The Russian threat in Armenia

The Russian threat in Armenia

Robert Kocharyan
Robert Kocharyan


In the aftermath of Armenia’s ‘Velvet Revolution, so-called due to the peaceful nature of the protests which toppled the country’s unpopular Republican government, Russia has remained uncharacteristically silent. This time, there were no accusations of Western backing, Soros-financing, or dreaded ‘colour revolutions’ by Moscow. No Russian tanks have appeared on the streets of Yerevan, and no mysterious green-clad men declared independence of any part of this tiny mountainous country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Instead, only a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, expressing a conviction that “the situation in friendly Armenia will be resolved democratically and lawfully.”


Events currently unfolding in Armenia may rapidly change all that. Two weeks ago, investigators called in former-President Robert Kocharyan, who had since retired to Moscow, for questioning over his involvement in the deadly 2008 post-election crackdowns. Kocharyan, along with the current head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Gen. Yuri Khachaturov was subsequently arrested and charged with usurping power for deploying the military against protesters, causing at least ten deaths. The newly-installed Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan was himself arrested for his role in organising these demonstrations and had repeatedly pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice.


These high profile arrests prompted Russia’s harshest response yet since the Revolution. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov (himself half Armenian) responded with sharp, but vague criticism stating: “Recent developments are a cause for concern, including from the point of view of normal operations of the CIS”. Without naming names, the message was clear: Russia has so far stayed out of Armenian domestic politics but remains ready to intervene if it feels a red line has been crossed.


In the ensuing political turmoil, Armenia’s Court of Appeals called for Kocharyan’s release, citing Article 140 of the Constitution which states “During the term of his or her powers and thereafter, the President of the Republic may not be prosecuted and subjected to liability for actions deriving from his or her status.” Meanwhile, as an apparent concession to the Kremlin, General Khachaturov was temporarily released from custody and allowed to return to Russia to attend to “urgent CSTO-related matters”.


Robert Kocharyan
Robert Kocharyan


Kocharyan, meanwhile, used the opportunity to announce his much-dreaded political comeback. In an interview with the Yerkir Media TV channel, the former strongman dismissed criticisms of widespread corruption, oligarchy and repression under his rule, stating that he brought the country an unprecedented decade of double-digit economic growth. He also borrowed language increasingly common among Eastern-Europe’s autocrats when criticising the new government; referring to them as inexperienced Soros-funded grant-eaters, who don’t know how to run a country at war. He also claimed that the silent majority of Armenians would support his comeback as only he could mend relations with Russia.


For many observers, this stunning episode marks the beginning of Russia’s involvement in Armenia’s internal affairs since the Revolution. The Kremlin was never comfortable with Armenia’s peaceful change in government, fearing the fallout from yet another ‘colour revolution’ in the Eurasian ‘near abroad’.


Before the Velvet Revolution, Armenia’s ruling party, the Republicans, though ostensibly nationalist and conservative, quickly morphed into what the Economist referred to as a”typical post-Soviet ‘party of power’ mainly comprising senior government officials, civil servants, and wealthy business people dependent on government connections.”; mirroring, in many respects, Russia’s own ruling United Russia party. Armenian diplomats had formulated a foreign policy which they termed ‘complementarity’ essentially a delicate balancing act between Russian and Western interests. Though in practice, Armenia made substantial overtures to the West to counteract overbearing Russian influence over the country. Thus, despite being a full member of the CIS, the CSTO, and now the Eurasian Economic Union, Armenia has also contributed peacekeepers to NATO missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, participates in the Partnership for Peace programme, is a full member of the Council of Europe, and the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme.


In the years since Armenia regained its independence from the USSR, Russia maintained its influence using a combination of various soft-power approaches, and the threat of consequences if Yerevan were to lose the Kremlin’s protection. In the Russian political mindset, ideology has become synonymous with geopolitics: socialism, conservatism, religious orthodoxy, family ties and shared history or culture are not concepts so much as they are tools to achieve the ultimate goal: to ensure Russia’s continued hegemony over its ‘backyard’. This policy has resulted in a notable increase in Armenia’s financial, economic, military and logistical dependency on Moscow. In exchange, the Kremlin offers military protection, political support, aid and privileged access to markets.


