Armenia in the snatches of policy delirium
By Orkhan Amashov
Yerevan may be disgruntled with the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), bemoaning its refusal to provide military aid following the 12-14 September escalation on the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border, albeit finding solace from US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strongly-worded support and enjoying the backing of France, but nonetheless, it is still firmly anchored within the orbit of Moscow’s radar.
Armenia is also a member of the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), enjoying a simplified trade agreement with the bloc members, similar to a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). However, Armenia is the only signatory to these Russophile entities to have also signed the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with the EU.
Since the deal with Brussels means trade barriers for commercial goods are significantly reduced and the process for obtaining licences is considerably eased, the combined effect of the two, seemingly diametrically opposed, alignments place Armenia in a “uniquely advantageous position” to provide a loophole for circumvention of Western anti-Kremlin sanctions.
This is not a hypothetical assumption based on mere possibilities, but on a precedent, or rather a series of past cases and recent developments. Three separate lines of enquiry can be discerned. Firstly, since 2009, when Iran tried to resort to Armenian banks with the purpose of obviating the Western sanctions directed against it, Yerevan proved itself accommodating and welcoming, facilitating Tehran’s money-laundering operations and assisting it in gaining access to the global financial system.
Secondly, as an EEU member, Armenia benefits from an FTA setting conditions regarding duty-free trade in essential goods, signed between the bloc and Iran. In addition, Yerevan has bespoke arrangements with Tehran involving joint production ventures, eyeing export prospects to third countries whose activities are not bound by western sanctions.
Thirdly, Armenia openly aims to be a window for Russian businesses to continue activities in the light of the war in Ukraine. Since the outset of the crisis, Armenia has become a key destination for Russian IT firms and eased and published registration rules to lure more lucrative enterprises into the country. By changing their main business locations from Russia to Armenia, such corporations aim to regain access to European markets and become immune to the punitive impact of the sanctions.
Armenia has a natural and understandable self-interest. Nevertheless, in an attempt to utilise the cumulative “privileges” resultant from its unique arrangements with both the Kremlin and Brussels, it is wittingly involved in diminishing the policy objectives of the anti-Russian sanctions.
This dilemma, albeit in its different manifestations and in different contexts, has been present since the outset of Pashinyan’s rule. Back in 2018, when the so-called Revolution swept him into power, his evident task was to gradually move Armenia away from Russia, without in any way militating against core geopolitical exigencies.
The CSTO and the EEU were the arrangements that preceded Pashinyan. Because extricating Armenia from these blocs would have been disastrously precipitative, he embarked on the path of remaining a steadfast Russian ally on the international stage, yet pursuing a domestic agenda of reform, amongst other things, aiming to reduce and eliminate the power of Kremlin-connected opposition forces.
He was not entirely unsuccessful in this latter endeavour, but failed to translate the same pattern into a foreign policy domain. Over the Karabakh issue, Pashinyan was mainly reliant on the collective consensus of the much-maligned OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs, who seemed keen to ensure the status quo, and the tangible Russian support for his nation in the case of a war. The campaign of 2020 revealed the fundamental flaws in this assumption, ushering in a political crisis in Armenia, which the government, nevertheless, survived, securing a victory in the 2021 snap elections.
Again, today, in late September 2022, Yerevan is struggling to recalibrate between its loyalty to the Kremlin and its urge to be seen as a Western-friendly country. There is nothing demeaning or unbecoming in forging alliances with competing power centres to perpetuate one’s interests. In the age of connectivity, this is the single way forward for all countries, in particular, for small nations with restricted geopolitical tools at their command. Armenia’s challenge is that, by virtue of having asymmetrical relations with the Kremlin, it does not have the luxury of genuine manoeuvrability.
That lack of a minimal degree of independence suggests that, instead of being a small power punching above its weight, Armenia is in effect only capable of being a factotum to multiple masters. In order to unleash a different direction, Yerevan will need to eviscerate its present doctrine centred on Russian reliance. That it cannot afford at the current juncture.
At present, Armenia is a nation brimming with passion for recognition and burning like a petroleum-fuelled skip fire. In this moment of policy delirium, Yerevan is evidently attempting to play a big game outweighing its potential and militating against its immediate needs.
And, Pashinyan’s own manner of conducting his personal mission mirrors Armenia's own predicament and tough choices. At home, he is constantly switching from listlessness to exuberance, saying one word here over Karabakh and then denying what he said, referring to it as a malicious conspiracy aimed at besmirching his good name.
Abroad, he is keen to hobnob with Western leaders, yearning to cut a figure akin to a paragon of sanctimonious crusading knightly devotion to liberal European Christian values. He is also not averse to the idea of practically seeing Armenia as a medium for the circumvention of the anti-Kremlin sanctions, reportedly aiming to protect those self-same ideals with which Pashinyan likes to be associated. Delirium creeps on.
As Neil Watson, British journalist commented: “Armenia, under Pashinyan, is the factotum of the remnants of historic empires. He is like a fish out of water, thrashing for grim life on the banks of the river. He will ultimately die, but make alliances with whoever offers a promise of life, however short and ignominious.”
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