ISSUE 3-2016
Igor Yakovenko Andrei Dynko Hasmik Grigoryan
Hienadź Sahanovich Jamil Hasanli
Petr Vagner
Petr Vagner
Varuzhan Piliposyan

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Hasmik Grigoryan | Expert, YSU Centre for European Studies, Armenia | Issue 3, 2016

For about two decades Armenia and Azerbaijan have built and reinforced the paradigm of the external enemy against each other. The heavy fighting on April 2-5, 2016 on the frontline between armies of both states was yet another alarming sign, reminding about protracted and frozen conflicts. The two post-Soviet countries Armenia and Azerbaijan are at belligerent rhetoric against each other, with closed borders, barbed wires, troops and military actions.

The truce that was restored on April 5, 2016 reminded the ceasefire of 1994 that was signed in Bishkek among Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh. However there are essential differences in these two outcomes. The first ceasefire was the result of a traditional war caused by the security dilemma. Meanwhile the ceasefire of 2016 was the result of diversionary incentives by elites.

Since the ceasefire of 1994, the conflict has been escalating sporadically and is being shaped by the authorities depending on the internal situation. Nagorno Karabakh (NK) has been transformed into a diversionary conflict that serves for interests of elites through diverting public attention from internal hardship to an external enemy.

The article deals with the NK conflict as an issue which is used/misused in Armenian internal politics by both sides: ruling parties as well as opposition. It is possible to observe relationship between worsening economic, social or political situation and increase of harsh rhetoric used by political subjects. In the contribution will be present concrete samples of such behaviour.

The Security Dilemma Interrupted with Diversionary Paradigm

With the end of the Cold War, after the fall of empires, the ethnic groups first identified whether the neighboring group is a threat. The ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic collectiveness that emerged from collapsed empires gave an offensive or defensive military power. According to Barry Posen the security dilemma and the realist international relations theory can explain and predict conflicts among groups after the collapse of empires. Each group assessed the military capabilities of the other side, where technology and geography are decisive factors[1].

The two realist paradigms, one on the level of the states and the other on the level of ethnic groups, explain the causes of wars and conflicts. However the realist idea and the security dilemma can be interrupted, modified, or lead to tricky impressions once the elites instrumentalize the conflict on the elite level serving for their self-interests. Elites can change the  security dilemma either in a positive direction of building mutual cooperation or in a negative way of fostering the idea of having an eternal external enemy.

The security dilemma explains state or ethnic mobilization and military accumulation. But it omits the reason of a conflict protraction, the role of leaders of states, as well as the domestic situation in the conflicting countries. Once the conflict erupts and remains unresolved, it is being used by the elites of the conflicting states. Often elites use conflict for diversion, for distracting public attention from internal instability to an external enemy.

Levy classifies the diversionary paradigm on the societal level theories. Leaders initiate or intensify an external conflict to serve their internal goals. Elites often refer to military forces against an external enemy when they feel politically insecure or during the periods of low economic performance, lack of domestic political support and before elections. "Rally round the flag" effect based on the nationalist sentiments is one of the key components of the diversionary conflicts that enhances popular support for political leaders and distracts public attention from internal hardship. Leaders refer to scapegoating as a rational tool for self interests, while publics respond based on emotions and in-group/out-group logic. Moreover, leaders can use the diversionary incentive for gaining public support, or support of a certain group or unify with divided political elites for a common national mission[2].

The Security Dilemma, Nagorno Karabakh conflict and the Ceasefire of 1994

It was the 5th of May, 1994 when the representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh signed the Bishkek ceasefire. The Nagorno Karabakh conflict erupted in the 1980s, in times of the fall of the USSR. Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.

The security dilemma that is applied on state level and then on ethnic level in case of a breakup of an empire can be observed with the example of the 1980s when Armenians and Azerbaijanis assessed their past and mobilized into an offense and defense division. Since the groups did not come to an agreement over the two international rules of self-determination and territorial integrity, the situation led to a war.

