Perspectives for Armenia: “We need to mature politically”

By Morgane Fert-Malka

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) programme, which purports to govern the EU’s relations with a number of post-Soviet countries, is a central element of European identity. It is also a thorny and controversial issue, insofar as it may play into conflictual logics of ‘alignment’ and rivalry with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) if not managed and communicated properly. Ukraine is but the most tragic example of this rivalry bursting into actual – and bloody – conflict.

Armenia, located at the heart of a complicated region and at the crossroad of geopolitical interests, has hitherto tried to avoid the ‘alignment’ logic and to nurture good relations both with European centres of power and with Russia.

WeBuildEurope.eu met with Gevorg Melikyan, an Armenian pundit and Fellow in the Political Developments & Security Programme at the Armenian Institute of International and Security Affairs, to discuss the conditions in which Armenia has to manoeuvre at the international, regional and domestic levels, and its perspectives for further cooperation with the EU.

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WeBuildEurope.eu: Armenia is located at a geopolitically crucial intersection, between Russia, Europe, Turkey, Iran, and even Asia. What influence do those powers exert on Armenia?

Gevorg Melikyan: Obviously Armenia is located in a very important, very interesting and very complicated region, surrounded both by enemies and by friends. Armenian foreign policy is shaped by its geographic situation and the challenges that it entails, the two main sources of concern being Turkey and Azerbaijan. Essentially, Armenia tries to have a complementary foreign policy, which means that it tries to balance and maintain good relations with all the centres of political influence – Bruxelles, Moscow, Washington – and also to look to the East – to Iran and China.

The problem is that the margin of maneuver is very narrow. Armenia’s strategy is to balance between political (security) and economic opportunities. Thus it turns to Russia for strategic alliance and to Europe for economic partnership. Russia is Armenia’s strategic ally as regards our main security threats – Turkey and Azerbaijan – but in the economic domain we are looking for opportunities with the EU. This is obviously a delicate balance to strike, with many pitfalls.

“Armenia tries to have a complementary foreign policy. It turns to Russia for strategic alliance and to Europe for economic partnership.”

You may ask for example why Armenia opted for the EAEU and rejected the Association Agreement with the EU in 2013. My opinion is that although the EAEU is nominally an economic project, Armenia’s choice was largely political – and by the way it remains highly controversial in the Armenian society.

Do you mean that it was motivated mainly by security concerns?

Of course. Armenia has these two existential threats, Turkey and Azerbaijan. On some accounts these threats are exaggerated, on others they are underestimated. Just recently in April 2016, the four-day war triggered by Azerbaijan against Nagorno-Karabakh reminded everyone that the threat of mutual killings and destabilisation of the entire region is very real. As regards Turkey, some would say that the issue of the recognition of the Armenian genocide is a matter of history, but in fact it is very much contemporary politics. Armenians feel that as long as there is no unambiguous recognition, history may repeat itself.

Armenia is at the center of a complicated security puzzle, which is seen differently from various centres of power – from Russia, the US and the EU. All three centres are involved in this puzzle and are trying to keep it under control.

Yet, there are people who believe that Russia is not interested in peace in the South Caucasus – that it has an interest in keeping the conflict alive but under control.

For what purpose?

You know, I am not saying this is the case, this is just an opinion you can often hear in Armenia: that Russia does not know how to use smart or soft power, only aggressive instruments…

Hybrid strategy?

Yes, hybrid wars, economic pressure, different kinds of interaction and influence on political elites. Many political parties in Armenia are linked to Russia, financially and politically. Russia has a number of instruments of leverage on Armenia. And one of them is Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia can keep selling weapons to both sides – at different prices – and at the same time provide security to Armenia. I am not saying this is the only truth – this is just the kind of debate going on in Armenian society.

Does the EU have instruments of influence in Armenia?

This is a difficult question. I think they do in theory, but on the other hand they are limited in practice. Yes, the EU is interested in being more present in Armenia, but at the same time European institutions limit their financial and human investments there. Similarly in Armenia, the government is reluctant to make more efforts and invite a greater EU presence.

In fact, we navigate in a certain atmosphere of mutual mistrust. There are sympathies between the EU and Armenia, but also a sort of distance, because Armenia’s foreign policy lacks clearness as regards its alliance or cooperation tactics and objectives both with Russia and the West, including with institutions like NATO.

In general I think that the EU respects this position and wants to leave Armenia the choice of its orientation. After Armenia failed to sign the Association Agreement in 2013, there was a temptation in the EU to adopt a hard stance, to stop financing some projects, to limit interactions – but I think the EU understood that this way, they would ‘lose’ Armenia. They would undermine the EaP in general, on which they already spent a lot of money! It is not just about ideas. Pragmatic considerations play a role, too.

So, instead, the EU and Armenia agreed to restart negotiations towards a ‘light agreement’. Basically, they will go over all the conditions that were negotiated prior to 2013, and adapt them to the new reality – i.e. Armenia’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), effective since January 1, 2015.

How do relations between Russia and the EU affect Armenia?

They do economically, politically, and psychologically. Armenia is a small county and is “sitting between two stools”. It is also a question of image. To the extent that Armenia is associated with Russia, the degradation of Russia’s image in the West also harms Armenia.

In other words, the polarisation between Russia and Europe makes it more difficult for Armenia to play on both teams?

