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Sergey Minasyan

Doctor of Political Sciences, Deputy Director of the Caucasus Institute

It is clear that relations between the two countries, although developing steadily, are not so problem-free. After a quarter-century into post-Soviet history, Armenia and Russia may well be faced with qualitatively new conditions that could lead to negative consequences. It is therefore important to assess the basic parameters of the current state of Russian-Armenian relations, especially the most problematic issues that could affect cooperation between Yerevan and Moscow.

Russian-Armenian relations play a key role in both Armenia's foreign policy and Russia’s regional strategy in the South Caucasus. A Russian military base is located in Armenia, while Russian border guards also ensure the protection of Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran. Armenia is a member of the EEU and the CSTO, and is one of the most convenient political partners for Moscow among the post-Soviet countries. Russia is the main investor in Armenia (as of early 2015, Russian investments in the country amounted to 4 billion dollars). Cultural and humanitarian contacts between the two countries as well as the largest Armenian diaspora in the world (about 2 million people) [1] also exert a positive influence on bilateral relations. Finally, Russia (along with the US and France) is one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, the only format of negotiations for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

However, it is clear that relations between the two countries, although developing steadily, are not so problem-free. After a quarter-century into post-Soviet history, Armenia and Russia may well be faced with qualitatively new conditions that could lead to negative consequences. It is therefore important to assess the basic parameters of the current state of Russian-Armenian relations, especially the most problematic issues that could affect cooperation between Yerevan and Moscow.

Socio-economic Ties

After a quarter-century into post-Soviet history, Armenia and Russia may well be faced with qualitatively new conditions that could lead to negative consequences.

In his article, Sergey Markedonov emphasizes the importance of Electric Maydan, a demonstration of public anger over planned hikes in electricity tariffs at the request of the Russian electricity distribution company Inter RAO that swept over Yerevan in the summer of 2015. This attention is reasonable, since no other event in Armenia has generated such buzz as of late abroad.

Electric Maydan per se was not a coordinated anti-Russian action, but spontaneously highlighted many problems reflecting perceptions of and dissatisfaction with the policies of Russia, that have accumulated in Armenian society in recent years [2]. Although the protesters expressed discontent with the actions of the leadership of the Russian energy company, their demands in no way had an ethnic and anti-Russian nature. The fact that the head of the Armenian branch of Inter RAO ignored a special hearing on electricity prices in the Armenian parliament caused a particular uproar. However, the policy of setting prices in the energy sector incurred displeasure too. In the end, the Armenian government made concessions and froze electricity prices; it also invited an international company to perform an audit of the electricity company, which was later acquired by Armenian-born billionaire Samvel Karapetian from Russia. The situation has stabilized, but the bad taste still lingers, among other things, due to band-aid-like solutions designed to revive the positive imagine of Russia among Armenian society (e.g. the dynamics of military-technical cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan and Moscow's role in maintaining the ceasefire regime in Nagorno-Karabakh).

REUTERS/Hrant Khachatryan
Sergei Markedonov:
Russia – Learning from Armenia


Electric Maydan per se was not a coordinated anti-Russian action, but spontaneously highlighted many problems reflecting perceptions of and dissatisfaction with the policies of Russia.

Economic cooperation has traditionally been one of the areas with the most positive bilateral image. The special format of the political relationship contributes to the favorable format of trade and economic cooperation. As such, Armenia buys natural gas and oil from Russia at preferential prices. After Armenia's accession to the EEU, duties on natural gas, oil products and raw diamonds delivered from Russia were abolished; as a result, Armenia can save about 200 million dollars annually. To compensate for the devaluation of the Armenian dram at the end of 2014 caused by the crisis provoked by the sanctions imposed against Russia, Moscow once again dropped the price of gas in 2015.

Nevertheless, in recent years, problems have emerged in the socio-economic sphere as well. This has stepped up criticism from some part of the Armenian society, as well as from political and governmental circles, especially dissatisfied with Armenia’s membership in the EEU and its refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. Due to the economic crisis in Russia and the institutional weakness of the EEU, Armenia's accession to the Eurasian Economic Union in early 2015 has not had a prominent positive economic effect. So, following its accession to the EEU, Armenia expected to receive 1.13 percent of the Union’s total customs receipts, as the terms of the organization stipulated. It planned to receive about 250-300 million dollars annually, which substantially exceeded the amount of customs duties collected by Armenia before the accession. However, by mid-2015 it became clear that the economic gains from the entry will be much more modest (50-70 million dollars) due to the fall in oil prices, sanctions against Russia and the latter’s economic decline. Furthermore, in the coming years, Russia is unlikely to make significant investments in Armenia.

