Armenia is increasingly finding itself in a tricky situation with its foreign partners, adding to the already tenuous domestic political landscape. Following the Velvet Revolution and as the new government came to power, Armenia fell under the spotlight of regional and global superpowers, each aspiring to re-establish their role and influence in the country.
For all intents and purposes, the current government continues to enjoy unprecedented public support and trust of the people, and while trying to establish a better functioning state system is preparing for snap parliamentary elections on December 9. In the midst of this tremendous transition, the country continues to have to navigate complicated global and regional tensions, while also trying to maintain and strengthen relations with the European Union.
The most recent example of this “re-establishment of interests” was the visit of U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton to Yerevan on October 25, who came with an important message concerning U.S. sanctions against Iran and Armenia-Iran relations.
In his interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Bolton stressed that maximum pressure had to be brought to bear against Iran because of its refusal to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. “The Trump administration is going to enforce sanctions very vigorously,” he said. “And the Armenian-Iranian border is going to be a significant issue.”
Noting that Iran is only one of two neighbors with whom Armenia has open borders and enjoys warm economic and trade relations with, Gohar Iskandaryan, an expert on Iran said that Bolton’s visit was “aimed at clarifying U.S. foreign policy, so that Iran’s neighbouring countries know their red lines and do not cross them, risking to face sanctions as well.”
In May of this year, the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and the new tough sanctions against Iran by the U.S. went into force on November 5. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the sanctions include controls on oil, shipping and banking in a bid to prevent Iran from its sponsorship of terrorism. Pompeo also noted that these new measures “would cut off Iran from its oil market and target 600 individuals and companies in the finance sector.”
Meanwhile, during a meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in late September in New York, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stressed the importance of strengthening bilateral economic relations. The sides noted the special nature of bilateral relations, expressed in sectors such as energy, road construction and logistics. Rouhani expressed confidence, that the agreement on establishing a free trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union would help further deepen Armenian-Iranian economic cooperation. In fact, with this agreement coming into force in early 2019, the Armenian border with Iran becomes of strategic importance.
Bolton’s visit to Yerevan was followed by a visit from a team of U.S. government experts from the state and treasury departments on November 15-16, aimed at clarifying the “U.S. sanctions policy against Iran to governments around the world.” According to the statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Armenia, the delegation met with Armenian Government representatives, as well as with the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Armenia, private banks, members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Armenia, and Armenian academics and think tank experts. While in Armenia, the experts stressed “U.S. efforts to change the Iranian regime’s malign behavior through maximum economic and diplomatic pressure, while also outlining areas for cooperation with partners like Armenia.”
On November 20, Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that despite renewed U.S. sanctions, Armenia will maintain its close relations with neighboring Iran. In fact, he said that not only would Armenia maintain those relations but "raise them to a new level." Pashinyan also noted that the U.S. government understands the unqiue situation of Armenia, adding that the U.S. is also a very important partner for the country.
Meanwhile, several Iranian-Armenian residents of Armenia, some of whom are citizens, are facing imminent bank account closures, most being advised that their US dollar and Euro accounts could be frozen.*
As a matter of fact, Iran is an important trade partner for Armenia, providing an opportunity for the country to diversify its economic markets and sources. However, as Armenia seeks to enlarge the scope of cooperation with Iran, the tensions in Iran - U.S. relations, notwithstanding tense U.S.- Russia relations, do not leave the country much leverage. Armenia and Iran trade turnover was estimated at $264 million in 2017, up by over 11 percent compared to the previous year. Iran traded non-oil commodities worth $54.31 million with Armenia in the first quarter of the current fiscal year. This marks a 24.48 percent and 24.79 percent increase in tonnage and value respectively.
The table demonstrates that Iran has a tangible share in Armenia’s global export destinations. Having said this, Bolton’s visit and the messages sent were yet another bold demonstration of U.S. foreign policy, which Armenia should be ready for both on external and internal dimensions.
During his one-day visit to Yerevan, Bolton also spoke about the economic challenges facing Armenia because of the geopolitical situation in the region and “historical antecedents related to the conflict”. Bolton emphasized the need to find a solution to the ongoing Nagorno Karabakh conflict noting that “the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh is the best way for Yerevan to free itself of excessive outside influence”.
The unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict once again has become the “stick” used to influence Armenian politics and sovereign interests in general.
