Armenia: A Russian outpost in the Caucasus? - February, 2008

Armenia: A Russian outpost in the Caucasus?

February, 2008

Just as Russia has aggressively increased its economic presence in Armenia, impending presidential elections that have aggravated relations with its neighbouring states have seen the political leadership leaning toward the West. Armenia is perched high in the Caucasus Mountains flanked on one side by Georgia, internationally important for security reasons, and by crucial players in the energy game, Iran and Azerbaijan, along its southern border. Armenia's unique situation - with over one-fifth of its nationals living abroad - has significant economic influence on the smallest post-Soviet state, though the diaspora is stripped of voting power. According to data from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, remittances from the 8-million-strong Armenian diaspora pushes the country's GDP per capita higher than that of its neighbour, rising economic power Georgia. Formerly known as the Soviet Union's manufacturing hub, Armenia has remained firmly within Russia's radius since its industry fell apart with the 1991 collapse of the communist regime.

Compounding its military presence in the country, Russia has ramped up its economic presence in recent years, now owning near total control over Armenia's energy and transportation sectors. A vital pipeline project to diversify energy dependency away from Russia by carrying gas from Iran has also come under Russian gas monopoly Gazprom's control in 2006. Russian ties are in part to offset political embargoes along two of its borders due to unresolved territorial disputes with Azerbaijan and a failure to achieve reconciliation over the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire. But amid election campaign opposition accusations that Russia's growing economic presence poses a threat to Yerevan's sovereignty, the current administration has been more circumspect about its alliances. The special relationship showed fault lines over Russia's warming relations with Armenia's longtime foe Azerbaijan and its economic blockade of Georgia, which has a spill-over effect on Armenian business. In response, Yerevan has turned towards the West, where a large Armenian diaspora is actively lobbying the small state's interest. "Yerevan is finding it increasingly important to balance Russia against a dialogue with NATO and interesting the European Union," said Thomas Gomart, head of the Russian/CIS programme at Paris-based Institut Francais des Relations Internationales. But whatever the inter-state relations, Armenia's ties to Russia through the diaspora there are the most important, said Gegam Khalatyan, the president of the Association of Armenians in Russia.

The Armenian diaspora in Russia counts about 2 million, and - unlike other diasporas - has grown exponentially in the past five years with over two thirds of immigrants making Russia their home. Remittances sent home from Russia amount to 1 million dollars - the total Russian investment in the country last year. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov tacitly displayed Russia's interest and support for the incumbent presidential candidate by paying his counterpart a visit two weeks before Armenia's elections. The meeting reinforced Russia's economic domination with crucial bilateral deals signed that handed Russia's state railway company the management of Armenia's network for the next 30 years. The joint construction of Armenia's first power plant and smoothing out the last wrinkles in dividing almost total control of the country's energy sector between Russian state-monopolies Gazprom and Unified Energy Systems was also agreed upon. But, surprisingly, the latest Russian takeovers in the region - where it is fast loosing influence to the West - seemed to reinforce the leadership's move for closer ties to other governments. Though none of the nine Armenian candidates competing for the executive office are indifferent to Russia, opposition leaders and local analysts have grown increasingly suspicious of Russia's economic power during the election campaign.


Armenia only strategic ally for Russia in South Caucasus

A significant breakthrough occurred in the Russian-Armenian relations during past eight years, said Nikolay Ryzhkov, member of the RF Federation Council, co-chair of the Russian-Armenian commission for interparliamentary cooperation. “Frequent presidential visits as well as conduction of the Year of Russia in Armenia and the Year of Armenia in Russia helped the relationship, he said. “Russia and Armenia enjoy good political relations. Undoubtedly, the atmosphere is created by our leaders. There are possibilities to fortify our military base in Gyumri, to develop economic and humanitarian contacts,” Mr Ryzhkov said. “At the moment we are all awaiting the February 19 presidential election. The shift of power in our countries will take place almost simultaneously and I am hopeful that the policy of past eight years formed owing to activities of Presidents Kocharian and Putin will undergo no changes,” he went on. “When I was Prime Minister I treated all of three South Caucasian republics equally. Now, the situation is different. Armenia is Russia’s only strategic ally in the South Caucasus. I am confident that the RF leadership will not allow losing such a partner,” Mr Ryzhkov said in an interview with RIA Novosti.


