Focus on the Caucasus


By Edmond Y. Azadian

The April 19 issue of London’s Economist weekly features on its cover Russia’s map in the shape of a bear reaching out to Ukraine to swallow it, having already digested Crimea. The cartoon is titled, “Insatiable.”

The crisis in Ukraine has global and regional implications. The West had pledged not to expand NATO by absorbing former satellite nations of Eastern Europe but it has been moving inexorably to encircle Russia, fueling a new Cold War.

On the other hand, Russia, under Vladimir Putin, is in a revanchist mood to restore Moscow’s old glory. Mr. Putin has stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the most catastrophic event of the 20th century. The political atmosphere is somewhat similar to Germany after World War I, when a humiliated country was clamoring to revive and take its revenge. For that reason, the population was ready to go to any lengths to restore what it saw as its national dignity.

Crimea’s takeover and Moscow’s aggressive posture on Ukraine’s border have boosted Putin’s popularity domestically to 80 percent, despite the country’s economic woes.

This is the picture on the global plane. But Russia’s newly-acquired assertive policies impact heavily the neighboring regions, where Armenia happens to be located.

By necessity, Armenia chose to join the Customs Union led by Moscow, to be followed by the Eurasia Union, which aspires to become the eastern counterpart of the European Union.

By switching its allegiance towards Russia, Armenia has alienated the West and the fallout from that decision may show up in time gradually.

But Russia has already taken Armenia for granted and has been treating Yerevan in a cavalier fashion — not the behavior of a strategic partner.

With all the external changes in the region, Armenia has undertaken restructuring its government. Tigran Sargisian, a respected economist, resigned his post as prime minister recently, to be replaced by Hovik Abrahamyan, the former speaker of the parliament, a reliable partner for Armenia’s oligarchs.

After the final reshuffling of the entire cabinet, some facts may emerge to demonstrate how much of the changes were owed to Moscow’s manipulations.

For the first time, there was consolidation within the ranks of the opposition parties in Armenia, giving rise to the expectations that the ruling Republican party may be loosening its grip on power.

One thing that is becoming obvious is that Armenia will be receiving the short shrift in the emerging developments of the Caucasus. By betting its future on the Russia, it is destined to fare on some rough seas.

We read in the same issue of the Economist, “He [Putin] has claimed a duty to intervene to protect Russian speakers wherever they are. … That might be in Transdniestria, a slice of Moldova that has hosted Russian troops since the early 1990s. Or Kazakhstan, which has a large Russian population in the north. Or even the Baltic states, two of which have large Russian-speaking minorities and all of them depend on Russian gas.”

The West has been watching with alarm Russia’s ambitions and will be resorting to countermeasures to contain the awakening Russian bear. In the process, many countries’ destinies will be at risk in the ebb and flow of this new Cold War.

Armenia is safely in Russia’s court, for better or worse. Thus far, Russia has remained insensitive to its strategic partner’s priorities, rendering that alliance into a one-way street.

Instead of showcasing its allies as prosperous countries benefitting from their dependence on Moscow, Russia has been treating them recklessly. Georgia took advantage of its dependence on the West by improving its economy, curbing corruption, albeit at a scandalous cost, thereby discouraging emigration and recently had a peaceful transfer of power. Had former president Mikhail Saakashvili acted more prudently, the country would also have avoided a territorial amputation.

During a recent TV interview, Mr. Putin angrily chastised Transdniestria’s neighbors, Moldova and Ukraine, which have been blockading that slice of territory of great interest to Moscow.

Conversely, Moscow has yet to utter a word against Turkey and Azerbaijan, which have been blockading Armenia for the last two decades, with devastating effects. On the contrary, Moscow has been arming Azerbaijan at an alarming rate, allowing President Ilham Aliyev to claim not only Karabagh, but all of Armenia itself as historic Azeri land.

The Stockholm International Peace Institute reported recently that between 2004 and 2014, Azerbaijan’s military spending increased 493 percent. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry has announced that Russia has already sold to Azerbaijan more weapons than any other country, including Turkey. This confirms President Aliyev’s statement last August that Russian-Azerbaijani defense contracts are “measured at $4 billion and tend to grow.”

Why is Azerbaijan being armed at this rate and at whom are those weapons pointed?

On the one hand, Baku is buying Israel’s drones and cooperating with the West to contain Iran and on the other hand, Russia is spoiling Baku’s leadership to control that country’s energy resources and to keep it on a short leash politically.

Within this scenario, the Russian military base in Armenia receives academic significance as much as its defense is concerned. And there has never been an ironclad public pronouncement about its use to defend Armenia and Karabagh. It becomes more and more apparent that the base is more of a tool to sustain Moscow’s regional policies rather than protect Armenia.

We have yet to analyze and digest a statement by the Russian Ambassador to Armenia Ivan Volynkin at the seventh Forum of Russian Compatriots in Armenia on April 12: “Russia will prevent any aggressive intervention in the internal affairs of friendly countries made under the pretext of planting ideas alien to our minds and hearts.”

Russia’s bear hug of Armenia is becoming more and more stifling. A reporter at the news site ArmeniaNow, Naira Hayrumyan, writes in her column on April 20, “The Russian leadership does not hide any longer its intentions to completely absorb Armenia. One of the instruments of this absorption may become the new Russian law simplifying the granting of Russian passports to Russian-speaking citizens of other states. As a condition for receiving a passport within three months, the naturalized Russians have to renounce their original citizenship. In Armenia there is already concern that migrant workers in Russia will start giving up Armenian citizenship and acquire Russian citizenship en masse. There is the same concern in relation to the Armenian-populated Georgian region of Javakhk, where Russia is also handing out passports.”

Incidentally, Javakhk has been attracting some political attention recently. Britain’s ambassadors to Armenia and Georgia have travelled together to the territory to gauge the mood of local Armenians. Such attention has been necessitated by the rumors that Russia is planning to establish a land bridge connecting to Armenia and Iran over Javakhk.

Moscow intends to resolve the Ukraine crisis by neutralizing it politically and federalizing it in internally. Now the same intentions are apparently aimed at Georgia. Moscow already controls South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Should a separatist movement take root in Javakhk, Russia can extend its savior’s hands to Georgia, forcing it to adopt a federal constitution to reabsorb the regions lost to Russia.

It is a farfetched scenario, which could have been achieved when Aslan Abashidze in Ajaria challenged Saakashvili’s central authority in Tbilisi and Moscow defused the standoff by flying Abashidze to Moscow to gain favors with Saakashvili, to no avail. At that time, the Russians liquidated their military base in Javakhk, denying physical and economic security for Armenians in that region.

As we can see, the Caucasus is a political puzzle whose pieces are not yet all in place. US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar’s recent announcement to resolve the Karabagh crisis by asking Armenia to return seven adjacent regions to Azerbaijan is another indication of the new dynamism introduced in the region by outside forces.

It remains for the leadership of Armenia to navigate prudently through all these choppy waters to assure a stable future for the country.