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Moscow Watches Anxiously As Pashinian Realigns Armenia’s Foreign Policy

Russia is wary as Armenia readjusts its foreign policy -- and its relations with Moscow. Here, Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in Moscow on June 13. They meet again in the Russian capital on September 8.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised a lot of eyebrows when he voiced Kremlin concern on September 3 that the “situation in Armenia is heating up.”

"Yes, [the weather] was quite hot today," wisecracked Armenia's maverick leader, Nikol Pashinian, when asked to comment on Lavrov’s observation.

Pashinian’s quip on September 3 epitomizes the new prime minister's carefree attitude toward relations with Russia, tiny Armenia's longtime “big brother” upon which Yerevan is dependent economically and militarily.

Pashinian was equally relaxed when asked about a much ballyhooed congratulatory phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to former Armenian President Robert Kocharian for his 64th birthday on August 31.

“It is a matter of personal relations,” said Pashinian on September 4.

Putin’s call -- reportedly his first birthday greeting for Kocharian in more than a decade -- was featured on the Kremlin website and came just two weeks after Kocharian vowed to come out of retirement and reenter politics to challenge Pashinian’s government.

“I can say that [Putin] values human relations very much,” Pashinian deadpanned about the call to Kocharian.

“You saw recently…that he attended a wedding ceremony for a high-ranking Austrian official, which shows that human ties are of special importance to him,” he said, referring to Putin’s much lampooned attendance at the wedding of Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl in August.

But Putin's sudden support for Kocharian -- who was charged in late July with “overthrowing constitutional order” for his alleged role in authorizing violent attacks by security forces on antigovernment demonstrators in 2008 -- has irked the Armenian public, which has been firmly behind Pashinian since his government came to power in May.

WATCH: Pashinian Becomes Armenia's New Prime Minister

But Kocharian has harshly criticized Pashinian's government, claiming the criminal charges against him are revenge on the part of Pashinian and other opposition leaders present at the 2008 mass protests who are now in government.

Lavrov has twice made critical statements of the investigation by Pashinian's government of those demonstrations, during which the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Yuri Khatchaturov, was also charged.

"The [call for the arrest] of the CSTO head without informing the Russians first really kind of took them by surprise," Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told RFE/RL. "And reaffirmed this perception that Russians had about Pashinian -- based on his track record of previous slogans when he was an opposition leader about moving away from Russia."

Putin and Pashinian will be able to discuss the latest in their countries' relations when they meet on September 8 in Moscow.

Soft Velvet Support

Many analysts were surprised by the Kremlin's relative silence during the Pashinian-led mass protests that forced longtime Armenian politico Serzh Sarkisian to resign as prime minister in an event known as the "Velvet Revolution" -- which resembled the "colored" revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine that Putin has previously reviled.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Yerevan on August 24.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Yerevan on August 24.

“From the point of view of Russia, Armenia is a dangerous example of nonviolent power change and people's power,” Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian told the Armenian news website on August 25. “It is also dangerous because [in Armenia] have shown how easy power can be removed. Not only Russia, but also...Kazakhstan, Belarus, and even [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev are worried about this."

"What was interesting was Russia, for the most part, has been pretty quiet…in April and May [as Pashinian came to power]. It's only been [in recent months] that Russia has started to raise its voice about the new Armenian government," said Stronski.

"The new Armenian government needs to be pretty careful in how it manages Russia…. Russia will fight for its equities in the region," he said.

And Moscow could use both economic and security-related leverage over Armenia if it wants to pressure the government if its foreign policy starts leaning away from Russia.

Economic, Security Levers

Russia is Armenia's biggest economic partner, with more than 26 percent of its total trade turnover from January to July of this year being with Russian companies.

Russia is also a heavy investor in Armenia.

"Most Russian capital goes to the energy sector. We are talking [primarily] about Gazprom, which has a branch here," said Artak Manukian, chairman of the National Center of Public Policy Research and an economic adviser to Pashinian.

Manukian said Russian entities also have substantial investments in Armenia's banking sector and that "in most of the cases the [investors] were in a very good relationship with the political elite [of the pre-Pashinian governments]."

There is also estimated to be a more than 2-million-strong Armenian diaspora living in Russia, with the money that is sent back to Armenia making up some 16 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

The Russian Army operates its 102 Military Base in Armenia's second city, Gyumri.
The Russian Army operates its 102 Military Base in Armenia's second city, Gyumri.

The Russian Army also operates its 102 Military Base in Armenia's second city, Gyumri, and is seen as a security guarantor for Yerevan against Turkey and, to a lesser degree, Azerbaijan.

Russia is also the predominant weapons and military hardware supplier of the Armenian military -- but at the same time also holds the same role for Azerbaijan.

Moscow has in the past used its position as primary procurator of weapons to play the two countries against each other.

And the belief that many Armenians had that Russia was a close military ally were disappointed and even angered by Moscow's actions during a four-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016.

"Russian behavior was one of mediator instead of Armenia's ally," said Stepan Safarian, head of the Armenian Institute of International and Security Affairs in Yerevan.

"[Russia] did not act as Armenia's strategic ally. And the [Russia-led] CSTO also behaved...[like some] peacekeeping organization. It was a dangerous experience for Russia."

He added that "Russia understands and feels this red line [of using military measures to put pressure on Pashinian] -- that it would be very dangerous to use Azerbaijan to deliver some message to Armenia."

Tradition [in Armenia] for Russia is that all Armenian leaders do whatever Russia wants. Now we have a new leader and for Russia that is a big problem."
-- Stepan Grigorian, Analytical Center on Globalization and Regional Cooperation

Safarian suggested that Armenia could actually use the status of the Russian base to its advantage.

"I think [the Russians] realize that there's no other [country] in the South Caucasus that could provide such a military space to Russia," noting that it would not be possible in either Georgia or Azerbaijan.

Sovereign Foreign Policy

So what exactly will Pashinian change within Armenia's foreign policy and in its relations with Moscow?

"We have in Armenia a national leader who has legitimacy in society and who wants to cooperate with Russia, but as an equal partner," said Stepan Grigorian, chairman of the Analytical Center on Globalization and Regional Cooperation.

"We will cooperate with Russia, we will continue our membership in the CTSO and the Eurasian Economic Union, but we will work with Russia as an equal partner," Grigorian said. "Tradition [in Armenia] for Russia is that all Armenian leaders do whatever Russia wants. Now we have a new leader and for Russia that is a big problem."

But he added that the Armenian people will "help Pashinian, will protect his policy in the context of Russia."

Safarian stated that Armenia has changed its "foreign policy principals but not its foreign policy direction."

"There will be no reverse [move] from the CSTO or the Eurasian Economic Union and nothing threatens the Russian Armenia," he said. "But [Pashinian has] changed the formula of Russian-Armenian relations [at their foundation]...because Armenia is now pursuing a sovereign foreign policy and it's not an accident that Nikol Pashinian has used that term many times in his meetings with...Putin.

"The problem is Russia is not [prepared] respect this kind of policy," Safarian said. "I hope that at the coming meeting...Pashinian will explain to his Russian counterpart that [Russia's] concerns are baseless."

One the eve of his September 8 meeting with Putin, Pashinian said "our relations should be at a much higher level, they should be much more strategic, much more cooperative, and much more brotherly,” said Pashinian.

Grigorian said he thinks Moscow will eventually agree with Pashinian's new balance in their bilateral relations.

"I hope they will understand that they will have to deal with new relations with a new leader -- one who thinks as a pro-Armenian leader. But it will take some time [for Moscow] to understand this."