Meanwhile, a threat of war emerges on Europe’s borders
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    Meanwhile, a threat of war emerges on Europe’s borders

    Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia

    BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
    Weekly analysis and untold stories
    With SAMUEL STOLTON

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    Meanwhile, a threat of war emerges on Europe’s borders

    It is a dry and dusty afternoon in Republic Square, Yerevan – the capital of Armenia. The sun labours low in the Eastern skies, washing the Soviet-era architecture of the plaza in a warm dew. It is October 2019.

    I am talking to a group of young Armenian upstarts – all fledgling members of a modernising society in the Transcaucasia region. They are prim, proper, well-educated – a sense of vibrancy and hope manifests in their voices, for the future of their battle-scarred country. All of them played an active part in the previous year’s revolution.

    “The way things were going, it was inevitable,” one of the young ‘revolutionaries’ tells me, the ash from his cigarette crumbling into flakes onto the cold, hard Soviet pavement. He uncorks a bottle of local wine and suggestively tilts it in my direction. I oblige.


    BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


    “We felt as though 2018 was the perfect time for us to finally make progress.”

    However, such ‘progress’ is now utterly incongruous with the threat of war that has emerged on the country’s north-eastern flank this week, as armed conflict with Azerbaijan in Armenia’s Tavush province has broken out.

    Since the start of the hostilities on 12 July, 16 people have lost their lives. Should the conflict continue, it has the potential of drawing Armenia back into bygone years of aggression and hostility with neighbours.

    Despite the geographical location of the recent clashes moving towards a more northerly region, the conflicts have been provoked by age-old disputes over the sovereignty of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but populated mostly by ethnic Armenians.

    The military confrontations are the first major ones since the peaceful revolutions two years ago.

    Armenia’s 2018 uprisings against former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan’s consolidation of power in the country were a response to allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government. The uprisings were led by Nikol Pashinyan, who at the time had been a member of the opposition in Parliament.  Pashinyan had been imprisoned for his leadership of the protests, provoking further public outcry and leading to the government’s fall.

    Pashinyan was eventually released and appointed as the country’s Prime Minister, where he sought to adopt a series of liberal reforms for the country, modernising the economy and promoting international trade and investment.

    This radical transformation in the political culture of Armenia led to a newfound sense of hope for young people, who had grown up with the spectre of conflict looming large, being technically at war with Azerbaijan concerning Nagorno-Karabakh.

    Following the 2018 revolution and at least up until this week’s clashes, Armenia had held lofty ambitions. During my time spent in the country last year, I also met with senior members of government, who were charting a closer relationship with Western partners as a result of their newfound liberty.  As it goes, most of the top brass around Pashinyan’s governmental table all played some part in the 2018 revolution.

    Speaking candidly to Armenia’s Deputy-Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan one afternoon, he told me how the idea of accession to the European Union isn’t beyond the realms of reality, but ultimately it would be a question that citizens of his country may need to address in the future.

    Armenians feel a profound sense of national pride and solidarity with their country, which achieved independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  However, this was a liberty tinged with bitterness: the post-Soviet years were marred by economic struggles and transport blockades that disrupted vital supply chains to the country. And it wasn’t only Azerbaijan who instigated these disruptions. Turkey also took part, relegating many thousands of Armenians into abject poverty.

    I’m walking down a winding road that leads away from the Armenian genocide memorial on the top of Tsitsernakaberd hill, which overlooks the city of Yerevan. The memorial commemorates the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.

    A battered 1980’s Lada pulls over and offers me a lift back into the city. As ever with these chance, serendipitous offerings, I do of course oblige.

    ‘Roman’ is the name of the driver – sun-kissed, weather-beaten skin and bony knuckles, he has dirt under his fingernails and speaks with a rusty voice. His girlfriend, sitting in the back of the car, translates as our conversation quickly turns to the revolution. Roman isn’t one of the liberal upstarts. He’s a die-hard Armenian patriot.

    “We cannot trust anyone where we are in the world,” he says. “With Turkey to the West and Azerbaijan to the East, with are trapped.”

    For Roman, 2018 was an ideological struggle to ensure Armenian independence, rather than seize grand ambitions to further liberalise the market economy. His revolution in 2018 was about Armenia’s history, not necessarily its future.

    And yet for the country’s Generation Z, the future of the country is all that matters. They want social and economic liberalism, they want choice, Western indulgence and debauchery, and dare I say it, they want to be European Union members.

    But Brussels is not best pleased with what it has seen this week in Tavush province. “The EU urges both sides to stop the armed confrontation, refrain from action and rhetoric that provokes tension, and undertake immediate measures to prevent further escalation,” a statement from the EU’s foreign affairs branch read this week, calling for diplomatic efforts to be pursued as part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group.

    A de-escalation in tensions is, however, unlikely at this stage. Yerevan has fears that Azerbaijanis have a taste for blood. On Thursday in Baku, protesters marched through the streets, demanding the government deploy the army and announce War on Armenia.

    “What scares us is the people of Baku taking to the streets and calling for War,” one Yerevan resident told me on Friday morning. “We are afraid that this could press the government into doing something that may completely destabilise the region.”

    And indeed, the Azerbaijanis are not holding back. Defense Ministry spokesman Vagif Dargyakhly said on Thursday that his country might target an Armenian nuclear power plant, should Yerevan launch a strategic attack on a water reservoir in Azerbaijan.

    So, while EU leaders in Brussels on Friday night engage in their own political skirmishes, the threat of full-blown war on Europe’s eastern flank is flaring up a rash that could leave a permanent bruise on the continent, unless a solution can soon be found.


    BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.