Yes, because both Russia and the West may want to put pressure on Armenia to chose sides, especially in the context of Armenia’s accession to the EAEU.

I am not sure to what extent Russia would pressure Armenia. They do not seem to be very enthusiastic about Armenia’s interactions with the EU, but they are perhaps more more bothered by its interactions with NATO. It may foster some jealousy, some tensions, and some concerns. It may also raise the question of Armenia’s loyalty to Russia. You have to take into account the Russian experience with Georgia, to understand how they may look at Armenia.

So, Armenia has, first, to take into account its own interests, complicated by the genocide and the Nagorno-Karabakh issues, and at the same time it has to take into account the interests of those external actors involved in the region. It is a complicated puzzle.

Armenia is most often cited in relation with Azerbaijan and the two countries’ dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. How central is this dispute in Armenian politics?

It is extremely central. It is one of the two pillars of our foreign policy – the other one being the international recognition of the genocide. Everything else is secondary.

The Armenian leadership is trying to broaden the agenda, and include other dimensions, such as economic relations with the EU, the US, Russia, Iran, China and Georgia – and even Turkey. But even those activities tend to remain instrumental, primarily driven by the two aforementioned concerns.

Is there any chance that the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh will be solved soon?

Well, there are always chances but chance and hope are not political measures. Unfortunately, not all conflicts are resolved in this world. I am optimistic because there can be solutions, but it is all a question of political choice and will. Do these two societies want to live in peace? Do they understand peace in the same way? Conflict is inherent to human nature and not everyone wants to live in peace. We will need a paradigmatic change in the region: perhaps more democracy, more prosperity, less oil-based politics, less ambitions and less egocentrism.

The current evolution in Azerbaijani domestic politics does not bode well. Azerbaijan is becoming more authoritarian. Because the revenues from oil are declining, the leadership has to tighten its political control.

“We need a paradigmatic change in the region: more democracy, more prosperity, less oil-based politics, less ambitions and less egocentrism.”

Armenia is not used to relying on fossil fuel revenues, so it has escaped this curse. We have a rather vibrant civil society – far from European standards in terms of many freedoms but much better than Azerbaijan. We have substantial online and offline activism. In Armenia people tend to discuss everything, sometimes with a harsh tone, but in a way this is positive, this is a sign of spirit of civil awareness and growing sense of ownership. People are becoming aware of their civic rights, their own importance in societal changes and the impact they can have if they take part in the debate.

How are Armenia’s relations with its other immediate neighbour Georgia?

We have very good relations with Georgia. However, there is enormous potential that remains unexplored. Our relation remains largely emotional, traditional and cultural. I would like Georgia to become Armenia’s strategic partner, I would like to see more investment from and in Georgia, and I would like Georgia to be an end rather than just a means in Armenian foreign policy.

Georgia has a difficult position in the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute. Azerbaijan pours a lot of money into Georgia, and there are substantial Azeri and Armenian communities in Georgia, which makes it difficult for Tbilissi to take sides.

What are Armenia’s most pressing structural problems?

The three countries of the South Caucasus need to mature politically. We need more openness. We need to stop going back to old political elites all the time and open the door for new entrants. We need more professionals in politics – professional economists, professional diplomats.

Systemic corruption is another major problem holding back Armenia. I would also mention the poor quality of education. Some would say it is not a strategic issue, but for me it is.  It will require many years to reform, but it needs more attention. Another major problem is the high rate of emigration, although the authorities refuse to acknowledge it. Of course, the economy needs to be more diversified. I don’t know who decided that because Armenia is small, monopolies are okay. On the contrary: a small economy needs to be open in order to be more resilient.

“The three countries of the South Caucasus need to mature politically. We need to take responsibility, and stop making excuses.”

These are Armenia’s diseases. Many of them can be traced back to the Soviet mentality. On the other hand, we should not automatically blame everything on the Soviet Union. We need to take responsibility, stop making excuses, and solve our own problems.

What role does the diaspora play in promoting Armenia’s interests abroad?

Armenia and its diaspora are like the two sides of a sheet of paper. You cannot separate them, but still, they are different. They have a lot in common but they also have different agendas. The diaspora has done a lot for Armenia, especially in promoting the recognition of the genocide abroad – and in sustaining young Armenia financially. However, now Armenia is trying to professionalise its diplomacy and to rely less directly on the diaspora. This is an essential part of becoming a mature state.

Does the diaspora have an impact on domestic politics in Armenia?

Mostly, no, although this is a slightly controversial question. The diaspora is interested in Armenian affairs, but they do not have real legitimacy to interfere. Armenians in Armenia welcome the financial support, and everything the diaspora does to promote the nation abroad, but they do not like to be told how to behave within Armenia. Still, there is no real division – this narrative mostly comes from Azerbaijani propaganda. We are like a family: we do not agree on everything but it does not mean we cannot live together and support each other.

We in Armenia take pride in our diaspora. At the same time, the diaspora takes pride in the progress of the Armenian nation. It is important for them to see that Armenia is not only a mental construct, as it was before 1991. Armenia is a real nation, a modern state, with working institutions and a flag that both we and the diaspora are happy to wave.

The views expressed in this interview are the interviewee’s own and cannot be attributed to WeBuildEurope.eu.


Cover picture: Armenian flag. Text picture: AIISA gallery, aiisa.am, Gevorg Melikyan (centre).

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