The Kremlin rarely hesitates to use these political tools when necessary. Officials may temporarily block access of Armenian goods to Russian markets due to health concerns which mysteriously coincide with periods of diplomatic rift between the two countries. Gas prices have a peculiar tendency to fluctuate around critical political events, and the half a million Armenian guest workers in Russia may suddenly be asked to take Russian language knowledge tests when Armenian politicians drag their feet. President Putin, acutely aware of this disparity infamously remarked to his then-counterpart, Robert Kocharyan, during a State visit to Yerevan: “You may be President of Armenia, but I am president of the Armenians.”


Perhaps the most blatant instance of Russian adventurism in Armenia came in the form of the ‘debt-for-assets’ deal, a highly controversial agreement between then-president Kocharyan and Putin where Russia would write off some of Armenia’s debt in exchange for controlling shares in the countries largest infrastructure projects. Thus, Armenia’s telecom provider, ArmTelecom, natural gas supplier, electric grid, nuclear power plant, and rail network were all acquired by their Russian state-owned counterparts.


Despite pledges by the Russian side to invest in and modernise these structures, very little came out of it for Armenian consumers. Since the Russian Federation was apparently interested in maintaining leverage over a proxy rather than running businesses, many of these state corporations quickly became uncompetitive, corrupt and bankrupt. They did fill their strategic purposes for Russia, however. The Russian natural gas giant Gazprom used its influence to halve the diameter for a planned pipeline to Iran which would have reduced Armenia’s reliance on Russian gas imports. Gas prices in Armenia have also played into political favours, with a promise for ‘domestic Russian prices’ helping to smooth-over Armenia’s controversial joining of the Eurasian Economic Union.


Russia has also worked to consolidate military leverage on both Armenia and its chief rival, Azerbaijan. This strategy has been implemented both through the maintenance of Soviet-era military installations in both countries (Azerbaijan revoked Russia’s lease on the obsolete Soviet-era Gabala radar station in 2012, while Armenia extended Russia’s contract of the Gyumri Military Base until 2044) and as the primary arms supplier to both parties.


Armenia, in particular, has been wooed into joining the CSTO and signing a bilateral defence agreement with Russia by the promise of discounted weapons sales. Russia has provided Armenia with multi-million dollar loans for the purchase of high-tech weapons systems, such as the S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries, and the Iskander-M short-range mobile ballistic missile system, with enough range to target Azerbaijan’s oil production facilities.


Russia enjoys a long and fraternal relationship with Armenia based on shared culture, religion and history. Many Armenians see Russia as a historical protector of their co-religionists from oppressive Muslim rulers of the Persian and Ottoman empires. Many have also swallowed the Soviet occupation as a necessary evil which preserved Armenian statehood in the face of certain annihilation at the hands of advancing Ottoman armies. Armenians thrived in political, educational, business, scientific and cultural spheres in both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.


However, as Russian authorities have repeatedly discovered, this small nation goes to great lengths to defend its cultural, linguistic, and religious distinctiveness whenever threatened. Under the Tsars, Armenians resisted the Russification of their schools, the forced annexation of their national church into the Orthodox Communion and other forms of assimilation. Under the Soviets, they promoted a unique vernacular take on socialist architectural trends, continued to encourage the Armenian language in education as well as politics and contributed a disproportional amount of the Soviet Union’s cultural, technological and scientific output. In the late 1980s, Yerevan became the epicentre for public outrage when the Soviets tried to demote non-Slavic languages from official status in their respective republics. The ensuing turmoil led Armenia to become one of the first republics to declare independence from the USSR.


Thus, despite strong historical ties, and a close political relationship, Moscow is beginning to learn to tread carefully in its dealings with Yerevan. Past arrogance hasn’t come without its blunders. In 2013, Moscow very publicly strongarmed Armenia into dropping its already-closed Association-Agreement negotiations with the EU to join the Russia-lead Eurasian Economic Union (this despite repeated claims that Armenia wasn’t economically compatible). Observers have postulated that this move was motivated more as a show of force to Kiev rather than a genuine desire for Armenia’s participation.


