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The changing geopolitical situation around the world, especially the Middle East, the intensified cultural-ideological and class struggle both within individual countries and globally, continue to provoke reactive political processes. Recently, a new crisis has erupted in Armenia, a state in the South Caucasus. The balance of power, self-perception of local ethnic groups, and the influence of socio-economic and cultural ideological groups on public policy have significantly changed in the country. These changes are multidirectional, increasing the risk of a new armed conflict.
On April 12, an acute internal crisis started in Armenia, a post-USSR nation and a traditional ally of Russia in the South Caucuses since the 1990s. The Armenian opposition triggered this crisis and used it to pursue a regime change, using various, among which unconstitutional, measures. Following a series of street riots from April 15 – May 2, Nikol Pashinyan, an opposition leader and a leader of the neoliberal, formally pro-US political party “Way Out Alliance”, became prime minister. Armenia is a parliamentary republic. Pashinyan gained his post on May 8 using a mobilized pro-opposition minority and pressuring the parliament with riots. The change in power occurred without bloodshed and without the direct actions of external actors.
Despite the formally pro-western position of his party, Pashinyan changed his public foreign policy rhetoric after the situation had entered into a revolutionary phase of the race for power. These changes are based on the need to act in line with the internal political situation and geopolitical reality. The bulk of the Armenian population does not consider themselves as the so-called “liberal thinking part of the middle class” neither economically nor culturally. In addition, there is an acute regional issue – an unresolved territorial dispute over the Nagorno Karabakh region and some nearby areas between Armenia and its Turkic neighbor Azerbaijan, also a post-USSR state. Pro-Armenian forces captured Nagorno Karabakh in the early 90s triggering an armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Further development of this conflict and the expected offensive by pro-Azerbajian forces was stopped by a Russian intervention in May 1994. By mid 2018, Nagorno Karabakh and the nearby areas are still under the control of Armenian forces, de-facto making it an unrecognized Armenian state – Arts’akhi Hanrapetut’yun (Arts’akh).
The 2018 political crisis and further developments did not strengthen Armenian positions over the Nagorno Karabakh issue. At the same time, the political situation in Azerbaijan remains stable. Azerbaijan, despite all existing problems, continues to develop, has a population over 3 times higher than Armenia and the economy is almost 4 times higher than Armenia’s GDP. At the same time, Azerbaijan maintains good working relations with Russia in almost all issues of the bilateral relations. Additionally, Azerbaijan is a natural historical ally of Turkey.
Turkey has recently overcome some of its differences, restored and strengthened its partnership relations with Russia. Additionally, Ankara has reached a tactical compromise with Iran. This along with successful actions in Syria allowed Turkey to significantly increase its influence in the region. Iran has also strengthened its positions through participation in ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Teheran moved its positions closer to those of Russia and Turkey. In turn, Russia has expanded its activity far beyond the South Caucasus and is now employing an active policy in the Greater Middle East. The activity of these leading regional states has obviously come into conflict with the interests of the establishment in Washington. Each of these three countries, has its own format of relations with the US, which in each chase is characterized as uneasy.
From all the aforementioned regional players, Russia is the only power, which has been a strategic ally and a military defender of Armenia and its interests. Armenia is a member state of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU). It’s interesting to note that reading Wikipedia articles in different languages, it’s not easy to find info about Armenia’s participation in the CSTO and the ECU, which are crucial for this state. It’s also hard to find out the real role of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the modern history of the Southern Caucasus.
