Armenia’s Dilemmas and Opportunities

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Armenia once again is caught in a tug-of-war between East and West. In 2013, after long negotiations with the European Union, Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan abruptly interrupted the talks with the EU and made an about face to sign an agreement with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

To this day, there has not been an official explanation why the president took the personal decision to lead the country in another direction. But the reasons are obvious: arm twisting from Moscow.

The EU did not take any retaliatory actions and instead continued its support for Armenia and its efforts to woo Armenia and other countries in the Russian sphere of influence. Moscow carried away with its regional and global interests, did not necessarily tend to Armenia’s economic needs, leaving the door open for an opportunity to once again take its chances with the West.

The Eurasia.net blog notes: “To counter disenchantment with the pact, Russian media has added its voice to the Kremlin’s efforts. Moscow state-financed Sputnik news service this week described the EEU as a chance, courtesy of Russia, for Armenia to restore Soviet-era prosperity.”

This initiative comes on the eve of Armenia’s rapprochement with the West. Indeed, next month President Sargsyan will attend an EU summit in Brussels, joined by Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

This is part of the comprehensive global plan by the West to isolate Russia. Moscow may bite the bullet and refrain from punishing Armenia which is not the only “culprit” in its temptation to embrace the West.

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A draft resolution in Armenia’s Parliament to dissociate the country from the EEU failed in its early stages, most probably out of fear of reprisal from Russia.

This time around, Armenia’s association with the EU has a compromise clause, which may calm worries in the Kremlin, in the meantime offering Armenia to play a meaningful role between the two blocs. The agreement, which is euphemistically called an “association agreement light,” contains the original tenets on political reform and is meant to make sure EU and Armenia share democratic values, if not an economy. A special provision allows Armenia to cooperate with the EU, while EEU rules for Armenia will still apply.

Thus, Russia has loosened Armenia’s leash while making sure it does not stray too far. Armenia’s cautious assertiveness has yielded other dividends as well, with Moscow loaning an additional $100 million for buying modern military hardware.

In addition to its membership in the EEU, Armenia is also a partner with Russia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military pact, where other members, particularly Belarus and Kazakhstan, trample on Armenia’s interests with impunity. Armenia’s Parliament Vice Speaker Eduard Sharmazanov finally took a stand by admonishing his Belarussian counterpart, Boleslav Pirshtuk, by stating during an Interparliamentary Cooperation Commission: “Representatives of the CSTO member states should support each other in the international platforms and not make statements that do not emanate from the CSTO’s official position.”

While Russia will not tolerate its strategic allies stray far, in the meantime, it will try to entice another former Soviet republic to join the EEU in a major regional strategy, which will also requires Azerbaijan’s integration into that union. Recently, in response to a question about whether it is possible for Azerbaijan to join the EEU, Sergey Glazyev, President Putin’s advisor on Eurasian integration affairs, said, that the final decision to integrate Azerbaijan in the union is open to all participants but in this case the decision depends on Armenia, which can use its right to veto.”

Moscow believes that Azerbaijan’s participation in the EEU will contribute to regional stability and economic progress. Of course, Armenia will be one of the beneficiaries of the region’s economic development but what will be the price for its abstention from using its veto? Moscow’s drive to integrate Azerbaijan into the EEU has resonated positively in the Armenian parliament, when the ruling Republican Party members argued that “If Azerbaijan becomes a member of EEU, the possibility of resumption of hostilities will be limited.”

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has long abandoned hope that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe framework may deliver the settlement of the Karabakh conflict and may find a new opportunity to join the EU. But from all indications, there is no rush on the part of Baku to make the move. Indeed, the summit between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan last Monday, October 16, in Geneva, has not yielded many results. The joint communique issued by the foreign ministers of the two countries states that “The meeting took place in a constructive atmosphere. The co-chairs expressed their satisfaction with these direct talks, which took place after a long interval. … As a next step, the co-chairs will organize working sessions with the ministers in the near future.”

Only President Sargsyan made a brief and cautious statement, while the Azeri side has kept silent. Of course, for Azerbaijan, it makes strategic sense to continue its war of attrition, to wait out Armenia’s depopulation rather than engage in a costly war.

One other element which contributes to Armenia’s assertive stand is the Chinese factor. China has been very generous toward Armenia, despite its miniscule size. People may wonder the reason behind this largess. But viewed through the prism of China’s global ambitions, the relationship may make more sense.

It is not only the West which has been applying a containment policy towards Russia. China is equally weary of Russia’s future course, although today their votes may coincide at the UN Security Council sessions. Beijing has been engaged in an ambitious global economic development plan to revive the ancient Silk Road, where Armenia has been featured since days of Xenophon. China’s Silk Road bypasses Russian territory to go through Central Asian republics, all the way to Europe. Beijing claims the plan is based on a win-win principle and has been implementing it without political dogmatism, as the former Soviet Union and the US have been doing.

While China is basing its plans on economic development, Turkey has a counter claim and expansion designs on the same territories. Turkey’s pan-Turkic plan includes the Koran, madrassas, Islamic extremism and linguistic unity against China’s economic offerings and those two currants will be on a collision course. Armenia is one of the beneficiaries of these counter currents.

Turkey also irks China by fanning the flames of irredentism among the restive Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Province. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also accused China’s leaders of committing “genocide” against the Uyghurs in the region.

Thus, economic and military competition between the West and Russia as well as China’s rise as a modern-day superpower are colliding in the Caucasus region, allowing some space for Armenia to maneuver its foreign policy.

 

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