Armenia: the Choice is Done?

By Sergey Markedonov

The visit of Sargsyan should be considered an as a voyage aimed to settle acute matters and cool down of the “boiling minds” in Yerevan as well as in Moscow


On September 3rd 2013 the President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan paid a working visit in Moscow. The meaning of this trip goes out of the frames of an ordinary diplomatic voyage and official protocol. Following its results, Serzh Sargsyan claimed about the readiness of his country to participate in the Customs Union (CU) and the process of Eurasian integration in general. Does this mean that the official Yerevan has finally “decided” on its foreign political choice, and European integration has been overshadowed once and for all? To answer this question correctly, we should address broader context around the working visit of Serzh Sargsyan.


For many years Yerevan has been observed as almost the most devoted ally of Russian not only within South Caucasus, but also within the total post-Soviet space. Today Armenia is the only Caucasian republic (no considering de-facto the states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), where not only Russian military presence preserves, but also the participation of frontier guards from the Russian Federation in cooperative defense of Armenian frontiers with Turkey and Iran. In August 2010 Moscow and Yerevan agreed that the 102nd military base in Giumri shall keep on operating, as minimum till 2044. Membership of Armenia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allows it purchasing equipment and armament from Russia on the prices lower than world’s ones. And economic indexes are also impressive. Companies with Russian capital cover more than one fourth of the total number in the republic.


By this it would be wrong to depict Yerevan as a faithful squire of Moscow, as experts and politicians from Azerbaijan and western states often do.  Inside Armenia there is dissatisfaction observed at various levels with the “price of the issue”, which Yerevan should pay for the guarantees it has from Moscow. By this for already a few years the official line of Armenian foreign policy has been considered to be the so-called complementarism, i.e. intention to build balanced and complementary relations not only with Russia, but also with the USA, European Union, neighboring Iran and Georgia. The countries, which constitute for Armenia two windows into the outside world considering two closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey.  Armenia tried to maintain constructive relations with Georgia even during the hardest year of 2008 within Russian-Georgian relations, and with Iran, despite all the problems between the Islamic republic and West, as well as escalation of “Syrian crisis” in which Teheran takes the side of Damascus. Armenian military men, although in a small number, participates in NATO”s missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo.


However, recent months’ relations between the allies have given enough reasons for scepsis and even alarmist forecasts. There were several plots in the ground. First of all, cool attitude to the project of the Customs Union (CU) promoted by Moscow. Yerevan tried to show its diversified glance at Eurasian integration in general. Armenia demonstrated with all means its interests to participate in CSTO and military-technical cooperation with the Russian Federation, but by this it underlined, that it did not observe joining of CU as a beneficial decision. To reason this line, a thesis was used about absence of a common Russian-Armenian border, as well as common frontiers with other participants of the project – Kazakhstan and Belarus. Naturally, Armenian leaders thought (although without public focus) about that Astana and Minsk have their contacts with Baku and are interested to promote them. In one of the recent interviews Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister of Armenia Shavarsh Kocharyan has declared, that “there is no such precedent for a country to become a member of a customs union not having common borders with the member-states of it”.


Probably cool attitude towards the CU could have been ignored in Moscow. But simultaneous intention of Yerevan to develop its contacts with the European Union called poorly hidden irritation, especially readiness to sign a Treaty with the EU on establishment of a deep and overwhelming zone of free trade.


Secondly, an important factor was military-technical cooperation of Russian with Azerbaijan. The situation became even more acute with the fact that information about Russian armaments supplies to pre-Caspian republic was publicly announced right after the Summit of the G8 in Northern Ireland, during which the President of the Russian Federation together with the leaders of the USA and France called to peaceful regulation of an old Nagorny Karabakh conflict. Many Armenian experts and reporters saw in the gesture of Moscow the revelation of “double standards” (although information about the deal and cooperation itself was not of a special secret). But at the same time their other colleagues noted, that Russian-Azerbaijan cooperation in contrast with Russian-Armenian bear not allied but market character, and the problem is rather about the intention and options of Baku to develop its military potential, than about supplies of armaments from the Russian Federation. Anyway, this story has not positively contributed into the bilateral relations.


On August 13th 2013, Azerbaijan welcomed the visit of Vladimir Putin (it was his first visit to the countries of South Caucasus after the “return” into the chair of the President last year) accompanied with the group of top officials and “generals” of Russian business, where they once again discussed the problem of technical cooperation and a number of press editions started discussing a possible geopolitical turn of the Kremlin intensively.


