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Armenia: One State, Two Foreign Policies?

  • Liz Fuller

Prague, 24 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia has traditionally considered itself, and been regarded by the international community, as Russia's closest ally in the Transcaucasus, not least because of the two countries' shared mistrust of Turkey.

True, since coming to power in August 1990, the post-communist leadership of Levon Ter-Petrossyan has consistently sought to pursue a balanced foreign policy and to establish cordial relations with all neighboring states, including Turkey. Russia nonetheless remained the primary focus, and relations between Yerevan and Moscow were so harmonious that, during his visit to Armenia in fall 1994, Russian Federation Council chairman Vladimir Shumeiko was hard put to name a single issue on which the two countries' leaderships disagreed. (This is not to suggest that Armenia's sovereignty is in any way subservient to Russia: it behaves as a "model geo-political citizen" but not as a satellite.)

From Moscow's standpoint, the most crucial component of this "special relationship" is military cooperation. Under a series of bilateral agreements signed over the past few years, Russia maintains a military base in Armenia, and the countries' armed forces regularly conduct joint maneuvers. In terms of regional geo-politics, Russia and Armenia, together with Iran, were until recently perceived as a counterweight to the Western-oriented axis that originally comprised Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Over the past year, however, Georgia and Ukraine have aligned themselves with Azerbaijan. Two factors contributed to this configuration change: the search for the economically most viable export route for Azerbaijan's Caspian oil that bypasses Russian territory, and the ongoing debate over NATO's eastward expansion, which offered the (admittedly long-term) possibility of alternative security guarantees to the CIS Collective Security Treaty.

The views of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine on both those issues have not always corresponded to those of the Turkish leadership. Georgia and Ukraine propose pumping Azerbaijan's Caspian oil to the Georgian terminal of Supsa, shipping it by tanker to Odessa, and transporting it by pipeline from there to Western Europe. Ankara, for its part, is intent on building a major export pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan in southeastern Turkey. As for NATO expansion, Turkish Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller threatened in January to veto acceptance of any new NATO members unless concrete assurances were given that Ankara would finally be granted entry into the EU.

The emergence of the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Ukraine axis appears to have served as the catalyst for a revision of Armenia's traditionally Russia-oriented foreign and security policies. (This policy shift may also have been prompted by apprehension that some circles within the Russian leadership who want Azerbaijan's oil to be exported via the Baku-Grozny-Tikhoretsk-Novorossiisk pipeline would make major concessions to Baku that could negatively impact on the search for an acceptable solution to the Karabakh conflict.)

Yerevan has in recent months engaged in an intensive dialogue with Kyiv. The Armenian Foreign Ministry has also drafted a new security doctrine that provides for military cooperation with Russia and the CIS as well as for Armenia's more active participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program; a role for Armenia, together with international organizations, in guaranteeing the security of Nagorno-Karabakh; and the proposed creation of a sub-regional security and arms control system.

(In this context Armenia is likely to support the recently resurrected Russian proposal to beef up the security component of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Greek Defense Minister Apostolos Tsohatzopoulos may have had this in mind when he commented after recent talks in Yerevan with his Armenian counterpart, Vazgen Sargsian, that "it is necessary to establish a new body of collective security, proceeding from the existence of regional institutions.")

In late April, the Armenian Foreign Ministry advised postponing ratification of a treaty permitting Russia to maintain a military base in Armenia. In a document circulated among parliamentary deputies and subsequently published in the independent newspaper "Molorak," the ministry argued that by formalizing the Russian military presence in Armenia, the treaty limited the amount of heavy weaponry that Yerevan would be permitted under the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. If Russia withdrew its troops, Armenia would not be automatically entitled to increase its arms holdings and could therefore find itself vulnerable to attack. However, this reasoning failed to convince the parliament, which ratified the treaty by a large majority.

To interpret this episode simply as a clash between two foreign-policy visions--one traditional and static and the other evolving in response to a more complex and changing geo-strategic environment--would overlook three key points.

First, the phenomenon of two apparently divergent foreign policy orientations reflects the growing professionalization of the foreign-policy establishments of the former Soviet republics and, as such, is not unique to Armenia.

Second, the debate focuses on the priority to be given to Armenia's relations with Russia; that is, it is a question of degree, rather than of two mutually exclusive alternatives.

Third, both these orientations have their supporters within the Armenian leadership and the opposition, as does the proposal that Armenia accede to the Russia-Belarus Union. Which vision prevails will likely be determined not by the relative strength of the domestic political lobbies but by the nature and extent of the long-term security guarantees provided for Nagorno-Karabakh under any proposed political settlement of the conflict.