July 6, 2018

The Kremlin’s Message to Yerevan: Have Your Power Shift, But Remain Our Loyal Vassals

Vadim Muhhanov
Vadim Muhhanov

Armenia has no serious foreign-policy partners besides Russia

For the Kremlin, preserving foreign-policy cooperation during the Armenian Spring was of utmost importance, which explains Russia’s reserved official reaction, says Vadim Mukhanov, senior researcher at the Center for Caucasus Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), an academic institution run by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in this interview with Diplomaatia.

Diplomaatia: How do you assess Russia’s reaction to events in Armenia, where hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Yerevan in April were able to peacefully achieve the removal of the erstwhile president, Serzh Sargsyan, from the position of prime minister?

Mukhanov: Russia’s official reaction was visibly calm and not at all difficult for it. Its position is that processes currently underway in Armenia are its own internal affair. The reaction couldn’t have been otherwise. [In early June, Armenia’s new foreign minister, MGIMO graduate Zohrab Mnatsakanian, announced during a visit to Moscow that the change of power in Armenia was “a deeply internal political process with no geopolitical aspects whatsoever”.—JP]

Why couldn’t it have been different? Why was a calm reaction so natural? Isn’t it significant when the head of state changes in a country as friendly with Russia as Armenia, without the approval of Moscow, Armenia’s main political and economic patron?

Because the ongoing processes in Armenia are primarily directed at internal policy and won’t change the bilateral agenda. How could Moscow react in any other way in a situation where bilateral relations won’t change? Armenia’s new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, officially confirmed this. [Before becoming PM, Pashinyan was quite critical of one of Russia’s main initiatives on the territory of the former USSR: the Eurasian Economic Union. However, after taking office and forming a government he announced that Armenia wouldn’t “rock the boat” in the Union.—JP]

The Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have repeatedly emphasised after events in neighbouring countries that it is unacceptable that democratically elected power changes hands due to the demands of protesters on the street. This is the Kremlin’s internal- and foreign-policy postulate: power must not be transferred in this way. But it happened in Armenia and the tone of the Kremlin’s reaction was quite different from the case of Ukraine or Georgia.

Of course the reaction would be different: Armenia is Russia’s strategic partner. The difference also lies in the fact that bilateral relations won’t change. What could dissatisfy Moscow in such a situation? Russia and Armenia have entered into dozens of bilateral agreements, which are being successfully realised. A couple of years ago, the president of Armenia agreed to extend the treaty on the deployment of Russian military bases. Pashinyan has already stated that this agreement won’t be reviewed.

In other words, the Kremlin wants Armenia to align itself with Russia, but does not care who is in power there?

In this case, all the formal requirements of the transition of power were also fulfilled. The prime minister was elected by a parliament that had been democratically elected a year ago—not at the first attempt, but still completely legally. You have to agree that the new forces in power in Armenia can’t be called illegitimate in any way.

Yes, the prime minister is from a party that’s clearly in the minority in parliament, but that doesn’t matter right now, since most of the members of parliament voted for Pashinyan. Russia could only congratulate him for that. All Pashinyan’s statements about bilateral relations were and still are loyal to Russia. Pashinyan’s first official overseas visit was to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin. All of this shows that there won’t be any sudden U-turns in Armenia’s foreign policy.

This is, of course, in Armenia’s interests, since it is, after all, facing great foreign-policy challenges, mainly over the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh and the delivery of Russian arms to Armenia. [Russia is essentially the only state that supports Armenia in the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition, Russia is Armenia’s main arms provider and largest economic partner. Russia’s state companies—Russian Railways, Gazprom, Rosneft, Rosatom—are the largest foreign investors in the Armenian economy. Despite this seemingly firm friendship, Russia has consistently refused to write off Armenia’s debt, which stands at several billion dollars, and Armenia has surrendered several strategic companies to Russia to cover the liability. During the change of power in April, Rosneft press secretary Mikhail Leontyev controversially said that “Historically, politically, physically and financially Armenia is a burden for Russia,” owing to which “If they want to jump off” it would be “a relief for Russia”. Leontyev later sent a letter of apology to the new prime minister.—JP]

Armenia’s new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, meeting Russian president Vladimir Putin in June 2018. TASS/Scanpix

Do you think it is wrong to compare the changes of power in Ukraine and Armenia from Russia’s point of view?

