Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Armenia’s Geopolitical Orientation: Going West or Calling Russia’s Bluff?

Photo from President of Armenia's web site. It captures Presidents Sarkissian and Putin, in Moscow, earlier this month.

There has been speculation among scholars and analysts that Russia’s main ally in the Transcaucasus region, Armenia, has been moving away from Russia and gravitating toward the EU in its geopolitical orientation. Armenian President Serzh Sarkissian’s announcement earlier this month that Armenia intended to join the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia came as a surprise to some, who previously believed Armenia was moving toward an Association Agreement with the EU's Eastern Partnership.

As the geopolitical battle for Eurasia continues between Russia and the West, the latter may have perceived an ostensible decline in Armenia-Russia relations, and as a result, an opportunity to grab Armenia’s geopolitical loyalty. Yet closer observation reveals that Armenia has not been trying to leave Russia’s orbit, but rather has been playing politics with Russia, and is simply trying to assert its national sovereignty vis-à-vis Russia while still remaining within the Russian Federation’s geopolitical sphere.

Sure, since 2012, relations between Russia and Armenia have not been especially warm. The most recent manifestation of these strained ties is Armenian President Serzh Sarkissian’s refusal to participate in the latest summit held by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

And It’s not out of the question that a country with a strong Russophile history, such as Armenia, ultimately joins a Western- and European-oriented bloc. A classic example is Bulgaria, which historically had strong ties to Russia due to the latter’s role in helping it secure independence from the Ottoman Turks. (Bulgaria’s longtime communist ruler, Todor Zhikov, even toyed with the idea of making Bulgaria the sixteenth Soviet republic in the late 1980’s). Yet Bulgaria is now a part of the EU and NATO.

But anyone who excitably jumps to the conclusion that Armenia will switch course and become a Western protégé should remember that neighboring Georgia was not protected by NATO during the 2008 war with Russia, and that the EU’s Eastern Partnership does not seem bent on absorbing more members. Armenia most likely sees this and wonders what the true benefits of aligning with Europe and the West will be.

As I argued in a previous blog post, the election of Bidzina Ivanishvili in Georgia was not necessarily a full-fledged turning away from the West by Georgia, but an understanding that Ivanishvili’s foreign policy was a much-needed application of realpolitik, which requires the need to strike a balance between Russia and the West. While in the case of Armenia it is not so much the issue of having to strike a delicate balance, the political commonality is that actions taken for or against one of the major geopolitical poles should not indicate a plenipotentiary shift in orientation.

The real issue at hand is that Armenia seemingly seeks to assert its independence from Russia only up to the point that Russia is reminded that Armenia is a sovereign nation and not an exclave, as Armenia was described by former Russian Minister of Industry Viktor Khristenko (a statement made in response to Sarkissian’s accusations at a CTSO summit that Russia had sold weapons to Azerbaijan). Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, describes Armenia as enacting a “strategic vision” to try to break Moscow’s grip on the country, but not of trying to switch sides completely. "When Armenia does challenge Russia's preference, the end result is usually more respect, given the Russian reliance on Armenia” Giragosian says.

Some other CIS states have remained generally pro-Russian in their geopolitical orientation, yet have not been afraid to throw their weight around in regards to their relationship with Russia. Both Belarus and Ukraine have taken measures to assert their sovereignty vis-à-vis Russia. For instance, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who has consistently received Russian support, has thus far refused Russian overtures to join the Russian-led Customs Union or its desired outgrowth, the Eurasian Union. Some Russian policy analysts have even asserted that downgrading the official status of the Russian language in Tajikistan was a move by Tajik officials to “blackmail” Moscow in order to gain economic concessions. Yet overall Tajikistan remains a strong partner for Russia.

Armenia-Russia trade relations are strong, with a 20 percent commodity turnover in trade between the two countries, according to Rossiskaya Gazeta. (Russian government statistics indicate that this volume of commodity turnover saw a 71 million dollar decline between 2008 and 2010. The volume of exports between the two countries fell by 48 million dollars during that same period. This, however, may have had more to do with the global financial crisis than a politically-induced shift in trade priorities). Armenia’s trade relationship with Russia can only have been strengthened by the closure of the Armenian-Turkish border since 1993.

Despite these strong economic links, according to Russian academic Alexei Portanski, President Sarkissian and his ministers had previously shied away from establishing a firm position on joining either the Customs Union or the Eurasian Union (its proposed outgrowth). This was most likely for the same reasons that Ukraine has been skeptical about the Union: joining may ultimately lead to a loss of sovereignty, something which no state naturally wants. Moscow’s application of pressure on Armenia, however, seems to have convinced the latter that closer association with Russia is better for Armenia.

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