Meanwhile, the importance of the Armenian foothold in the South Caucasus for Russia has decreased. The importance of the Russian military base in Armenia has decreased because of the expansion of Russian military infrastructure in the Middle East, including naval and air bases in Syria. The political importance of Armenia has also decreased because of improved Russian-Turkish relations, which are strengthened by major joint economic projects, including the TurkStream gas pipeline and the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant. At the same time, Armenian has little economic value for the Russian state or private companies. Its only value is found in the nostalgic memories of a part of the Armenian diaspora with Russian citizenship. Additionally to the aforementioned factors, the Russian political leadership seems to be more cautious in forecasting and assessing the course of Armenian foreign policy, analyzing in depth actions and rhetoric of representatives of the Armenian elites. This shift was expected. For a long time, Armenia has pursued a foreign policy that was significantly at odds with the foreign policy position of its formal strategic ally. Furthermore, while enjoying Russian military protection, Armenia has declined to support Russia over key issues on the international agenda. A number of representatives of the Armenian elites, including the diplomatic corps, have claimed in unofficial conversations and remarks that Armenia should move to the pro-US camp.
The current situation is the result of a number of factors, including the social stratification in Armenia and the cultural-ideological influence on Armenia’s youth and elites. For example, the integration of rich Armenian families into the inner circle of the Washington establishment through a large Armenian diaspora in California; constant propaganda aimed at rewriting history and changing its focus; direct financial support of nationalist movements and neoliberal globalists etc.
Besides these, another factor is the cultural-ideological dominance of implanted postmodern consumerist values in the post-USSR states.
However, there are objective factors, limiting the maneuverability of the relatively pro-Washington establishment in Armenia:
- Armenian elites understand that without Russian’s participation region it will be virtually impossible to ensure the presence of Nagorno Karabakh in the zone of influence of Armenia; and possibly, the independence of Armenia itself. An analogy with Israel and its patron, the US, can be useful here. Without direct US support, the existence of an independent Jewish state would be impossible in the current situation;
- Armenia receives a notable cash flow from Russia through transfers from the multi-million Armenian diaspora, which includes employees as well as small and medium business owners. These people, in general, are still committed to conservative ideology or, by virtue of their age, retain the physical memory of events that took place 20-30 years ago;
- A number of ethnic Armenians keep large amounts of capital in Russia.
These restrictions do not allow Armenian elites to change foreign policy sharply without incurring painful consequences.
Despite the existing inconsistencies, Russia has taken an active position on the Armenian issue. All the necessary measures were taken to preserve Armenia in the orbit of Moscow’s influence.
However, this situation changed during the recent political crisis in Armenia. Surprisingly, Moscow distanced itself from the developing events. This Russian attitude has quietly contributed to the regime change carried out by the pro-Western minority. This was done despite repeated remarks by Pashinyan in favor of the Euro-Atlantic integration as the main priority of Armenian foreign policy. Later, during the power seizure, understanding the problems of Armenia and the region, Pashinyan changed his public rhetoric supporting the strategic partnership with Russia. However, his personal position as well as the position of his neoliberal party are well known and are unlikely to have changed.
The question arises, why did Russia choose a course for complete self-elimination and non-interference in the current crisis in Armenia?
Some believe that this may be linked to the possibility that the Russian leadership has drawn a lesson from mistakes made during previous actions in post-USSR states, for example from their failure in Ukraine or their partial failure in Georgia. So, the Russian nonintervention could well be linked to concern for its public image.Another point of view is that Russian strategy is based on the realpolitik approach. In the current regional situation, Russia will gain revenue from any developments of events in Armenia. The following scenarios or their hybrids are possible:
1) If the new Armenian leadership changes the country’s foreign policy course, or even breaks the military base agreement with Russia or withdraws from Russia-controlled international organization, Azerbaijan would, earlier or later exploit the new conditions to take back what it sees as its own lost territories – the Nagorno Karabakh region and nearby areas. The restoration of territorial integrity is one of the key foreign policy and military tasks of Azerbaijan and the ruling family of Aliyev. Turkey, still a NATO member state and a formal US ally, supports Azerbaijan in this intention.
