A U.S.-funded opinion poll released this month paints an interesting, if contradictory, picture of the geopolitical preferences of Armenia’s population. It shows that the vast majority of Armenians continue to support the close political and military ties with Russia maintained by their government. At the same, they regard the European Union as the most trustworthy international institution and would like their country to eventually join the bloc. Public support for Armenia’s eventual accession to NATO likewise seems to be considerably stronger than it was in the past.
The voter survey, commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was designed and conducted in early May by the Gallup Organization, the U.S. International Republican Institute, as well as the Armenian Sociological Association. Some 1,200 people randomly interviewed across Armenia were asked to weigh in on a wide range of issues mainly relating to domestic politics and economic development. It emerged that most of them feel the tiny South Caucasus state is on the wrong track, despite being optimistic about its future.
The poll suggests that ordinary Armenians also want two seemingly irreconcilable things: continued alliance with Russia and integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. Eighty-six percent of respondents described Russia as Armenia’s most important international partner, considering it, with varying degrees of conviction, to be a “trustworthy ally.” Not surprisingly, public support for the presence of a Russian military base on Armenian soil is still strong, with almost two-thirds of those polled saying that it has a positive impact on their country’s independence and stability. Only 6% referred to Russia as an external threat.
These figures reflect a traditionally strong pro-Russian sentiment in Armenia, where many people have for centuries looked to Moscow for protection against hostile Muslim neighbors. It has only been reinforced by Armenia’s unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over Karabakh and extremely strained relations with Turkey. Still, there are clear indications that this sentiment has been slowly but steadily eroding not least because of Moscow’s hard bargaining in economic dealings with Yerevan and the Russian authorities’ perceived reluctance to tackle racially motivated attacks on Armenian immigrants. Russia’s waning influence in the South Caucasus and Armenia’s increased contacts with the Council of Europe, the European Union, NATO, and the United States have also been a major factor.
The USAID-funded poll offers more proof of this trend. It shows in particular that Armenians trust the EU more than their army and the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church. Armenian state institutions and political parties are trusted by barely one-third of the electorate. By contrast, 87% and 51% think well of the EU and NATO, respectively. Accordingly, 80% are in favor of Armenian membership in the EU. (Curiously, roughly as many respondents want Armenia to remain in the increasingly moribund Commonwealth of Independent States.)
Public support for NATO membership is much weaker: only 40% said Armenia should “definitely” or “probably” join the U.S.-led alliance in the future, with another 45% less than enthusiastic about such a prospect. Yet the very fact of Armenian public opinion being essentially split down the middle on the issue marks quite a significant change from the not-so-distant past when the military alliance with Russia was hardly even questioned by Armenian policymakers and ordinary people alike. The change was exposed by other surveys conducted in the country in recent years.
One such poll, conducted a year ago by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), a private think tank, found that Armenians are evenly divided over NATO membership, with approximately 34% of them backing or opposing the idea and the remaining 32% undecided. According to another poll released by the Yerevan-based polling organization Vox Populi in October 2004, only 38% percent of the public thought that military cooperation with Russia should remain the bedrock of Armenian security policy. Earlier in 2004 ACNIS questioned 50 local political and public policy experts and found that two-thirds of them stand for Armenia’s accession to NATO within the next decade. Most of those experts also felt that Moscow limits their country’s independence.
The apparent change in public mood has proceeded parallel to a deepening of Yerevan’s cooperation with the EU, NATO, and the United States as part of what the administration of President Robert Kocharian calls a “complementary foreign policy.” The Armenian government launched an individual partnership action plan (IPAP) with NATO last December and is currently negotiating with the EU on a plan of action stemming from its inclusion in the bloc’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) program. Kocharian signaled his intention to accelerate Armenia’s integration into Western structures on July 13 as he presided over a meeting of a high-level government commission tasked with coordinating the process. He instructed its members to come up with a timetable of “concrete activities” resulting from Yerevan’s commitments to the Council of Europe, the EU, and NATO within the next two months.
How far the Kocharian administration can go in trying to maintain equally close relations with Russia and the West has been a matter of contention in Armenia. Pro-Western opposition leaders and other government critics say Yerevan will sooner or later have to make a clear strategic choice in favor of one of the parties to the ongoing geopolitical game in the region. But as the latest poll suggests, most Armenians share the “complementarity” of their rulers.
(Statement by the Armenian president’s office, July 13; Armenia National Voter Study, USAID, IRI, Baltic Surveys/The Gallup Organization, ASA, May 2006; Haykakan Zhamanak, July 2, 2005; RFE/RL Armenia Report, May 27, 2004)