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As Armenia Walks Tightrope Between Russia And EU, Public Opinion May Be Shifting

Armenians protest a rise in public-transport fares in Yerevan on July 28, just one sign that the usual attitude toward Moscow may be changing the South Caucasus country.
Armenians protest a rise in public-transport fares in Yerevan on July 28, just one sign that the usual attitude toward Moscow may be changing the South Caucasus country.
For nearly a week now, several dozen youth activists have held a nonstop sit-in outside the office of Yerevan's mayor, protesting a rise in public-transit fares and demanding the dismissal of the officials who implemented them.

The sit-in comes in the wake of much larger protests against the price rise, which the government says became necessary after Russia sharply increased rates for natural gas.

The simmering tensions prompted an unusually prickly comment from Razmik Zohrabian, deputy chairman of the ruling Republican Party, who told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the protesters "are being used to cause trouble in Armenia."

Zohrabian added: "Armenia is no superpower, and superpowers can easily stir up internal strife here. It's not just about Russia. A rivalry of civilizations is under way over whether Armenia should go for European integration or Russia's customs union. So the fight of giants is getting some resonance on the ground here."

While Armenians have long regarded Russia as their country's main protector, a spate of actions by Moscow in recent weeks has provoked an unprecedented wave of public anger at a moment when Yerevan faces a key geopolitical choice.

A Fork In The Road

Armenia has been Russia's key strategic ally in the South Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the extent that Yerevan is largely dependent on Moscow economically and in terms of security. Now, however, the government is moving rapidly toward integration with the European Union, and Yerevan could well be on track to initial an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the bloc at a summit of Eastern Partnership countries in Vilnius in November.

As that potentially momentous occasion approaches, Moscow has been applying concerted pressure on Armenia -- and on Ukraine and Moldova as well, which are both in similar situations -- to change course and instead join the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union. The European Union has made it clear that a DCFTA is incompatible with membership in the Eurasian Customs Union.

On the surface, the government has been adamant that ties with Russia are strong. The two countries inaugurated a small free-trade zone on July 29 at a Russian-owned electronics plant in Yerevan. At the opening, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian emphasized that "Russian-Armenian relations are dynamically developing."

Sarkisian likewise took pains during a cabinet meeting on July 25 to praise the Yerevan transit protests as a sign of the country's dynamically developing civil society. "We can see that this is a spontaneous movement of people that has no partisan nature. This movement has a social nature," he said. "It is for social solidarity and against poverty. Understandable motives are guiding the young people who are raising this issue."

Not Very Neighborly

But beneath the surface there are signs that Moscow may be bungling relations with Yerevan at this crucial moment. In addition to raising natural-gas rates, Russia recently began the very public delivery of what will ultimately be $1 billion in new weaponry to Azerbaijan. The two neighbors fought a war in the early 1990s over the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is populated and controlled by ethnic Armenians.

Hrachya Harutiunian's appearance in court caused an uproar in Armenia.
Hrachya Harutiunian's appearance in court caused an uproar in Armenia.
But perhaps the most illustrative example is Russia's handling of the case of Hrachya Harutiunian, an Armenian citizen who was driving a truck in a Moscow suburb on July 13 that smashed into a bus, killing 18 people and injuring more than 30 others.

Armenians were outraged when Harutiunian was brought into a Moscow court to face charges wearing a flowered housecoat and slippers. Appearing shocked and humiliated, Harutiunian was unable to address the court during his brief appearance. A Russian state television report broadcast in Armenia ridiculed Harutiunian's "grunting" and accentuated his ethnic origin.

That incident brought hundreds of Armenians out to protest in front of the Russian Embassy.

"We still remember [how] the anti-Chechen hysteria was there during the Chechen war in Russia. But even [former Chechen warlord Salman] Raduyev and others who were considered Russia's greatest enemies didn't face that kind of disgusting attitude," says Avetik Ishkhanian, a human rights activist in Yerevan who attended the protest. "The fact that [Harutiunian] was brought to court in a woman's clothing was clearly a political decision. I don't think that it was a decision by the local police."

Armenians' Changing Opinions

In response to the anger, Russia issued a statement accusing unspecified individuals of trying to whip up anti-Russian sentiment over the case. Since then, both Russian and Armenian officials have played down the housecoat affair and stressed that Harutiunian is being treated well as his case goes forward.

But public opinion in Armenia could be shifting slightly from its historically pro-Russian stance. Emma Gabrielyan, a journalist and blogger for the daily "Aravot," wrote recently that "one gets the impression the Russians are thoughtfully, with their own hands, destroying our belief in the stereotype that 'Russia is the guarantor of Armenia's security.'"

"A year ago, no one could have imagined that one day the citizens of Armenia would hold protest actions in front of the Russian Embassy," she added.

While Russia has profound leverage in Armenia, Moscow does not always use its advantages effectively, says James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House in London.

"Russia is not well-known for playing the cards that it holds tremendously well. It could -- were it to have a more enlightened attitude toward the other former Soviet states -- as we know in so many other cases, it could be so much more attractive than it is. But it tends to slide roughshod over them," Nixey explains. "It tends to not pay them due respect, the kind of respect that Russia itself feels it deserves from Western countries, for example."

He believes Yerevan has not yet made a final decision on the choice between deeper relations with the EU or joining Russia's customs union. He notes that the EU agreements entail commitments to political and economic reforms that the government might yet prove unwilling to make. The Eurasian Customs Union, by contrast, comes with no strings attached and, very likely, considerable short-term economic benefits.

At the same time, public support in Armenia for EU integration appears to be growing as tangible results emerge on the horizon. And the very atypical wave of public anger toward Russia over the increase in gas prices, the Harutiunian case, and the sale of arms to Azerbaijan could signal a significant shift in the public mood. One that, Nixey says, President Serzh Sarkisian needs to take into account.

"These sort of semiauthoritarian states take the temperature of public opinion very seriously and they wouldn't want to move too far beyond it," the analyst says. "And taking too much stick, taking too much punishment from Russia, too much humiliation, I think, would be very unwise for Mr. Sarkisian, politically speaking."

RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report

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