Of course, since the ways in which power shifted in Armenia and in Ukraine are completely different. Besides, cooperation between Yerevan and Moscow is distinct from that between Kyiv and Moscow. They are completely different things. Armenia’s political elite is not taking the same road as Ukraine, or even Georgia. In Georgia, as a rule, changes of power bring a sharp change of direction. Recall the time when Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili came to power: priorities changed. This won’t happen in Armenia because all forces there understand that the country is facing really difficult foreign-policy challenges, which it hasn’t been able to resolve alone thus far. Everyone in Armenia understands that they simply don’t have any strategic partners besides Russia. Look at the map and you’ll see that the borders with their two neighbouring countries are closed. Armenia’s new power did not appear on the scene with anti-Russian rhetoric but through protests over domestic issues.

When the Armenian protests began, Russian television presented events in quite a negative light. It tried to show them as a marginal matter, and Pashinyan wasn’t described in the most positive light either. After a while the tone changed: the protesters were portrayed in neutral terms and then presented as people who were fighting for the right cause. How do you explain this? Did the Kremlin give orders for the tone of coverage to change?

I can’t comment on that; you’ll have to ask your colleagues. I rarely watch Russian television. [The well-known research company Levada Center recently published an interesting survey about Russians’ attitude towards the power shift in Armenia. It compared their attitudes towards and awareness of April’s events in Yerevan and the Alexey Navalny-led anti-Putin protest initiative called “He is not our czar” that took place across Russia on 5 May. It was clear that the Russian people were much better informed about events in Armenia than about Navalny’s campaign, which Russian TV news did not cover. Fifty-one per cent of respondents were aware of the change of power in Armenia, while 39% knew about Navalny’s initiative. Of the informed respondents, 29% had a positive attitude towards Navalny’s initiative, while only 24% were supportive of events in Armenia.—JP]

Why do you think Serzh Sargsyan wasn’t able to hang on to power?

It was down to the protests. What happened in Armenia is not unprecedented; the same thing occurred in Georgia five years ago. There too, the constitution was significantly amended, and many experts thought that the changes would serve the interests of the term-limited Saakashvili, who would move from the presidency to being prime minister. As we all remember well, Saakashvili’s party lost in the parliamentary elections and in the presidential elections a year later. Similarly, Saakashvili didn’t lose the elections because Georgians really loved Ivanishvili, but thanks to the protest vote. People had simply got tired of him being in power for a decade. Events in Armenia fit well into the same pattern, but the difference is that the power shift didn’t occur in parliamentary elections. The impulse came from Sargsyan’s decision to become prime minister instead of president. The result was the same and it also remained legal.

Armenia is a country in the Caucasus region, where people are generally hot-blooded. So how did power change not through elections but via a sort of small bloodless revolution?

Thanks to strong political pressure on Armenia from other countries. A large part of Armenian society understands perfectly well that their neighbour Azerbaijan wouldn’t let them be if there was serious unrest and a power struggle. The bloody spring of 2016 in Karabakh was proof of that. This places Armenian political life in a really serious context. [Armenia has still not acknowledged the independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, although it is the only state that guarantees its security. Nor has Armenia acknowledged Kosovo, Abkhazia or South Ossetia as independent states.—JP]

Can we therefore deduce that the Kremlin is really interested in Pashinyan’s success as prime minister and his domestic policy reforms in Armenia?

Armenia’s stability is what matters most to Russia. This depends, however, on Pashinyan’s popularity. If he is able to use the current popular support correctly, Russia can only benefit, and it creates a basis for even closer cooperation between Armenia and Russia.

How close is Armenia to being a failed state?

Problems like a weak economy and a low standard of living are characteristic of most former SSRs. Armenia has also been in sharp conflict with its neighbours during the whole post-Soviet period, but this has clearly thawed in recent years. I think that, generally speaking, the economic situation and the standard of living of ordinary people is not that different in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The latter has branded itself an oil state, but most people there are as poor as the residents of Armenia. Yes, many Armenians travel elsewhere in search of a better life—tens of thousands a year—but the same number emigrate from Georgia.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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