For the last two and a half decades Armenia has smartly played on its good relations with the East and the West. But for how much longer could this landlocked South Caucasus state continue to get the best of both worlds?
Armenia has successfully made friends with all the big powers in the world, making it possible to use it as its advantage. Source: Wikicommons
The outlines of a C-17 Boeing can barely be made out against the grey sky, but the black letters forming “U.S. AIR FORCE” stand out proudly. The aircraft has just landed, taking 65 Armenian soldiers home after their six-month peacekeeping rotation in Afghanistan.
Upon their arrival, members of the US Embassy in Yerevan await to praise the military men for their courageous efforts to keep peace in Afghanistan. Solutes are in order, as they have always been during the nine years of Armenian contribution to NATO’s mission in the terrorism-torn country.
When the ceremony is over, the soldiers will go home. Tomorrow they might engage on their next mission: this time instead of NATO troops, they could be training with Russian soldiers under a newly revised task force agreement, which combines the armed forces of the two countries in case of emergency. This is not a single case but rather a perfect example how Armenia manages to levitate between the East and the West successfully.
While soft and hard power quietly quarrel on the international stage, the small Southern Caucasus state is making all the high-profile friends.
Brotherhood vs new friendships
Armenia’s two-sided game is not a new phenomenon but rather a natural consequence of its history and internal interests. When the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union, the US hurried up and recognized it as a state. This was a chess move as the US wanted friends in Russia’s back yard. Interestingly enough, Yerevan is home to the second largest US Embassy in the world. Nearly 100,000 square meters, the huge building is there to stress on the many American efforts to gain control in that area of the world. It has so far done so through financial aid, joint educational programmes and NATO operations.
On its end, Russia has deeply rooted relations with the Caucasus republics. Following the conflict with Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to try and establish the Russian Federation as an even more important player in the region through investing in good relations with Armenia.
While Russia understands what Armenia needs internationally – a recognition of the Armenian genocide and a solution for Nagorno-Karabakh, the West is slow to respond as both the US and the European Union maintain good relations with the other parties in these questions.
The geography of Armenia rises interest in the small nation as it is just on the border between Europe and Asia, and some scholars even classify it as a probable future candidate of the European Union. Although this is a very futuristic vision, further economic assistance is on its way with a treaty between the two dating from last month.
The EU and the US have put some efforts and investments in trying to win over the small state for several reasons. On one hand, a peaceful state next to Europe is always better than a conflicting one. For the period of 2014-2017, the European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) assistance to Armenia ranges from €140 million to €170 million. Although this investment is almost double the one in Azerbaijan under the same programme, Georgia receives EU assistance which reaches almost half a billion euros.
This difference could be explained by the shattered democracy in Armenia and the simmering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Both the US and the EU have vowed to invest money in the April parliamentary elections in Armenia so human right violations from previous years do not occur again.
Moscow is following a different tactic, relying on military force than financial aid. Associate professor from Aarhus University Mette Skak states that Putin is interested in former Soviet republics due to his identification as a great power. His aim is to stay in power and spread Russia’s influence. Armenia, for example, does not need outside powers to protect itself, as visible from its heavy armed presence in Kosovo and Afghanistan, yet it offered its land to the Russian military. Alexander Iskandaryan outlined for the Caucasus Analytical digest the political significance of the only existing military base in Armenia: it a symbol of the close ties between the two and a statement by Putin in the region.
All could be explained easily: Russia was one of the first countries to recognize the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. At the same time, the EU stays away from defining the touchy subject and the US has taken a step back after Obama deciding against using the word “genocide” after he was elected president.
Until the West makes up its mind on the sensitive topic, Armenian-Russian relations are likely to flourish. While Russia is already in difficult situation with Turkey, the EU has to be careful not to poke Erdogan as he could unleash a tsunami of refugees. Even if Armenia is hoping to be fully backed by the West, a world recognition of the genocide is unlikely in the near future.
Nagorno-Karabakh – a power source
The unresolved conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh is a reason for Armenia to maintain positive relations with both, the East and the West, but it is also a reason why the outside world is engaged in Armenian politics.
Putin is always vague when it comes to defying this conflict. He will provide military assistance to Armenia if needed, according to numerous treaties between the two countries, and Russia is the biggest economic partner of its estranged daughter but at the same time Moscow is trying not to piss off Azerbaijan and let it turn towards the West, or worse – Iran, India or Pakistan.
Today, Russia is the most powerful hand in the peace talks over Nagorno-Karabakh but a decision has not been reached. Some believe Putin gains more if the conflict stays open as Russia is selling weapons to both sides. But, hypothetically speaking, if Moscow manages to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia could also use it as an advantage and display itself internationally as a peacekeeper. A pinch of good PR will not hurt the scolded upon nation in light of the recent Crimea annexation.
The US agrees with Russia and has also put efforts into resolving the issue, though for contrasting reasons. America is interested in peace in the region because of oil: Azerbaijan is a major oil producer and negative outcome for Baku from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict might mean rocketing oil prices and so bad news for the dollar.
For Europe, Nagorno-Karabakh is a security question: once, current member states had to take in Armenian refugees in the last century but another migration wave together with the one from the Middle East and Africa is not in the interests of the Union.
It seems that a peaceful solution will be of most advantage for international players, but neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is likely to give up their position.
If Russia and the US are friends, will Armenia loose its position?
It is difficult to predict how US-Russia relations will turn out but a favourable situation for Russia could influence Armenian economy for the better. Still in transition to market economy, Yerevan is struggling with imports due to its two closed borders (with Turkey and Azerbaijan). Currently, Russia imports through Georgia is what is keeping Armenian markets. Gagik Makaryan, the head of the Nation Union of Employers, told reporters last week that an economic growth in Russia will be felt in Armenia as well.
Better cooperation between Trump and Russia could also play favourably for the US with another trading route opening through the territory of Armenia. According to DPhil Candidate in the University of Oxford Samuel Ramani, China’s investments in the region could be increased from $2 billion annually. This will have a positive effect on US investments in Armenia, which until now have been limited due to the rather small market. If America’s new president, businessman Donald Trump, realises the potential of the Southern Caucasus state, he could direct many US finances towards the region.
It stays unclear what way Armenia will chose or even if it has to choose. The new US administration has hinted it will assist further US-Armenian cooperation, the EU has just signed a new treaty with the South Caucasus state for deepening the economic relations between the two partners. But this could also hit Russia at the back and could be taken as an anti-action towards the last year’s controversial accession to a Russian-led trade bloc.
Armenia has successfully maneuvered its international position, making all the right friends in all the right places. While Armenian soldiers travel in US airships, at the same time they might be training with Russian troops. This policy bears resemblance to a two-horse-betting game where Armenia holds all the bets.
Torn between the East and the West, this South Caucasus country lets global powers to demonstrate soft and hard power, while quietly waiting for someone to give it what it really wants. Then, Armenia will take a side.