Armenia and the Monadic Democratic Peace

Friday 18 September 2020

by Michael Hikari Cecire

In July 2020, fighting erupted between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, representing a sudden if not entirely unexpected escalation in the two countries’ long running conflict, now in its third decade. While undoubtedly tragic, the outbreak of fighting was perhaps less surprising than the extended period of relative peace that had preceded it following Armenia’s democratic revolution in 2018. The spike in violence bookended two years of hard-won calm, but also suggests analytical “ripeness” as a potential test case for the notion of a monadic democratic peace.


The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict’s center of gravity is the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Previously a majority-Armenian autonomous enclave within Soviet Azerbaijan, Armenian forces routed those of newly independent Azerbaijan, ejecting Azerbaijani troops and civilians alike from the region, and occupied Karabakh and a horseshoe of adjoining “buffer territories” in undisputed Azerbaijani land.

Despite a shaky ceasefire in 1994, the two countries remain in a state of virtually permanent conflict. Masses of troops and equipment are arrayed against the other in expansive fortifications along a so-called “line of contact” that skirts state borders and the blurrier domains along occupied Azerbaijani territories and Karabakh itself.

International legal consensus largely backs Azerbaijan’s claims over those regions. Yet, traditional Armenian military superiority, the domestic political value of the conflict in both countries, and perhaps relative international apathy has helped freeze progress in the quarter century since the ceasefire was signed.

From the outside, it may appear to some as yet another in the ever-widening archipelago of interethnic wars that arc from the Balkans to the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean basin. However, although very much a local quarrel, it’s one with potentially broad strategic consequences; Armenia is a Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) treaty ally with Russia, which maintains garrisons in the country, and Azerbaijan (which has broadly good if untidy relations with Russia) has a treaty alliance with NATO member Turkey, which has its own military presence in Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani position both emphasises its international legal claims while also observing that diplomacy has self-evidently failed after almost 30 years. As such, Baku has resorted to bombastic rhetoric and an oil-fuelled military build-up to threaten or force the issue. Yet Azerbaijan’s sabre-rattling, borne both of strategic frustration as well as domestic political calculation, is taken in Yerevan as validation for strategic dominance and maintaining the territorial status quo. Skirmishes between opposing troops have been routine, and more intensive conflagrations a semi-regular occurrence, with military acrimony having been on the general upswing. Tensions had grown particularly over the 2010s, culminating in the “Four Day War” of April 2016, which saw a major Azerbaijani offensive make relatively substantial gains, albeit at a cost of heavy losses to both sides.

Democracy wages

Armenia’s “velvet revolution” in 2018 saw mass protests dislodge autocratic Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and his clientelist Republican Party (HHK) from power, vaunting democracy activist Nikol Pashinyan from the political margins to prime minister, and under his government paving the way for a rapid rise in the country’s observed democratisation. Following the revolution, most major international indices that seek to measure democracy agreed (1, 2, 3, 4) that the political aftermath of the HHK’s defeat saw significant observed evidence of democratic behaviour, which was further echoed by expert assessments on the ground. Armenia’s apparent rapid democratisation contrasted with that of Azerbaijan, which has been measured more routinely in democracy indices as possessing a more severe variant of authoritarianism compared to the HHK’s more corporatist model of autocracy. By contrast, Guliyev (2005) and Mitchell (2012) characterises Azerbaijan as a “sultanistic” regime type.

Notably, Armenia’s democratisation drive following the 2018 revolution was also accompanied by an acute and sustained reduction in violence along the line of contact (see figure). This abrupt decrease in violence not only contrasted to the routinely high levels of conflict that preceded it, but also arrested a longer-term, punctuated trend towards increased violence that had reached an apogee in the 2016 four day war  and, until the revolution, was broadly regarded by observers as potentially a preface to a broader, more destructive conflagration. Although a variety of individual explanations have been put forward to account for the unexpected outbreak of peacefulness in the two-year period following the revolution between 2018 and 2020, the possibility of a unilateral, or monadic, democratic peace may be worth consideration.

