By Edmond Y. Azadian
When the Turkmenchay Treaty was signed in 1828 between the Russian and Persian Qajar Empires, the Khanate of Yerevan, effectively Eastern Armenia, was ceded to Russia. Armenians celebrated the event as a liberation from Moslem rule. In reality, it was only a change of overlords. However, it was hailed by Khachatur Abovian in his epic novel, Wounds of Armenia, as a historic blessing.
The rulers of Christian Russia were relatively more tolerant than, let’s say, their Ottoman counterparts. But the word “relative” needs to be understood in its full implication here, as Armenians subsequently heard warnings by Russian officials that Russia needs Armenia without Armenians. Just one example of Russian tyranny was that Armenian church property was confiscated by a decree of the czar.
The attitude of the Russians towards the Armenians did not differ much from other colonial powers such as Britain looking down on indigenous peoples over whom they had control. That attitude is typically reflected by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in his memoirs from Erzurum, denigrating Armenian common folk in the area, a disdain to be matched by the US Admiral Marc Bristol in his 1916 reports to Washington.
Even today, Armenians are bundled in with the rest of the Caucasus peoples and are treated as second-class citizens by Russia, accordingly.
Overall, Russian rule has proven historically more survivable than the Ottoman rule. That is why Armenian leaders have favored a Russian orientation since the days of the Israel Ori in the 17th century. However, the Russians have sold their Armenian brothers at any given juncture of history. One such major deal was struck in 1923 between Lenin and Ataturk, which sealed Armenia’s destiny and borders up to now.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Armenia has served as the vanguard of Russian political and military influence in the Caucasus and it is considered Moscow’s strategic ally. Yet Russia’s treatment of Armenia has been more cavalier.
During the first years of independence, as realignments were taking place in the Caucasus region, war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
At that time there were some political voices in Armenia that suggested we have a “third alternative,” meaning Turkey. Especially patriotic scholar Rafael Ishkhanian advocated a rapprochement with Turkey, clearly forgetting Yerevan’s futile call for help to Turkey during a February 1921 uprising against the Soviet rule. The Turks let Armenia be drowned in blood without lifting a finger. This was a policy which was as naïve as it was loud. President Boris Yeltsin, at that time a personal friend of President Levon Ter-Petrosian, did not hesitate to help Azerbaijanis thrash Armenian forces and occupy almost half of Karabagh, until Yerevan called “uncle” and the fortunes of the war were reversed and Karabagh was liberated, courtesy of Moscow.
Recently Armenia has been seeking a middle role between major contenders for influence in the region. Despite Yerevan’s strategic alliance with Moscow and the treaty to keep a military base on Armenian soil through the year 2044, Armenia has been cooperating with NATO, supplying peacekeeping forces in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Armenia has been seeking partnership in the Eurasia Customs Union while trying to sign a Deep and Comprehensive free-trade agreement with the European Union (DCFTA) — a mutually-exclusive possibility.
Thus far, Moscow was weighing Armenia’s political positioning with tolerant, yet watchful, eyes. It looks like what broke the camel’s back was Armenia’s absence from the military component of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an alliance which President Putin is trying to put together to counter NATO tacitly. Although a military delegation was sent from Yerevan, headed by Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, the president opted out of its convention, citing other obligations. This was interpreted as defiance in Moscow, while it was hailed as a courageous act in the West.
The response and the signal were not delayed much, as it was announced that Moscow was providing more than $1 billion in military hardware to Azerbaijan. This looks like a repeat performance of the 1990s. There are pro and con discussions, but nevertheless, the move is more than a discomforting development for Armenia’s military planners. Every time we have rested our destiny in the hands of foreign military powers we have been betrayed. Armenia is at a crossroad. How do we proceed from this point on?
Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan will introduce an element of uncertainly in a flammable region. The Russian defense industry sources recently reported that the Azerbaijani military will soon be receiving 90 T-90C tanks, around 100 armored personnel carriers and dozens of multiple rocket systems and artillery cannon in accordance with defense contracts signed in 2011 and 2012, a total of $1 billion worth of military hardware.
How interesting that the Russian leaders remember today military contracts from a year or two back, when they are ready to exert pressure on Armenia. For Azerbaijan, it is the psychological boost as President Aliyev is preparing for his third term, to preserve the office inherited from his late father, Heydar Aliyev.
There is also talk that he may transfer that dynastic office to his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, perhaps waiting for their children to grow up and inherit, in turn, the dynastic rule.
Yet, Aliyev received accolades during a recent trip to Europe, from the British Prime Minister David Cameron and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who apologetically justified Aliyev’s despotic rule, explaining away that “we are not perfect in Europe.”
Armenian officials are at a loss to justify the Russian arms deal with Azerbaijan. They are still in denial mode. Armenians should not criticize Russia for selling weapons to Azerbaijan despite its military alliance with Armenia, the secretary of President Serge Sargisian’s National Security Council, Arthur Baghdasarian, said, adding Russia has legitimate right to make arms deals with third countries, including Armenia’s archenemy. He also added that Moscow and Yerevan are posed to sign a new agreement on defense and security.
Analysts such as Hrant Melik Shahnazaryan and military expert Arkadi Grigoryan further supported the case by adding that Russia needs the money, that arms sales to Azerbaijan will not tilt the balance of power in the region, that Russia sells to Azerbaijan at international market prices, while Armenia receives its arms at domestic market prices.
Reassuring voices were also heard on the Russian side. “I think that the presence of Russian servicemen is a guarantee that there will be no negative development in Armenia,” Nikolay Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council said, while visiting the Russian base in Gumri. Five thousand Russian personnel based there will fight along with the Armenian forces, should Armenia be attacked. Azerbaijan also bought arms from Israel. A balance of power does not guarantee Armenia’s security. Only a strategic edge can serve as a deterrent against Azeri belligerence.
All these rationales do not pacify the minds of citizens of Armenia. They further encourage them to seek more peaceful havens, away from a potential war zone.
The director of the Modus Vivendi Center, scientist Ara Papyan, condemns Russia’s sale of arms to Azerbaijan, saying that Russia should not have done so, because it is Armenia’s ally. “Our ally arms our enemy. Armenia should condemn it officially,” he added, addressing reporters.
As the atmosphere was about to improve in the Caucasus through more friendly relations with Georgia’s new rulers and the election of a moderate president in Iran, Russia’s actions come to render the region more explosive and lead the citizens of Armenia to wonder whether Moscow is a friend or foe.