As the outcome of Armenia’s upcoming presidential election looks increasingly unpredictable, Russia is exercising unusual caution in backing a transfer of power from outgoing President Robert Kocharian to his chief lieutenant, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian. Moscow has only indirectly and timidly endorsed Sarkisian’s presidential bid, avoiding the kind of aggressive pre-election interference to which it has resorted in other former Soviet republics, notably Ukraine.
Kocharian and Sarkisian have moved Armenia even closer to Russia during their decade-long joint rule and have reason to expect a payback from the Kremlin in the run-up to the February 19 vote. It came in the form of a February 6 visit to Yerevan by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, which officially focused on bilateral commercial relations. The two sides signed a number of agreements that will further reinforce Russia’s economic presence in the South Caucasus state. In particular, Russia’s state railway formally assumed long-term management of Armenia’s rail network.
The two governments also agreed to set up a joint venture that will explore and develop Armenia’s uranium reserves. More importantly, the Russians reaffirmed their strong interest in the planned construction of a new Armenian nuclear plant, which is expected to replace the existing Soviet-era facility at Metsamor by 2016. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the state nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, said Russian companies are well placed to win a relevant tender by the authorities in Yerevan (Kommersant, February 7).
Speaking at a joint news conference after the talks, Zubkov and Sarkisian welcomed a 65% surge in Russian Armenian trade which totaled about $700 million in 2007 and may well pass the $1 billion mark this year. Zubkov said Moscow will help expand a rail-ferry service between the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti and Russia’s Port-Kavkaz, which was launched last year and mainly caters for cargos shipped to and from landlocked Armenia (Armenian Public Television, February 6).
Few observers doubt that the main purpose of Zubkov’s visit, the second in less than six months, was to boost Sarkisian’s electoral chances in a country where pro-Russian sentiment has traditionally run high. As an unnamed Armenian government official quoted by Moskovskii Komsomolets on February 7 explained, “The authorities are alarmed by street protests staged by the [Armenian] opposition every day. They are attended by more and more people. The visit by your prime minister will demonstrate to the electorate on whose side Russia is.”
Moscow has clearly not been interested in regime change in Yerevan until now. After all, Sarkisian, who also co-chairs a Russian-Armenian inter-governmental commission on economic cooperation, has played a key role in the signing of controversial agreements that have left virtually the whole of Armenia’s energy sector and other industries under Russian control in the last several years. Several Russian dailies quoted an unnamed official accompanying Zubkov as saying that a “continuity of power” is essential for the development of Russian-Armenian relations. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a prominent pro-Kremlin pundit, agreed. “Strategically, Sarkisian’s nomination [for the Armenian presidency] suits Moscow, which has given him support at the top level,” Nikonov wrote in a February 7 commentary for RIA-Novosti agency. “It would be appropriate to take steps that would demonstrate our readiness to render Armenia substantial economic assistance,” he said.
Yet Moscow is treading more carefully that one would expect. Neither President Vladimir Putin, nor his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, have made any public statements in support of Sarkisian’s election victory so far. Even Zubkov stopped short of explicitly doing that in Yerevan. “This was a very successful visit,” he told reporters before flying back Moscow. “Whatever the course of the elections, everything should work out for Sarkisian. He is doing his job sincerely and wholeheartedly.”
“It remained unclear to journalists whether he was referring to the work of the intergovernmental commission headed by Sarkisian or the upcoming presidential elections in Armenia,” Nezavisimaya gazeta commented the next day. Nor is it clear why another top Russian official, State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, did not even talk to journalists during a separate trip to Yerevan a week earlier.
Sarkisian is in even greater need of Russian backing now that his election victory no longer seems a forgone conclusion. His most formidable challenger, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, has pulled massive crowds during the ongoing election campaign and has even won over some government loyalists. Ever since his dramatic political comeback in September 2007, Ter-Petrosian has been at pains to differentiate himself from the staunchly pro-Western leaders of democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine and to express his commitment to maintaining close ties with Russia. Speaking at a news conference on January 11, he emphasized the fact that Armenia had agreed to a long-term presence of Russian in troops on its soil and signed a comprehensive friendship treaty with Russia during his rule.
At the same time, Ter-Petrosian made it clear that he believes that the Russian-Armenian relationship has ceased to be one of two equal allies since his resignation in 1998, implying that his country will be less subservient to its former Soviet master if he returns to power. The Russians will also hardly like the former president’s enduring belief that the best guarantee of Armenia’s national security is “normal” relations with all neighboring states, rather than a military alliance with Russia or any other foreign power.
Furthermore, Ter-Petrosian reportedly (and unexpectedly) left for Moscow on February 11 and was rumored to have met Medvedev. Such a meeting, if it really took place, could have far-reaching consequences for the Armenian election results.
But as things stand now, the Kremlin is not lending the Armenian prime minister the kind of vocal support which Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych enjoyed before and during the 2004 Orange Revolution. In the end, Yanukovych’s aggressive promotion by Putin proved fruitless and further complicated Russian-Ukrainian ties.
Writing in Polit.ru ahead of Zubkov’s arrival in Yerevan, Russian analyst Sergei Markedonov warned that a similar “crude interference” in the Armenian presidential race could only antagonize many Armenians angry at their rulers. “Moscow had better not succumb to the ‘Ukrainian temptation’ and support only the ‘correct’ candidate against ‘incorrect,’ ‘orange’ and other ‘colored’ ones,” he said.