Armenia has gone from negotiating an Association Agreement with the EU to expressing a desire to join the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia; a decision that threatens to fundamentally undermine the country’s reform prospects, particularly following recent developments in Ukraine.
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By Edgar Khachatryan
“Those who think there will be another Maidan in Armenia may have such a Maidan in their own backyard”, stated Galust Sahakyan, leader of the governing Republican Faction of the Armenian National Assembly, suggesting Armenian opposition parties should not be too excited about events taking place elsewhere. In order to understand how Ukrainian developments are viewed in Armenia, we first need to understand the political situation of a country that shared over seventy years of Soviet history, but which has currently chosen a different political path to Ukraine.
Not so long ago when negotiating an Association Agreement with the EU, Yerevan officials used to speak from high platforms about their commitment to signing the Agreement at any cost. The enthusiasm and convincing speeches of the Armenian authorities suddenly disappeared on September 3rd 2013 during a meeting with Vladimir Putin, when president Serzh Sargsyan suddenly announced Armenia’s “overwhelming desire” to join the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. Nobody in Armenia could understand precisely whose wish Sargsyan expressed during the meeting, since neither political nor public discussions had been held in Armenia on the subject.
Whilst people searched for an answer, the authorities immediately put their “independent and impartial” media into action to help people understand the situation better and orientate themselves “easily”. For days and nights the media kept reminding people about the advantages of having a powerful strategic partner in the region, about Russia’s role and importance in resisting military aggression from Azerbaijan and Turkey, and about Armenia’s happy and “fat” years in the Soviet Union. These beautiful images were occasionally followed by scenes of citizens on Maidan expressing their dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian authorities.
The footage, mainly made up from scenes broadcast by Russian channels, exclusively showed clashes between activists and ‘Berkut’ troops, and the daunting number of police and civilians injured as a result. The videos aired on TV were followed by interviews with analysts, political scientists and politicians who were diligently trying to prove that Armenia is not Ukraine, and that we Armenians cannot allow bloodshed in our country, a country that has already seen so many tragedies.
As events in Ukraine unfolded, Russia increased its activities in Armenia, aimed to promote the interests of its “brother-country” in more and more visible ways. Russia reduced by 30% the price of natural gas for Armenia (a prices difference that is not, however, passed on to the consumer). According to the authorities, the gas price has been constantly changing since 2011; however, consumer prices in Armenia have been $180 per 1000 m3 over this period. As a result, a debt of $300m accumulated over two years; half of which Russia promised to pay, whereas the other half is supposed to be paid by Armenia. During negotiations on the issue, the Armenian government sold the remaining 20% of shares in gas company HayRusGazard to Russia in order to pay the debt.
The gas deal concerned not only the gas price, but also stated that:
- The Armenian party guarantees that until December 31, 2043, the rights and interests of Gazprom OJSC, HayRusgazard CJSC and their respective successors arising out of or in connection with the Agreement are not subject to change, amendment, withdrawal or reduction without Russia’s consent as of the date of signing the agreement.
- The Armenian party guarantees that until December 31, 2043 no laws, decisions, decrees or other legal acts will be changed, cancelled or in any way violate the legal rights and interests of Gazprom OJSC, HayRusgazard CJSC and their respective successors as of the date of signing the agreement.
In reality, the gas deal conceals a different kind of agreement between Armenia and Russia: up to December 2043, Russia ensures unrestricted falsified elections and impunity towards such exercises. That is to say, Russia ensures that it will not allow changes of power in Armenia until December 2043, as this would contradict Russian interests. Thus it appears that, in order to protect its own interests, Putin’s regime protects the position and interests of Armenia’s ruling elite.
At the Forum of Russian Compatriots in Yerevan, Russian ambassador to Armenia Ivan Volinkin announced that Russia will halt any attempts at “aggressive intervention of other countries in the domestic affairs of its friendly states in an effort to instill ideas alien to our mind and soul”. In other words, Moscow simply declares its rights to intervene in Armenia’s internal affairs, or announces that any coup attempts in Armenia “initiated” or supported by a third country will be crushed by Russia.
The reaction from the majority of Armenian citizens to developments in the Autonomous Region of Crimea is of particular interest. The announcement of a referendum on Crimea’s status aroused strong feelings of empathy among Armenians towards the ethnic Russian population of the autonomous region. It was clear that the phrase “right to self-determination”, formulated by the Russians and repeated by the Armenian propaganda machine, could not leave people in Armenia indifferent. There is hardly any Armenian who would argue with or question the importance and predominance of the principle of self-determination. Since the Armenian viewpoint on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh also have the right to self-determination, immediately Crimea was referred to as a “Russian Karabakh”. The stream of articles produced about illegal and violent activities by extremists and Bandera-adepts against the Russian population in Crimea stirred more and more compassion among Armenians towards a people who, as most would see it, were now “sharing the bitter fate of the Armenians”.
During the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) plenary session on Crimea, the Armenian delegation voted against the resolution that called for sanctions against Russia. “If the point is that territorial integrity should prevail while the right to self-determination will rely only on the consent of the central authorities, then, in this case, regardless of whether our relations with Russia are friendly or not, our position is clear and it is in our national and state interests”, commented David Harutyunyan, Head of Armenian Delegation to PACE. The few civil society groups in Armenia that considered Russia’s actions towards Crimea as annexation that should not go unpunished were once more labelled traitors and secret agents prepared by the West, trying to undermine the foundation of the Armenian state with their actions.
