Of Revolutionaries and Realists: Russian-Armenian Relations since the Velvet Revolution

Originally published in the August 2019 Newsnet. Footnotes can be found in Newsnet.

Of Revolutionaries and Realists: Russian-Armenian Relations since the Velvet Revolution

by Stephen Badalyan Riegg, Texas A&M University

The change of leadership in Armenia in May 2018 resembled a revolution more in result than in method. With festive grill masters manning roadblocks and crosswalks occupied by youths lounging on ornate rugs, the “Velvet Revolution,” as it quickly became known, surprised many observers near and far. During the upheaval and in the year since its end, several important questions continue to evade clear answers. One such issue is the effect, if any, the Velvet Revolution has had on Russian-Armenian political and economic ties. Yet, despite this uncertainty, it is palpable that a new chapter has opened in the deeply entangled history of symbiosis and resistance between Russia and Armenia. How much have things between Moscow and Yerevan changed since the transition? How much have they stayed as before?

With economic links dating to Kievan Rus’ and a political partnership forged in the nineteenth century, Russia and Armenia are no strangers. In the 1990s, Yerevan emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union as one of Moscow’s closest allies. Driven by an unequal yet mutual need for cooperation, Moscow and Yerevan fortified their economic and security bonds over the past thirty years. Armenia has relied heavily on Russian military backing against its two neighboring antagonists, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Russian border guards patrol the desolate stretch of territory that divides Armenia and Turkey. Russia is Armenia’s indispensable economic partner, provides the fuel for its lone nuclear power plant, hosts thousands of Armenian migrant workers, and continues to wield deep influence over Armenian energy, telecommunications, heavy industry, and other sectors. Russia supplies not only 84 percent of Armenia’s petroleum gas but also 96 percent of its wheat. At the same time, Moscow views Yerevan as a crucial, and rare, ally in the strategically important South Caucasus. A region more and more frequently engaged by the West, Iran, and even China, the South Caucasus in general, and Armenia in particular, are vital outposts of Russia’s touted “sphere of influence.” Mainly for these reasons, the Velvet Revolution raised plenty of questions about Russian-Armenian ties.

To our knowledge, the Kremlin, like other foreign onlookers, had no premonitions of a political shakeup in Yerevan until President Serzh Sargsyan succumbed to protesters’ pressure. Sargsyan had led Armenia for a decade with an adroit mix of Soviet-style authoritarianism and political savvy based on friends in right places. To Sargsyan—and to most analysts abroad—his position seemed secure. However, when Sargsyan in April 2018 contradicted his 2014 pledge by announcing that he would not step down at the end of his term, popular discontent erupted.

Young Armenians led demands for new leadership that would tackle the country’s chronic economic malaise, kleptocracy, cronyism, and its decades-long impasse with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. In a society where political unrest is uncommon because many citizens fear that it can harm national security and lead to renewed hostilities with Azerbaijan, the crisis evolved rapidly. By May 8, the National Assembly had elected Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister and the new Armenian leader received a congratulatory phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin. To many Armenians, Russians, and other observers, the inchoate relationship between Pashinyan and Putin was a topic of particular debate because of Pashinyan’s political background.

Prior to his public emergence, the oppositionist Pashinyan registered on few political radars until he began a march from the city of Gyumri to Yerevan to protest Sargsyan’s power grab. Pashinyan had been a seasoned journalist and political dissident who was imprisoned for most of 2010-11 for “organizing mass disorder,” but he was not a household name in Armenia or Russia. Quickly galvanizing a youth protest movement known as “Take a Step,” Pashinyan and his supporters demanded that Sargsyan resign immediately. The dissidents enumerated a litany of grievances against the incumbent regime that were grounded in internal politics, economics, and social ills that afflicted the population of the tiny, landlocked country with two closed borders. In contrast to the “color revolutions” of their former Soviet brethren, Armenia’s revolutionaries prioritized—or claimed to prioritize— domestic reforms over the country’s geopolitical reorientation. Even during the climax of the tumult, the protestors remained cognizant of the need to signal broadly their aspirations for Armenia’s geopolitical future.

The protestors aimed such gestures at Moscow as much as at internal audiences. The Kremlin was their main intended recipient because it had reason to suspect Pashinyan’s goals. Two factors contributed to the demonstrators’ need to reassure Russia of Armenia’s continued partnership with its crucial security and economic ally.

First, Pashinyan hailed from the minority Yelk (“Way Out”) political bloc, which had a reputation not only for ill-defined “liberalism,” but also took its name in part from its platform of withdrawing Armenia from the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which is Putin’s answer to the singlemarket might of the European Union. Almost immediately upon ascending to the head of the protest movement, Pashinyan adopted a more cautious stance, insisting that any final decision about Armenia’s future international economic agreements must be made through a public referendum. But with polls showing that most Armenians value close ties to Russia, this was little more than a symbolic nod toward Pashinyan’s democratic bona fides.