In related news:


As the outcome of Armenia’s upcoming presidential election looks increasingly unpredictable, Russia is exercising unusual caution in backing a transfer of power from outgoing President Robert Kocharian to his chief lieutenant, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian. Moscow has only indirectly and timidly endorsed Sarkisian’s presidential bid, avoiding the kind of aggressive pre-election interference to which it has resorted in other former Soviet republics, notably Ukraine. Kocharian and Sarkisian have moved Armenia even closer to Russia during their decade-long joint rule and have reason to expect a payback from the Kremlin in the run-up to the February 19 vote. It came in the form of a February 6 visit to Yerevan by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, which officially focused on bilateral commercial relations. The two sides signed a number of agreements that will further reinforce Russia’s economic presence in the South Caucasus state. In particular, Russia’s state railway formally assumed long-term management of Armenia’s rail network.

The two governments also agreed to set up a joint venture that will explore and develop Armenia’s uranium reserves. More importantly, the Russians reaffirmed their strong interest in the planned construction of a new Armenian nuclear plant, which is expected to replace the existing Soviet-era facility at Metsamor by 2016. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the state nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, said Russian companies are well placed to win a relevant tender by the authorities in Yerevan (Kommersant, February 7). Speaking at a joint news conference after the talks, Zubkov and Sarkisian welcomed a 65% surge in Russian Armenian trade which totaled about $700 million in 2007 and may well pass the $1 billion mark this year. Zubkov said Moscow will help expand a rail-ferry service between the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti and Russia’s Port-Kavkaz, which was launched last year and mainly caters for cargos shipped to and from landlocked Armenia (Armenian Public Television, February 6). Few observers doubt that the main purpose of Zubkov’s visit, the second in less than six months, was to boost Sarkisian’s electoral chances in a country where pro-Russian sentiment has traditionally run high. As an unnamed Armenian government official quoted by Moskovskii Komsomolets on February 7 explained, “The authorities are alarmed by street protests staged by the [Armenian] opposition every day. They are attended by more and more people. The visit by your prime minister will demonstrate to the electorate on whose side Russia is.”

Moscow has clearly not been interested in regime change in Yerevan until now. After all, Sarkisian, who also co-chairs a Russian-Armenian inter-governmental commission on economic cooperation, has played a key role in the signing of controversial agreements that have left virtually the whole of Armenia’s energy sector and other industries under Russian control in the last several years. Several Russian dailies quoted an unnamed official accompanying Zubkov as saying that a “continuity of power” is essential for the development of Russian-Armenian relations. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a prominent pro-Kremlin pundit, agreed. “Strategically, Sarkisian's nomination [for the Armenian presidency] suits Moscow, which has given him support at the top level,” Nikonov wrote in a February 7 commentary for RIA-Novosti agency. “It would be appropriate to take steps that would demonstrate our readiness to render Armenia substantial economic assistance,” he said.

Yet Moscow is treading more carefully that one would expect. Neither President Vladimir Putin, nor his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, have made any public statements in support of Sarkisian’s election victory so far. Even Zubkov stopped short of explicitly doing that in Yerevan. “This was a very successful visit,” he told reporters before flying back Moscow. “Whatever the course of the elections, everything should work out for Sarkisian. He is doing his job sincerely and wholeheartedly.” “It remained unclear to journalists whether he was referring to the work of the intergovernmental commission headed by Sarkisian or the upcoming presidential elections in Armenia,” Nezavisimaya gazeta commented the next day. Nor is it clear why another top Russian official, State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, did not even talk to journalists during a separate trip to Yerevan a week earlier.

Sarkisian is in even greater need of Russian backing now that his election victory no longer seems a forgone conclusion. His most formidable challenger, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, has pulled massive crowds during the ongoing election campaign and has even won over some government loyalists. Ever since his dramatic political comeback in September 2007, Ter-Petrosian has been at pains to differentiate himself from the staunchly pro-Western leaders of democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine and to express his commitment to maintaining close ties with Russia. Speaking at a news conference on January 11, he emphasized the fact that Armenia had agreed to a long-term presence of Russian in troops on its soil and signed a comprehensive friendship treaty with Russia during his rule.

At the same time, Ter-Petrosian made it clear that he believes that the Russian-Armenian relationship has ceased to be one of two equal allies since his resignation in 1998, implying that his country will be less subservient to its former Soviet master if he returns to power. The Russians will also hardly like the former president’s enduring belief that the best guarantee of Armenia’s national security is “normal” relations with all neighboring states, rather than a military alliance with Russia or any other foreign power. Furthermore, Ter-Petrosian reportedly (and unexpectedly) left for Moscow on February 11 and was rumored to have met Medvedev. Such a meeting, if it really took place, could have far-reaching consequences for the Armenian election results.