And finally, increase of price on Russian gas supplied to Armenia together with the information about intention of Gazprom to enhance its presence in ZAO ArmRosGazprom have also made more acute the discussion of the “price” of influence of Moscow towards its ally.


By this it should be noted that the leaders tried to avoid harsh phrases and accusations, giving an opportunity to argue to the “experts of influence” and second and third rank politicians. Although, existence of contradictions itself (which have not been opened by the events of 2013, but actualized by its combination) was hard to hide.


In this respect September visit of Serzh Sargsyan should be observed as a voyage targeted to remove acute issues and cool down boiling minds in Yerevan as well as in Moscow. It’s hard to say how effective such cooling down shall be. On the one hand it has given some clarity. Yerevan is taking a course to Euro-integration, as the representatives of Europe have already started commenting on impossibility to combine two union models. Thus, according to the Foreign Affairs Minister of Lithuania (current Chairman in the European Union) Linas Antanas Linkevičius, diverse demands on tariffs make simultaneous participation of Armenia in the EU and CU impossible. But this hardly shall convince those, who are talking about a “high price” of Russian security. For them the decision of the President of Armenia shall only look like unjustified concession to the pressure of the Kremlin.


Can we agree with this version? I guess, there can be no definite answer. It’s not a secret that the Kremlin does not favor the participation of post-Soviet republics in the projects of European and North-Atlantic integration. It’s enough to recollect recent actions of Russia in relation to Ukraine to understand it. And the case is not only about direct pressure towards official Kiev, but about the attempts to attract it diplomatically. But Yerevan has its own interest in Eurasian integration. Regarding security the unified Europe is not able to compensate Russia. The EU almost has no interest to regulate Nagorny Karabakh conflict (on its behalf France is dealing with this matter in the frameworks of the OSCE Minsk Group). Europe also does not have any serious instruments to influence Turkey to correct its line regarding normalization of relation with Armenia. But, each EU member has its interest and its history of relations with Ankara, as well as with Baku. Hardly can the approaches of France, Poland, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary and Belgium can be drawn to a common denominator. We should not forget about the conflict of Syria and a possibility of Turkish intervention into this Near Eastern country, which is a natural matter of concern for Yerevan. As well as to ignore the factor of CSTO or the base in Giumri, or the role of Moscow in the OSCE Minsk Group. By the way, the EU possesses limited possibilities also to influence Russian leaders to stop its pressure towards post-Soviet republics. Any politician operates within the range of resources and available options. Especially this concerns leaders of small countries. For them involvement into idealism and ideological concepts in prejudice of pragmatism is dangerous. The example of Georgia in times of the rule of Mikheil Saakashvili is an expressed confirmation.


The visit of Sargsyan can be considered to be not only cooling down, but also compensatory. Yerevan and Baku are trying to compete for the influence on Moscow. Moscow itself does not wish to lose its influence either in Armenia or Azerbaijan. There is nothing new. We can remind how in 2010 after an agreement with Yerevan on prolongation of Russian military presence, Russia agreed on delimitation and demarcation of state frontier with Azerbaijan, having become the first neighbor of pre-Caspian republic which has managed to achieve it.


But does this mean a complete refusal of Yerevan from cooperation with the EU, NATO, USA? We should not hurry with the answer. Armenian leaders understand perfectly that the EU shall not choose between Yerevan and Baku. And hardly such choice shall be made by NATO and the USA. Consequently, the need to cooperate at least to restrain Azerbaijani influence in West still remains. Not talking already about other factors. In this respect fair is an opinion of a famous Yerevan analyst Sergey Minasyan that “Armenia shall keep on the process of Euro-integration going”. But according to him, “it shall do so with no obligations regarding the EU, as on the other hand, political or financial support from the EU”.


And the last thing (in order, but not in importance). Probably, many responsible officials estimate the declaration of Sargsyan in Moscow as their own victory. But in reality the problem is much more complicated than about joining the CU and demonstrating of loyalty. We should not forget that union relations with Russia are beneficial not only for Armenia, but for the Russian Federation itself. Even considering asymmetric alliance and disparate military-political resources of the both parties. It is especially important on the background of problems with Georgia and complicated foreign policy of Azerbaijan. Which, by the way, also is not going to make a harsh choice between the EU and Russia (the issue of the CU at all is absent from the official agenda of Baku). Thus, consideration of multiple details and nuances of bilateral relations instead of “diplomacy of toasts” would of greater us. 


Translated from politcom.ru