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Is Armenian Foreign Policy Changing? – A Conversation with Anahit Shirinyan

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More than a year has passed since mass protests in Armenia unseated a corrupt and unpopular regime of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and installed a new government under the leadership of Nikol Pashinyan.

To talk on the external and internal factors affecting the post-revolutionary Armenia, Civil.Ge’s Tornike Zurabashvili sat down with Anahit Shirinyan, a foreign policy analyst formerly with the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and the author of Armenia’s Foreign Policy Balancing in an Age of Uncertainty.

Shirinyan argues in the interview that the revolution had a purely domestic focus and that the new government has continued to adhere to the foreign policy agenda of the previous authorities. She also says no major shifts are to be expected with Moscow, but a slow recalibration of the Armenian-Russian relations is underway.

More than a year has passed since the change of government in Yerevan, and what do you think was the biggest achievement of the revolution?

I believe the Velvet Revolution’s biggest achievement is the formation of a legitimate government through free and fair elections. Next come other freedoms – a freer environment overall that the Armenian citizens now have – whether for expressing opinion or doing business. Certainly there are also lots of challenges, many deficiencies have not been overcome yet and progress on reforms is slow against the backdrop of high expectations from the public. But the political will to reform is there, and the cautious optimism remains.

The change of government coincided with Armenia’s transition into a Parliamentary system of governance, with Armen Sarkissian taking the office of the President. What is the effect of the transition on the overall functioning of the branches of power?

The transition itself has seemingly gone through well, but it would be premature to assess how the new system is faring. The branches of power are still adapting to the new distribution of power in the system of governance. There are also other challenges: for example, although the legislative and the executive branches have seen different degrees of overhaul after the revolution, the judiciary has not been reformed yet and is not enjoying the trust of the majority of the Armenian citizens. Lack of public trust also applies to the Constitutional court, and something resembling a Constitutional crisis is now in place in Armenia.

Already during the demonstrations last April, Nikol Pashinyan and his team insisted that the protests were not about Armenia’s foreign policy agenda. Why do you think this was the case?

Indeed, the protests had purely domestic focus, and Armenia has been broadly adhering to continuity in its foreign policy after the revolution. The geostrategic parameters around Armenia have not changed, and there is no reason to expect any major foreign policy realignments that is normally attributed to revolutions in the post-Soviet space. But a strict compartmentalization of domestic and foreign policies is not possible either: domestic factors such as legitimacy of the new government or the emergence of new political elite certainly does affect how foreign policy is conducted. And although the Armenian citizens’ priorities are chiefly domestic, they also expect improvements in the conduct of foreign relations and the security situation around Armenia.

Indeed, the protests had purely domestic focus, and Armenia has been broadly adhering to continuity in its foreign policy after the revolution.

The new government is positioning itself as ‘Armenia-centric’ and emphasizing sovereignty. We can also see some pro-activeness from Armenia in developing relations with different countries such as Georgia. So continuity in foreign policy does not mean there will be no changes and adjustments at all.

Back then, some Armenia-watchers were contemplating that the revolution could have led to deterioration of Yerevan’s relations with Russia. How have these expectations materialized?  

Armenian-Russian relations have been affected by these domestic factors that I described above. A new legitimate and popular Armenian government which does not rely on any foreign actor to sustain its power, a new generation of politicians that do not share the Soviet or even the post-Soviet mentality, a commitment to an anti-corruption and good governance agenda – from Moscow’s perspective these are enough challenges in dealing with Armenia. Some of the links and channels through which Moscow used to work with Yerevan prior to the revolution are not there anymore, hence the tacit frustration in bilateral relations. I would argue that Yerevan and Moscow are still trying to figure out how to work with each other in the new reality. Pashinyan is trying to negotiate more benefits for Armenia in the largely asymmetrical alliance with Russia. Yerevan has raised uncomfortable questions in front of Moscow, such as the price of gas or lack of effectiveness of the Russian-led security and economic alliances. It has also resisted Moscow’s attempts of intervention into Armenian domestic affairs in relation to the criminal case against ex-president Robert Kocharyan – a personal friend of Putin. But it still has to pacify and ‘manage’ Moscow; for example, sending a small Armenian humanitarian group to Syria was partially aimed at that.

Yerevan and Moscow are still trying to figure out how to work with each other in the new reality.

