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Russian-Armenian relations to the test of regional geopolitical changes


Standpoint of Armenia


Russian-Armenian relations to the test of regional geopolitical changes

Lilit Vardanian


Lilit Vardanian

Ph.D student at the French Institute of Geopolitics (IFG), Paris 8 University

In the last five years, Armenia has experienced major upheavals both in its political life and in the geopolitics around its borders. During that time, the country has gone though periods of socio-political turmoil, changes in its constitution and political regime, the hosting of thousands of Armenians from Syria as war refugees, the commemoration of the Centenary of the Armenian Genocide, the redirecting of its strategic foreign priorities and the rekindling of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Let us try to explore mutual representations and to review the stakes at work today in Armenia’s relations with its oldest strategic ally, Russia.

Representations of Armenian-Russian relations

In spite of choosing a multidirectional or so-called “complementary” foreign policy, Armenia is almost always considered and presented by the international community as a loyal “satellite” of Russia. However, that labeling, much disliked by Armenians themselves–-as indeed by any post-Soviet country similarly tagged—is very simplistic and shows a profound lack of understanding of what is at stake in Russian-Armenian relations.

Without running through the whole history of cultural ties between the two countries, let us say that in contrast to their South-Caucasus neighbors, Armenians have never felt hostile towards Russians despite some controversial periods in their common history. On the contrary, the image of “savior Russia” has long been rooted in Armenian minds. To this day, Russia and its military bases in Armenia are still presented as the only safeguard of the country’s security, in particular opposite militaristic Azerbaijan, which has cast Armenians as an enemy, and an increasingly nationalist Turkish regime, more intolerant and unpredictable than ever.

This type of representations is often based on the assumption that the little Republic of Armenia having no natural resources, it is of no real interest to Western countries—not even as a transit zone along the South Eurasian corridor since its Eastern and Western borders are closed by the Turkish and Azeri blockade—whereas Armenia is more valued along the North-South axis, i.e. for Iranian and Russian interests. In the light of Russia-Western world confrontations, one could see here a resurgence of the South-Caucasian “geopolitical cross” which had lost in importance after the “relaunch” of Russian-American relations of 2010 and the relative opening of Iran. But that view is often contradicted by supporters of a breakup with Russia, a country they accuse, sometimes with blind anger, of being responsible for the Armenian “misery.” They generally blame Armenian authorities for compromising the future of their country by leaving it “open to the greed” of Russia, in particular when it comes to the sale of strategic national companies to Russians, such as ArmRus Gazprom, now Gazprom Armenia. They insist that integration with European structures, as did Georgia, would be a much better solution for Armenian interests.

It should be noted however that these two conflicting views are now minority standpoints for, among the people as well as the political and intellectual elites of Armenia, there is an overwhelming national desire and will to develop balanced political and economic foreign ties. And as regards the bleak socio-economic situation of the country, if the Turkish-Azerbaijani blockade does play a part in it, Armenian nationals are also well aware of the inner political issues that cripple their country’s economics and drive some of them to emigrate.

Deterioration of Russia’s protective image

This nuanced set of representations is in part the result of the deterioration of Russia’s protective image among Armenians. An active segment of the new generation, in Armenia as well as in the Diaspora, has already drawn some wisdom from Armenian history by moving beyond the past of persecutions and genocide to claim for reparations and for a strong Armenia. Patriotic, smart and multilingual, they are demanding citizens who will not stand being disappointed. However, Moscow has often neglected that generation as it has preferred to work exclusively with the authorities, using all the economic and political levers at hand. Consequently, the frequent street demonstrations that rocked Yerevan in the last years have often been interpreted by Russian experts as provocations by Western NGOs trying to prepare a “color” revolution as in Georgia and Ukraine. But although the workings of those demonstrations are still difficult to analyze, reducing them to Western provocations as most Russian experts bluntly do shows their refusal to understand the problems of the country.  

The greatest disappointment came from the arms sales and strategic partnership of Russia with Azerbaijan. As President Serzh Sargsyan aptly summed it up, being attacked by Russian weapons posed a psychological problem to an Armenian soldier. On their part, Russians tried to reassure Armenians by presenting three major arguments: that it was only business, that with its S-300 missiles, Armenia will keep its strategic edge, and that Russia will be able to better control the use of this armament since it will be in charge of its maintenance and supply. It was only after the introduction of those weapons during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in April 2016 that a debate emerged in Russia to reassess the goals and effects of that sale.

Another tragic event that happened in January 2015 has even further damaged the image of Russia: the mass murder of the Avetisyan family by Valeri Permyakov, a serviceman from the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri. The massacre triggered spontaneous demonstrations in Yerevan and Gyumri demanding that the murderer be tried in Armenia. Consequently, the Russian military base of Gyumri found itself in the limelight–when its lease had been renewed during President Dmitry Medvedev’s State visit in August 2010, to last until 2044, although the terms of the contract make it clear that the Russian military forces in the country are there only to defend the security of Armenia and not of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ambiguity lies at the heart of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the armed body of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), of which Armenia is a member with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. But although supposed to warrant the security of its members against the attacks of other countries, the CSTO often remains silent in front of the repeated Azerbaijani shelling of Armenian villages such as the many provocations of 2014 and 2015. It was not until late December 2016, after an Azerbaijani attempt at trespassing into Chinari (Tavush Province), that former Secretary General of CSTO Nikolai Bordyuzha, in that position since 2003, issued a communiqué that condemned the aggression. The clear-cut, long-awaited statement which was hailed by Yerevan, was finally only issued at the very end of his long term in office.

