April 4 2014

April 4, 2014 - 11:46am, by Emil Danielyan

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan (right) and Russian President
Vladimir Putin hold bilateral talks in Yerevan in early December 2013.

Armenia, a soon-to-be member of the Eurasian Customs Union, was one
of 11 countries to vote against a UN resolution calling Crimea's
referendum for independence illegal. (Photo: Armenian Presidential
Press Service)

As the Russia-Ukraine crisis unfolds, the Armenian government is
casting its diplomatic lot with the Kremlin. Some in Yerevan worry
the government is committing a geopolitical blunder by expressing a
clear preference for Russia over the West.

While Armenia has always had a special relationship with Russia,
and hosts Russian troops on its territory, the government tended
to cultivate good relations with the United States and the European
Union. However, in recent months, predating the Euromaidan movement's
appearance in Kyiv, Yerevan began to lean strongly in Moscow's
direction, underscored by last fall's decision of President Serzh
Sargsyan's administration to opt for membership in the Russian-led
Customs Union over a stronger EU partnership.

A potential watershed moment occurred March 27, when Armenia voted
against a pro-Ukrainian resolution overwhelmingly adopted by the United
Nations General Assembly. The resolution, drafted by Ukraine and backed
by 99 other states, condemned as illegal the March 16 referendum in
Crimea that preceded Russia's annexation of the peninsula. It was
rejected by only 11 nations, including Russia, Armenia, and such
international pariahs as North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

Commenting on Armenia's vote, Artak Zakarian, the pro-government
chairperson of the Armenian parliamentary Committee on Foreign
Relations, asked in a March 31 Facebook post, "Why should have Armenia
not supported its ally, if the latter needed such support?"

A statement by UN Ambassador Karen Nazarian emphasized the right to
self-determination, a principle also mentioned by President Sargsyan
in his March 19 phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin,
and long championed by Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Yet
Armenian opposition groups, notably the Prosperous Armenia Party
(BHK), the country's second largest parliamentary force, have stated
that by joining some of the world's most notorious "rogue states"
in voting against the Crimea resolution, Yerevan dealt a serious
blow to the country's international reputation. "Russia is headed
to self-imposed international isolation and it's dragging us along,"
said Alexander Arzumanian, an opposition lawmaker and former foreign
minister (1996-1998). Arzumanian spoke of a "serious deviation" from
the foreign policy strategy to which successive Armenian governments
had generally adhered since independence in 1991.

"That is very bad for Armenia's image, and our relations with
the West," said another former senior diplomat, who did not
want to be identified. "I have never seen such slavishness in
foreign-policy-making before. This cannot do us any good. Even the
Russians are surprised," he added.

Armenian foreign policy came to be known as "complementary" during the
1998-2008 tenure of former President Robert Kocharian. It essentially
boiled down to combining close political, military and economic
links with Russia, Armenia's main ally, with growing cooperation
with Western powers in a range of areas, including security. After
succeeding Kocharian in 2008, Sargsyan continued and even stepped
up this delicate balancing act; a policy that earned him relatively
strong US and EU support.

"We are a nation carrying European values and our aim is to
develop our society along the lines of those values," the Armenian
president declared during a June 2013 visit to Poland. In a letter
to US President Barack Obama sent shortly afterwards, he described
US-Armenian relations as closer than ever before, and claimed that
they serve as a "strong prerequisite" for Armenia's security and
economic development.

Just two months later, however, Sargsyan abruptly decided to make
Armenia part of the Russian-led Customs Union at the expense of a
far-reaching Association Agreement with the EU. While the volte-face
was widely attributed to Russian pressure, his pro-Russian position
on the Ukraine crisis reinforced that trend.

Some observers wonder what the cost will be to Armenia.

"Whereas in the past, they said in the West that Armenia is under
Russia's influence, they are now openly calling it a discredited
Russian satellite," said the former Armenian diplomat. Although Yerevan
will face no punitive Western measures in the months to come, he noted,
this negative perception "will manifest itself over time."

Washington already declined in December to provide multimillion-dollar
economic assistance to Armenia under its Millennium Challenge Account
program, even though Yerevan in November met domestic reform criteria
set by the US government agency handling the aid scheme. The latter
gave no reasons for the rebuff. Armenia has also missed out on even
more large-scale aid that was promised by the EU before Sargsyan's
Customs Union U-turn.

Despite the unmistakable signs of a cold front moving in from the West,
the Armenian government continues to speak about of a complementary
foreign policy. On March 6, Sargsyan told a Dublin summit of the
European People's Party that "Armenia will continue its policy of
complementing and harmonizing interests." Similarly, Armenian Prime
Minister Tigran Sarkisian, during a March 20 visit to Brussels,
expressed hope that the EU would sign with Armenia, as with Ukraine,
the political segment of an association agreement.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt ruled out such a possibility
on March 23, telling RFE/RL that Armenia no longer has a "political
affinity" with the EU.

For its part, the US has voiced disappointment about Armenia's vote
against the UN resolution on Crimea, but, in written comments to, the US Embassy in Yerevan said that it continues
"to engage with Armenia on many issues."

Among those issues are Armenia's increased military cooperation with
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which includes Armenian
participation in the NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo,
and international efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict. President
Sargsyan assured visiting members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
on March 27 that his administration remains committed to "the effective
and constructive cooperation" with the alliance.

But whether such cooperation is enough to patch over the growing
differences with the West is uncertain. "I think authorities presume
that this is a temporary deviation [from complementarism] and that
eventually they will be able to get back on track and our Western
partners will understand us," said Arzumanian. "But I have serious
doubts on this score because such a return would be very difficult."

Editor's note: Emil Danielyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.

From: Baghdasarian