Russia’s role in Armenia
According to David Shahnazaryan, head of the “Concord” Center and former head of the National Security Ministry, the Armenian authorities, parliament (with the exception of some MPs), analysts, certain civil groups, criminal elements and oligarchs all together make up a system that is fully-governed by the Kremlin, and this system is actually responsible for the current situation in Armenia, with little possibility for change. “The Armenian government is formed in Russia. Armenian foreign policy is shaped in Russia. The Republic’s security system is formed in Russia. This is accepted by everyone”, says Mr. Shahnazaryan.
Russia is always seen as a protector of Armenia. So, what do we gain from the Russian military presence that is so valued by many? From the point of view of security, the gain may be more psychological than practical. Many think that the presence of Russian troops is a restrictive, preventive factor for Turkey or Azerbaijan. It may guarantee security from possible attack, since attacks on a Collective Security Treaty Organization  member would be viewed as an attack on Russia. For Russia, meanwhile, this is a warrant to restore its former dominant position in the South Caucasus. Thus, the kind of policy Russia is implementing towards Armenia (for instance, when it continues to selling arms to Azerbaijan, or when it uses and will continue to use Armenia as a tool to destabilize the region when necessary), is almost not being discussed.
Today, many objects of great significance and strategic importance for Armenia are under Russian control: HayRusgazard, Electric Networks of Armenia, Hrazdan Thermal Power Plant, Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, the Armenian Railways, telephone company Armente etc. It is important to understand that Russia has enormous leverage to influence both the internal and external policies of Armenia and make it even more dependent on Russia. The relations between Russia and Armenia are similar to a “forced friendship”, with the potential to turn into a lord-vassal relationship at any moment; and the characterization “strategic alliance” may lose its relevance at any time. After the Ukrainian events, it should be clear to everyone what the combined authorities of Putin and Sargsyan are capable of in case there is an attempt of a power change in Armenia.
Touching upon the current political discourse in Armenia, it must be noted that Maidan and the Ukrainian developments are presented as an anti-Russian processes initiated by Western countries. This is the sign of an old conflict between Russia (the Soviet Union) and the West, and this is the reason why the Armenian society is forced to view anyone with a different mentality as an enemy. Armenian society considers joining the Customs Union in order to join Russia’s efforts to resist Western pressure and aggression. Armenia is promised a number of benefits if it joins the Customs Union: solutions to unemployment, custom free import of goods from Customs Union countries; upgraded roads and railways, and even economic stabilization of Nagorno Karabakh.
It seems that nobody in Armenia is able to critically analyze the situation and to ask very logical questions, such as how Russia will develop Armenia’s economy if all the Russian economy is based on its energy resources? In fact Russia has few other industries except for the arms industry. There is hardly any other sphere that Russia can develop in Armenia, because all other spheres of great importance are already under Russian control. There has been no public discussion that would raise questions such as whether Armenia imports anything from Belarus or Kazakhstan, or what is the percentage of imports from Russia compared with imports from other countries? It seems nobody really asks such questions.
For some unknown reasons, many Armenians believe that Russia or integration in the Customs Union will take Armenia out of the blockade, and will open its roads and railways. It is unclear how Russia will do that if the closest neighbour of Armenia is Georgia, with whom Russia has almost no affairs. Armenia and Russia do not have common borders, thus any communication will be interrelated with Armenia’s neighbouring countries. In addition, Georgia chose to join the Association Agreement with the EU, so very soon the custom policies and legislations will be incompatible. This fact creates even more obstacles and challenges for Armenia’s collaboration and cooperation with its closest neighbours.
How can Russia take Armenia out of the blockade if one of the reasons for such a blockade is Russia and its relations with Armenia’s neighbours? Armenia’s railway to Russia is blocked because, besides going through Georgia, the railway passes through Abkhazia. With the issue over Abkhazia unsolved, the promise of railway development is unrealistic. It seems like a political mockery that a country involved in the Minsk group process as an independent mediator helping the Nagorno Karabakh conflict parties solve the issue in a peaceful way promises economic development for Nagorno Karabakh in case Armenia joins the Customs Union.
Armenians do not pay attention to the fact how the human rights issues will be solved in the Customs Union. If one looks at any human rights-related report, it is clear that Russia and Belarus are in the lowest positions in terms of human rights protection, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. And now Armenia has chosen to join these countries. Only a small number of people are interested what will happen as a result of a so called “friendship” and realize that this risks the existence of civil society and the participation of citizens in the decision-making processes.
Thus, in case Armenia joins the Customs Union it makes no sense to even talk about democracy in Armenia. Unfortunately, the Armenian government and – through propaganda – now also Armenian society seems to be ready to pay with its sovereignty, freedom and democratic values for some promises of pseudo-economic development and security. This is the nearest future of Armenia in case there is no protest from broader segments of society. Unfortunately these painful realities are hidden behind romantic memories of Soviet Union, and, unfortunately, the younger generation is mainly indifferent towards such romantic memories. The only hope that there will be a change in Armenia is that it will come with the new generation, who hopefully have the potential and desire.
Edgar Khachatryan is the director of Peace Dialogue, a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation. He specializes in international peacebuilding trainings, consultancy and expertise in gender and peace processes, violence prevention, and post-war stabilization and recovery.
1) In 1992, six post-Soviet states belonging to the Commonwealth of Independent States—Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—signed the Collective Security Treaty. Three other post- Soviet states—Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Georgia—signed the next year and the treaty took effect in 1994. Five years later, six of the nine—all but Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan—agreed to renew the treaty for five more years, and in 2002 those six formally agreed to create the Collective Security Treaty Organization as a military alliance.