EPA/BRICS / SCO PHOTOHOST
President of the Republic of Armenia Serzh
Sargsyan attends a welcoming ceremony upon
his arrival at the airport of Ufa, the capital of
Bashkortostan republic, Russia, 09 July 2015

Accordingly, Russia’s reduction in investments and the lack of obvious benefits for Armenia from its membership in the EEU make the socio-economic sphere look even more problem-plagued, at least in the eyes of the Armenian public.

Perception of Russia by Armenia’s socio-political circles

The dramatically escalated confrontation between Russia and the West following the Ukrainian crisis has directly affected the ideological and political polarization within societies as well as the flow of information between all post-Soviet countries. The efforts of Western structures and foundations in shaping attitudes towards Russia within other post-Soviet societies have intensified significantly, and Armenia in this respect is no exception (for example, funding for civil society organizations from the EU has increased substantially). Moscow's effort to compete as an equal on this field, where the West is more attractive and efficient, is doomed by definition.

Economic cooperation has traditionally been one of the areas with the most positive bilateral image.

Even before the Ukrainian crisis, Russian financial institutions were unable to compete with their foreign counterparts. In the past decade, attempts to simply pattern on “Western” methods in order to shape pro-Russian sentiments in post-Soviet countries have often failed to bear fruit.

Moreover, the activities of representatives of many Russian organizations and the media (as well as their support of certain local actors) sometimes give the impression that in reality they are acting against Russian interests [3].

REUTERS//RIA Novosti
Armenian Experts’ Debate:
Membership in the EEU in Exchange for
Security

Therefore, S. Markedonov’s proposal of diversifying Moscow's contacts in the domestic political landscape of Armenia, including efforts to work with the opposition, appears to be unfeasible, no matter how tempting it might seem in theory. Whatever the reason, all previous attempts by Moscow to establish contacts with opposition political forces have led to support for political forces and leaders that were even more unpopular and helpless than the ruling parties and movements. The real ideological opposition in Armenia does not want to and will not cooperate with Moscow, because there is nothing they can offer one another.

Apparently, there is a logical explanation for the fact that Moscow prefers to work with the authorities, rather than with the real, pro-Western opposition and the civil society in Armenia. Moscow’s attempts to follow the “Western pattern” in Georgia have resulted in the promotion of a small group of experts, who understand the specifics of Russian-Georgian relations, and in establishing a forum for discussing sensitive issues.

Military and political aspects and regional security

Military and political cooperation with Russia and membership in the CSTO are the key elements of the defense and security policy of Yerevan. However, the military-political sphere is also the most controversial one in terms of perceptions of Russia not only among the wider public, but among Armenian authorities too. Russia’s large-scale military-technical cooperation (MTC) with Azerbaijan plays the most negative role in the perception of the former within Armenian society and the elite.

Accordingly, Russia’s reduction in investments and the lack of obvious benefits for Armenia from its membership in the EEU make the socio-economic sphere look even more problem-plagued, at least in the eyes of the Armenian public.

Russia’s military-technical cooperation with Azerbaijan has intensified since 2011 [4], when Moscow began supplying Baku with S-300PMU2 anti-aircraft missile systems, Mi-35M attack helicopters, and then other armaments. However, progress in Russian-Azerbaijani MTC had been notable in previous years too. Moscow has supplied Azerbaijan with such advanced weapons systems, as Smerch heavy multiple rocket launchers, TOS-1A “Solntsepyok” (English: Blazing sun or Sunheat) heavy flamethrower systems, 152mm 2S19M MSTA-S self-propelled howitzers, T-90S tanks, other armored vehicles (BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers BTR-82A) and other types of weapons.

The real ideological opposition in Armenia does not want to and will not cooperate with Moscow, because there is nothing they can offer one another.

Moscow has tried to balance its supply of weapons to Azerbaijan with subsidized arms transfers to Armenia. However, the Armenian side is growing more and more suspicious of enhanced Russian-Azerbaijani military ties as the volume of arms delivery to Baku increases (over the past decade, Azerbaijan has received about 350 T-72M and T-90S tanks and 600 large caliber artillery systems) [4]. The Armenian public assesses these actions by Moscow, at best, as an expression of cynical commercialism, although many regard them as a betrayal of their closest ally, since Moscow has well-documented bilateral and multilateral (within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization) commitments to Armenia in the field of security and mutual defense.

