Between Europe and Asia, Russia and Iran, and landlocked by hostile neighbours to its east and west, Armenia is geography’s prisoner. The unresolved conflict with its neighbour Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh casts an ominous shadow over the whole region, and the resulting isolation from its neighbours leaves Armenia in a vulnerable situation. Its trade routes through Azerbaijan and Turkey are blocked due to closed borders, and its only two openings to the outside world are across a mountainous border with Iran – a country that has good relations with Armenia but is subject to international sanctions – and through Georgia and the Black Sea port of Batumi, Armenia’s only route to Europe. This vulnerability has led Armenia to seek a partnership with Russia that is closer to a reliance than an alliance, with security considerations taking precedence over economic benefits.
Yet at the same time, the country is riding the wave of democracy, brought on by the non-violent Velvet Revolution of 2018 and the installation of a new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who is committed to stamping out corruption and reversing Armenia’s economic fortunes. The Velvet Revolution could have been expected to lead to a realignment of interests abroad, but Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan is careful to emphasise that the revolution was “Armenia-centred”, and “strictly a domestic affair.” Armenia’s foreign policy is a complex web of alignments, and while it may seek to strengthen its democracy with closer ties to the European Union (EU) and the United States, this cannot come at the expense of its relationship with Russia. Security is vital in a rough neighbourhood, made all the more dangerous by the volatile situation in Nagorno-Karabakh – a “sleeping volcano” according to author Thomas de Waal.
Crowds cheering in Yerevan after the parliamentary elections in December 2018, in which Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan won a landslide victory. / On Wikimedia Commons by Armineaghayan
The conflict with Azerbaijan began in 1988 and is still far from resolved. While full-scale war from 1992 to 1994 ended in a ceasefire without a peace agreement, intense fighting erupted over a four-day period in 2016 – around 350 people were killed in the worst violence for 22 years. Ceasefire violations occur regularly, with dozens of casualties a year.
Map of the region following the four-day war in April 2016. / On Wikimedia Commons by Achemish
The conflict is so intractable because although Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as the territory of Azerbaijan, Armenia has had control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven Azerbaijani territories surrounding the region since 1994. The territories were to form a buffer zone between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan to be traded for concessions from Azerbaijan in later negotiations. While this has been the basis for international talks, the temporary situation is still in place. In the meantime, 20,000 soldiers are on each side of the Line of Contact, and both armies possess heavy artillery and long-range missiles.
Armenia’s policy of ‘absolute security’ over Nagorno-Karabakh – the need to defend the majority-Armenian population and keep Nagorno-Karabakh out of Azerbaijani control – is fundamental to Armenian foreign policy and, as Mnatsakanyan explains, “No government in Armenia would last five minutes if it declines the security guarantee to [its] compatriots.”
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan over the capture of Azerbaijani territory during the conflict, but Turkey’s relationship with Armenia was fractious long before the conflict. Turkey has angrily dismissed claims that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottomans between 1915 and 1922, an event recognised as genocide by 32 countries, including the United States, Russia and Sweden.
Efforts to improve relations with Turkey have been unsuccessful, despite a brief period of optimism a decade ago. In October 2009, the two countries were close to a historic agreement to normalise relations when both foreign ministers met in Zurich to sign protocols on restoring diplomatic relations and re-open their closed land border.
The agreement was designed to evade both the Genocide and Karabakh issues; for Turkey, this would have put the Armenian issue and its international repercussions to bed, while for Armenia, re-opening the border would have brought immediate economic benefits, restoring the closed Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi railway line and linking Armenia to Europe through Turkey, effectively ending its international isolation. Only parliamentary ratification stood in the way. Azerbaijan, however, was not on board and, according to Thomas de Waal, Azerbaijani officials lobbied hard against the protocols, even threatening Azerbaijan’s gas sales to Turkey.
A day after the Zurich ceremony, Turkey’s then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for Armenia to withdraw from occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The process stalled, the protocols were left unratified, and Armenian-Turkish relations became even worse than before. Ten years later, relations have deteriorated further, most recently with recognition by the United States Senate of the persecution of Armenians in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks as genocide. With President Erdogan’s consolidation of power in Turkey, the likelihood of any improvement in the near future is low. As the Armenian foreign minister explains, “The person who killed the Zurich protocols in 2009 is leading Turkey today.”
As Nagorno-Karabakh depends on Armenia for security, Armenia depends on Russia. Russia keeps its main security base in the South Caucasus in the Armenian city of Gyumri, and the two countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Russian-led military alliance of which Azerbaijan is not a member, which provides a security umbrella over Armenian territory. Through their joint membership, Armenia is able to buy Russian weapons at a discount, and military cooperation has extended to an air defence agreement and a joint Russian-Armenian anti-aircraft system, ratified in 2016.
Meeting between Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and President of Russia Vladimir Putin / Kremlin.ru
This, however, tells only half the story. Many Armenians think that Russia does not have their best interests at heart, most obviously through Russia’s sales of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Azerbaijan. Armenia’s ambition to seek closer relations with the European Union has also been hampered by Russian interests. When Armenia was close to signing an association agreement with the European Union for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area in 2013, Russia claimed that the association agreement was incompatible with membership of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and threatened to reconsider its alliance with Armenia – a price too high for any Armenian government to pay. Armenia’s accession to the EAEU was about security, not economics; membership requires Armenia to introduce high external tariffs, which undermine competitiveness and deter foreign investors, while the absence of a shared border with any other member makes trade difficult. Despite the previous setback, a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) was signed between Armenia and the EU in 2017 in an effort to cooperate on political issues such as good governance, the environment and antiterrorism, while acknowledging that close economic ties were incompatible with Armenia’s membership in the EAEU.
While every post-independence Armenian government has wished to pursue an Armenia-centred foreign policy based on ‘multipolarity’ and ‘complementarity’ – or partnership with many actors – it is inevitably more heavily reliant on Russia than others. “For us Russia is an important partner”, Mnatsakanyan says, “and when people raise a question with us about our relationship with Russia, we say, well, what’s your alternative? How long has it been since some of our other good friends have been queuing up for membership in NATO? 10 years? We cannot afford a security vacuum for 10 minutes.”
This underlies the country’s dilemma. Armenia’s economic development has been hindered by its international isolation, and this is unlikely to change as long as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved. The conflict cannot be solved without some compromise, because Azerbaijan will not accept the status quo, but any compromise is domestic political suicide in Yerevan and anathema to the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh. Without solving the conflict, Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey will remain closed and, as Azerbaijan increases its military capability, Armenia will become more reliant on Russia for security. Greater reliance on Russia increases Russia’s leverage over Armenia’s relationship with other powers, which limits Armenia’s ability to strengthen ties with actors like the European Union and the United States to break free from its isolation. And so it continues.
James Rhys Davies