The war ended with the Bishkek Ceasefire, however final agreement was not achieved. Since then the leaders of the states have built their own ideologies. The elites of Armenia and Azerbaijan got involved in negotiation processes, cost and benefit calculations, ideological internal interactions. The Governments of the two countries gradually transformed the Nagorno Karabakh conflict into a tool for staying on power, mobilizing people over nationalist sentiments instead of solving the conflict or solving the internal problems of their own countries.

Internal Instability and Upheavals in the Ideology on the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

Since the independence of Armenia, the country faces various economic and political problems. As governments of Armenia continue to rig elections and reject reforms, civil and political protests occur frequently. For diverting public attention from the internal problems the ruling and opposition leaders gradually escalated their position regarding the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

The first heightening in the ideology on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict started in the 1990s. In 1996 president Levon Ter-Petrosyan and the ruling Armenian National Movement Party became extremely unpopular due to the economic crisis, social hardship and high level of corruption. L. Ter-Petrosyan had to falsify the elections of 1996 in order to be reelected. Parliament of Armenia was attacked by the opposition leader but was suppressed by the army of Armenia.

The establishment of a hard line position on the conflict was observed when the opposition leader of that time announced that the ruling elites are selling out Nagorno Karabakh and undermine national interests[3]. Since then the Nagorno Karabakh conflict has become the main national interest of Armenia by the political parties.

Elites went into negotiation processes, designed various possible solution scenarios or drew back from the peace process and froze the negotiations. The conflict remained protracted and even got more belligerent either through skirmishes on the border or through hard line ideology by the leaders and parties. In addition to that, elites of Armenia did not include and did not prioritize possible ways of solving the internal problems of the country. This brought to a strong mass dissatisfaction by the population and to internal political instability.    

In order to see the shift in the ideology over the conflict, it is worth to examine the ideological fight during the recent years between the Republican (ruling) and Heritage (opposition) parties. On May 5, 2016 after the heavy fighting in early April, the Armenian Government endorsed the bill under which Armenia would recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh as an independent de jure state[4].

The same proposal was rejected by the Armenian ruling elites in 2013 when the Heritage party proposed to vote for the same bill[5]. The bill of 2013 was championed by the leader of the Heritage party Raffi Hovhannissyan who introduced a hard line position over the conflict and promised recognition of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict as a de jure state. It is noteworthy to know that R. Hovhannisyan ran for presidential elections in 2013 and gained 37% of votes, a quite high recognition by the public[6]. The proposed bill of 2013 was rejected by the government, with the explanation that it would undermine the existing negotiation format in the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group and would be equal to a war declaration. However, due to the growing opposition, and political instability, in 2016 the ruling elites supported the same bill themselves.

The bill of 2016 on recognizing the independence of Nagorno Karabakh was this time proposed by the Government but the parliamentary session was not attended by the majority of parliament members. This was a tactical step by the ruling elites to avoid internal instability and it was also an action to outrun the opposition parties. But it was also another hallmark of Nagorno Karabakh as a diversionary conflict - attempt of mobilizing people around the national sentiments.

Apart from shifting heightened hard line ideology, the authorities of Armenia refer to the conflict, as soon as they face political opposition. Serious instability started on April 14, 2016, when citizens of Armenia launched demonstrations in front of the Embassy of the Russian Federation to Armenia. The protests erupted right after the heavy fighting and were against Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan, which people consider that it helped to contribute to the outbreak of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh[7]. According to SIPRI Fact Sheet 2015, Russia accounted for 85 per cent of Azerbaijan’s arms imports[8]. The protests continued.

On June 27, 2016, people protested against new Russian-Armenian Agreement on joint air defense system. The agreement was signed in December of 2015 and is being discussed for ratification. This time the protesters are against the foreign policy of Armenia[9]. During the parliamentary session of June 27, the deputies discussed the ratification of the Agreement but it was highly criticized by the opposition members. For example, the opposition members spoke up about the fact that throughout the 25 years of independence Armenia did not manage to build its own air defense system. The question regarding the right of independent actions by the Armenian air forces in case of a situation when the Russian side would be against the decision to use them was also posed[10]. However, it was announced by deputy minister of defense Ara Nazaryan, that the Agreement would serve for the defense of Nagorno Karabakh and will be a guarantee for its security[11][12].

