Tension in Armenian-Russian Relations

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

To state that Armenia and Russia are on a collision course does not make one an alarmist. Indeed, the anti-Russian rhetoric is heating up in Armenia’s media and in political discussions, and Russia has been retaliating discreetly, perhaps saving a major or possibly devastating response for a later date.

No one should be naïve enough to believe that anti-Russian sentiments and insults spewing out of certain media outlets have their origins in Armenia. They arrived in Armenia on the heels of the Velvet Revolution and they are being orchestrated from abroad.

This view should not take away anything from what the revolution brought to society in Armenia. No one is shedding tears for the demise of the old regime, except certain holdovers from the past.

However, if the orchestration intensifies to blur the delineation between the genuine goals of the revolution and an anti-Russian campaign, the revolution itself may end up as a casualty.

At this point, we have enough historic distance to note the parallels between the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the revolution in Kyrgyzstan, to see that all three have been carried out through the same methods, bear the same signature and consequently are meant to serve the same purposes.

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It would be disingenuous to dissociate the Velvet Revolution from the others. And every day, new problems are springing up to drive another wedge between Armenia and Russia, which only seem to demonstrate the veracity of the above statement.

Hasmik Vartanyan, a political analyst, stated in a recent interview with Aysor.am: “Despite the official pronouncements about the brilliant Armenian-Russian relations, the authorities in Armenia after the Velvet Revolution have failed to dissipate Russia’s distrust of Armenia and on the contrary, have been exacerbating the situation through anti-Russian domestic actions and adverse rhetoric.”

She also referred to a situation where both parties have given political asylum to activists wanted in their home countries. Moscow has refused to extradite Mihran Poghosyan, an official in the previous government charged with embezzlement and abuse of office, to Armenia and Yerevan has given sanctuary to Vitaly Shishkin, an anti-government activist in Russia who has already spent four years in jail, in response. According to Vartanyan, the standoff is only the tip of the iceberg of the problems driving apart the two allies.

Some charlatans in Armenia have claimed that Armenia has given an adequate response to Moscow and that is a sign of asserting one’s sovereignty, without realizing that a country’s sovereignty is defined by its relative strength, which is commensurate with its political power and clout.

In addition to the standoff in the case of the asylum seekers, there are other immediate factors increasing tensions between the two countries:

  • The chorus of “grant-eaters” involved in the anti-Russian campaign
  • The activities of the Sasna Tserer militant group
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming visit to Yerevan and his planned meeting with former President Robert Kocharyan
  • Nikol Pashinyan’s inflammatory statements.

The “grant-eaters” are individuals or groups who receive grants from foreign governments or agencies to promote a certain political agenda under the benign goals of promoting democracy, social reform, family values, etc. Some of these activists operate and publish under assumed names because they are part of the current administration. Just to name a few, Mariam Grigoryan, Hakop Patalyan, Sarkis Arzruni, Aram Amoduni, and Siranoush Papyan, among others.

They publish day in and day out, accusing Russia of treating Armenia as “a vassal state” and pointing to greener pastures in the West under NATO or the European Union. They count on the ignorance of their public, who, supposedly, cannot guess at a potential place for Armenia in the NATO structure, where Greece is the underdog for the NATO leadership, whose priority is appeasing Turkey, despite their misgivings about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s belligerence.

These pundits also would like to disguise the lip service that Georgia received from the West when it tempted Russia into a war.

The militant group Sasna Tserer acts as a political party but does not avoid armed confrontation as evidenced by its overrunning a police station and killing three officers. Their leaders are out of jail because Pashinyan’s government found a loophole in the law to set them free. One of its leaders, Varuzhan Avetissyan, has stated: “Armenia is Russia’s colony and Nikol is refusing to take action and liberate our homeland.”

Another leader, Jirayr Sefilian, has warned that Moscow is plotting to overthrow Pashinyan.” Both Avetissyan and Sefilian are heroes of the Karabakh war and they confirm the adage that war heroes or revolutionaries should never aspire to become rulers or statesmen.

Another problem which is increasing tensions is President Putin’s visit to Yerevan on October 1, to attend the Eurasian Economic Union’s annual meeting. On the sidelines of the meeting, he has decided to visit Kocharyan, who is currently in jail. Now a national debate has erupted in Armenia, whether to “entertain” Putin in Kocharyan’s cell or to set the latter free based on an act of the Constitutional Court, whose president, Hrayr Tovmasyan, is already mired in a controversy.

Putin’s plan to visit Kocharyan has triggered another scandal by a leader of the Velvet Revolution, David Ioannisyan, who has written on his Facebook page, “If Vladimir Putin wishes to visit Robert Kocharyan in his jail cell, he should make sure we don’t close the door behind him.”

This incident is compared to another one in Georgia, where Giorgi Gabunia, an anti-Russian TV host, showered Putin with swear words. Although Georgia is not on friendly terms with Russia, the government sacked the director of the TV station. But nothing similar has happened in Armenia. Ioannisyan is a confidant of Pashinyan who had recently given him a $70,000-grant from the state coffers to go and monitor the presidential elections in Karabakh. That grant has already touched off a wave of resentments.

Some statements by Pashinyan are touching a raw nerve in the Kremlin. One example is his long interview with the French-Armenian magazine Nouvelles d’Armenie, where answering a question he said: “When Russia sells arms to Azerbaijan, it is a cause for concern. By this statement I want to say that we have to rid ourselves from our centuries-old complexes. We are sovereign partners. If they have concerns about our actions, we also have concerns about their actions.”

This statement has been cheered by one of the “grant-eaters” called Sarkis Arzruni, who writes, “The above statement is a crucial part of Nikol’s interview. I believe here Nikol is ridding himself from his fetters and he is sending sovereign messages to Moscow on Armenian-Russian relations. That, of course, is a positive sign.”

But Russia has reacted to the intensifying anti-Russian sentiments indirectly. Indeed, on September 5, Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, commented on Pashinyan’s other statement on August 5 in Karabakh, where he said, “Artsakh is Armenia and that is all.”

She said, “Of course, we understand that there are internal rhetorical settings which reflect opinions and political movements and parties, given that we speak about a democratic country. There is also a peace process, with its participants and co-sponsors, and international efforts to reach a peaceful settlement. The statements should be in tune with the context of the joint efforts aimed at peaceful settlement.”

In simple terms, the Russian Foreign Ministry is chiding Pashinyan for jeopardizing the peace process. But one could also ask where Ms. Zakharova was when Azeri President Ilham Aliyev claimed the entire territory of Armenia as part of historic Azerbaijan?

The simple answer to those questions is that Russia has been irked enough to air its pro-Azerbaijani bias.

All those cases and statements have been contributing to rising tensions between Armenia and Russia. But to what end? Does this escalation help Armenia in any way or is it orchestrated by outside forces that do not take into consideration Armenia’s interests?

Russia may not be a perfect ally but by geostrategic default, Armenia has developed relations with Russia over the centuries.

Today, Russia is Armenia’s major trading partner and its primary arms supplier. Its military base is certainly self-serving to project its power in the Caucasus and beyond in the Middle East. But it is also a hedge against existential threats from Turkey.

Armenia does not have the luxury of too many choices to play its security against a sense of virtual sovereignty, which is a de facto result of its political standing.

No major country will shape its foreign policy based on sentiments, charity or moral principles; only interests will define foreign policy. Armenia must understand this fact, accept it as a norm of international relations and participate in the game on those terms.

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