The 2015 murder of an entire Armenian family of 7 by a Russian conscript in Gyumri triggered violent protests across the country. Russia was directly accused of contempt for Armenian sovereignty when it insisted on trying the soldier in a Russia court, despite bilateral agreements giving authority over such matters to a local court.


An earlier incident regarding an Armenian migrant worker who was involved in a car crash in southern Russia soured relations further. The driver made a televised court appearance wearing only a woman’s dress: a profoundly humiliating and demeaning act in the eyes of a macho caucasian society.
Russian officials have also been at the centre of minor controversies such as calling for a co-official status of the Russian language (in a country that is 97% Armenian), accusing Garegin Njdeh (an Armenian resistance leader which many consider a national hero) an anti-Russian traitor, and so on.


Many across the Armenian government and civil society would have brushed these incidents aside, justifying them as part of a necessary sacrifice for the preservation of Armenian statehood. After all, Armenia is located in a bad neighbourhood with few options. This pretext became more difficult to rationalise when Russia announced the sale of over $5 billion in advanced military hardware to arch-rival Azerbaijan. The deal included the TOS-1 incendiary rocket launcher and SMERSH multiple-rocket system; many of which were employed with deadly effect in the short-but-violent Four Day War in April of 2016


As President Serzh Sargsyan’s announcement that he would extend his rule through the newly-bolstered role of the Prime Minister was met with growing protests, Russian observers sat tight. Already bogged down in proxy conflicts across Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya and Syria, Russian strategists could not see the advantages of yet another unnecessary conflict. Back in 2015, a severe faux-pas by Russian state-owned television broadcasters inadvertently politicised protests against electricity price hikes by drawing shallow comparisons to Ukraine’s Maydan Revolution.


During the ensuing Velvet Revolution, both Russia and the Armenian opposition protesters went to great lengths to avoid characterising these events as anything other than a strictly domestic affair. Russia saw no need to prop up an unpopular leader with whom relations had always been somewhat lukewarm. Sargsyan’s abdication meant that Karen Karapetyan, a former Gazprom exec, widely seen as the Kremlin’s ‘man in Yerevan’, would replace him. However, the rapid change in situation caught Russia off guard. Within days sustained direct actions across the country forced Karapetyan’s resignation, paving the way for Nikol Pashinyan’s to assume the Prime Minister’s office. At that moment, Russia could do little more than accept this new fait accompli, scrambling diplomats to Yerevan to secure the new government’s pledge to uphold existing bilateral treaties, and maintain the geopolitical status quo.


Armed with these reassurances, and a lack of options, the Kremlin has thus far been content to allow this nascent democratic experiment to proceed while keeping a watchful eye. Post-Velvet Armenia creates an uncomfortable dilemma for Russian policymakers. One the one hand, the presence of a democratic state on its southern frontier introduces an unpredictable element for the Kremlin’s geopolitical calculations, while on the other hand, direct intervention could very easily backfire, potentially risking Russia’s clout on the broader region.


For the moment, it is interesting to see how long this uneasy cohabitation can last. Armenia’s unusual take on revolution stems from an understanding by all parties involved that the country’s precarious geopolitical situation; flanked by Turkey (a NATO-member) and Azerbaijan, make the sort of realignment towards the West which characterised the Maidan and Rose Revolutions impossible. Policymakers in Yerevan and Moscow have shown tremendous restraint, as both know that they cannot afford to sacrifice bilateral relations.


That said, Moscow now needs to learn to deal with a new kind of neighbour without resorting to the traditional tactics of Kompromat, personal relations with autocrats, or political machinations. It’s unclear how ready Moscow is to do that. Geopolitical rivalries aside, the very existence of a post-Velvet Armenia may pose an existential threat to Russia’s political establishments. Not yet had Pashinyan moved into his new office that protesters across Russia chanted “We want what happened to Armenia” and waved Armenian tricolours. The new Armenian government’s investigations and arrests of the former political class including an ex-president are not only unprecedented but is bound to send chills down the spines of many a post-soviet autocrat.


As the Russia-friendly 63-year-old ex-president Kocharyan announces his return to politics, it’s interesting to see how this humble democratic experiment will fare in this despot club.


By Raffi Elliott

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