Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 2

Armenia’s foreign policy: balancing between East and West

By Emil Danielyan

The liberal government that came to power in 1990 following Soviet Armenia’s first free elections made it a foreign policy priority to establish "normal relations" with its neighbors, Turkey included. The Armenian Pan-National Movement (APM) of President Levon Ter-Petrosian saw this as the best guarantee of Armenia’s national security. The new government tried, accordingly, to replace Armenia’s traditionally pro-Russian orientation by self-reliance. While vowing to seek international recognition of the 1915 genocide of over one million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Ter-Petrosian government renounced territorial claims to Turkey. It also declared its intention of establishing close ties with the West, without abandoning its contacts with Russia.

Now, seven years later, Armenia has established "normal relations" with only two of its four neighbors — Georgia and Iran. Armenia’s relations with both Azerbaijan and Turkey remain tense as a consequence of the decade-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan views Armenia as an aggressor that has occupied one-fifth of its territory, while Armenia blames Azerbaijan for the economic blockade clamped upon it. Turkey has lent its support to Azerbaijan, with which it has a close ethnic and cultural affinity. Despite calls by Turkish businessmen for the border with Armenia to be opened, Ankara keeps it shut.

Fundamentalist Iran, by contrast, has not only refused to join Muslim Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s economic blockade; it has developed a dynamic trade with Christian Armenia. Iran has a number of serious differences with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and its view of Armenia is dictated by geopolitical considerations. While condemning Armenian "aggression" against Azerbaijan, Iran is apparently not interested in seeing Armenia weakened. In fact, trade with Iran has helped Armenia survive the blockade.

Armenia’s most reliable conduit to the outside world remains its sole Christian neighbor, Georgia. Although Georgia is a vocal advocate (in light of the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia) of the inviolability of borders, and wary of Russia’s close links with Armenia, relations between the two countries are good. According to some estimates, up to half the shipments to Georgia’s Black Sea ports are Armenian cargoes.

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has had far-reaching implications for Armenia’s relations with Russia and the West. As the war with Azerbaijan intensified, Yerevan came increasingly to rely on military cooperation with Moscow to build its army and ward off the perceived danger of Turkish assault. Speculation that Russia orchestrated Armenian victories in Karabakh is ill-founded since there is no evidence that Russian military units fought on the side of the enclave. There is however no denying that Armenian successes made it possible for Russia to manipulate Azerbaijan’s internal politics. Military cooperation between Russia and Armenia culminated in the signing of a landmark treaty last August.

The treaty was interpreted at the time as a sign that Yerevan was abandoning its policy of "balance" between the West and Russia. Apart from military matters, however, the treaty envisages no other mutually binding obligations. This reflects the fact that Armenia is now economically more dependent on Western credits than on Russian economic support. The World Bank and the IMF have praised Armenia’s economic reforms and lent the country hundreds of million dollars. Armenia is also the world’s second largest recipient of U.S. economic assistance. Political relations were particularly cordial up until 1994, when Armenia enjoyed privileged Western treatment as an "island of democracy" in the South Caucasus. This was followed by a certain estrangement caused by perceptions that Armenia was drifting towards authoritarian rule. But the crisis provoked by Ter-Petrosian’s controversial reelection in September 1996 seems to be over. He remains the most acceptable figure to the international community and especially the U.S. He is perceived to be predictable and more prone to concessions in the Karabakh conflict.

Yerevan has pursued an independent course in the international arena. Despite formal calls to "take Russia’s interests into account," it has not seen NATO enlargement as a threat to its security and last year announced plans to participate actively in the Partnership for Peace (PfP). Last fall, Armenian soldiers took part for the first time in military exercises held in Greece under PfP auspices. Armenia argues, however, that NATO involvement in the Caucasus should not encroach upon the CIS collective defense treaty, and this reflects Armenia’s military cooperation with Russia. Within the CIS, Armenia, like other member-states, has been unenthusiastic about creating supranational bodies. It has refused to join the CIS customs union, to say nothing of the Russia-Belarus union. The latter idea is popular among a considerable part of Armenian society but is not supported by the government and most opposition parties.

Armenia’s foreign policy doctrine represents, accordingly, a synthesis of the following elements: close Russian-Armenian military cooperation; simultaneously good relations with the West, Russia and Iran; dialogue with Turkey; and support of Karabakh Armenians in their relations with Azerbaijan. This unwritten doctrine and its goals are seen by President Ter-Petrosian as one of the main accomplishments of his administration. It has the support both of the ruling APM, and of two of Armenia’s four opposition parties: the National Democratic Union and the Self-Determination Union.