If Armenia loses Russian support and an armed conflict over the Nagorno Karabakh region resumes, Azerbaijan’s forces are likely to take control of this area within 1-2 weeks. Certainly, the US would voice protests against the Azerbaijani actions and present an ultimatum to Azerbaijan but only if its forces enter into the territory of Armenia. In this scenario, Russia would act similarly and then, after the expected new internal crisis in the country triggered by military defeat, Russia would restore its influence in the region.
By then, the Nagorno Karabakh issue would be resolved because it would be in the hands of Azerbaijan, which is supported by Turkey, a NATO member state and a Russian partner in the region.
2) If the new Armenian leadership implements a double standard policy, de-facto conducting anti-Russian actions but keeping a pro-Russian public rhetoric and standing on ceremony, Moscow would get a formal pretext to reshape its presence, first of all military, in the region. Strategically, the military infrastructure in Syria is much more important for Russia. Additionally, Moscow would get grounds for shifting its diplomatic rhetoric over the Nagorno Karabakh issue, thus achieving closer cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan. If in this situation, Azerbaijan triggers the resumption of armed conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, Russia would remain a formal Armenian ally and a guarantor of its territorial integrity. Moscow would intervene into the conflict both politically and militarily, but only as far as necessary to prevent violation of Amrenia’s borders. Russia would not contribute military efforts to restore Armenian control over Nagorno Karabakh should the region be captured by Azerbaijan. In this scenario, Russia would keep and maybe even strengthen its position in the region once again acting as a defender of the Armenian nation.
3) If the new Armenian leadership shows political awareness and becomes engaged in not just a formal, but a real strategic alliance with Russia, the development of economic and cultural relations with the West would not detract from this alliance. Then, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict would remain frozen until the next major shift in the regional balance of power or until a political settlement of the conflict becomes possible. Russia would at least maintain its current influence and would maybe further improve its public image. While Armenia keeps a strong military political partnership with Russia, it is unlikely that Azerbaijan would make an open attempt to resume full-scale military hostilities.
4) The most unlikely scenario is that Armenia would fully shift its foreign policy course towards the US and enlist full support from its new “strategic” ally. The Russian military base would be replaced by a US one and the US would become a guarantor of the independence of Nagorno Karabakh or at least a military guarantor of its current undefined status in the case of a new round of military escalation with Azerbaijan. This scenario is extremely unlikely. Yerevan has little to offer Washington in exchange for the inevitable decline of US relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. US forces are already deployed in the region, in Georgia. A new US military base in Armenia would not change the balance of power in the South Caucasus and the Middle East. Economically, Armenia also has nothing to offer the US. So, the only possible Armenian offer would be blatant anti-Russian propaganda in the Ukrainian or British scenario. In this case, Russia would turn to Azerbaijan, strengthen its alliance with Turkey, actively destabilizing the situation in Armenia itself, creating additional problems for the US in the region.
At this stage, it looks like the Armenian leadership is balancing between the scenario 2 and 3. In the future, the situation will develop depending on the level of strategic thinking of the new Armenian leadership and the inertia of the crisis situation created by Pashinyan, his supporters and sponsors for coming to power.
Analyzing the situation in the South Caucasus, one should remember that “the great game might never end”. A possible shift of Armenian foreign policy would certainly trigger a change in the local balance of power. Following unavoidable fluctuations, the system would return to find a temporary balance at a particular point. The big game will continue.
Some Turkish and Russian analysts believe that if Nagorno Karabakh returns to Azerbaijan’s control, a more stable system would be established in the region. This system would meet the needs of all three major regional actors. This position is based on the premise that Armenia is able to hold the system in its current quality and actually control the disputed territory only thanks to the balance between the formal traditional alliance with Russia and the unspoken patron-client relations between the Armenian elites and the Washington establishment.
Taken as a whole, the political crisis in Armenia is just the continuation of the events of “the Arab Spring” and “velvet revolutions”. It has once again confirmed the growth of global economic, demographic, cultural and civilizational issues paradigmatic to the development of civilization over the past 30 years.