Editorial, 22 September 2013
September 3, 2013 will go in history books as a day when Armenia was publicly humiliated by Russia. Why did the protagonists of Yerevan’s attempt to get close to the west—Armenia’s Serge Sarkissian and senior European Union (EU) officials--not foresee the train wreck speeding their way?
Seeing no future in aligning with a “backward”, dictatorial, domineering, dead-end and business-as-usual Russia, Sarkissian wanted to align—politically, commercially and culturally—with the west. He incredibly believed that he could do so while retaining Armenia’s military alliance (meaning protection) with the east. Meanwhile, the EU bureaucrats nonchalantly and incomprehensibly assumed the Russia bear would play dead as Armenia tried to drift from Moscow’s sphere of influence.
It’s no secret that since the end of the Second World War the west has been encircling the USSR/Russia. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the western borders of Russia was shut tight and an opening in the Caucasus and the Central Asian “stans” became even more important to Russia’s geopolitical interests. Russia “loss” of Georgia further increased Armenia’s importance to Russia, especially since Azerbaijan (“one people two nations” with NATO-member Turkey) is eager to send the Russians packing.
There was no way Russia would have allowed Armenia to slip into Europe’s embrace. To make Armenia even more vulnerable to Russia’s suffocating hug, several realities about the Armenian condition should be considered: blockaded by two hostile Turkic republics—one of them incessantly threatening Armenia—Yerevan needs Moscow. It would take Turkey’s huge army a mere few hours to swallow Armenia lock, stock and Medzamor. Meanwhile, petrostate Azerbaijan is flexing its muscles, thanks to nonstop weapons imports from at least 18 countries.
Armenia is also vulnerable to Russian economic pressure. Russia is, by far, Armenia’s biggest export market. Russia owns most of Armenia’s economic assets…and hundreds of thousand Armenians, who work in Russia, send billions of dollars in remittances to their homeland.
Still with economics: While Armenia was sending love notes to EU and Russia was putting on the economic screws on Yerevan, Brussels didn’t hint at any economic aid to alleviate Armenia’s economic crisis.
Despite the above unpromising scenario, Panglossian Sarkissian continued his courtship of the EU. (He also wouldn’t make public the text of Armenia’s agreement with the EU. Critics said he didn’t want to reveal EU’s negative stance toward liberated Artsakh).
After sending messages—through Russian think tanks and Russophile Armenian journalists—Putin pulled out the big stick. Sarkissian had to be brought to his senses before Armenia signed the EU Eastern Partnership Agreement in mid-November in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Despite serving as a secret agent (1974 to 1991), Putin is not a subtle man. He promptly sold $4 billion worth of weapons to Baku—his “ally’s” belligerent foe. Then his foreign minister--Sergey Lavrov--dropped hints which could be interpreted as Moscow’s support for Azerbaijan sovereignty over Nagorno-Karapagh. And for good measure, Putin increased the price of fuel he sells to Armenia. Perhaps the Siberian Tiger-Whisperer was hoping the resulting price rises would create political turmoil which would topple Sarkissian.
Pollyanna Sarkissian got the message. In early September he ate humble pie and announced Armenia would join Putin’s Eurasia club. Goodbye to Eurofication.
Sarkissian was the creative “brain” of this farce or Greek tragedy—depending on one’s view. He ignored facts which are known even high school students in Armenia. Armenia’s geopolitical situation is such that it can’t survive without Russia. Armenia’s northern neighbor—Georgia—is unreliable. Its southern neighbor—Iran—is considered a pariah by the west and is under western economic and political lockdown.
But Sarkissian is not the only party who miscalculated grievously. What were the EU officials thinking when they began their courtship of Armenia? Did they think Armenia would be allowed to slip out of Russia’s shadow? And as the signing of the Partnership Agreement got closer, why didn’t the EU make confidence-building political and economic gestures to Armenia? While there were reports that Armenian products were not up to scratch for the EU markets, there was no encouraging word from Brussels.
After Armenia’s house of cards collapsed, to save face Sarkissian kept mumbling that Armenia’s European Dream was not over. Meanwhile, a senior EU official promised: “We definitely have not given up on Armenia and the Armenian people.” The EU would not abandon Armenia. When---and how many times--have Armenians heard similar empty and hypocritical words, from the west?
In what must be the understatement of the year, the secretary general of the European Friends of Armenia said that he believed Armenia’s decision to join the Customs Union “was not a free choice.” Ahem.
Finally, there’s Putin. While his country depends dangerously on the export of a single product, Putin has unrealistic ambitions of reviving the truncated remains of the Soviet Union into a super political-economic-military bloc. To realize his feeble dream, he has dragged in two states (Kazakhstan where 24% of the population is Russian) and Belarus to his bloc: the latter through blackmail.
Russia is in disarray. Corruption, rampant alcoholism, declining birthrate, and a sharp drop in longevity have sent Russia to the sick bay. To fend off further decline in population, Putin has offered enticements to the citizens of some former Soviet republics to settle in Russia.
The lumbering bear wants Armenia. And whether Armenia likes it or not, sickly Russia is the only game in town.
Putin might have opened a Stolichnaya Elit to celebrate Sarkissian’s U-turn, but the former KGB agent should know that a forced marriage doesn’t bode well for the future of the relationship. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that his loveless wedding not only humiliated Sarkissian, but it also humiliated Armenians everywhere. His brutal tactics will leave a permanent scar on Armenian-Russian relations. One can’t force love. Unfortunately, Vlad the Impaler is no debonair Casanova.