing with the current challenges.
Oppositions criticize the referendum, because Armenia will experience her first parliamentary elections on April 2, 2017 after political restructuring. According to many analysts, given the fact that the second term of presidency of Sargsyan will end in 2018, changing the political system from presidential to parliamentary makes it possible for Serzh Sargsyan to continue his presence in political power after the end of his presidency as the Prime Minister of Armenia. But a referendum in the Nagorno-Karabakh region means the centralized political and executive power will be in the hands of the next President of this region. Bako Sahakyan, the incumbent President of the Nagorno-Karabakh region elected for two five-year terms in 2007 and 2012, should transfer this responsibility at the end of 2017. Therefore, given the possible presence of Serge Sargsyan as the next prime minister of Armenia and the election of a new President in the Nagorno-Karabakh region with new powers and more concentrated power, 2018 will experience critical and different conditions. While we will also, very much likely, witness the presence of Ilham Aliyev as the Azerbaijan President for the fourth consecutive terms. So the years 2017 and 2018 will experience very critical and tumultuous conditions in Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
A very important point is that the situation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the next two years will have a direct impact on the domestic political situations of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Any failure or victory in field developments or peace talks for the Nagorno-Karabakh region can highly affect the position of the political leaders of the two states. Hence, to consolidate the foundations of political power as the possible future prime minister of Armenia, and the position of the Republican Party in 2018, Serzh Sargsyan needs to “maintain the status quo” in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In contrast, to have a low-cost presence for the fourth consecutive term as Azerbaijan’s President in 2018, and win the public support and meet the demands of both the Islamist and nationalist critics, Ilham Aliyev needs to “change the status quo” in the Nagorno-Karabakh region - at least on a limited level. Political developments of the two states over the past 25 years from the fall of governments of Ayaz Mutallibov and Abulfaz Elchibey in Azerbaijan to the resignation of the government of Levon Hagopi Ter-Petrosyan in Armenia in parallel to the superiority of the Nakhichevan political spectrum (Aliyev) over Karabakh spectrum in Azerbaijan and the superiority of Karabakh spectrum (Kocharyan and Sargsyan) in Armenia’s political scene clearly indicate the effectiveness of Karabakh factor on the developments of the two states in the South Caucasus region.
Another important point is that the referendum on amendments to the constitution of the Nagorno-Karabakh should be discussed in the context of political and field developments of this region as well as those of Azerbaijan and Armenia in the past two years. As mentioned earlier, the level of developments is unprecedented since the Bishkek protocol was signed on May 8, 1994 which led to a ceasefire in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The four-day war in April 2016 considered as the most widespread violation of the cease-fire since 1994; the hostage crisis in Armenia to protest the imprisonment of Jirair Sefilian, a member of the militias operating in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and protesting the Armenian government policies; the election of Karen Karapetyan as the prime minister of Armenia and Vigen Sarkisian as the Secretary of Defense on August 2016, both from the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the Karabakh political spectrum; the plan for recognizing the independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh region by the Armenian government in the National Assembly of Armenia without a final approval and without completely being ruled out of the agenda (pending); the statement of Hrant Bagratyan, a former prime minister of Armenia, saying that Armenia has atomic bomb and nuclear weapons since the 1970s which is denied by the Armenian authorities, but can bring about a “policy of nuclear ambiguity” for this state in the long term; the display of Iskander missile systems in the Armenian Armed Forces parade on the anniversary of independence of Armenia in Republic Square, Yerevan, on September 25, 2016; the Armenian grave concern over the changing balance of power in the region due to the change in Russian arms policy toward Azerbaijan which was followed by massive protests in Armenia and Armenian Diaspora communities around the world against Russia, particularly during the four-day war in April 2016; a significant imbalance in the defense budget of Armenia against that of Azerbaijan with a ratio of 1 to 10 ($ 400 million versus $ 4 billion), the increased political and military confidence of Azerbaijan after the four-day war in April 2016, and finally, the discussion on several issues related to Russia’s new stage-by-stage peace plan for the Nagorno-Karabakh region that combines the Madrid Principles (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and Kazan Peace Plan (Russia) resulted in very complicated and tumultuous conditions governing the Nagorno-Karabakh region in terms of political and field developments. In addition, the referendum on amendments to the constitution of this area with an emphasis on the two issues of “centralized political power of President” and “a change of name from the Nagorno-Karabakh to Artsakh” cannot be evaluated and analyzed outside the framework of these developments.
It seems that all these political, legal and military developments made the Armenian carry out political reforms in Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region to firmly and effectively deal with external threats to be able to deal with these threats through the centralized power and political stability. But that how much the Armenian goals and their preventive and precautionary measures in the objective and field context of developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh region will be achieved, how the political and military confrontation of Azerbaijan will take place and also the Russian diplomatic moves are all clear.
Vali Kaleji, an expert at Iran's Center for Strategic Research, is the senior fellow at IRAS.
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