Armenian-Russian Relations on Track Despite Pessimism in Media

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Armenian political circles and the news media in Yerevan put on their magnifying glasses to observe the Nikol Pashinyan-Vladimir Putin meeting on September 8 and draw conclusions from it. Of course, for a country of Armenia’s size, such a meeting is crucial. But viewed from the Russian perspective, it could mean a miniscule political agenda item tucked in among others.

The Putin-Pashinyan meeting took place within a political whirlwind in and around the Kremlin. Mr. Putin met President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan on September 1, in Sochi. He also met with the presidents of Turkey and Iran to seal Syria’s fate, flew to Vladivostok to meet Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to sign trade and industrial cooperation bills, while hosting a delegation from Vietnam in Moscow and ordering and supervising the largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War, in cooperation with China and Mongolia.

Quite an intense week of political activity for President Putin, and yet, he devoted two and a half hours of his time to meet with Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan.

This was the third meeting between the two leaders and the one most anticipated. The first meeting took place on May 14 in Sochi almost a week after Pashinyan had taken office, within the framework of the Eurasian Union gathering. The second happened on the occasion of the World Cup in Moscow in June.

The reason the third meeting was so anticipated was that relations had been souring between the two countries and problems were emerging to give rise to political speculations in both capitals.

Armenia was putting its house in order, and along the way had to sacrifice some sacred cows. Russia had not interfered in Armenia’s internal affairs when the Velvet Revolution was growing. Although that hands-off approach was much appreciated in Yerevan, they knew full well that the reason for that policy of restraint came mostly from the past negative experiences in Ukraine and Georgia rather than any other consideration.

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Moscow was watching the developments in Armenia with controlled patience, its level of nervousness escalating every time western statesmen and news media labeled the Velvet Revolution as a color revolution similar to the ones in Ukraine and Georgia, which ended up undercutting Russia’s influence in the region.

Most of the time, during this latest meeting, President Putin was quiet, except when he signaled his displeasure that his old friend Robert Kocharyan was incarcerated. He sent a birthday message to the former Armenian leader, something he had neglected to do since 2007, when Kocharyan was in power.

Since taking office, Pashinyan has never missed an opportunity to exalt the historic and strategic Armenian-Russian relations, but on the Russian side, Pashinyan’s anti-Russian rhetoric during his opposition campaign was still fresh in their memories. In Moscow’s calculations, however, the words did not match the government’s actions, when Armenia charged General Yuri Khachaturov with the crime of subverting the constitution by ordering the arrest and shooting of demonstrators in 2008, while he was serving as the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Then the Kremlin relegated to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the task of expressing its displeasure in view of the developments in Armenia. Lavrov characterized Khacaturov’s arrest — without notifying Russian partners — as an assault on CSTO’s reputation. Lavrov even hinted at the “simmering heat” in Yerevan to which Pashinyan humorously replied that indeed, the weather had been very hot lately.

In the atmosphere of escalating tensions and suspicions, it was feared that Russia may halt the delivery of $100 million worth of modern military hardware to Armenia. But fortunately, that fear was baseless.

The political team representing Armenia’s current government enjoys a lower level of trust among the Russian partners compared to the previous authorities, according to Artur Martirosyan, a conflict management specialist.

Asked to comment on the talks, before they took place, against the backdrop of existing uncertainties, Martirosyan said that the two leaders are meeting for the very purpose of finalizing certain points of contention and agreeing upon matters of urgent importance. “But that meeting, by and large, is being held for reasons of settling matters linked to that distrust. We can, certainly, leave it to Russia, but in the light of our [strategic] alliance with that country, the distrust cannot and should not remain Russia’s affair only,” he explained.

Despite all the apprehension, the meeting was concluded on a positive note. Pashinyan was almost jubilant in his statement. “My meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has just ended. We had a productive talk and stated that Armenian-Russian relations are at a brilliant level. There is not a single problem in any field of our relations,” he said.

Although much more guarded, Putin’s statement also had a positive spin. “Relations between Armenia and Russia are developing steadily in all directions. This concerns political relations, military, security issues and economic cooperation spheres,” the Russian leader said.

For energy-hungry Armenia, importing Russian gas is of vital importance.

“We are the largest investor in the Armenian economy and we can affirm that in this respect our relations are rather diversified,” Putin stated. He also touted the fact that Armenia buys Russian gas at the cheapest price of $150 per thousand cubic meters, to which Pashinyan retorted that by the time consumers receive that gas in Yerevan, the price rises to $270-$275 per thousand cubic meters due to the high Georgian transit fees and the Russian Gazprom’s monopoly in Armenia.

Putin promised to study the case.

Couched in a palatable diplomatic format, Pashinyan has delivered a message that his backers at home and in the West much appreciate, that of Armenia’s sovereign status in dealing with Russia.

Armenia is no longer an “inferior vassal,” as the guru of the Velvet Revolution, Levon Shirinian would say. Indeed, Pashinyan has stated: “Russia and Armenia have no unsolvable problems. Our countries rely on the principles of respect for the interests of each other’s affairs and non-interference therein. We are determined to develop relations further, not only bilaterally, but also within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security organizations.”

Besides confirming mutual respect and pledge for future productive cooperation, Pashinyan has come up with making a positive step in the Karabakh issue. Indeed, Vahram Atanesyan, the correspondent for Hay Dzayn in Stepanakert, who reviews Azeri press meticulously, states that there was speculation in that country that Putin was ready to reprimand Pashinyan on his position on Artsakh. But, the commentator states, they were bitterly disappointed. The Azeri leadership came to the realization that Aliyev’s bellicose rhetoric will not make a dent in Yerevan. Pashinyan delivered a clear message to Putin and to Baku that Armenia will be ready to compromise when Baku is ready for them. Also, only elected officials of Artsakh may speak on behalf of the people there. As far as the seven regions under Artsakh are considered, the so-called “occupied territories,” they are part of that republic by its constitution.

Indeed, when we read the speech and the news release after the Putin-Aliyev meeting, reference to Artsakh by Putin is generic, run-of-the-mill statement but excludes the military solution.

The balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan is in Moscow’s hand. Putin has refrained from playing his Azeri card against Armenia, because he uses his options sparingly and because of political prudence, rather than charity.

At the end of the day, if we take a fair account of the meeting, the best way to describe it was Pashinyan’s characterization: that despite apprehensive predictions in Armenian and Russian media, the meeting was a reasonable success.

 

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