Russia, in its turn, has to factor in the reality of the ‘people power’ in Armenia. Moscow has suffered major reputational damages among the Armenian public after the April 2016 war in Nagorno-Karabakh and due to its arms sells to Azerbaijan, and risks a backlash if it appears to be acting against Armenian interests. I do not expect major shifts in Armenian-Russian relations, but can argue that a slow recalibration of Armenian-Russian relations is underway against the background of greater geopolitical developments, not least because of changes in and around Russia.

There was also conviction (wishful thinking, maybe) that the revolution would have opened up chances for normalizing relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Has this been the case?

The question is on what premise such conviction is based. If the implication is that Armenia is the only party to the conflicts with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and thus changes in Armenia will lead to the solution of these conflicts, then this is indeed naïve and a mere wishful thinking. It is surprising to detect traces of this premise among policy circles that focus on the South Caucasus. I would agree that opportunity comes with the fact that there is no negative history in personal relations between Pashinyan and Aliyev or Pashinyan and Erdogan. In that sense there may be room for new beginnings. But the fundamental question is, are Baku and Ankara ready to change some of their approaches and meet Yerevan halfway? This is very basic: there should be at least two parties to any solution. I do not see that happening and hence cannot offer too optimistic a forecast. Some steps have indeed been taken towards creating a more conducive environment for the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process — an attempt at dialogue, efforts to reduce frontline tension, but these are still fragile and can easily be rolled back.

Some were also hoping that non-violent change of government would have opened up new opportunities for closer integration with the European Union. Is this enthusiasm still there? Do you think Brussels has paid adequate attention to post-revolutionary Armenia?

Yes and no. Yerevan and Brussels too are trying to work around the new post-revolutionary reality in bilateral relations. There are a number of factors in play. One is that, regardless of the intentions, Yerevan and Brussels have to operate around Armenia’s Eurasian Union membership, and the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed in 2017 sets the framework for that. There are some other factors, such as the EU’s own internal challenges, a fatigue from the Eastern Partners more broadly and the cautiousness not to open new points of tension with Russia. Then there is another challenge tacitly demonstrating itself, a confusion on what to do with a democracy-aspiring Armenia that continues to be in ‘Russia’s orbit’ – from the EU’s perspective.

Brussels has overall reacted enthusiastically to Armenia’s democratic transition and has allocated additional financial assistance to Yerevan, but that is not commensurate with the political and financial support that was provided to Georgia and Ukraine following the revolutions there.

Brussels has overall reacted enthusiastically to Armenia’s democratic transition and has allocated additional financial assistance to Yerevan, but that is not commensurate with the political and financial support that was provided to Georgia and Ukraine following the revolutions there. The launch of the visa liberalization dialogue with the EU is also taking a while. This is being noticed in Yerevan. But the key for Armenia is to stay on its reform path no matter how much support it gets from outside actors. Certainly Armenia is a peculiar case in the Eastern Partnership. This case can be turned into an opportunity rather than being treated as a challenge if both Yerevan and Brussels demonstrate flexibility and work in the same direction.

Where do you think the Georgian-Armenian ties stand today and what should the two countries do to advance their cooperation?

Armenian-Georgian relations too are seeing a transformation. For over decades Yerevan and Tbilisi have relied on outside actors — Tbilisi on the West and Yerevan on Russia — to address their respective regional challenges. Both have faced limits to various degrees, while the Russia-West contention has made geopolitical navigation more challenging. What we are seeing now is an attempt to consider the merits of closer bilateral cooperation at a time when big power priorities seem to have shifted elsewhere. The intention is to compartmentalize relations and not allow that third parties, be they Moscow, Ankara or Baku, set the weather between Yerevan and Tbilisi. I think the Armenian-Georgian rapprochement can help both sides balance and diversify their foreign relations. There is room for enhanced economic/energy cooperation even if the two are in different economic blocs – it is an opportunity as much as it is a challenge.

Armenian-Georgian rapprochement can help both sides balance and diversify their foreign relations.

On a more practical note, I think there can be common infrastructure/road development projects, synced tourism policies, all to improve connectivity and ease the flow of people and goods. Enhanced connectivity and synchronized policies will also make the two countries more attractive to foreign investment aimed at both countries. The key is to develop various links and channels that will always prove useful at critical junctures. For example, after Moscow banned direct Russia-Georgia flights, the Georgian Airways was quickly able to offer flights to and from Moscow via Yerevan. It may be too early to assess where exactly this newfound cooperation between Armenia and Georgia is going but in today’s fast-changing geopolitical landscape it can take any form.

This publication was prepared with the support of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting within the framework of the “Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes” Project. The views and opinions expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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