Russia’s large-scale military-technical cooperation (MTC) with Azerbaijan plays the most negative role in the perception of the former within Armenian society and the elite.

All of this raises doubts among the Armenian public about the reliability of Russian guarantees. Indeed, should Azerbaijan initiate large-scale military operations, Russia, in accordance with its commitments, will have to directly conduct warfare on the side of Armenia, and the most modern weapons sold by Russia will be used by Azerbaijan against Russian soldiers. Or else, Moscow will have to disengage itself from its military and political commitments, which is bound to entail a systemic CSTO crisis and to undermine Russia's prestige among its allies and partners.

Furthermore, amidst the unfolding Syrian crisis, the strategic importance of Armenia to Russia will only increase. Armenia happens to be the only strategic ally of Russia in the region that borders the northern part of the Middle East, and the closest Russian military base to this conflict zone with an aircraft component is located in Armenia. In military-political terms, the Syrian campaign has already affected Armenia, as the violation of Turkish airspace by Russian fighters during combat missions in the north of Syria have caused strong reactions in Ankara and entailed “accidental” reciprocal violations in early October 2015 by Turkish military helicopters of Armenia’s borders that are protected by Russian border guards.

Moscow responded fairly quickly to Electric Maydan and finally became aware of growing anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia. In fact, this unrest has become an opportune occasion to make the Kremlin adopt a more rational and pragmatic attitude towards Armenia in the military-political sphere. So, in late June 2015 it was announced that Armenia would be extended a privileged credit amounting to 200 million dollars for the purchase of modern Russian arms (although the contract had already been negotiated for a long time), as well as a possible supply to Armenia of the newest Iskander short-range ballistic missile system.

Moscow's actions, intentionally or unintentionally, are making Yerevan think more critically about finding more responsible partners in the field of security.

Apparently, amidst further escalation of tension around Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku’s attempts to alter the military balance, the problem of Russian supplies of modern weapons to Azerbaijan will become more acute and prioritized in Russian-Armenian relations.

***

Armenia happens to be the only strategic ally of Russia in the region that borders the northern part of the Middle East, and the closest Russian military base to this conflict zone with an aircraft component is located in Armenia.

A stereotyped approach to relations with Armenia, based on “strategic inertia,” appears to prevail in Moscow. It is believed there that, despite the controversial external context and notwithstanding Yerevan's profound discontent with the situation in such a sensitive sphere as intensified military-technical cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan, Russian-Armenian relations in any case will overcome their tactical divisions. Apparently, Moscow assumes that given the geographical, political, military, strategic and economic context, Yerevan actually has no choice but to accept the current parameters of bilateral relations.

It is possible that this scheme can work, as long as Yerevan is interested in cheap weapons, a security blanket, energy resources and investments, and Moscow needs a reliable strategic partner to guarantee its military and political presence in the Caucasus. However, in this rapidly changing world, even the most stable schemes of strategic cooperation between countries may quickly disappear, if the parties fail to notice the existing “red lines” that cannot be crossed and ignore the interests of their partners. The Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated it most vividly: all the schemes and mechanisms of the post-Soviet interaction between Russia and Ukraine, which seemed stable for nearly a quarter of a century, were destroyed in less than a year, when the parties had passed the point of no return without even noticing it.

1. See: V. Diatlov, E. Melkonian. Armenian Diaspora: Essays on the Socio-Cultural Typology. Yerevan, The Caucasus Institute, 2009 [in Russian]

2. A.B. Krylov, B.T. Nakopia. Russia-Armenia: Maintaining Mutual Trust, Russia and the New States [in Russian]

3. For example, in recent years it has been hard to find in a personality Armenia, whose odious statements have contributed to arousing anti-Russian sentiments among the local public more than those of Andranik Nikogosyan, the Chairman of the Union of CIS. See: Andranik Nikoghosyan May Be Deprived of All State Awards for Calling for Armenia’s Entry into Russia [in Russian] http://rus.azatutyun.am/content/article/27183551.html

4. See: S. Minasyan, Problems of Regional Security in the South Caucasus in 2013, The Caucasus - 2013 Yearbook of the Caucasus Institute, Yerevan, the Caucasus Institute, 2015 [in Russian]

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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
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