Armenia’s Diplomatic Initiatives in the Nascent Cold War

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

It looks like the Cold War is back with a vengeance; Western capitals and Moscow are trading accusations or counter-accusations, and the recent poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer in London has amplified the Cold War rhetoric to the extent of lining up major Western capitals to combine their salvos against Russia.

These intensifying international tensions have only contributed to President Putin’s popularity domestically, netting him a landslide victory in his last term as president.

In the meantime, other nations whose destiny depends on these major forces are wondering where all the tensions eventually may lead. Armenia has certainly to be counted among those.

But ironically, Armenia and Artsakh have been taking initiatives which would not have been possible in the past under the same circumstances.

Frederica Mogherini, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs, has announced that never before have Armenia and the EU been as close. That relationship has already been reflected in the exchange visits of high-level political delegations between Armenia and European countries.

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It looks like developing relations with the EU is also extending to cover the US-Armenia relations.

Indeed, in these tense international relations, a parliamentary delegation from Armenia is visiting the US, while simultaneously a ministerial delegation headed by Artsakh President Bako Sahakyan is in the US, despite having triggered an angry diplomatic note from Baku to the US government. The US ambassador was called to the Foreign Ministry in Baku to protest the visit.

In the same vein, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the US lodged a protest at the State Department.

The Azerbaijani government’s objection is based on the presumption that offering a US visa to the de facto president of Artsakh is an implicit recognition of the breakaway state. There was also a threat in the Azeri protest, which said, “In response to this behavior by the US, Azerbaijan will proceed from the principle of reciprocity.”

Similar visits are motivated by political factors and eventually can be justified by policy. However, in this case, there was a legal fig leaf to justify the US stand. Rep. Frank Pallone, speaking at the meeting with President Sahakyan delegation stated: “One of the reasons that we introduced this bill [H. Res. 697] is to make it clear that the travel and communication with Artsakh — even though it is not recognized by the US — is very important.”

Support for H. Res. 697, introduced in January 2018, is growing, with 12 co-sponsors to date.

Incidentally, a timely piece also appeared in the media, signed by the former US ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, calling Washington to formally recognize Artsakh.

“It is time for the international community to welcome the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh/ Artsakh into the community of nations,” the ambassador wrote.

That piece certainly had its resonance in the diplomatic circles. But above all, the State Department’s response to the Azeri protest was interesting in the fact that it took a step further to assert to the Azeri government that the people of Artsakh have the right for a free and peaceful life.

During a Congressional luncheon and briefing in Washington this past weekend, President Sahakyan awarded medals of gratitude to a number of legislators, namely Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) and ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY), Representatives David Cicilline, Jim Costa, Brad Sherman, Adam Schiff and David Valadao. They all have contributed meaningfully to Artsakh or some have personally visited the unrecognized republic. In thanking the visiting dignitaries, they all expressed strong sentiments regarding the people of Artsakh and its political future.

President Sahakyan did not meet administration representatives — which anyway was not on the agenda — but most of the legislators he met are movers and shakers in the nation’s capital.

At the same time that the Artsakh delegation was visiting Washington, a parliamentary delegation from Armenia was also in the US. It included members of the ruling coalition as well as opposition party members. The delegates met their counterparts in the US, as well as with lobbying organizations, and went to community centers. The latter received more muted attention from the media because the US recognizes Armenia and such exchanges are within the scope of normal international relations. One outcome of this meeting was the activation of a trade commission to promote business and interests in Armenia.

But all these movements indicate that there is a change in the atmosphere. In the past, Western governments would not have welcomed such visits, especially within the context of deteriorating East-West relations, because Armenia was considered solidly in the Russian camp. But, at this time, when the West’s surrogate, the Turkish government, is after its own selfish interests while using the West’s political and military assets, the US and the EU have to promote their own interests, by themselves. Some of these interests are confined to weaning Armenia and the Caucasus from the Russian embrace and encouraging regional powers to honor economic sanctions instituted against Iran. Firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to have shifted the priorities of Washington with regard to the Iran nuclear deal, and in the coming days, may bring a more explicit policy change in that area.

As far as Armenian-Russian relations are concerned, some movement is also visible. Until recently Moscow had treated Armenia in a cavalier manner. In that context, the present rapprochement between Armenia and the West would have triggered angry reactions from Moscow. But at this time, the Kremlin is treating Armenia’s European aspirations with kid gloves.

While Armenia’s and Artsakh’s delegations are visiting the US, a Russian parliamentary delegation is in Yerevan meeting its counterparts in the Armenian Parliament. The delegation is headed by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Upper House of Russia’s Parliament, Constantin Kosachev.

In the past, the major sticking point between the relations of the two allies was the scale of modern weaponry sold by Russia to Azerbaijan. And always, the cynical answer from Moscow was that those sales constitute business transactions and sometimes, adding insult to injury, the answer would be that if Moscow refrains from selling those arms to Baku, the latter would only purchase them on the international market, policy postures notwithstanding.

The visiting delegation has toned down its previous arguments. When challenged during the interparliamentary meeting, Mr. Kosachev explained: “Russia is fulfilling its contracts with Azerbaijan that were concluded before April 2016, and we are obliged to do so in accordance with the provisions of those contracts. But this is a situation that existed up to the moment and according to the information I possess, it will not continue on the existing scale. Of course, we are reacting to the situation that occurred in April 2016. There is no doubt about it.”

This statement looks like a concession to Armenia’s concerns. The first question that comes to mind is that Moscow was not able to predict the results of its arms sales to Azerbaijan, and that they found out the truth after 200 Armenian victims shed their blood on the front lines and border villages as a result of an unexpected and brutal Azeri attack at that time.

The next question is the veracity or the motivation of this concession. Many in Armenia believe that this policy shift is not Moscow’s doing because as the sanctions against Russia are tightening, Azerbaijani leaders themselves would like to avoid offending their friends in the West by buying Russian arms in violation of the sanctions regime.

Whatever the motive, it is a welcome development which will eliminate a major hurdle in relations with Russia.

Armenia’s modest diplomatic initiatives will be evaluated in the near future, within the context of developing political storm.

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