How Long Will the Self-Delusion Last?

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Armenia’s relations with Russia are of vital importance. The same could be said about Armenian-Turkish relations. But in the latter case, Turkey determines the terms of its relations with Armenia and Yerevan does not hold the key in those relations. A huge shadow hangs over Turkey, that of the genocide. But despite that, Turkey is able to implement its policies in the region almost unhampered.

Armenian-Russian relations do not have the same baggage, yet they determine Armenia’s security, economic viability to a certain extent and in the most extreme case, its very existence.

Armenia’s geostrategic position more or less defines its policy with Russia, leaving almost no room for a choice. To defy that determinism goes against common sense, let alone the ability to maintain a healthy foreign policy.

Georgia is almost in the same situation but former leader Mikheil Saakashvili’s rash policy brought about the amputation of his country after it picked a fight with Russia. And the West, which had fueled his arrogance, remained as a neutral bystander when war broke out in August 2008. There are some lessons to be learned from Georgia’s experiences.

The Velvet Revolution of April, which was supposed to be only a domestic affair to get rid of a corrupt government that had been insensitive to the needs of the people, today is facing some foreign policy challenges, particularly straining Armenian-Russian relations.

Citizens of Armenia are being assured by the leader of the revolution that there are no changes in Armenian-Russian relations, but all signals indicate otherwise.

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Great powers have long memories. At times, they pretend that some hostile actions or statements by neighbors or adversaries are forgotten, but old accounts come to the surface when the chips are down.

When Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his opposition group were fighting the corrupt regime, they did not exempt that regime’s foreign policy from their campaign rhetoric. The reason for the Russian military base in Gyumri was questioned as well as Armenia’s long-standing treaties with Russia. Now Moscow shows openly that it will not let Yerevan cherry-pick the terms of that relationship with Moscow and has been holding the new administration accountable for its past posture, particularly when the media which ushered the revolutionary government to victory is continuing its anti-Russian campaign.

Before coming to power, when Pashinyan was questioned in the parliament about this antagonism toward the Russian base and about his harsh criticism of Russian policies in general, he gave a very realistic answer. He stated that he has to contend with existing realities. That answer may be satisfactory in Armenia but it looks like it did not cut muster in Moscow and it has come to haunt his new government which enjoys overwhelming popular support.

In recent months, Moscow has sent several signals to Yerevan expressing its displeasure over the course that the new government has adopted. Many of the Western heads of state congratulated Pashinyan for his landslide victory in December. President Putin, however, has yet to make a public comment on the fair and democratic elections. To make things worse, he sent his New Year’s greetings to Robert Kocharyan, the former president, who is currently in jail, and to Serzh Sargsyan, Pashinyan’s predecessor, who is in semi-hiding after being toppled from power.

But more dramatic developments have taken place within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) forums with the acquiescence of President Putin. At this time, it is beside the point whether it was simply poking the hornet’s nest when Armenia recalled Gen. Yuri Khachaturov from Moscow, where he was serving as the general secretary of the CSTO, and arrested him on charges related to the 2008 popular protests after the presidential election. The arrest of Khachaturov even led to a rare public rebuke from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

What followed next was significant; when Armenia tried to keep the position for the country for the duration of the term, it was rejected. Instead, Belarus and Kazakhstan promoted Gen. Stanislav Zas to replace Khachaturov and the candidate made official visits to Astana and Moscow to legitimize the stolen term. He even invited himself to Yerevan to shove his candidacy down the throat of the Armenian government.

While all these dramatics were taking place, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus publicly insulted and taunted Pashinyan on the Khachaturov arrest, blaming the new prime minister for losing his country the CSTO leadership, while President Putin maintained a meaningful silence.

Kazakhstan and Belarus, the so-called strategic allies of Armenia, have been promoting Azerbaijan’s membership in the EEU when Armenia is at war with that country. Azeri petrodollars have bought Lukashenko’s allegiance.

Pashinyan in late December paid a visit to Moscow to negotiate natural gas prices which stood at $150 per 1000 cubic feet. At the conclusion of the trip, gas prices went up to $165. Pashinyan had assured the public that it will continue paying the same price through an “internal arrangement.” People knowledgeable in the area fear that the government will tap Armenia’s strategic resources which leaves the country vulnerable should a war break out.

In the past, the Iranian government had indicated that it could provide natural gas at competitive prices to Armenia. Voices have been heard that the country has to approach Tehran. But it is highly questionable  whether the government in Iran will jeopardize its relations with Russia to save Armenia when Iran is in the same boat with Russia vis-à-vis US sanctions and both are strategic allies in Syria.

No matter what measures the Armenian side adopts, in all probability natural gas supplies by Russia may cost $300 by the end of year.

Energy is a powerful political tool in Moscow’s hand, which can (and is) used to enforce its policies.

Another sign of Armenia’s alienation from its strategic allies is the decision of the Kazakhstan government to cancel flights between Astana and Yerevan in an attempt to further isolate Armenia.

In his domestic policy, Pashinyan, true to his pre-revolution pledge, has been keeping the courts independent and resisting the temptation to give in to mob psychology which is out for blood. That maintains his government’s democratic credentials in the eyes of Western societies.

But the news media and social media, which carefully orchestrated his ascent to power, are replete with anti-Russian rhetoric. And the tenor of that rhetoric is hitting Moscow, before Pashinyan can clearly enunciate his government’s position toward Russia.

For example, one pundit, who writes under the pen name of Sarkis Arzruni, has stated the following in his analytical column: “No matter how much Nikol Pashinyan may insist that Armenia has not changed its foreign policy vector, it is obvious that the developments of the revolution will bring Armenia to a point where the Russian factor will become a policy issue. For Putin’s Russia, there are no allies; all countries are either enemies or vassals. In the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution Pashinyan’s team is trying to change the status of a vassal, for which it has been antagonized in Moscow.”

It is anyone’s guess why this writer is hiding behind a mask. There are other similar writers under assumed names. One thing is very obvious: the lexicon that these analysts are using is that of “grant eaters,” as they are called in Armenia. Their calculations seem to be that once Armenian-Russian relations are spoiled, Armenia will land in the NATO structure. They are not worried about the Turkish factor and its power in the NATO alliance.

At this time, Armenian-Russian relations are on a shaky footing. The goal of the Velvet Revolution was domestic reform and the defeat of the corrupt regime. Pashinyan repeatedly assured Armenians and the international community that Armenia will not change in its international relations. If that policy is subverted, we should expect problems on the horizon. Problems that Armenia can ill afford, let alone overcome.