Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 172

Armenian assessments of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit buttress the conclusion that the country’s leadership is sliding more deeply into dependency on Russia. Among these assessments, two stand out because they come from major political figures, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, who impart inside information while applauding the official tilt toward Moscow.

One of these is former Prime Minister (1999-2000) Aram Sarkisian, an openly pro-Moscow figure and staunch opponent of President Robert Kocharian, by whom he was dismissed in a power struggle. Sarkisian now feels vindicated by Kocharian’s recent steps to strengthen relations with Russia. In an interview with the Yerevan liberal daily Aravot, Sarkisian notes that some of the steps he had tried to push through last year while still prime minister–steps for which he was branded pro-Russian (by Kocharian himself, among others)–Kocharian has now taken.

Sarkisian recalls that he had proposed turning over shares in the Metsamor nuclear power plant and a number of leading Armenian industrial enterprises to Russia in payment for Armenia’s debts. Furthermore, he and then Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian made an agreement of intent with their Russian counterparts to transfer 50-percent shares in Armenia’s defense-related enterprises to Russia for debt settlement. Sarkisian goes on to recall that his government last year sought to include Russian companies in the privatization tender for Armenia’s electricity distribution networks. Kocharian opposed all of these moves last year, only to take them himself and seal agreements with Putin last week.

Sarkisian applauds his rival’s steps. “I see an unequivocally positive development here…. I know what the World Bank, the European Union and the United States will say about this.” Indeed during Sarkisian’s prime ministerial tenure, the Western governments and the World Bank had opposed his prescriptions and staked their hopes on Kocharian. That political battle was, however, only one aspect of the power struggle between the Sarkisian and Kocharian camps.

Their rivalry continues, however. Indeed, it escalated when Sarkisian launched his Hanrapetutiun [Republic] Party just prior to Putin’s September 14-15 visit. The party, and Sarkisian personally, accuse Kocharian of “protecting the terrorists” responsible for the October 1999 carnage in Armenia’s parliament building. Such an accusation only indicates the depth of their antagonism. But it does not prevent Sarkisian from endorsing Kocharian’s turn toward Moscow.

Vahan Hovhanissian, chairman of the defense and national security commission of the Armenian parliament, is equally supportive for similar reasons, though from a quite different part of the political spectrum. Hovhanissian is the most influential leader in Armenia of the diaspora-based Dashnaksutiun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), whose relationship with Kocharian is that of a conditional and sometimes critical ally. In an interview with the Yerevan nationalist daily Hayots Ashkar, Hovhanissian applauds Kocharian’s steps to strengthen relations with Russia on parallel tracks, the economic and the military, as demonstrated during Putin’s visit.

Hovhanissian maintains that “both sides realize that the military alliance built on geopolitical interests might not be strong enough, unless reinforced by mutually advantageous economic cooperation.” He confirms that, during Putin’s visit, “Armenia has been given the papers” for joining the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC, the successor to the CIS Customs Union). And he claims that “authoritative economists consider that Armenia and other CIS countries will find it to their advantage to join this union.” This statement seems to signal that the ARF is poised to press, from within Yerevan’s leading circles, for Armenia to enter the EAEC.

He similarly applauds the Armenian government’s decision to enlarge the land areas at the disposal of Russia’s military bases for troop stationing and exercises. Those areas are located near the border with Turkey. The legal documents on that transaction formed part of a package on military cooperation, signed during Putin’s visit by Defense Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Serge Sarkisian. According to Hovhanissian, Armenia agreed to enlarging the Russian base areas because “Georgia and Azerbaijan have expanded their military cooperation with Turkey to such an extent that Armenia can not remain indifferent…. They are developing relations with Turkey, a NATO member and a direct enemy of Armenia.”

Close relations with Russia, Hovhanissian believes, should enable Armenia to resolve the conflict with Azerbaijan on its own terms. “The only compromise possible on Karabakh should reflect the results of war,” he asserts, alluding to areas held by Armenian forces beyond Karabakh since the 1994 ceasefire. The ARF is one of several political forces in Yerevan urging, directly or indirectly, that Armenia retain more than the Lachin corridor outside Karabakh proper under an eventual peace settlement. This political consideration has for some time limited Kocharian’s elbow room in pursuing a compromise with Azerbaijan on Karabakh (Aravot, September 18; Hayots Ashkar, September 19; see the Monitor, September 6, 19).