On Monday afternoon, January 23, 2017, the air under the dark ceiling of the Palais d’Europe is already stuffy. On the agenda: The recent elections in Macedonia. Pierre-Yves Le Borgn’, a boyish Social Democrat from France is just wrapping up a motivated speech on his observation mission. “Macedonia has a long road to travel to create a society of freedom and accountability. The role of the Council of Europe and our Assembly must be to encourage it to take that path.”
While he sinks back into the dignified blue seats, Hermine Naghdalyan, the then Deputy Speaker of the Armenian National Assembly, rises to the microphone: “…The people of Armenia have chosen the path of democracy, and no external obstacles can divert us from that route. Despite provocations and the aggression in April last year along the border with Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the recent incursions on the border with Armenia, which were condemned by the international community, we have not departed from our democratic path.”
Immediately afterwards, Rafael Huseynov, the longest-serving Azerbaijani deputy in Strasbourg, utters from under his moustache: “The recently issued statement by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe on Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the easing of tension in the front areas should be considered a step forward. Our Organisation’s concrete position is the expression of its intention to increase its activities towards conflict resolution.”
Never mind the subject of the debate - Macedonia.
Inside Europe’s Human Rights Institution
While this is going on, an older delegate in the back is struggling to stay awake. Another is ruffling through her papers, preparing to leave. A young MP is looking at his phone, maybe trying to find out where to get dinner that day. No one is paying attention to the arguments around them. This is no surprise, as they have heard it all already.
Le Borgn’, Naghdalyan and Huseynov, together with hundreds of other politicians constitute a very peculiar body: The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe is the continent’s oldest human rights organisation, of which all European countries are members, with the exception of the Vatican and Belarus. Armenia has been a member since 2001, joining jointly with Azerbaijan. Four times a year, the Parliamentary Assembly unites MPs from all member states, who represent government and opposition of their home countries’ parliaments. It elects the Council’s leader and observes elections. But for most of the time, the MPs debate human rights affairs in its member states and what to do about them.
Regularly, MPs from Armenia and Azerbaijan hijack the debates in Strasbourg and push for one topic: Karabakh. Their European counterparts are left to roll their eyes, while the Armenian and Azerbaijani delegations play out their rhetorical proxy war in the plenary. But is this never-ending cycle in Strasbourg really the best policy for Armenia?
Most European countries have an ambivalent attitude towards the Council of Europe. Receiving little media coverage and being all too easy to confuse with the European Union, it is sometimes not seen as an important forum. But for two countries at the geographical fringes of the Council of Europe, this assembly is a key political tool. Regularly, MPs from Armenia and Azerbaijan hijack the debates in Strasbourg and push for one topic: Karabakh. Their European counterparts are left to roll their eyes, while the Armenian and Azerbaijani delegations play out their rhetorical proxy war in the plenary.
But is this never-ending cycle in Strasbourg really the best policy for Armenia? Or would its small delegation fare better with a different, more constructive strategy?
Hardline Rhetoric as a Last Resort
The current proxy war policy is based on some fair rationales: First, hardline rhetoric is the last resort of the Armenian position. In the past years, Azerbaijan has not only gone on a spending spree for its military, but has also invested heavily in bribing members of the Parliamentary Assembly. Armenia cannot possibly compete with these outlays, even if it would want to corrupt an international institution. Therefore, Yerevan needs to fight hard with words.
Second, the resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly create a political reality. Once multiple votes in the Parliamentary Assembly confirm Azerbaijan’s insistence on the principle of territorial integrity, the Armenian position would erode quickly and irreparably. Therefore, it would be outright reckless for the Armenian delegation to give in one inch rhetorically. The proxy wars would have to continue in order to not lose the very real war back at home.
Third, the Council of Europe is a political forum and as such the legitimate place to make the Armenian position heard. As there are so few assemblies in which Armenians sit at the table, Armenian MPs in Strasbourg need to be even more outspoken on the Karabakh issue. The problem with this last point, however, is that demonstrably no one in Strasbourg is listening to this issue anymore. A shouting match like the one that Armenia and Azerbaijan regularly engage in at PACE is impossible to win. The louder one side acts, the louder the other side becomes. And while they shout, the others get on with their work. This runs counter to the very idea of a political forum.
Armenian MPs should still take the floor during the debates in Strasbourg. But instead of pushing the same message in different words every single time, they should speak on the agenda of the Council of Europe. Instead of disrupting debates in the Parliamentary Assembly, they should contribute to them.
Addressing the Wrong Audience
Since the international audience has shut down their attention, the Armenian strategy necessarily commits a crucial error. Whenever one of the Armenian delegates makes a statement in the hemicycle of the Assembly, be it on Karabakh, be it against Azerbaijan, the statement is ultimately directed at a domestic audience. This is why the statements are recorded by national media, which dutifully trails the delegates throughout the sessions and uncritically reports their statements word by word. In fact, many Armenian readers might look at the exchanges recorded above and feel vindicated: At the very least, Armenian MPs are defending their homeland against Azerbaijan.
