Armenia in the Cauldron of Caucasian Politics


Editorial CartoonBy Edmond Azadian

PART l

Armenia seems to have been destined by history to be located in a geographic area where major political interests and empires clash and where the local population is destined to be beholden perpetually to the consequences of wars, ethnic cleansing and deportations.

Historic accidents have rendered Armenia a landlocked country and therefore subject to pressures, intimidations and blockades. After World War I, had the Allies made good on their promises, Armenians would have had home rule in Cilicia, with a seaport at Alexandretta (Iskenderun). Also, had the Treaty of Sevres been implemented (1920), Wilsonian Armenia had the Port of Trabizon designated as an entrée to Europe and the rest of the world. But with the loss of those opportunities, Armenia has remained vulnerable to outside threats and isolation.

When Armenia was absorbed into the Soviet Union, those geographic limitations lost their significance as the Republic had access to the advantages to which the Union itself was entitled.

But history came to haunt Armenia as soon as it regained its independence and it restored its sovereignty over a portion of its historic territory.

As if time had frozen for 70 years, the wars, hostilities and conflicts which had plagued Armenia between 1918 and 1920, came back with a vengeance.

We are all familiar with the war in Karabagh, the earthquake and blockade by its neighbors, namely Turkey and Azerbaijan.

For the last 25 years Armenia has lived in a precarious situation, which has led to depression and depopulation.

Armenia’s independence was also a test of the Diaspora’s pretensions and potentials. During the first years of independence, Armenians in the homeland used to brag to Azeris, “If you have oil, we have our Diaspora.” Today, no one in Armenia, to my memory, is bragging any more to the Azeris.

Armenia’s relations with its neighbors and the latter’s relations with each other have shaped the country’s destiny. We can evaluate Armenia’s current condition and its future within the parameters of those relations. Armenia’s neighbors are Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Georgia. Although Russia does not have territorial borders with Armenia, by the sheer size and geopolitical weight, it has become the most influential neighbor. Turkey and Azerbaijan, which have blockaded Armenia, have been on hostile terms with it. Georgia’s relation with Armenia has been best described as a “friendly foe,” since successive Tbilisi governments have opted to side with Armenia’s enemies, both in politics —voting with Azeris and Turks at the UN and other forums — as well as in economic development projects, designing energy pipelines and railways to by-pass Armenia, with the intention of choking the latter economically.

The factors contributing to the implementation of that kind of hostility, the least being perennial Georgian jealousy which is compounded by the political choices that the Tbilisi government has been making since the country’s independence — it is veering to join NATO while Armenia, by necessity has opted to remain in the Russian orbit. Therefore, these two nations are caught in a tug-of-war between Russia and the West.

As far as Iran is concerned, Armenia maintains friendly relations, although those relations have not yielded much because of the scarcity of Armenia’s resources, and also because of the international sanctions imposed on Iran. Lifting the sanction may boost trade between the two friendly nations.

The Russian Factor: For a long time Armenia was courting the European Union, but with the emergence of the new cold war, whereby the West decided to prevent the ascendance of Russia to its former status of a superpower, polarization emerged and Moscow decided to build its own fortress to counter the European Union and NATO thus Armenia was pulled into Moscow-centered Eurasian Customs Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the military alliance with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Therefore, the political and economic policies of Armenia were heavily influenced by the politics of those entities.

In view of some analysts, that was a positive development, but detractors insisted that Armenia gave much more in terms of its sovereignty and that the rewards were not commensurate.

Whether Armenia likes or not, it is perceived by the west as an accessory to the Russian policy. In a recent article in Washington Times (2/26/16), L. Todd Wood states: “Forbes writes, make no mistake: The Russian military presence in Armenia represents a dagger pointed at the heart of NATO as the Armenia-Russian alliance strengthens.”