Second, during the clamor of anti-Sargsyan demonstrations, some of Sargsyan’s supporters portrayed Pashinyan as an anti-Russian zealot who was willing to abandon Armenia’s only security guarantor for a longshot chance at partnering with the West. Pro-Sargsyan parliament members grilled the prospective prime minister in front of journalists about his past anti-EEU statements. They remained unsatisfied by his assurances that he would avoid “drastic” changes to the country’s foreign policy, which he said could only hurt Armenia.

Pashinyan and his supporters moved quickly to reassure Russian and Armenian audiences of their intention to maintain the Russian-Armenian status quo. During the tense standoff with Sargsyan’s government, Pashinyan asked for, and received, an audience with the Russian ambassador to Armenia. According to an interview he later gave to the Russian press, Pashinyan assured the envoy that the opposition campaign is “not a movement against Russia, against the United States, against the European Union, against Iran, against Georgia; this is a movement against corruption [and] ineffective government. And this is a purely internal Armenian movement.” He added that he was “happy that the representatives of Russia have said that they do not intend to interfere in Armenia’s domestic affairs.” On May 1, just a week before his election, the opposition leader declared unequivocally: “We consider Russia as a strategic ally; our movement does not create threats for this. If I am elected [as the prime minister], Armenia will remain a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Organization.” On cue, protestors in the middle of Yerevan unfurled a large banner, which proclaimed in Russian, “Armenia and Russia are brothers forever.”

Russian officials responded with a mix of feigned detachment and cautious optimism. As several observers had predicted, Moscow did not try to interfere in the Velvet Revolution to prop up its erstwhile partner Sargsyan or to prevent the rise of a potentially unfriendly cabinet. Russia’s state-run media barely covered the events on Republic Square, while Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Mariia Zakharova waxed sentimental on social media: “A people who have the strength, even in their history’s most difficult moments, to maintain their unity and respect for one another, despite categorical differences of opinion, are a great nation. Armenia, Russia is always with you.” During the upheaval and in the year since its stabilization, Nikolai Platoshkin, the former chief of the Armenia Bureau at the Russian Foreign Ministry, has been vocal about presenting the Velvet Revolution as “not another Maidan,” referring to Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution in 2014. Platoshkin has gone as far as to lambaste Russian observers who accused Pashinyan of being a Western puppet, pointing out that under the new regime Yerevan remains the only postSoviet country, along with Belarus, to steadfastly support Russian interests at the UN General Assembly.

Indeed, since his victory, Pashinyan has reaffirmed Armenia’s role in the Kremlin’s post-Soviet political and security blocs: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). With no hint of—or sense in—Armenia seeking NATO’s aegis against Azerbaijan as a substitute for Russian military and political support, there is no prospect of Armenia withdrawing from the CSTO. Armenia hosts a large Russian garrison, the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, with 3,000-5,000 troops. The Armenian authorities rely in part on fighter jets from this base to secure Armenian air space. No one in the Caucasus knows how Russia’s military would react in the event of renewed hostilities within Nagorno-Karabakh or between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the uncertainty itself helps maintain the status quo and provides a sense of security for most Armenians who believe that Baku will not gamble against Moscow.

Nevertheless, Russia’s sale of advanced weapons to both sides in the conflict leaves no one happy but the officials of Rosoboronexport (Russian state weapons export agency). If before his victory Pashinyan and his supporters questioned the adequacy of Russian military support for Armenia, especially in the context of Moscow’s supply of arms to Yerevan’s oil-rich adversary, then since his victory Pashinyan has underscored their ongoing security alliance. In fact, Pashinyan has publicly pressured Putin by declaring that Armenia “expects” additional Russian weapons that are more likely to be used in a skirmish than the powerful Iskander missile system, which it already possesses. Russia’s officials appear to have responded noncommittally, but Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu boasted that Armenia was the first country to answer Russia’s appeal for humanitarian aid to Syria. Overall, Armenia’s inescapable reliance on Russian military backing constitutes a key reason for its reluctance to irk the Kremlin by withdrawing from the Eurasian Economic Union.

The new Armenian government views the country’s economic alliance with Russia, including membership in the EEU, as flawed but necessary. Armenia’s residents and new authorities grumbled when Russia raised the price of natural gas from $150 per thousand cubic meters in 2018 to $165 in 2019. Perhaps motivated by Armenian prosecutors’ charges of tax evasion against Armenia’s subsidiary of Russian gas behemoth Gazprom, the price hike compelled Pashinyan to muse publicly about expanding gas imports from Iran. To be sure, in the past year there have been symptoms of deteriorating economic relations between Moscow and Yerevan. In 2017, 23 percent of Armenian exports went to Russia and 29 percent of its imports originated in Russia. Now, according to Vardan Bostanjyan, a former Member of Parliament and economist, “Exports and imports have reduced in the first quarter of 2019. In early 2018, there was 29% trade turnover with the Russian Federation, but now there is only 11% trade turnover.” While it is too early to verify these statistics from publicly available data, Bostanjyan attributed this trade decrease to Moscow’s loss of “trust” in Armenia after the Velvet Revolution. Still, while Pashinyan’s cabinet has tried to maneuver delicately between the EEU and the EU, Yerevan remains more likely to negotiate adjustments to the provisions of the EEU than to secede from it in hopes of a far-fetched deal with the European Union.