As was expected, the Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to comment on Bolton’s statement, claiming that the U.S. was attempting to set Armenia-Russia relations at odds noting that Bolton naturally “did not forget to advertise U.S. weapons that Armenia should buy instead of Russian weapons.” The Russian MFA statement also noted that Bolton openly demanded that “Armenia renounce historical cliches in its international relations and hardly bothered to conceal the fact that this implied Armenia’s traditional friendship with Russia.”
Regional Issues with Foreign Policy Implications
Meanwhile a diplomatic dispute between Armenia and Belarus is heating up over the appointment of a new Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The contention began when former CSTO Secretary General Yuri Khachaturov of Armenia (appointed in 2017) was charged by Armenian authorities with toppling constitutional order during the 2008 post-election unrest and crackdown against protesters when he was the Deputy Minister of Defense. Armenia is expected to hold the position of Secretary General until 2020.
During the November 8, CSTO Astana Summit, the Armenian delegation said the country should be given the opportunity to nominate another Armenian official in order to complete the term. However, Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev objected and instead demanded that a representative of Belarus be named as new head of CSTO. This reaction from partner members both in CSTO and EEU could have been positioned as a constructive discussion had it not been taken off the rails when the Belarusian president discussed the issue at a meeting with a diplomat from Azerbaijan that also resulted in official state announcements from both sides regarding the incident.
The spokesperson of Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Anna Naghdalyan said that “Armenia sees CSTO as a platform for discussion on the collective security agenda, which concerns the six member states. And naturally, this development shows that there is still a need for discussions on such developments within the CSTO framework. This shows that the CSTO has internal problems.”
Commenting on the situation, PM Pashinyan said: “I am surprised that a person who has led a country for 30 years could undertake such a move. It would be the same if I disclosed information about a discussion we had at a closed session of CSTO with an ambassador of a country which isn’t a CSTO member.” Hinting at the fact that Azerbaijan is technically at war with Armenia and is not a member of CSTO, he added that he would be demanding answers from President of Belarus and also from President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, who also made a statement that contradicts CSTO agreements.
The spokesperson of Belarus’ MFA Anatoly Glaz addressed Pashinyan’s words: “Mr Pashinyan seems not to have understood yet that the street democratic rules are not acceptable in big politics. We hope it will pass with time.”
While Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly proposed a compromise solution of retaining the position of the interim CSTO acting secretary general Valery Semerikov, no official statement was made by the Russian side regarding the recent Belarus behaviour.
CSTO leaders will be meeting again in Saint Petersburg, Russia on December 6 to try and reach a consensus on the issue. Although, a similar division inside of an alliance, does not leave much hope for a quick solution.
Armenia has been a member of CSTO since its formation in October, 2002, and before that a part of CSTO’s predecessor, the Collective Security Treaty, which was signed on May, 1992. Thus, the organization forms an important part in the country’s security component.
Another relatively stable axis of Armenian foreign policy is EU-Armenia relations, which are based on two milestones. First, the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), that has already started to enter into force, and second, snap parliamentary elections coming up in December.
CEPA allowed a restart of EU-Armenia relations following one of the biggest U-turns in Armenia’s foreign policy dating back to 2013. On September 3 of that year, after a brief working visit to Moscow, then President Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly announced that Armenia would not sign the Association Agreement (AA) and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union. The negotiations for both had been finalized in July of that year and the signing procedure was planned during the 2013 Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. The sides faced a situation where sovereign interests had to be voiced and discussed again. In case of Armenia, the partnership should have taken into account the historical and socio-economic ties, which developed certain red lines in the foreign policy of the country. In other words, Armenia’s national interests dovetailed with those of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which it joined in 2015. Following this situation, with Armenia in 2013 and the political crisis in Ukraine in 2014, the Eastern partnership project needed restructuring and re-considering of approaches towards each of the six partner countries, making it more individualistic. Nonetheless, both the EU and Armenia later expressed desire to move forward, develop stronger ties and deepen cooperation in different spheres which formed the framework for the new accord.
Despite these hardships, over the last several of years, mutual trust and stronger cooperation were restored between Armenia and the EU after the signature of the milestone CEPA. The agreement signed in November 2017 came as a long-awaited legal basis replacing the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) of 1999. Out of the 28 EU member states, the agreement has so far been ratified by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania and Denmark, as well as Armenia. Some parts of CEPA have already entered into force and its ratification by the rest of the EU Member states is a purely procedural matter, requiring quite some time.
