By Rahim Rahimov
Rahim Rahimov is a political analyst focusing on Russia, South Caucasus, and post-soviet nations with an interest in foreign policies, economic and political integration projects, and conflicts. He has written for the Eurasia Daily Monitor of the Jamestown Foundation, the Russia File of the Kennan Institute, CACI Analyst, etc. He holds an MA in International Relations from Hult International Business School in London, UK and a BA from Baku State University, Azerbaijan. Besides his native Azerbaijani, Rahim speaks English, Russian, Arabic and Turkish. Twitter: @r_rahimov
Armenia’s newly-elected Prime Minister Nicol Pashinyan made his first foreign trip to Sochi, Russia to attend the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summit and meet with President Vladimir Putin on May 14. Putin emphasized that Armenia was Russia’s closest ally and partner in the region. Pashinyan responded by reassurances that Armenia remained committed to its relations of strategic alliance with Russia yet wanted to give a new impetus to bilateral ties. Pashinyan once again thanked Vladimir Putin for keeping a balanced position on recent domestic political crises in Armenia. He added that not only the Armenian government but also the society appreciated such constructive approach from Russia. It sounds bizarre that the leader of a sovereign nation thanks the leader of another sovereign nation for not meddling in its domestic affairs. But Russia’s predominant position in Armenia, the latter’s significant dependence on the former in many regards and related peculiarities of bilateral relations are helpful to understand that phenomenon.
Until recently, Pashinyan had been a staunch opponent of the EAEA membership and considered as a pro-western politician. But following the popular protests that led to ascendance of protest leader, MP Nikol Pashinyan to the power, he appears to have made a U-turn in his approach to state that Armenia will remain in the union. He tried to substantiate the shift by that now he serves as the PM not simply as an opposition MP or a mere leader of a parliament faction, and therefore, represents the people of Armenia.
Nicol Pashinyan told the Russia 24 TV Channel that the recent changes in Armenia had stemmed from domestic processes so it would not affect the country’s foreign policy. Armenia’s withdrawal from the EAEU was one of issues, on which Nicol Pashinyan and his Yelk bloc (Way Out) campaigned during the April 2, 2017 parliamentary elections. He also voted against Armenia’s accession to the EAEA. Yet back in 2015 Nicol Pashinyan depicted the “Russian-Armenian relations as one between speaker and listener not the partners”.
In September, 2017, Nicol Pashinyan, as the leader of the Yelk parliament faction, proposed a bill on withdrawal of Armenia from the Eurasian Economic Union. “We see contempt for our sovereignty and cynical interventions in Armenia’s internal affairs by our EAEU partners. The fear that the EAEU membership will result in serious threats to the sovereignty of Armenia has become stronger”, he told the parliament to make the case for the bill. Furthermore, he characterized the EAEU membership as a threat to economic, political and military security of the country. To support his arguments, Pashinyan cited figures: “For three years of Armenia’s EAEU membership, the GDP has shrunk by 13 percent in USD equivalent, employment rate dropped by 13 percent hard currency reserves decreased by 40 percent whereas the state debt has risen by 10 percent and the investments have been more than halved”.
Thus, Nicol Pashinyan has blatantly backtracked from his position despising Armenia’s EAEU membership. Why? Being Russia-centric and Russia-led economic union with an inevitable and essential political dimension, the EAEU alongside with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) can be characterized as common umbrella for driving Russia’s bilateral relations with post-soviet nations. The Russian factor is crucial for Armenia to maintain the status-quo in the conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan but de-facto controlled by the Armenian armed forces. Yet Armenia is economically significantly depends on Russia. The Russian natural gas supplies on discounted prices is just a case in point. Moreover, the so-called Karabakh clan led by former presidents Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan is the major support base for Russia in the militarized Armenian society. The forced resignation of first president Levon Ter Petrosyan in 1997 and parliament shooting in 1998 showcased the powerful role of the Karabakh clan, which come originally from Karabakh and uncompromising line on the conflict with Azerbaijan. Therefore, Armenia’s EAEU membership and the Karabakh conflict are somehow symbiotically inter-related.
A few days earlier right after his election as PM, Pashinyan visited the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, where he made uncompromising statements. The uncompromising line on the conflict necessitates maintaining a strong alliance with Russia hence making it inevitable to quit the Russia-led integration structures such as the EAEU or the CSTO. Nonetheless, Yerevan is disappointed with EAEU members such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, who appear to be favoring Azerbaijan over Armenia. Pashinyan said that he wouldn’t raise the question of Armenia’s withdrawal from the EAEU but there are problems, which need to be tackled. An intention of Armenia seems to persuade Russia to exert pressure on Minsk and Astana to curb that trend.
Armenian protest leaders diminished the reasons for socio-economic troubles of the country mainly to the corruption of the government. Indeed the corruption is a considerable factor but, rather than acting as a root cause, it amplifies the effects of poor economic performance, which is largely connected with isolation of Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey due to the Karabakh conflict. Yet, isolated Armenia doesn’t possess rich natural resources as opposed to its foe – resource-rich Azerbaijan. These factors must be seen in the light of unrealistically high popular expectations that are peculiar to the likes of Pashinyan’s Velvet Revolution. Moreover, the Republican Party could undermine his reforms and policies due to its majority in the parliament.
Thomas De Wall from Carnegie Europe sums up Armenia’s last 30-year history and sets the tone for the coming period under Nicol Pashinyan saying that “the start of the unsolved Karabakh conflict and its international repercussions—is a legacy that no Armenian leader has yet been able to confront or overcome” from 1988 to 2018. And the country’s first Armenia-born leader in the pot-soviet era Nicol Pashinyan is likely not going to be an exception. The reason is the fateful incompatibility between Pashinyan’s tough, uncompromising line on the Karabakh conflict and his declared goal to reform Armenia economically and politically and hidden goal to reduce dependence on Russia. Pashinyan told Russia 24 that he was neither pro-western, no pro-Russian but pro-Armenian. However, what being pro-Armenian means in his view remains unclear hence raising doubts whether he might be able to deliver the popular expectations, which have been crucial to his rapid ascendance to power.