The EU courts Armenian attention by gifting about 40 million euros in annual grants and, since 2014, investing quite heavily in Armenian energy, agriculture, and transportation sectors. But EU membership—if Brussels were to offer it to Yerevan—requires a cumbersome process which mandates social and political reforms resisted by many Armenians. Nevertheless, to keep its options open and perhaps to pressure Russia, in June 2019 Armenia adopted an “implementation roadmap” for the EU’s Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The EU welcomed that step and reiterated “the importance of an independent, efficient and accountable judiciary which contributes not only to the protection of human rights but also to a business environment favorable to economic development and foreign investment.” The bottom line remains that the EEU is the devil Armenia knows best, while the EU is the devil it knows not. Yet, there are more signs of new Russian-Armenian discord than before.

Putin, Medvedev, and Pashinyan have met several times in the past year and proclaimed the strength of the Russian-Armenian partnership. However, away from trite references to the “brotherly” historical ties between the two nations, political and perhaps even social tensions have simmered since the Velvet Revolution. In December 2018, a Russian conscript from the military base in Gyumri murdered a local Armenian woman. The incident immediately recalled an even more gruesome atrocity from 2015, when another Russian soldier shot dead seven members of an Armenian family in Gyumri. While the latter solider was sentenced to life in prison and transferred to Russia to carry out his sentence, the former killer remains under arrest inside the Russian garrison in Armenia. These incidents sparked vocal protests from Armenian civilians, human rights advocates, and even pre- and post-Sargsyan Armenian officials. In June 2019, the killing of a Russian special forces veteran in a street brawl outside Moscow by a group of Armenians, some of whom quickly fled to Yerevan, ratcheted up social tensions. That event compelled Pashinyan to declare that just as the Armenian side prevented the case of the massacred family in Gyumri from attaining “political context,” he hoped that again cooler heads would prevail in this situation.

Looking ahead, it is unlikely that the RussianArmenian relationship established in the post-Soviet decades will change significantly. For the foreseeable future, Russia will want to capitalize on Armenia’s reliance on its security and economic backing, while Armenia will have few tangible options to seek better allies. Pashinyan’s government almost certainly will continue to push for more advantageous terms for its participation in the Eurasian Economic Union and for stronger military support from Russia, but how much the Kremlin will acquiesce to those demands is anyone’s guess. As long as Armenia remains embroiled in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which contributes to its economic weakness and deep reliance on Russia, the contours of the Russian-Armenian dynamic will not evolve drastically. Pashinyan’s government has few alternatives to maintaining close ties with Russia; Putin’s government has few incentives to alter its policies toward Armenia. After the dust settles, even triumphant revolutionaries can wake up as pragmatic realists.

The Velvet Revolution opens several fascinating avenues of study for scholars of the post-post-Cold War order in Eastern Europe. As yet another forced, but bloodless, power transition in the broader region, this event practically screams out for contextualization among the “color revolutions” of Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine (in 2004 and 2014). Some of the parallels and contrasts are obvious. If, in the words of Ukrainian philosopher Denys Kiryukhin, “Euromaidan solved the difficult Ukrainian dilemma of choosing between an orientation toward the European Union and staying in Russia’s orbit,” then the Velvet Revolution produced far hazier verdicts. Armenia’s relative ethnic homogeneity is another clear factor that distinguishes this case from postrevolutionary secessionist conflicts elsewhere.

Even more interesting insights can be gleaned from studying this transition on its own terms while applying its lessons to wider debates. Instead of a comparative approach, analyzing Armenians’ delicate—and for now successful— navigation of twenty-first-century Great Power rivalries is sure to produce novel discussions. Understanding how, and why, an emerging civil society in a small, besieged nation deposed its imperious ruler without resorting to violence, splintering the populace, or igniting a civil (or foreign) war can shake our assumptions about the sociopolitical and economic dimensions of the former Soviet space in general and the Caucasus in particular. The domestic, regional, and perhaps even global implications of Armenia’s geopolitical maneuvering can yield fresh revelations for diverse scholarly agendas. And surely no researcher wants to miss Yerevan’s gastronomic and wine delights.

Stephen Badalyan Riegg, Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University, is the author of the forthcoming Russia’s Entangled Embrace: The Tsar’s Empire and Armenians, 1801-1914 (Cornell, 2020).