BY ANNETTE MOSKOFIAN
LONDON—Armenia has faced many challenges since its independence and being a landlocked country surrounded by hostile neighbors with few natural resources has tried to survive. Survival has been the aim of this tiny fragile state and pursuit of its security has been a priority. It has survived economically through international aids, through investments made by Armenians living in Diaspora and through marginal foreign investment. Through privatization of its state owned industries most of its assets were either sold or given away to Russian owned companies in return for much needed gas and fuel. “These concessions have in part resulted in Russian dominance in the economic sector, overdependence on Russia for Armenia’s energy needs, and the perpetuation of Armenian submissiveness to Russian interest”(McGinnity 2010).
To protect its borders from Turkey and Azerbaijan and concerned for Nagorno Karabakh’s security, Russia has been a valuable ally. Armenia has relied on Russian military assistance and allowed the placement of a Russian base in Gyumri. The most notable bilateral defense agreement between Russia and Armenia is the membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) by which Moscow committed to the defense of Armenia in case of an attack. Armenia regards these measures as key elements of its national security.
Russia has provided this assistance because Armenia is geopolitically important. Armenia is its only ally in the region, as Georgia and Azerbaijan are looking more to the West. It is also strategically important for Russia to have a presence and dominance in an area rich in oil and gas, traditionally part of its imperial control. Russia also wants to contain its old adversary Turkey from becoming a regional power and control expansion of US influence in the region. Loss of Armenia as an ally would lead to Russia’s loss of influence in the region. Armenia plays a significant role in achieving these objectives as it is the only country in the region that has strong ties with Russia.
There is mutual interest for both Armenia and Russia to have a strategic alliance but Armenia is the weaker partner in this potentially mutually beneficial partnership. There is a dichotomy on views about this alliance. Some believe that Armenia has no choice in the matter, insisting that it’s the only way to guarantee its security, while the opposing view believes it threatens the sovereignty of the country. To counter balance this unhealthy dependence Armenia adopted a “complimentary” or “multivector” foreign policy, to create more alliances and multilateral cooperation with Iran, EU, US and even NATO that are important for enhancing its security and survival.
Since the end of the 90’s Armenia has pursued a closer association with the EU. Through the EU-Armenia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (1999) and in negotiations on free trade agreements with several Eastern Partnership (EaP), European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreements (DCFTA) it has secured funding from the EU (around 157 million euros from 2011-2013). The EU has become Armenia’s largest trading partner accounting for around 30% of its total trade. Its relations with the EU would have promoted Armenia’s transition to a full-fledged democracy, aiding economic growth, poverty reduction, strengthening democratic structures, and good governance. In a poll carried out in 2005, 72% of the population showed a desire to join the EU, hoping that this might give them an opportunity for improving their standard of living. Armenia’s chosen path was a logical move which was part of the trend of other Eastern European countries, giving it a chance to break away from the post-Soviet empire. This was not necessarily contradictory with the strong military ties with Russia. However, Russia has tried to bully Armenia in joining the Eurasian Economic Community, a brainchild of Putin to raise its prestige in the world and reassert its influence and sustain a leading role in post-soviet countries. Armenia chose to have an observer status instead without wanting to offend Russia and had shown a preference to deepen its political and economic relations with the EU. The EU had made it clear that membership in the Eurasian Customs Union was incompatible with the DCFTA and the EU Association Agreement. Armenia’s efforts toward closer EU relations were not well received by the Kremlin as it started blackmailing Armenia and used tactics such as an increase in gas prices by 18%. What went on behind closed doors when President Sarkisian and Putin met at the beginning of this week is not clear. However the dramatic announcement that shortly followed this meeting made it clear that Armenia had decided to join the Eurasian Union: a union still with few members and no substantial activity as opposed to the EU with its long history.
It would have been to Armenia’s benefit if it had kept its security alliance with Russia and had developed its economy by choosing a path to the EU. The EU would have also aided the democratization process of the country. But instead without any public referendum or a discussion in the National Assembly, Sarkisian made a political u-turn and made a very important decision that will have long term consequences.
There is a tendency for Armenian government to consistently make concessions to Russia. Armenia could have leveraged its strategic importance to gain a stronger and more independent stance. However, the interests of the pro-Russian elite do not allow the country to see true independence and implement policies that will serve the interest of the nation on the long run. Instead it has become a colony of Russia under its hegemonic domination. Carrying forward a more balanced multilateral foreign policy would have been advantageous for Armenia but this decision has shattered any hope of that.