Armenia Tries Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

Part I Editorial Board, 17 March 2013

One of the major—if not the main—theme of Armenia’s long history is its involuntary role as a buffer state and its consequent involvement in conflicts between the East and the West.  The Sumerians, Assyrians, Scythians, Achaemenids, Parthians, Sassanids, Arab Caliphates, Mamluks, Persians (again), and Turks in the East have all battled on Armenian soil against the Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantium, the Crusaders, Russians, France, and the Soviets in the West to dominate or to occupy Armenia. When unable to do so, they’ve tried to force us to be their allies. These titanic conflicts between empires of the East and the West have inevitably turned Armenia into a bloody arena or “grvakhntsor” as Armenians (“the apple/prize of the fight”) say.

Part I Editorial Board, 17 March 2013

One of the major—if not the main—theme of Armenia’s long history is its involuntary role as a buffer state and its consequent involvement in conflicts between the East and the West.  The Sumerians, Assyrians, Scythians, Achaemenids, Parthians, Sassanids, Arab Caliphates, Mamluks, Persians (again), and Turks in the East have all battled on Armenian soil against the Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantium, the Crusaders, Russians, France, and the Soviets in the West to dominate or to occupy Armenia. When unable to do so, they’ve tried to force us to be their allies. These titanic conflicts between empires of the East and the West have inevitably turned Armenia into a bloody arena or “grvakhntsor” as Armenians (“the apple/prize of the fight”) say.

More than 2,500 years after these dynastic duels of the empires began, there seems nothing is new under the sun. In 2013 Armenian rulers face foreign policy challenges which are identical to the ones their forefather kings had to tackle two-and-a-half millennia ago.

After the 70-year Soviet sojourn, when Kremlin-ruled Armenia was not in the international diplomatic push and pull, Yerevan is back in the great game. While Soviet Union has sunk into the dustbin of history, Russia remains a superpower in the post-Cold War world and justifiably feels threatened by NATO. To fend off Western encroachments, post-Soviet Moscow engineered the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the Commonwealth of Independent States (some of the former Soviet republics). Armenia is a CSTO partner.  The military/political bloc guarantees the security of Armenia, particularly from Turkish encroachments.

To further buttress its shrinking areas of influence around its perimeter, Moscow in recent years, promoted a new entity called Customs Union. President Vladimir Putin would like to see the Customs Union evolve into a closely-knit Eurasian Union (EU) of the former Soviet republics (not be confused with the European EU). The Russian ruler exerted tremendous pressure on Armenia to join the Customs Union. To “persuade” Armenia to join the Customs Union, Russia also threatened to use its gas as geopolitical weapon, courted Turkey, and sold weapons to Baku. But Yerevan resisted Putin’s blandishments and made overtures to the European Union. A mid-March Sarkissian and Putin meeting didn’t bear any fruit. In fact, no statements were issued following their discussions.

Armenia considers the Eurasian Union an arcane political model of a new—and shaky–Russian empire. If it joins the Customs Union-Eurasian Union, Armenia would also violate its constitution, limit its sovereignty and likely become a vassal of Moscow. Only Belarus and Kazakhstan have joined the Customs Union.

Armenia has made no secret to Russia that it wants to establish a new relationship based on hard strategic and diplomatic interests, rather than on the sentimental historical ties and the medals Armenian soldiers won during WWII. Not to be caught in Russia’s embrace–or more likely in the Russian bear’s chocke-hold, Armenia has been negotiating with the European Common Market. Yerevan wants to retain the security its CSTO partnership provides, but at the same time to integrate with the European Union and develop closer ties with the United States. European Union spokesmen such as Security Chief Catherine Ashton have stated that Armenia’s desired integration with the EU is incompatible with any involvement in Moscow’s efforts to cobble together a band of ex-Soviet friends.

Armenia now holds regular meetings with the European Commission for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, Armenian diplomats frequently meet the various European integration committees and Yerevan is expected to sign, later this year, an association agreement on the establishment of trade zones with the EU. Armenia is also negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreement (DCFTA) with the European bloc. A few months ago President Serge Sarkissyan announced that following the recent presidential elections he would enact the reforms the DCFTA requires.

While about 40% of Armenia’s trade is with the former Soviet Republics (with Russia responsible for the lion’s share), nearly 60% is with Western Europe. Signaling which way Yerevan is headed, at a European People’s Party gathering last year, Sarkissian said: “The Armenian people, with their history, culture and modern aspirations are an indivisible part of the European Civilization.”

