By Grigor Hakobyan
The 2018 was a year of many political accomplishments for Armenia and the Armenian people. A bloodless Velvet Revolution, election of the new Prime Minister (Nikol Pashinyan) and democratic elections of the new Parliament were among the highlights of the year. Taking down organized crime and imprisonment of various former gov’t officials for their roles in theft of public resources and high-level criminal investigations into corruption, tax evasions and illegal use of military to confront peaceful demonstrators on March 1, 2008 were the dominating headlines in media outlets both in Armenia and diaspora.
Now, as Armenia is entering the 2019 a number of military, political and economic challenges await Armenia in the new year. Probably the most vital ones would be the resolution of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, formation of new government and implementation of constitutional changes that will establish effective system of checks and balances between different branches of government. Devising effective policies that will contribute to Armenia’s security, economic growth, reduction of unemployment and emigration, and encourage repatriation and resettlement of liberated territories are also among them.
The political accomplishments in Armenia were accompanied by reduction in emigration and slow but steady economic growth. Furthermore, instances of military escalation on Armenian-Azerbaijani lines of contact both in Artsakh and Nakhijevan were no exception during Armenia’s transition period until informal Pashinyan-Aliyev agreement along the sidelines of CIS summit resulted in a visible military de-escalation on both lines of contact. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan spared no time and resources in beefing up its military capabilities through new weapon acquisitions from a number of countries such as Russia, Belarus, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and others.
Construction of new military positions in Nakhijevan by seizing large swaths of neutral territory allowed Azerbaijan to establish a couple of commanding heights that directly overlook strategic highway linking Republics of Armenia and Artsakh. Formation of a twenty thousand strong Nakhijevan based army equipped with combat aircrafts (Su-24 and Su-25), air defense systems (S-300) and long-range artillery systems such as Belorussian Polonez and Russian Smerch MLRS less than 50km away from Yerevan is nothing else but a clear and present danger to Armenia’s national security which must be dealt with as soon as possible.
For the duration of the last two years Armenia put serious efforts in beefing up its security along the lines of contact with Azerbaijan and Nakhijevan. These efforts included installation of night vision and thermal vision cameras with the ability to “see” deep into the enemy’s territory (5km-10km), mass introduction of semi-autonomous and fully autonomous weapon systems in front line positions, development and production of home-made combat UAVs, acquisition of new air-defense systems (e.g. Tor-M1 a.k.a SA-15) and radars, a small number of T-90 MBTs and at least a squadron of multi-role combat aircrafts (Su-30SM). Furthermore, the number of contract soldiers in Armenian armed forces was significantly increased while 20,000 strong troops of the Ministry of Interior Affairs were ordered to carry out their service on the border with Azerbaijan.
A recent spat between Armenia and Belarus over the leadership of CSTO has not been resolved yet. According to CSTO’s internal agreements each member country gets to serve a two-year term on a rotational basis. As of right now Armenia hasn’t finished serving its allotted term, yet Belarus (acting on directions from Azerbaijan) has staged a process of forceful take-over of leadership from Armenia. As such, Armenia found itself alone against its “allies” despite the fact that it is following the letter of the law by attempting to fulfill its two-year term. It appears that CSTO members are pressuring Armenia to accept Azerbaijan into the organization also, at least as an observer with the intent to join at a later time, despite the fact that the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not fully settled yet. Furthermore, Armenia’s supposed CSTO allies (Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) continue to supply Azerbaijan with weapons knowing fully well that they will be used against another CSTO member-Armenia during the resumption of conflict.
If Armenia fails to uphold its position by caving in to such pressures it would be reasonable to assume that another round of military escalation is expected in 2019. That will explain why the CSTO members are trying to remove Armenia from its leadership position despite their argumentative fallacy, that is to keep CSTO out of upcoming Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. They surmise that CSTO led by Armenia will make attempts to draw the organization into such conflict when none of its members, short of Armenia, is willing to follow through on its allied obligations. As such, Armenia has several choices available. One choice would be to stay in CSTO as a way to deter Azerbaijan from joining the organization; another choice would be to leave CSTO and suffice itself with the close military alliance that already exists between Armenia and Russia; and third choice would be to consider joining NATO. Probably the fourth option would be to become a nuclear power itself and declare neutrality. Among four given choices the first option or second option appear to be the most feasible ones that entail relatively manageable outcomes.
The 2019 is going to be a challenging year for Armenia as various problems that have accumulated for the past twenty-seven years will demand attention and speedy resolutions. As criminal investigation into March 1, 20018 events approach its conclusion a number of other criminal investigations of similar value need to be launched. One of them would be the violent suppression of peaceful protest demonstrations over rigged elections in 1996 and investigation of failures that occurred before and during the Four Day War of April 2016. Furthermore, sound economic policies and well-planned repatriation and resettlement programs must be implemented to resolve the problem of population decline in Armenia. Its agricultural sector needs to get a boost via domestic and foreign investments to the point of becoming self-sufficient to address its food security needs. Establishing much needed checks and balances between different branches of government through constitutional changes are needed to ensure democratic governance in Armenia. Moreover, addressing strategic security challenges presented by Azerbaijan and Turkey must remain at the forefront of public debate and Armenia’s foreign policy.