Armenian tilt toward Kremlin draws fire
By Emil Danielyan
As the Russia-Ukraine crisis unfolds, the Armenian government is
casting its diplomatic lot with the Kremlin. Some in the capital,
Yerevan, worry the government is committing a geopolitical blunder by
expressing a clear preference for Russia over the West.
While Armenia has always had a special relationship with Russia, and
hosts Russian troops on its territory, the government tended to
cultivate good relations with the United States and the European
Union. However, in recent months, predating the Euromaidan movement's
appearance in Kiev, Yerevan began to lean strongly in Moscow's
direction, underscored by the decision
last autumn by President Serzh
Sargsyan's administration to opt for membership in the Russian-led
Customs Union over a stronger partnership with the European Union.
A potential watershed moment occurred on March 27, when Armenia voted
against a pro-Ukrainian resolution overwhelmingly adopted by the
United Nations General Assembly. The resolution, drafted by Ukraine
and backed by 99 other states, condemned as illegal the March 16
referendum in Crimea that preceded Russia's annexation of the
peninsula. It was rejected by only 11 nations, including Russia,
Armenia, and such international pariahs as North Korea, Sudan and
Commenting on Armenia's vote, Artak Zakarian, the pro-government
chairperson of the Armenian parliamentary Committee on Foreign
Relations, asked in a March 31 Facebook post: "Why should have Armenia
not supported its ally, if the latter needed such support?"
A statement by UN Ambassador Karen Nazarian emphasized the right to
self-determination, a principle also mentioned by President Sargsyan
in his March 19 phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and
long championed by Armenia in its Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with
Yet Armenian opposition groups, notably the Prosperous Armenia Party
(BHK), the country's second-largest parliamentary force, have stated
that by joining some of the world's most notorious "rogue states" in
voting against the Crimea resolution, Yerevan dealt a serious blow to
the country's international reputation.
"Russia is headed to self-imposed international isolation and it's dragging us along," said Alexander Arzumanian, an opposition lawmaker and former foreign
minister (1996-1998). Arzumanian spoke of a "serious deviation" from
the foreign policy strategy to which successive Armenian governments
had generally adhered since independence in 1991.
"That is very bad for Armenia's image, and our relations with the
West," said another former senior diplomat, who did not want to be
identified. "I have never seen such slavishness in
foreign-policy-making before. This cannot do us any good. Even the
Russians are surprised," he added.
Armenian foreign policy came to be known as "complementary" during the
1998-2008 tenure of former president Robert Kocharian. It essentially
boiled down to combining close political, military and economic links
with Russia, Armenia's main ally, with growing cooperation with
Western powers in a range of areas, including security. After
succeeding Kocharian in 2008, Sargsyan continued and even stepped up
this delicate balancing act; a policy that earned him relatively
strong US and EU support.
"We are a nation carrying European values and our aim is to develop
our society along the lines of those values," the Armenian president
declared during a June 2013 visit to Poland. In a letter to US
President Barack Obama sent shortly afterwards, he described
US-Armenian relations as closer than ever before, and claimed that
they serve as a "strong prerequisite" for Armenia's security and
Just two months later, however, Sargsyan abruptly decided to make
Armenia part of the Russian-led Customs Union at the expense of a
far-reaching association agreement with the EU. While the volte-face
was widely attributed to Russian pressure, his pro-Russian position on
the Ukraine crisis reinforced that trend.
Some observers wonder what the cost will be to Armenia.
"Whereas in the past, they said in the West that Armenia is under
Russia's influence, they are now openly calling it a discredited
Russian satellite," said the former Armenian diplomat. Although
Yerevan will face no punitive Western measures in the months to come,
he noted, this negative perception "will manifest itself over time".
Washington already declined in December to provide multimillion-dollar
economic assistance to Armenia under its Millennium Challenge
foreign-aid program, even though Yerevan in November met domestic
reform criteria set by the US government agency handling the aid
scheme. The latter gave no reasons for the rebuff. Armenia has also
missed out on even more large-scale aid that was promised by the EU
before Sargsyan's Customs Union U-turn.
Despite the unmistakable signs of a cold front moving in from the
West, the Armenian government continues to speak about a complementary
foreign policy. On March 6, Sargsyan told a Dublin summit of the
European People's Party that: "Armenia will continue its policy of
complementing and harmonizing interests." Similarly, Armenian Prime
Minister Tigran Sarkisian, during a March 20 visit to Brussels,
expressed hope that the EU would sign with Armenia, as with Ukraine,
the political segment of an association agreement.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt ruled out such a possibility on
March 23, saying that Armenia no longer has a "political affinity"
with the EU.
For its part, the US has voiced disappointment about Armenia's vote
against the UN resolution on Crimea, but in written comments the US
Embassy in Yerevan said that it continues "to engage with Armenia on
Among those issues are Armenia's increased military cooperation with
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which includes Armenian
participation in the NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and
international efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict. President
Sargsyan assured visiting members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
on March 27 that his administration remains committed to "effective
and constructive cooperation" with the alliance.
But whether such cooperation is enough to patch over the growing
differences with the West is uncertain. "I think authorities presume
that this is a temporary deviation [from complementarism] and that
eventually they will be able to get back on track and our Western
partners will understand us," said Arzumanian. "But I have serious
doubts on this score because such a return would be very difficult."