Variations of a “democratic peace” have been advanced for centuries, and buttressed in modern scholarship. Doyle (1986) assesses liberal regime types as indeed prone to a separate peace with other liberal regimes, and more recently positively assessed by Reiter (2017). Though not without its sceptics and detractors, the democratic peace theory is a fixture in international relations scholarship, particularly in liberal theory, as well as foreign policymaking.

However, the prevailing view of democratic peace refers to its dyadic nature between two democracies. Less broadly accepted is the possibility of a unilateral, or monadic, democratic peace, where a democracy may be less liable to engage in conflict in general. Liberal IR theory would seem to predict general democratic peacefulness, given domestic constraints on policymakers, and more recently there has been increased scholarship suggesting that a monadic democratic peace is also a viable theoretical proposition. Benoit (1996), empirically models a monadic democratic peace, and found that democracies showed greater observed pacifism over the review period in the 1960s and 1970s. Pickering (2002) focused on foreign interventionism, and found that a democratic regime type appeared to dissuade from foreign intervention. Rousseau, et al. suggests monadic pacific behaviour during the emergence of crises (1996).

Armenian model

Could Armenia’s post-revolution democratisation be an explanatory variable for the almost exactly two-year outbreak of peace with Azerbaijan? By some reckoning, the logic is somewhat intuitive; after gaining power through people power in 2018, Pashinyan’s government had accumulated significant political capital, and so had little need for appeals to nationalism to stoke domestic political consolidation, as had been broadly believe to be the case under Sargsyan’s tenure. Similarly, the inauguration of a new government may have also contributed to optimism in Azerbaijan that Pashinyan’s new government might be able to respond more flexibly to negotiations compared with its predecessor.

In certain respects, the monadic democratic peace hypothesis would appear to fit Armenia’s circumstances; rapid democratisation quite evidently correlated to reduced violence. Perhaps relatedly, Pashinyan’s mandate following the 2018 revolution was hardly singularly tethered to Armenian strategic anxieties — although variations of that theme had variously arisen as the revolution unfolded, and even more prominently  in past protests — but instead was framed around longstanding popular anger over corruption, economic inequality, and other such “kitchen table” issues. Conversely, however, reduced interstate violence is also greatly attributable to Azerbaijani forbearance, given their extended dissatisfactions with the status quo. That itself may be an indirect consequence of Armenian democratisation, but the lines of causality may be more challenging to trace.

Another consideration is the transitional nature of the Armenian regime. Although Armenia is broadly assessed to have demonstrably democratised in response to the revolution, its current claim as fully fledged electoral democracy is less widely agreed upon, given that Pashinyan’s electoral bloc has yet to face a serious political competition in an election (December 2018 parliamentary elections were a lopsided affair). Indeed, Mansfield and Synder posit that transitional polities may be in fact more war prone compared to established, consolidated democracies (1995); then again, their hypothesis rests not on the transitory nature of the regime itself, but the propensity to conflict when transition is stalled and faces disruption. On that count, it’s perhaps no accident that the weeks preceding the July fighting saw Armenia’s biggest domestic political crisis since the revolution, in which opposition leader and fixture of the country’s oligarchy class Gagik Tsarukyan was placed under arrest. Of course, it also very well could have been coincidence, or only indirectly material.

Perhaps the question should not be whether or not Armenian democratisation is the causal variable for a more pacific foreign policy, and the smoking gun favouring the monadic democratic peace hypothesis. Instead, it should be better considered an interesting case study to be evaluated among others, and a suggestion that democratic peace — like democracy itself — is not a binary proposition, but multivariate and thus not immediately evidently expressed in monadic, dyadic, or any other such typologies. While democracy may have monadic pacific effects, moderate or large in varying contexts, its observability may very well be impaired by other countervailing or otherwise obfuscating tendencies. Future research in this area may be well served by illuminating these other variables, and/or collecting additional compelling case studies (of which Armenia may be one) in development of a refined theory of monadic democratic peace.

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