Keeping its options open, Armenia has also been building closer ties with the United States and NATO. Armenia and the US have signed a memorandum of energy cooperation which some observers consider a milestone for their relations. While it has reduced economic and humanitarian assistance to Armenia, Washington has made a commitment to ensure the security of the ancient and perhaps vulnerable Medzamor nuclear power plant for the next 10 years. There’s also talk that the US would provide funds for the construction of a second power plant and boost trade and investment. Of course, one can say Washington is concerned in the safety of Medzamor because its ally—Turkey—has complained that a Medzamor accident could send toxic emissions to Turkey. American Ambassador John Heffern, who in December, pulled a diplomatic gaffe during a tour of US Armenian institutions when he said “Armenia is a long way to nowhere”, has announced that Washington would push major US high-tech companies to invest in Armenia and to work with Armenian high-tech companies.

Armenia has also curtsied to the West by sending soldiers to Iraq, Afghanistan and to Kosovo, and by attending NATO meetings. A few months ago NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Rogh Rasmussen visited Armenia. Acknowledging Armenia’s delicate diplomatic balance, last year Erik Rubin, deputy state secretary-assistant, said: “The United States is not against Armenia’s cooperation with Russia, but on   the contrary would like cooperation and the development of multinational relations.” Adding a footnote to Rubin’s statement, Ambassador Heffern was quoted as saying that a country can have more than one partner. Other US voices have echoed the same sentiments by saying that the US is not trying to create a platform in Armenia equal to that of Russia’s.  Ahem.

So far Armenia has managed to be on friendly terms with three major political-military-economic blocs. Perhaps Armenia has been successful because of the dexterity of its diplomats. Perhaps it has been successful because Armenia is Russia’s only friend in the South Caucasus and because the West doesn’t want to get into a fight for a tiny and impoverished country which, since independence, has lost perhaps 25% of its people to emigration. Perhaps the US doesn’t want to push Armenia already aggrieved over Washington’s refusal to acknowledge the Genocide or Hillary Clinton’s high-handed shenanigans to force Armenia to sign the notorious Protocols. And perhaps the US is not leaning on Armenia for its close ties with Iran because it realizes Yerevan has no option, and Armenia has to rely on Iran because Turkey—America’s ally–continues to blockade Armenia while engaged in far greater trade with Iran than Armenia does.

If anything, international politics is a permanent cauldron. Today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy, and the reverse. Strategies can change within days and diplomatic-economic-military necessities can make strange bedfellows. Armenia is forced to play a multi-board military-political-economic chess game on geographically separated boards. As a nation of chess champions, this is game Armenia can play as well as anyone. The people responsible for Armenia’s multi-vector foreign policy face a four-dimensional M.C. Escher drawing every working day. The question is how long can they remain in the multi-dimensional game and win. Turkey and Israel have been playing the same game for decades, but Armenia doesn’t have an understanding Uncle Sam or Uncle Ivan in its corner. Perhaps the best way to walk the tri-rope is to increase its value to the big powers. Turkey literally gets away with murder and isn’t rebuked by Washington because Ankara is perceived to be an important ally. Switzerland, which has negligible resources, is one of the most prosperous countries in Europe because the world finds the tiny Alpian country useful.

Making itself an asset to the East and West is a tall order for Armenia, but it has to be done. Otherwise, “remote”, landlocked, and small Armenia will remain poor and embattled: a permanent basket case. That, after the Turkbaijan belligerence, is the biggest challenge the Armenian government’s foreign policy faces.

Armenia has to devise a unique preposition which will end Armenia’s isolation. It could be the establishment of an Armenian Silicon Valley, on pharmaceuticals, on manufacturing high-end medical equipment, on research and development in the nanotechnologies. In all these areas, the Diaspora can play an important role. There’s multi-billion-dollar talent pool in the Diaspora, in addition to knowledge about international business. Armenia has to tap this “natural” resource. An international conference in Yerevan where Armenian scientists and businessmen from the Diaspora and Armenia can meet to devise a grand economic revival plan would go a long way to bring Armenia out of its shell and stop the destructive emigration. We have to believe that we are a ONE NATION and that Armenia is our homeland whether we live in the shadow of Ararat or hang the glorious mountain’s photograph in our living rooms thousands of miles away from Hayastan.

(To Continue… Part II: Eastmania, Westmania, Armenia)

  1. Excellent Analysis

    Serg Sarkisyan, with all his shortcomings, has done a great job of the  balancing act between Russia and the West. He has pushed back the Eurasian membership several times, and even the Protocols that were signed, were followed by the decision that they were unconstitutional. He may have bullied his way to re-election, but I think he is the person who can serve Armenia better at this point in time.

