Commentary: Placing our Bet on Putin


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Armenians have placed their bet on Russia, as a Christian nation, and most of the time, they have enjoyed positive results. Yet, there have been times, when some of the Russian leaders have not hesitated to formulate a more cynical policy regarding Armenia, stating that in essence, they need Armenia without Armenians.

Current Russian policy, albeit not verbalized, is no different. Armenia’s northern ally has set up offices in Yerevan offering jobs, homes, travel expenses and citizenship to lure desperate families to Russia’s Far East to populate depressed areas and to prevent a future takeover by Chinese or Muslim populations which are growing at alarming rates in Russia. Meanwhile, Armenia is being depopulated — ready for a further Russian bear hug.

Yet, Armenians intrinsically veer towards Russia. Even Eastern Armenia’s first novelist, Khachatour Abovian, wrote in his novel in 1828,Wounds of Armenia, “Blessed be the moment when Russia set foot on our land.”

Fiction apart, relations with Russia are a mixed bag. My wife zealously redraws the map of Armenia and the rest of the Caucasus, swapping territories with the neighbors. She generously seizes land from Georgia and Azerbaijan for Armenia. One day, a visiting academic, historian and map specialist, Papken Haroutunian asked, “why do you make those territorial changes?” My wife answered, “in order to access the Russian territory and become next-door neighbors.”

“Lady, we are better off loving Russia from a distance,” he said. The wise political adage could serve us well, when analyzing our relations with Russia.

Russian leaders have a very realistic, objective and profit-driven policy towards Armenia, perhaps with the exception of Boris Yeltsin, who still mixed sentimentalism to politics and valued friendships. Yet the Yeltsin era marked the decline of Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet system. The West encouraged Yeltsin, and especially President Bill Clinton built a personal relationship with the late Russian president who symbolized a decline of historic Russian power. Under Yeltsin, Russia’s recovery had as much chance as Yeltsin’s recovery from alcoholism.

That era is behind us. Enter Vladimir Putin — political realism has dawned again.

While the US spoils Georgia with generosity to make it a showcase for Western friendship for the former Soviet republics, Russia taxes Armenia by acquiring assets versus debt and statesmen in Armenia pride themselves that we are a reliable nation that pays its debts. We delved into this historic perspective, to find out what

Russian parliamentary elections on December 4 and presidential election next March could offer to Armenia.

Traditionally, Russian people respect authoritarian rule. They see the nation’s power and greatness in its rulers, even if the rulers are not Russians; that is how a cabal of foreigners ruled Russia for 70 years under the guise of communism.

Indeed, Stalin was Georgian, Laurenti Beria was Megrel (from Georgia) Anastas Mikoyan (Armenian) and Lazar Kaganovich (Jewish), who ruled the empire along with some Russians. Putin’s strong-arm rule is a reflection of that political impulse.

In the last parliamentary elections, liberalism retreated in Russia as more authoritarian, hardline parties gained more seats in the Russian Duma. Especially significant was the advance of the communists, which marks nostalgia towards the “good old days” of monolithic Soviet power. Out of 110 million registered voters, 60 percent cast ballots, down from 64 percent four years ago. One-fifth of those voters favored the Communist party, which won 92 seats, versus 57 seats four years ago. Left-leaning Just Russia Party gained 64 seats, up from 38 and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist LDPR party netted 56 seats, up from 40.

Putin’s United Russia Party lost 77 seats and ended up with 238, a slim majority in the 450-member lower chamber of parliament. United Russia, which got 49.5 percent of the votes, used to command a two-thirds majority in the Duma. However, Putin personally has no competitor. He may easily win 50 percent of votes to avoid a run-off election.

Putin, to console his followers, stated that 226 seats were enough to pass most legislation. However, should more votes become necessary, United Russia will depend on the communists or other leftist parties to form potential coalitions.

Putin, now 59, can rule Russia well into the 2020s, if his health permits, assuring a strong leader in the Kremlin.

“Putin has a very difficult choice,” stated one of the radio commentators. “To survive politically, he needs to reform, but he can only reform if he gets rid of many vested interests in the ruling circles. To stay as he is, means the opposite of political survival.”

Many voters, tired of the widespread corruption, refer to United Russia as the party of swindlers and crooks and resent the huge gap between the rich and the poor. Some analysts believe Putin’s return to the presidency may mean economic stagnation, reminiscent of the Brezhnev era.

Armenia has also gotten the hint and the current ruling Republican Party there is trying to get rid of the uneducated oligarchs during the next parliamentary elections. Only the elections will prove how much the president and his party are beholden to those oligarchs. Armenia is also goaded by the example of neighboring Georgia, which was able to uproot corruption overnight and take the path of economic recovery.

At this time, some of the old political figures are being resurrected to replace the oligarchs. The appearance on TV screens of people like former presidential candidates Artashes Geghamian and Vasken Manukian cannot be coincidental. Also, former speaker of the Parliament Khosrov Harutunian is back on the scene. Putin’s re-election will not change Russia’s relations with Armenia, nor impact the outcome of presidential election in Armenia. Some political pundits believed that Putin’s special relations with Robert Kocharian may encourage the latter’s comeback. But a recent panel of political analysts concluded that Russia may not have a preference among Armenia’s presidential candidates, because, they hold the cynical view that no matter who is elected, they will do Russia’s bidding.

As Putin emerges as Russia’s leader, Armenia will follow Kremlin’s drumbeat. However, with an authoritarian Putin at the helm, the Cold War may be revived and Armenia will be in a difficult position to implement its foreign policy of complementarism.

Yerevan has no choice but to place its bet on Putin.