Obstacle to Peace: Why Armenia Needs to Change Its Constitution

Speaking at a meeting with parliament speakers of the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic States in Baku on June 6, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reiterated Baku’s official position that signing a peace agreement with Armenia is impossible as long as the current Constitution of Armenia remains unchanged. President Aliyev’s remarks came right after Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, speaking at an Armenian parliament session, falsely tried to equate the openly irredentist claims that are enshrined in the Armenian Constitution with Azerbaijan’s Constitution where no such claims exist. Mirzoyan claimed that both Armenia and Azerbaijan see each other’s constitution as an obstacle to a durable peace, and constitutional changes are not on the agenda of the ongoing peace talks. In an official statement following President Aliyev’s remarks, the Armenian Foreign Ministry rejected making constitutional amendments to remove the irredentist claims against Azerbaijan, alleging that Armenia does not have territorial claims against its neighbours, and that the draft version of the peace agreement envisages the sides not using domestic legislation in order to meet their obligations. 

The ongoing peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan have produced some key breakthroughs since December 2023 when the two countries jointly issued a statement on reaching a peace agreement based on the concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Direct negotiations between the two sides without the negative interference of third parties paved the way to reaching the agreement on the delimitation and demarcation of 12.7 kilometres of the border with the return of four Azerbaijani villages – Baghanis Ayrım, Ashaghi Askipara, Kheyrimli and Ghizilhajili – to Azerbaijan which were occupied by Armenia in the 1990s. 

This coincided with the emergence of the radical extremist priest Bagrat Galstanyan who is a revanchist extremist known for praising terrorism and irredentism and currently the leader of opposition to the Armenia-Azerbaijan normalisation and border delimitation agreement. Bagrat’s anti peace stance received support from both pro-Russia and pro-West revanchist circles, such as the pro-Russia former presidents Kocharyan and Sargsyan, the Armenian Church and the pro-Western extremist Jirayr Sefilyan.  

Pashinyan’s Search for a New Constitution 

On Jan 18, Armenia’s PM Nikol Pashinyan argued that Armenia needs a new constitution not just amendments. Pashinyan’s statement is important as it advocates the modification of the state ideology enshrined at present in Armenia’s Constitution. He argues that the new realities in the region as well as the ongoing transition in the international system require Armenia to cease irredentist claims against neighbours and focus on Armenia as a state within its territorial borders as part of ensuring what he calls legitimacy. In other words, Pashinyan’s view is that in order to ensure its security Armenia must abandon the territorial claims in its Constitution and adopt a new one. Pashinyan’s quest for a new constitution is mostly about the domestic politics and issues of Armenia, however, the irredentist claims that the Armenian Constitution contains are the main hurdle to achieving durable peace in the South Caucasus region. In an interview to local media in February, Pashinyan touched upon the need to solve the problem of the Armenian Declaration of Independence and argued that if state policies continue to be guided by the Declaration’s message about the reunification of the National Council of the former Nagorno Karabakh and the Supreme Council of Armenia there “will not be peace”. The Armenian PM even used a metaphor comparing the Armenian Declaration of Independence which contains open claims on neighbours to a red dress that attracts bulls. 

Irredentist Claims in Armenia’s Constitution

When Azerbaijan points out the need for changes in the current Armenian Constitution, it is referring to the removal of the territorial claims enshrined in the Armenian Declaration of Independence first and foremost. The preamble to the Declaration states, ‘Based on the December 1, 1989, joint decision of the Armenian SSR Supreme Council and the Artsakh National Council on the “Reunification of the Armenian SSR and the Mountainous Region of Karabakh”.’ This means that Armenia’s state policy is based on the annexation of part of the internationally recognised territory of Azerbaijan. 

In other words, Armenia’s irredentist claims against Azerbaijan are rooted in the Armenian Declaration of Independence and made a part of national policy. These claims started in 1988 as part of the Miatsum (Unification) movement with the aim of annexing part of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region to Armenia and turned into a full-blown conflict with the subsequent Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands and irredentist maps hanging on the walls of Armenian officials. The Declaration also contains indirect territorial claims against Turkey in the preamble where it makes “the realization of the aspirations of all Armenians and the restoration of historical justice” a priority for Armenia, and in clause 11 which states that “The Republic of Armenia stands in support of the task of achieving international recognition of the 1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia.” In Armenian political discourse the term “Western Armenia” means the Eastern parts of the Republic of Turkey, so restoring historical justice refers to territorial claims on Eastern Turkey. 

However, the Armenian Declaration of Independence is not the only obstacle in the peace process: the termination of the Armenian Parliament’s 13 July 1992 decision prohibiting the Armenian authorities from recognising Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan should be addressed too. In fact, this legislative decision prohibits Armenian PM Pashinyan from signing a peace deal and recognising Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Considering that the ruling Civil Contract Party of Armenia retains a substantial parliamentary majority, they could nullify this legislative decision easily without holding a referendum. The Armenian Constitution adopted in 1995 requires presidential candidates to have been resident in the country for ten years and to have been a citizen throughout that time. When Robert Kocharyan became Armenian president he did not meet those requirements. Instead he argued that his candidacy was “legal” based on the Armenian Declaration of Independence. The Armenian Constitutional Court and the Central Election Commission certified and registered him. In addition, Armenia’s official and diplomatic documents have contained territorial claims against Azerbaijan in the form of references to the legally non-existent entity Nagorno Karabakh all these years. 

To sum up, Armenia’s argument that a peace treaty with a clause about neither side using domestic legislation already contradicts the existing irredentist claims enshrined in Armenia’s Constitution as well as the legislative decision of July 1992. Considering that the Armenian parliament and Constitutional Court have to approve a possible peace agreement this already creates uncertainty. In addition, Azerbaijan wants to achieve a lasting peace with Armenia as a country and the Armenian people, not just with the ruling Civil Contract Party. It is the territorial claims enshrined in the Armenian Constitution that are a matter of concern for Azerbaijan, not Armenia’s internal political system which Pashinyan wants to change. To seek the removal of the claims to Azerbaijani territory enshrined in Armenia’s Declaration of Independence and other official documents can hardly be considered interference in purely internal affairs, as claimed by Armenia’s MFA. Already revanchists are claiming that they will nullify Pashinyan’s decisions. Azerbaijan’s stance on the removal of the existing territorial claims from Armenia’s Constitution is rational, as future Armenian governments should not be able to walk away from a peace deal or revive territorial claims against Azerbaijan by using the existing Declaration of Independence and the parliamentary decision. Taking into account Pashinyan’s hesitation to hold a referendum, what he can do to prove his government’s sincerity about the peace process is terminate the July 1992 parliamentary decision. 

At the end of the day, Armenia must choose between peace, normalisation, and prosperity on the one hand, and territorial claims against its neighbours on the other, as PM Pashinyan talks about real Armenia and historic Armenia. The United States which constantly refers to a “just and durable peace” must also encourage Armenia to remove the irredentist claims from its Constitution as keeping them will not bring peace to the region. 

[Representational image by the Presidential Press and Information Office of Azerbaijan, via Wikimedia Commons]

Rufat Ahmadzada is a graduate of City, University of London. His research area covers the South Caucasus and Iran. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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