But this is ultimately the wrong audience. When arriving at this international institution, all delegates become some form of ambassadors, addressing the countries, whose flags are on display in front of the Council’s main building. When speaking in the plenary, the Armenian delegation is not addressing an audience in Yerevan, Gyumri or Stepanakert but fellow MPs from Madrid, Marseilles or Manchester. Especially given Armenia’s relative isolation, the Parliamentary Assembly is one of the few, precious places, where Armenia can directly influence the image that the rest of Europe has of it.
By consistently pushing a message for its domestic audience, however, the Armenian delegation is gambling away this chance. At best, the European counterparts may think that Armenians are defending their approach to Karabakh. But they are already very well aware of this. At worst, the European counterparts will think that Armenians are not interested in constructively working on the Council of Europe’s agenda and objectives. This way, the jangling approach in Strasbourg sends the message abroad that Armenians are uncompromising radicals not worth cooperating with. The message is not lost on the over 600 members of the Parliamentary Assembly. They network in the cafeteria, the social heart of the Council of Europe, while the Armenians and Azerbaijanis ramble on about Karabakh. And they take back their frustration with Armenia to their 45 home countries.
Punching Below its Weight
This lasting impression has direct consequences for Armenia’s power and influence in the Council of Europe. With four members and four substitutes, the Armenian delegation is larger than those of Cyprus, of Latvia or of Estonia and equal in size to Lithuania. And yet, a Cypriot and a Lithuanian are running for the presidency of PACE. A Latvian is heading the Committee which elects the judges to the European Court of Human Rights. Estonian MPs have often been prominent rapporteurs of the Assembly, personally assigned authors of thematic reports. In contrast, of all the 53 MPs that ever represented Armenia in Strasbourg, only three have ever become rapporteurs. The last time a current member of the Armenian delegation drafted a report was in 2012. None of the Committee chairpersons are Armenian, not even of the sub-committees.
The path of rhetoric proxy wars with Azerbaijan has not strengthened the Armenian position, but weakened it. It has deprived Armenia of an audience as much as of influence.
These categories seem obscure, but they are not. Committee chairmanship, rapporteur positions, vice-presidencies – these make up the currency of influence in Strasbourg. Not only do they allow for agenda-setting, but they are also positions from which to reach out to other MPs, creating a personal network across the institution. In fact, Armenia consistently holds one of the 20 vice-presidencies of the Parliamentary Assembly, but it does not get further. It is no far stretch to explain this by its fundamental focus on the proxy wars with Azerbaijan.
Restraint as an Alternative
From these observations, a clear strategic change emerges: Armenian MPs should lay low on the rhetorical fights. Whenever the delegation from Baku makes aggressive statements in the plenary, Armenians should not retaliate. Instead of testing the patience of their counterparts, they should just let it be. Everything else merely provokes silent groans from the other MPs. The sooner Armenia practices this policy, the more unnecessarily radical Azerbaijan appears.
Today, Armenia is no closer to a durable solution of the Karabakh conflict, no closer to gaining the trust of its European partners, no closer to achieving its objectives than when it joined the Council of Europe.
Restraint in this scenario is not to be misunderstood by capitulation. To the contrary, Armenia should still defend its position on Karabakh at the beginning of the session. But one such statement suffices to make the point abundantly clear. One statement may ring louder than ten of them. And at the beginning of the session, when everyone is still listening, it may ring more powerfully than its umpteenth repetition to a half-empty auditorium.
Restraint in this scenario is also not to be misunderstood by silence. Armenian MPs should still take the floor during the debates in Strasbourg. But instead of pushing the same message in different words every single time, they should speak on the agenda of the Council of Europe. Instead of disrupting debates in the Parliamentary Assembly, they should contribute to them. They should gain the trust of their colleagues, show that they are willing and able to work constructively and thus create the political network so indispensable for Yerevan.
New Alliances and a Leap of Faith
Today, Armenia is no closer to a durable solution of the Karabakh conflict, no closer to gaining the trust of its European partners, no closer to achieving its objectives than when it joined the Council of Europe. The path of rhetoric proxy wars with Azerbaijan has not strengthened the Armenian position, but weakened it. It has deprived Armenia of an audience as much as of influence. The conclusion to draw from this is that is it time for Armenia is to become an adult member of the European club.
The goal of the Armenian delegation, and by extension of the National Assembly, should be to foster new political alliances in Strasbourg that are based on mutual respect for the constructive work done. At the end of a session in Strasbourg, a rigid Italian Social Democrat should bring back to his parliament the message that Armenians have supportively spoken on his initiative to defend and promote democratic security in Europe. At the end of a session, the Conservative Earl of Dundee should take back to London the message that Armenians have lobbied for his initiative on cultural heritage in a democratic society. The young Portuguese MP should return from her first contact with Armenian politicians with the impression that they engaged with her arguments, made sensible points and shared a cup of coffee afterwards. Proxy wars make each of these developments impossible.
Now is time for Hermine Naghdalyan, Arpine Hovhannisyan, the current head of the delegation, and their six colleagues to stop mindlessly butting heads with an equally unmovable opponent. Whether government or opposition, they should turn towards restraint. This is a long game, so naturally it requires a leap of faith from the Armenian delegation and the Armenian public. But if the reward is an increase in political connections, more influential positions in the Council of Europe and a proliferation of the image of a constructive Armenia in Europe’s capitals, it should be taken.