Then, Bordyuzha’s succession generated a deep crisis within the CSTO. It was decided that, like the presidency of the organization, the position of Secretary General should also be rotating in order to let member countries alternate in that capacity. After the decision was implemented in January 2017, Armenia, coming first by alphabetical order, was to be the first country to fill that position. Armenia’s former Minister of Defence, Seyran Ohanyan, was even rumored to be appointed, which he later denied. But the lack of consensus about en Armenian appointment can be explained by the staunch opposition of Belarus and Kazakhstan, due to the very close relations of Presidents Lukashenko and Nazarbayev with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. Although they are partners with Armenia within the Eurasian Economic Union, the two countries keep triggering open hostilities with Armenia—such as Belarus’s decision to extradite Israeli-Russian blogger Alexander Lapshin to Azerbaijan—and making declarations of friendship to Azerbaijan, which is not a member of those strategic alliances. This generates indignation in Armenia and questions the eligibility to such coalitions of countries which Russia largely initiated.

In front of this situation, some voices rose in Russia to call the authorities and experts for caution. Essentially coming from Russian foundations and organizations in the public diplomatic field (The Gorchakov Fund, Creative Diplomacy), these specialists are actively working in Armenia and becoming increasingly aware of the real challenge that sooner or later Russia will have to face. However, following a persuasion tactic, which is still a far cry from the soft power described by Joseph Nye, the message that Moscow is trying to bring across is that post-Soviet societies share the same traditional values with Russian society and have a common history, not only from the times of the USSR but going back to the Czarist Empire. This clearly shows a will to cultivate a sense of belonging to the “Russian world” among post-Soviet societies by underlining their difference with the “Western world” in order to prevent their shifting towards “rival propaganda.”

The stakes of the Armenian membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)

Thus, the accumulation of the above-mentioned factors has damaged Armenia’s trust in Russia, with unforeseen consequences in the long run. Paradoxically, popular consciousness is adjusting to these disappointments. Displaying pragmatism, the authorities are trying to maneuver within the limit of what is possible to ensure the country’s security and development. In 2013, Armenia had made a pragmatic and strategic choice by refusing to sign the Association agreement with the European Union as part of the Eastern partnership, favoring instead economic integration with Eurasian structures. Today, looking back on those events and in particular on developments in Ukraine, we observe that that choice probably was the best solution to come out positively of the delicate situation Armenia was in at the end of 2013, caught as she was in its conflicts of interests and contradictory claims between Russians and Westerners. The situation seemed all the more absurd that Russia and the EU accused each other of not leaving signatory countries any alternative options. Thus, European officials would talk about the pressure exerted by Moscow on Armenian and Ukrainian leaders to pull them towards economic integration of Eurasian structures. To which Moscow replied that it had to protect its own market and local producers. In fact, at the time, the Kremlin and its Eurasian partners feared that cheaper European products would swamp the market of the soon-to-be Eurasian Economic Union via Ukraine and Armenia, if the latter two countries signed the Association Agreement with the EU. But although this seems quite logical, there was much more at stake for Russia than its economic interests: it was above all about preventing Western encroachment into its vital space.

Indeed, the emblematic side of Russian representations of post-soviet space, which includes South Caucasus, is often underestimated at the expense of its vested economic and security interests. However, the constant search for Russian identity after the fall of the USSR and its yearning to recover the former might of the Czarist Empire and the Soviet Union are just as important in defining Russian geopolitical choices as are its need for a strong economy and security. We should remember that at the beginning of his first presidential mandate, in 2000, Vladimir Putin’s main concern was the recognition of the status of Russia as a great power—that it should be respected and considered as an equal by world powers. This ran counter to the “Western-prone” stance of Boris Yeltsin’s first administration, who had favored a rapprochement with NATO and the United States. The Community of Independent States (CIS) had found itself subjected to the primary goal of the new Russian power: to join the “civilized nations” of the world. But that exclusive westward orientation had not produced the desired result. Not only was Russia no longer considered a power as in the Soviet era, but to make things worse, it was brushed aside in the political and economic processing of the post-Soviet era. So Moscow quickly revised its strategy by placing the “foreign periphery” at the heart of its external policy. Stepping up these claims to power even further, Vladimir Putin and the Russian authorities later opted for the concept of Eurasian power in order to underline the double identity of Russia, both European and Asian.

In contrast with the years 2000 to 2008 when the Kremlin was trying to assert its status by opposing the great Western political trends and advertising itself as a viable alternative to American power, today, the Kremlin is proud of its achievements on the international scene and sells itself as one of the poles in a multipolar world. And the first demonstration of that power was displayed in South Caucasus, upon its military intervention in Georgia in August 2008. Since then, Russia has also multiplied Armenian-Azerbaijani talks under its aegis, along with the works of the Minsk group. The annexing of Crimea, the adoption of counter-sanctions against European countries and the United States as well as its military engagement in Syria also participate in that logic of demonstration of power.

After the fall of the USSR and its declaration of independence, Armenia has always sought as much as possible to balance out its political economic and military relations between Russia, the EU, the United States and Iran. But the geopolitical turbulence of South Caucasus and the demands made by Moscow to express “loyalty” did not leave Yerevan much room for maneuver and imposed choices in foreign policy dictated primarily by the country’s security concerns. As a result of this inextricable situation compounded by the hazardous treatment reserved by Russian policy, Armenia’s trust in its traditional strategic ally has gradually deteriorated, creating a major challenge for Russia itself. 


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