  2. Very good observation

    I pray that we understand the essentials of our existence to survive with a situation like explained so clearly.
    Hope that necessary steps are taken and will be taken to enable our nation be a blessing to the world with all the talents that God has given us.
    Best Regards,

  3. Despite his shortcomings

    Despite his shortcomings and the blatantly fraudulent elections, Serge Sarkissian is the right man to lead Armenia through these challenging foreign policy choices. I can't imagine that Raffi Hovhanissian could manage such tightrope walking. I don't think Putin, the EU or the Americans would take Raffi seriously. Sarkissian has stood up against Putin's blackmailing for over a year. He shouldn't have succumbed to Hilary Clinton's pressure, but Armenia was isolated then. Raffi is a good man. He would make a good minister of education, tourism, natural resources…anything but finance, defense or foreign ministry.

    1. Reforms Long Overdue


      Much as I would wish that your comments that Serge Sargsyan is a good president (when the arena is vacant), I wish to reiterate that the reason hundreds of thousands of our suffering brethren and sisters are leaving our homeland is due to government mismanagement.

      My wish/viewpoint is that even if Sargsyan is imposed upon us by METZABEDAGANS (the powers  around us), then he should, at the very least, immediately place most of those around  him to posts that suit their capabilities. He did so as a couple years ago, but on a small scale. Enough of the merit-less, so-called MPs placed in the National Assembly because of money and connections. Time for reform now.

      1. Gaytzag, I was commenting on

        I was commenting on Sarkissian's foreign policy. His domestic policy is another matter.

  4. Congratulations

    Congratulations. Everything well said! More should be said about the sad situation of our homeland. People in Armenia are surviving through the help of friends, relatives and neighbors from overseas. Far too many people live below the poverty line, while some are millionaires. Something must be done to stop the emigration; the country is bleeding.

    Compare the situation to the Stalin years, when thousands went to Armenia and some ended up in Siberia. Now that we have independence, thousands are leaving the country. When will it all end? The Turkish government is treating its citizens better than the Armenian government treats its citizens. Therefore Turks are not leaving their country to look for jobs elsewhere. So far only Catholicos Aram had the courage to reprimand the authorities for encouraging Armenia to be vacated. As Charles Aznavour said, this is another type of genocide. Something must be done to STOP this tragedy.

  5. Demarcation Between Foreign and Domestic

    The demarcation between foreign and domestic policies is not as clean-cut in my mind as it appears in some of the comments posted above.

    An Armenian Republic that would respect the supremacy of the rule of law (not talking only about elections here, but how the country, in its day-to-day operations, works) would be much better placed both in terms of deepening its relationship with Europe and asserting Artsakh's right to self-government.  For now, we're just another Azerbaijan. Or an Azerbaijan-lite. Countless speeches about historic links between Armenia and Europe will not suffice to change that. 

    There are many factors that can explain why we tend to see foreign policy as the only one that matters. For one, we've wanted an independent Republic since forever, and have understood that it came to be primarily because of international developments. As a small state, we should also be wise enough to understand how international political realities can affect our statehood.  

    Also, our mindset is affected by the fact that many of the leading voices in the Diaspora hail from the Middle East (even though they now live in Europe or North America). They tend to see politics as almost exclusively international. What is the first reaction when an opposition figure arises in Armenia? "He must be America's man," they would say. As if Armenians generally have no cause for dissatisfaction that would result in an opposition to government.

    I think it's time to understand that statehood is at least just as much about domestic policies as it is about foreign policy. At the very least, the high levels of emigration from a tiny country should make that link very clear.

  6. Multi-vector Foreign Policy

    Sorry for this late response to your editorial about Armenia's multi-vector foreign policy, but it seems that ambitious policy is being tested right now with Moscow's $1-billion sale of weapons to Baku.

    As much as we want to liberate Armenia from the shackles of Russia, we have no alternative to Moscow.
    Joining–sometime down the road–the European Union will not solve our existential problem. Covetous Turkey will still be at our door, wanting to swallow us. Europe will not go to war against Turkey for us. If we joined NATO, we wouldn't get any points–Turkey is far more important to that group than Armenia would be. Greece ("Cradle of Western Civilization" and "Christian") found out years ago that Turkey is more important to the West than Greece is.

    Regrettably, Russia is the only game in town for us. The core fact behind this conclusion is this: Is Armenia more important to Russia than to Europe and the US? We are a meaningless appendage to Europe and to US hegemony, but we are an important part of Russia's perceived sphere of influence. Go where you are wanted.

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