It is easy to forget in this time of war in Ukraine that NATO is an organisation supposed to enable peace.
So, why would anyone raise questions when a past NATO secretary general goes to a country not in the NATO alliance to foster or pitch peace between it and its long-term rival and neighbour?
This happened in mid-March when former Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Armenia — an ex-Soviet nation in the Caucasus — trying to negotiate a peace treaty with its neighbour Azerbaijan after a conflict two years ago.
But when Armenia is not just a member of Russia’s six-nation CSTO military alliance, but the chair of the organisation — and the former NATO chief was being paid by the Armenian government for the visit — it calls for some answers.
Rasmussen didn’t mention this in any of the interviews, tweets, and media articles he generated, something he should have done even when his transactional relationship with Russia’s military ally is listed in the EU’s lobbyist register.
By not being upfront, he’s been disingenuous, which is unbecoming of a man of his status.
Rasmussen still surprised many — and triggers a bot army
But the real surprise is what he said while the Armenians were paying. In the most significant media interview of his visit, he raised the prospects for peace, and extolled the undeniable economic benefits for the people of Armenia if a peace treaty is signed with their neighbour.
He also raised the fact that to achieve that peace, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh — an unrecognised majority Armenian ethnic breakaway state inside the borders of Azerbaijan — needs to be settled.
In that, he has a point: whether or not Armenia is friends with Russia — and membership of both Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union and its military alliance could be read as a hint that they might be close — doesn’t change the fact that peace with the neighbours tends to benefit every country.
His view that peace is good and economic progress even better nonetheless sent the social media warriors berserk.
Rasmussen was soon being assailed, as James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation once described, by “more trolls than ever appeared in The Lord of Rings”.
One even accused him of basically doing Azerbaijan’s public relations for them. If only they knew.
Are Armenia’s government and diaspora headed for a split?
Yet perhaps the Armenian government picked the right lobbyist.
Far from telling the powerful Armenian diaspora in the US and France — who have long influenced the foreign policy direction for the Armenian state — what they want to hear, he told it as it is.
Peace and economic cooperation with neighbouring Azerbaijan is, ultimately, the only viable route to a better life for the poor and undeniably long-suffering citizens of Armenia when the alternative remains continued Russian-dependent isolation.
To ex-Soviet-state-watchers such as myself, it has appeared for some time that the paths of the Armenian state and Armenian diaspora have been diverging.
Like in my own Lithuania, the first few years of Armenian independence saw its leaders drawn from the diaspora.
Then, after Armenia won a war against Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, they came from Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani territory they occupied in victory.
While ignoring four UN resolutions — supported by every single NATO country in successive votes — upholding the legal status of the region as a sovereign territory of Azerbaijan, the diaspora has long lobbied for recognition of Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, also called Artsakh, as an independent state.
Meanwhile, Armenia and Azerbaijan are being fair and measured
But in the last two years, things have changed. Azerbaijan won back the majority of Nagorno-Karabakh in a conflict in 2020. Today, only a rump remains under Armenian control.
Few serious international experts today would argue against the view that it is only a matter of time before this matter is settled — and in favour of international law.
It is not hard to read between the lines and conclude Rasmussen is merely voicing the conclusion of his own Armenian government client on the direction of travel, perhaps expressing what, for political reasons, they themselves have found it difficult to say publicly.
Indeed, the social media army that descended on Rasmussen were perhaps revealing their frustration that their version of Nagorno-Karabakh’s future may be slipping away.
Was Rasmussen right to go? Certainly, he should have been more upfront that this was a paid work trip.
But his visit appeared to open the door for Yerevan to speak with more clarity than before about their own agenda: right after he departed, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan criticised the CSTO and tweeted his conviction that there would be a peace treaty with Azerbaijan.
He then said the “international community must strongly support this narrative”. Azerbaijan responded through their Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aykhan Hajizada, who said that “territorial integrity and sovereignty must prevail in our region”.
They were some of the fairest, most measured words said by the two nations in response to each other in public for years.
Rasmussen called for arming Armenia instead
Since he departed, Rasmussen has slightly changed his tune. Perhaps those Lord of the Rings trolls are having their effect.
In an op-ed for Project Syndicate, he proposed the EU armed Armenia to prevent another conflict with Azerbaijan.
The EU, of course, can’t provide enough arms to Ukraine or even itself, but perhaps that message at least lessened the Twitter attacks.
Still, Rasmussen has certainly shone a light on the surprising reality that Armenia’s real long-term ally, like it or not, has to be its neighbour and sworn enemy, Azerbaijan.
_Saul Anuzis is a Lithuanian-American former advisor to the Lithuanian independence movement Sąjūdis and a former member of the Republican National Committee in the US. _
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