With the change of government in Armenia, the new authorities restated closer relations with the EU as a governmental priority. At a meeting with EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, Armenia’s PM Nikol Pashinyan stressed the government’s commitment towards democratic development, enforcing the rule of law, promoting human rights and building a competitive and business-friendly environment and pointed out the importance of the EU’s comprehensive support for democratic reforms in Armenia. As a response to this, Hahn stressed that Armenia can expect continued assistance on the part of the European Union in tune with the government’s priorities. In general, EU officials have described the recent domestic political events in Armenia as "a window of opportunity to really make a breakthrough" and the necessary elements to be "successful in the fight against corruption - good laws, legislation, institutions, public support and awareness.”
Armenia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan’s address at the Eastern Partnership ministerial meeting in October mentioned the intention of the new government to stimulate cooperation within different platforms of the EU and the Eastern Partnership, particularly Horizon 2020 and Erasmus Plus. The Foreign Minister also stressed the significance of CEPA “as a framework of multidimensional cooperation with the EU in support of national development agenda.”
Despite the fact that both sides stressed the importance of deep and strengthened bilateral relations, the change of power in Armenia did not bring a change to the already established relations between the sides. The idea that a revolution in Armenia would bring the same outcome in relations with the EU as it did in the case of Ukraine are not applicable here. After coming to power, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reaffirmed his approach voiced during the days of the Revolution, that the change of power in Armenia had neither an international context nor a foreign policy agenda, thus foreign policy vectors will remain the same. He has also stressed that Armenia’s foreign policy is “neither pro-Western nor pro-Russian, but pro-Armenian.”
While EU-Armenia relations has had its ups and downs, today, CEPA is a workable and acceptable accord for both sides. It takes into account Armenia’s membership to the Eurasian Economic Union, among other things and the possibilities that the EU is prepared to offer, including cooperation in political, economic and social spheres.
Political scientist Narek Galstyan notes that the complexities of Armenia’s geopolitical challenges aren’t always easy to navigate. “Armenia’s foreign policy has limitations that do not depend on the government, but mostly on regional, geopolitical factors,” Galstyan said. Landlocked and its geographical positioning in general leaves the country without a possibility of diversification of trade. All these, together with closed borders with two of its four neighbours, the country’s dependence on Russia in the fields of strategic importance, such as importing of gas, uranium, investments, remittances, its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the existence of a Russian military base on Armenian territory, aimed at restraining the border with Turkey, form Armenia’s foreign policy restrictions and red lines. He describes EU-Armenia relations as “framed by Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the above-mentioned restrictions and limitations of the country.”
The second important aspect of EU-Armenia cooperation concerns the December 9 snap parliamentary elections in Armenia. Starting from the early days of the revolution, the EU has expressed its support for progress in the country. On the one hand, the EU Ambassador to Armenia Piotr Switalski voiced belief that the new government understands the importance of CEPA, stressing that it will lead to a higher-level of dialogue in the near future. He also mentioned the EU’s desire to invest more in the agriculture sector of the country to help relieve stress in the northern provinces. On the other hand, during his recent visit the Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia in the European External Action Service (EEAS) Thomas Mayr-Harting expressed his expectations for free and fair parliamentary elections in the country. The EU will also be sending long-term and short-term observers for the elections starting 19 November. Thus, having the desire to participate in strengthening the democratic development in the new reality of Armenia, the European Union will support Armenia with 160 million euros to be allocated for SME development, investments in energy efficiency and improving the business environment over the next four years, as well as 3 million euros for the snap parliamentary elections.
As a matter of fact, the current stage of EU-Armenia relations reached a mutually acceptable level before the revolution and is not related to the change of power. One thing left to be achieved by the Armenian side is the Visa liberalization agreement with the Union, which was voiced many times over the past year, as CEPA was being finalized. According to Galstyan, the EU’s investment in Armenia should mostly focus on building and strengthening the capacities of institutions and public administration, strengthening democratic institutions, development of a liberal economy, as well as in the fields of science and research.
There is now a need of re-stating and voicing the country’s foreign policy directions and national priorities. With the new parliamentary elections ahead and the Francophonie summit behind, Armenia's external politics is as tense as the internal ones.
The previous government's foreign policy strategy sought to establish and maintain strong ties with both Russia and the West. When the new government came to power, it positioned itself as more open, established new rules of the game, tried to be more flexible with its partners, and attempted to strengthen the country's"diversification policy." These moves led to more pressure being brought to bear from different actors wanting to strengthen their position and interests in Armenia. There is now a need to re-state foreign relations both with seperate actors and within organizations such as the EEU and CSTO, and dictate the terms for cooperation. The small South Caucasus country is becoming fertile ground for a clash of big interests of regional and international powers, where it will continue to be forced to find ways for maneuvering the situation.