But as things stand now, the Kremlin is not lending the Armenian prime minister the kind of vocal support which Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych enjoyed before and during the 2004 Orange Revolution. In the end, Yanukovych’s aggressive promotion by Putin proved fruitless and further complicated Russian-Ukrainian ties. Writing in ahead of Zubkov’s arrival in Yerevan, Russian analyst Sergei Markedonov warned that a similar “crude interference” in the Armenian presidential race could only antagonize many Armenians angry at their rulers. “Moscow had better not succumb to the ‘Ukrainian temptation’ and support only the ‘correct’ candidate against ‘incorrect,’ ‘orange’ and other ‘colored’ ones,” he said.



The Presidential Candidate Vazgen Manoukian made this statement in the course of the press conference at the Armenian Center for Trans- Atlantic Initiatives on February 12. In particular, he said that in the visible future Armenia should not consider joining NATO, since it will not enhance our security and will spoil our relations with Iran and Russia instead. As for the improvement of the relations with Turkey within the framework of NATO membership, Vazgen Manoukian brought the example of Turkey and Cyprus, two NATO member countries that unfolded a war against each other. Vazgen Manoukian says he respects NATO and is for close cooperation with this organization but membership is wrong, he thinks. Vazgen Manoukian says in ten years this issue may be solved automatically or become absolutely moot.

In response to the question whether there is a big geopolitical game in the region, and if he admits, what role he thinks Armenia performs in this game, the presidential candidate said our region up to the Persian Gulf is one of the most unstable regions. He reminded that in NATO’s analyses dating from the 1960s our region was viewed as the most likely hotbed of World War III. Vazgen Manoukian says if the local peoples do not promote integration, create a common space, naturally the great powers should become involved in the game. In this context, Armenia performs an important role which is both good and bad, Vazgen Manoukian believes. According to Vazgen Manoukian, it is good if Armenia has created a modern effective system of settlement of internal problems, and realizes its goals, and it is bad if there is no such system and the goals are uncertain.

Vazgen Manoukian also thinks the countries of our region should promote integration to rule out alien military presence. In that case, he thinks, Armenia’s military dependence on Russia will weaken. As for the expected developments in the coming presidential elections, the presidential candidate first said in case of a fair election the government candidate cannot win in one round because he lacks the resource. Vazgen Manoukian also rules out the victory of any candidate of the opposition, and thinks such announcements are clear bluffing. He thinks nobody’s rating is above 20 percent, therefore the main candidates will most probably get equal votes. As to the second round, the presidential candidate says one of the representatives of the opposition will run in the second round, and the opposition candidate will win the second round if the opposition comes together around him. As to who the likely candidate from the opposition is, Vazgen Manoukian declines to tell.


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Dear reader,

Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will henceforth be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis.

The last 20 years or so has also helped me see Russia as the last front against scourges of Westernization, Globalism, American expansionism, Zionism, Islamic extremism and pan-Turkism. I have also come to see Russia as the last hope humanity has for the preservation of classical western civilization, Apostolic Christianity and the traditional nation-state. This realization compelled me to create this blog in 2010. Immediately, this blog became one of the very few voices in the vastness of cyberia that dared to preach about the dangers of Globalism and the Anglo-American-Jewish alliance, and the only voice preaching the strategic importance of Armenia remaining within Russia's orbit. From about 2010 to 2015 I did monthly, at times weekly, commentaries about Russian-Armenian relations and Eurasian geopolitics in general. It was very difficult as I had no assistance in this endeavor. The time I put into this blog therefore came at the expense of work and family. But a powerful feeling inside me urged me to keep going; and I did.

When Armenia finally joined the EEU and integrated its armed forces into Russia's military structures a couple of years ago, I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction and relaxation, as if a very heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt that my personal mission was accomplished. I therefore felt I could take a step back, as I really needed the rest. Simply put: I have lived to see the institutionalization of Russian-Armenian alliance. Also, I feel more confident now that Armenians are collectively recognizing the strategic importance of Armenia's ties with Russia. Moreover, I feel satisfied knowing that, at least on a subatomic level, I had a hand in the outcome. As a result, I feel a strong sense of mission accomplished. I therefore no longer have the urge to continue as in the past. In other words, the motivational force that had propelled me in previous years has been gradually dissipating because I feel that this blog has lived to see the realization of its stated goal. Going forward, I do not want to write merely for the sake of writing. Also, I do not want to say something if I have nothing important to say. I feel like I have said everything I needed to say. Henceforth, I will post seasonal commentaries about topics I find important. I will however continue moderating the blog's comments section on a regular basis; ultimately because I'm interested in what my readers have to say and also because it's through readers here that I am at times made aware of interesting developments.

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