Unfortunately, reference by the authorities to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is used even during the most critical moments for Armenia. On July 17th, 2016, an armed group, which included opposition activists and veterans of the conflict, seized a police station in Yerevan. The members of the movement had political demands – to release their leader Zhirayr Sefilyan, a political prisoner, and resignation of the government. In solidarity with the rebels, many peaceful protesters stayed close to the station to prevent possible police intervention. It was said that there were negotiations between the rebels and the authorities. The diversionary characteristic of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict can be noticed when it was reported that in early morning of July 20 Azerbaijan violated the ceasefire[13].

The Nagorno Karabakh conflict is misused by the ruling and opposition forces in Armenia. Armenia is in hard economic situation and faces political instability. The current standoff is a proof of poor internal and foreign policy by the authorities.      


The Nagorno Karabakh was prioritized in the ideologies of political parties by the end of the 1990s when the opposition leader accused the ruling forces in selling out the national territories to Azerbaijan. Since then the conflict gained diversionary incentives.

The government of Armenia refers to the conflict escalation, once it faces protests or criticism by the opposition. Moreover, the ruling and opposition leaders have prioritized the conflict in order to mobilize people and gain public support. The frequent reference to the Nagorno Karabakh, increase in the hard line position and inefficient internal policy by the authorities has led to hard political and economic situation in Armenia. The authorities use the conflict for their own interests and are reluctant to solve the internal problems, eliminate corruption and stop falsification of elections.

[1] Barry Posen, 'The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict', Survival 35 (1) (1993), 27-47.

[2] Jack Levy, 'The Causes of War and the Conditions of Peace', Annual Review of Political Science 1(1998), 139-165.

[3] Razmik Panossian, 'The Irony of Nagorno Karabakh: Formal Institutions versus Informal Politics', in James Hughes & Gwendolyn Sasse (ed.), Ethnicity and Territory in the Former Soviet Union: Regions in Conflict (London and New York, 2014), 143-165.

[4] ArmeniaNow, 'NKR Recognition Move: Armenian Government endorses opposition-drafted bill', news report, 5 May, 2016, available at: (29 June, 2016).

[5] Asbarez, 'Armenian Parliament Refuses Karabakh Recognition Bill', news report, 13 November 2013, available at: (29 June, 2016).

[6] Freedom House, 'Nations in Transit 2014: Democratization from Central Europe to Eurasia', (Washington  D.C., 2015).

[7] Commonspace, 'Protests in Yerevan against Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan', news report, 14 May, 2016, available at: (29 June, 2016).

[8] Pieter Wezeman and Siemon Wezeman, 'Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2014', SIPRI Fact Sheet, (Sweden, 2015), available at: (29 June, 2016).

[9], 'Armenian activists stage protest against air defense agreement with Russia', news report, 27 June, 2016, available at: (29 June, 2016).

[10], 'Say openly that the Russian air defense system will not strike Azerbaijani forces', new report, 28 May, 2016, available at: (29 June, 2016).

[11] Armtoday, 'The agreement on common air defense system does not limit its use for the defense of Nagorno Karabakh', new report, 28 June, 2016, available at: (29 June, 2016).

[12] As a reminder the security of Nagorno Karabakh conflict was also raised by the president Serzh Sargsyan on September 3, 2013, when he announced that Armenia freezes its relations with the European Union and plans to join the Russia-led Customs Union. In fact the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is being shaped by elites as a major national security issue. That way elites justify their choices in foreign policy and avoid sufficient internal reforms. Draw back by Armenia from deeper ties with the EU is the most evident example.

[13] ", 'Շփման գծում հակառակորդը հրադադարի պահպանման ռեժիմը խախտել է 22 անգամ' ('The opponent has violated the ceasefire 22 times') (29 August, 2016).


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Andrei Dynko
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