That logic and the political argument is also used by the Turkish Government to vilify Armenia in the West. Just recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Russia is using Armenia to fight NATO. He also characterized Armenia as the “most dangerous country to the world peace” during a lecture at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Russian base No. 102, outside Yerevan, Moscow’s recent buildup and military exercises, have proven beyond doubt that Armenia may be the last one to benefit because Moscow’s intention is to project its power far beyond into the Middle East, where it has a stake in the Syrian war theater and its standoff with Turkey just crosses Armenia’s border. Russia’s relations with Iran are many-facetted; while they are partners in the Syria conflict, and Moscow has been supplying heavy weapons to Tehran, it seems that they are competitors in the Caucasus region for political influence, but more pronounced in the energy market, sometimes at Armenia’s detriment.

It seems that Moscow and Washington are betting on Iran for stability in the Middle East at the expense of worrying Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Facing Turkey: Turkey has never missed an opportunity to express its hostility towards Armenia. Ankara went out of its way to counter the Centennial Commemoration of the Genocide by staging its Gallipoli Celebration. Turkey has the second-largest standing army in the NATO structure, however Armenia and the issue of the Genocide remain its Achilles heel, since so much capital is invested to fighting them.

Of course, in the Karabagh issue, Ankara supports Azerbaijan’s position. Ankara even forfeited its historic opportunity to consolidate its position on the border issue with Armenia, by signing the protocols in 2009. The protocols would have lifted the blockade of Armenia and implicitly forced Armenia to accept the current borders which were defined and finalized by the Treaties of Moscow and Kars in 1921. Ankara pre-conditioned the signing of the protocols with the resolution of the Karabagh conflict in favor of Azerbaijan, although all the negotiations were carried out based on the premise that there would be no pre-conditions.

In the final analysis, the failure of protocols proved to be a blessing in disguise for Armenia, with the resurgence of the calls to abrogate the Treaty of Moscow.

Indeed, recently Russian Duma members Valery Rashkin and Sergei Obakhov of the Russian Communist Party sent a letter to the Russian political leadership and the Foreign Ministry requesting the cancellation of 1921 Treaty of Moscow, which was signed between Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey. The Treaty of Moscow recognized Turkish control over Artvin, Ardahan, Kars and Surmalu. The region of Ajaria, with the Port of Batumi, would be retained by Georgia. Turkey withdrew from Alexandrapol and a new border was established between Turkey and Soviet Armenia, defined by the Arax and Akhurian Rivers. The Treaty stipulated that the district of Nakhichevan, historically part of Armenia under Tsarist rule, be transferred to the jurisdiction of Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Additionally, Turkey acquired a small strip of territory known as Arax corridor.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of LDPR party in the Duma, proposed, “In response to Turkey’s refusal to recognize Crimea’s reunion with Russia, we should recognize the Turkish Kurdistan as an independent state and demand Turkey to return the lands of Western Armenia.”

The treaty had been earlier challenged by Soviet Foreign Minister W. Molotov in 1945 and later at the UN by Andrei Vishinsky (1948) requesting Kars for Armenia and Ardahan for Georgia.

But a more interesting development took place on December 23, 2015 in Moscow where Turkish opposition parliamentarian, pro-Kurdish Democratic party leader Selahattin Demirtas has discussed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the plan of “reshaping” Turkey with the creation of an Anatolian Confederate Republic which would be divided into four autonomous entities — Kurdish, Armenian, Greek and Turkish. The “Republic” will have two official religions, Moslem and Christian, and four languages of the constituent political entities.

That plan suffered a setback with the onslaught of the Turkish Army against the Kurdish population, threatening also Demirtas’ parliamentary immunity.

The Georgian parliament has already abrogated the Treaty in 2005 while Armenia is waiting for action.

The annulment of the Treaty would throw into question the status of the Nakhichevan Exclave and the Arax Corridor, which forms the only common frontier between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

The movement created some euphoria in Armenia and many believed that Putin would return Ararat to Armenia. But the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova stated that Russia will study the question of annulling the Treaty with Turkey. But, she added — and that is very important — “Russia is developing relations with Azerbaijan and will not do anything that could worsen them. On the contrary, we will focus on what will improve our relations with that country.”

It did not take too long to see Zakharova’s statement tested. The flare up on April 2, 2016 on the contact line between Azerbaijani Armenian forces undermined the validity of Duma members’ proposals, as the Kremlin kept a neutral stand while its strategic ally was being attacked. Of course, we no longer hear any talk about treaty abrogation.

(Part II will appear next week.)