As regards the main preoccupation of Armenia’s foreign policy, the Karabakh peace process, however, the government itself is divided. In the fall of 1997, Ter-Petrosian said "unilateral demands" for Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan were "unrealistic" and would not be tolerated by the international community. The Karabakh leadership and Armenian Prime Minister Robert Kocharian (the former president of Karabakh) disagreed. Kocharian openly objected to the president’s remark that Armenia’s economic development was impossible without a settlement of the decade-long conflict. On January 14, Kocharian said he still preferred a "package" solution to the Karabakh issue, involving a single framework accord resolving all contentious issues. The "phased" approach favored by Ter-Petrosian and international mediators would, by contrast, delay resolution of the enclave’s status until the last phase of the peace process. Two other key officials, Defense minister Vazgen Sarkisian and Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian, are likewise believed to support Stepanakert’s demand for a "package" rather than a "phased" peace plan.

Alternative Views

The picture would be incomplete without the alternative foreign policy course advocated by the Dashnak and other smaller leftist parties and by the pro-Russian intelligentsia. At the risk of oversimplification, this may be described as "pro-Russian" and/or "anti-Turkish." Underlying the doctrine is the Hai Dat (literally, the Armenian Cause, or Armenian irredenta), which demands recognition of the 1915 genocide and the return of historically Armenian territories in East Turkey. The Karabakh conflict is regarded as part of Hai Dat and not just as a question of self-determination. Supporters of the doctrine argue that Russia will help Armenia attain Hai Dat because Moscow needs a strong ally in the region to counter the perceived threat of Turkish expansionism. They accuse the West of being prejudiced in Turkey’s favor and believe Armenia should adopt an unconditionally pro-Russian orientation. Armenia’s firmness on Karabakh and Turkey, they say, would earn it new allies, such as Greece, Iran and Syria, that are at odds with Turkey.

The APM dismisses this argument on the ground that such a policy is unrealistic. They argue that Armenia’s chief priority should be to build a prosperous country within its existing borders, instead of striving for a hypothetical "united Armenia." Besides, they say, Russia has other interests (such as Caspian oil) which it is prepared to secure at Armenia’s expense. This explains why Yerevan is as opposed as Baku to a solely Russian mediation of the Karabakh dispute.

There is a third view of what the Armenian foreign policy should be. It has few supporters inside Armenia, but is often heard from Azerbaijani and Western analysts. They argue that Caspian oil and Russia’s expulsion from the Southern Caucasus hold the key to prosperity and peace in the region. According to them, Russia should be driven out of the Southern Caucasus since it maintains its presence there by keeping the three regional states economically dependent upon itself and by exploiting ethnic feuds. They call on the West to support this goal. Were Armenia to renounce its territorial claims, they argue, it could live at peace with its neighbors and share in the riches of Caspian oil revenues. Armenian recognition of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh would open the way for construction of a pipeline across Armenian territory. Eventually, Armenia would relinquish its military ties with Moscow and Russian troops would leave its soil.

This argument fails, however, to take account of several realities. First of all, economics alone is insufficient to resolve the conflict. Ethnic hatred between the two peoples is deep and many Armenians are convinced that Karabakh would soon be depopulated once their brethren returned under Azerbaijani rule. Second, a profound trauma, caused by the 1915 genocide and still suffered by the whole nation, colors Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan. For a nation that lost 80 percent of its historical homeland (that is, the territory where it originated), "losing" Karabakh would be a severe psychological blow. The fact that most Armenians identify Azerbaijanis with Turks engenders a fear of a fresh genocide and further loss of territory. After centuries of defeat, Armenians are determined not to capitulate now that they have at last won a war.

Nor would resolution of the Karabakh conflict be likely to end Russia’s presence in Armenia. Again, the 1915 genocide casts its shadow. Turkey’s refusal to recognize the tragedy fans feelings of insecurity among Armenians, leading them to seek protection from their giant neighbor. Russia is a neighbor that has — for its own interests, needless to say — guaranteed Armenia’s physical existence for over two hundred years. No western country is in a position to do the same. As long as this issue divides Armenia and Turkey, the former will look to Russia as the guarantor of its security. This is why a political reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey is the key to regional security.

Looking Ahead

Given all these facts, Russia is likely to continue its involvement in the Southern Caucasus. Russia still possesses a wide range of levers to secure its interests, not least the numerous ethnic conflicts plaguing the region. There is therefore little reason to believe that Moscow will withdraw its troops from Armenia or Georgia in the foreseeable future. The West, for its part, appears to have accepted that Russia has a "special role" in the region. Armenia is therefore bound to continue military cooperation with Russia, though it will seek to complement that relationship with close political and economic ties with Western countries. Hence, Yerevan’s efforts to become a full member of the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization and to hold regular consultations with the European Union.

Emil Danielyan is a political scientist and freelance writer in Yerevan.


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