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Armenia Looks West, Tries To Loosen Moscow’s Grip

Presidents Vladimir Putin (left) of Russia and Serzh Sarkisian of Armenia during a meeting in Turkmenistan in December.
Presidents Vladimir Putin (left) of Russia and Serzh Sarkisian of Armenia during a meeting in Turkmenistan in December.
It seemed like a small event, but it got a lot of tongues wagging.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian decided not to attend an "informal summit" of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on May 28. Sarkisian's office cited Armenia's Republic Day holiday that day and a visit to Yerevan by Britain's Prince Charles.

Nonetheless, Sarkisian's decision was taken by many as a sign of discontent in Moscow's relations with Armenia, which has long been Russia's most reliable partner in the South Caucasus.

Richard Giragosian, director of an independent think tank in Yerevan called the Regional Studies Center, says Armenia has been quietly forging a new "strategic vision" aimed at reducing the country's subservience to Moscow.

"For many years, Armenia was in grave danger of becoming little more than a Russian garrison state, marked by significant overdependence on Russia and, at times, political submission to Russia's interests," Giragosian says. "This has changed in the past two to three years, however."

During that time, Yerevan has boosted cooperation with NATO and has actively engaged the European Union as a participant in the bloc's Eastern Partnership.

Although Armenia's involvement in the Eastern Partnership has been somewhat quieter than that of Ukraine or Moldova, Yerevan is on track for the big prize -- the signing of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement at the partnership's November summit in Vilnius.

Big Shift?

Armenian officials, however, have been quick to emphasize that bilateral relations with Russia are "excellent." On May 30, National Security Council Secretary Artur Baghdasarian made the point strongly at a press briefing seemingly aimed at squelching speculation of a rift.

"I believe Armenian-Russian relations are excellent and positive," Baghdasarian said. "The Armenian-Russian political dialogue is at the highest level -- between the presidents and governments, foreign ministers, and security councils. Armenian-Russian strategic cooperation is successfully developing in every sphere."

Baghdasaryan noted that Armenia sent a high-level delegation to Bishkek, including Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian.

Giragosian agrees that the shift in Russian-Armenian relations is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

But it is an important shift, particularly in the context of Russia's bid to increase its influence in the South Caucasus as a whole. Moscow's relations with Azerbaijan have long been frosty and relations with Georgia, while improving since Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili came to power in October, remain poor because of many issues lingering from the August 2008 war.

Moscow Pressure

Russia's position vis-à-vis Armenia is strong. It offers Armenia military and political support in its contentious relations with neighboring Azerbaijan. It also controls key parts of the Armenian economy, especially the energy sector. Moreover, Armenia's economy depends on remittances from the Armenian diaspora, and about three-quarters of those remittances come from Russia.

Armenia, on the other hand, is the only CSTO member in the South Caucasus and the only country where Russia has a permanent military base. Yerevan seems to have concluded that it has more leverage with the Kremlin than it previously realized.

The strength of Armenia's position is being sorely tested as Moscow is pressuring Yerevan -- and other former Soviet states, especially Ukraine and Moldova -- to join its Eurasian Customs Union (ECU). So far, only Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are members of the bloc, which Moscow hopes to expand and transform into an even more ambitious Eurasian Union.


The European Union has made it clear that membership in the Eurasian Customs Union is incompatible with a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and with an EU Association Agreement.

In a speech on May 28 in Brussels, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele noted that he had traveled to Moscow in March and "we explained the reason for that incompatibility is that we cannot make legally binding agreements with partners that are not in charge of their external trade policies."

Ukraine was able to hold out against Moscow's demands that it join the ECU and instead has agreed to "observer status" in the project. Yerevan, despite tremendous pressure from Moscow -- including hikes in the rates Armenia pays for Russian natural gas -- has so far avoided joining the ECU as it pushes its bid for EU accords.

In 2010, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev flew to Yerevan to sign an agreement extending Russia's use of the Gumri military base until 2045. At that time, analysts were convinced Yerevan had all but ceded its sovereignty. Political analyst Aharon Adibekian sarcastically wrote: "When cornered by an enemy, do not resist. Don't tense up. Just enjoy for maximum pleasure."

But such concerns may have been overblown. Yerevan by then was already evolving its multivector foreign-policy approach, including not only deeper relations with the EU but also a commitment to improving ties with regional neighbor Turkey.

Analyst Giragosian thinks it is likely Yerevan will be able to continue resisting Russian pressure on the ECU and will see its efforts crowned at the Vilnius summit.

"When Armenia does challenge Russia's preference, the end result is usually more respect, given the Russian reliance on Armenia. In other words, Armenia's strategic significance to Russia is much larger than Russia cares to admit," Giragosian says.

RFE/RL Armenian Service correspondent Karlen Aslanian contributed to this report from Yerevan

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