Yerevan's precarious westward pivot
    Political drama unfolds

    ANALYTICS  17 June 2024 - 11:44

    Serhey Bohdan

    Last week, Yerevan announced a "strategic partnership" with the United States. However, this format has not been materialized yet, and it looks like an opportunistic move of Biden's team in the struggle for the support of American Armenians in the elections.

    Pashinyan is not sure of the value of this gift, and therefore he is cautiously choosing how to pay for it. Having vowed for the thousandth time to withdraw from the CSTO, he said he would do it sometime later. Probably, when the West will give something more serious? Meanwhile, the Armenian Prime Minister promised not to return to the CSTO, but he is in no hurry to leave either.

    Such inconsistent rhetoric reflects the precariousness of Pashinyan's position. The collective West is not concerned about Armenia, as its countries are engulfed in internal political crises. This week, the situation in France was added to them, upon which Yerevan's elites had placed their main hopes. Pashinyan will have to hold on by himself for the time being, while his policy is about to deprive Armenians of the remnants of Iranian support that saved them in the past. In this situation, the Armenian leader's instinct for self-preservation kicks in and, clearly wanting to hit Moscow, he hits only Minsk.

    "Strategic cooperation" in the election campaign context

    On June 11, it was loudly announced that Armenia-US relations have been elevated to the level of strategic partnership. The move was announced during the visit of US Undersecretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O'Brien to Yerevan. Several details make one cautiously view this "strategic partnership."

    Firstly, this announcement came unexpectedly following a meeting between the Armenian Foreign Minister and a relatively low-ranking American diplomat. Such significant steps are typically handled more formally by higher-ranking officials. Secondly, the US committed to supporting "reforms" in Armenia in economic and military spheres. However, the envoy from Washington only reiterated that during an April meeting in Brussels, the US promised to allocate as much as $65 million for the development of Armenia's governance and economy. Not a dime more was promised.

    This "strategic partnership" looks like a pale semblance of US relations with other countries in this format. Armenia was offered a sham version, and the Biden administration did it with prosaic goals. In a fierce struggle with the opposition led by Trump, Biden hopes to attract the U.S. Armenian Diaspora to his side, which should give him money and votes.

    But for Pashinyan, even such a sham comes in handy. He is clearly nervous about a potential uprising, which the opposition (with strong ties in Moscow) is trying to organize. Therefore, on June 12, he authorized security forces to disperse even the small crowd that was still protesting. As a result, injuries were caused by police grenades, and the authorities justified themselves by saying that the hand was not completely torn off, but rather most of the fingers were amputated.... In short, Pashinyan clearly fears that things might go wrong, especially since the opposition, waving bloody scenes, could try to leverage not only its Russian but also Western connections...

    The fragility of the Armenian leadership's position is evident in its behavior. On June 12, an opposition MP sharply questioned the Armenian Prime Minister about why the government criticizes the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) but does not withdraw from it. Pashinyan retorted with a comical tirade: "We will withdraw. We will decide when to withdraw. What do you think? What's the next step? Do you think we will go back? No, there is no other way. Don't worry, we won't go back."

    Such behavior from Pashinyan suggests that the Armenian leader might want to withdraw but is afraid to do so. Therefore, he attempts to push other CSTO member states towards excluding Armenia with increasingly provocative escapades. In February, Pashinyan announced a "freezing" of Armenia's membership in the CSTO, and in early May, Yerevan refused to participate in the organization's financing.

    Pashinyan targets Belarus without daring to strike Russia

    Armenia's National Security Council Secretary, Armen Grigoryan, once explained that while his government began diversifying its economic, political, and security relations, the West did not demand nor require a break with Moscow. This statement seemed untrue at the time since the West had clearly stated, "If you're not with us, you're against us." This week's news once again indicates that Western assistance comes with conditions - namely, severing ties with Moscow.

    During a visit by an American diplomat to Yerevan on June 11, Armenia signed an agreement with the United States on customs cooperation. It was officially announced that this would boost Armenian-American trade, which had indeed grown in recent years. In 2021, trade amounted to $207 million, increasing to $465 million in 2022, and reaching $670 million in 2023, largely driven by post-pandemic recovery.

    However, this new agreement also serves another purpose - closing off routes for Russia to procure and access external markets through Armenia. Interestingly, on the same day, new plans from the US Treasury Department to cut off avenues for circumventing sanctions against Russia were revealed, including expanding the list of Russian companies subject to secondary sanctions to compel financial institutions in third countries to cease operations with them. Armenia's agreement appears to be part of the same strategy.

    It remains unclear how does Pashinyan plan to compensate for the loss of significantly increased trade with Russia during the wartime, totaling $7.3 billion last year, using support from the United States? He understands that the West is in no hurry to offer a worthy replacement for what Armenians had from Russia. Therefore, he is not rushing to completely sever ties with Moscow. However, he is required to back up his words about shifting towards the West with actions, so he decided to start a scandal with Belarusian leadership - whom the West also dislikes.

    On June 13, Yerevan recalled its ambassador from Minsk, and the Armenian Prime Minister vowed that no Armenian representative would visit Belarus as long as President Lukashenko remains in power. Furthermore, he threatened that Armenia would only remain in the CSTO if Belarus leaves it or Lukashenko apologizes. The reason for Lukashenko's apology is not entirely clear, but apparently, it relates to his May visit to Azerbaijan, where he called the war to restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan liberating.

    All of this is Pashinyan's staged theatrical rhetoric. Lukashenko said this a few weeks ago, and in general, the Belarusian leadership's position on Armenian separatism has been clear since at least the 2000s - Minsk supported Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. Both countries actively developed military cooperation, as detailed in departmental press releases and state media, with equipment transfers documented in UN registries. Of course, military cooperation contributed to the development of the Azerbaijani (and Belarusian) armies, resulting in the defeat of Armenian formations in the Karabakh region of the country.

    On June 14, POLITICO attempted to support Pashinyan's statements with a document. The publication declared that he had documents confirming the correctness of Pashinyan's statements regarding Belarusian cooperation with Azerbaijan. This seemed like an attempt to make readers look like idiots - after all, any internet search will yield a mountain of old information about this more than twenty-year-old cooperation. In any case, cooperation with Azerbaijan cannot be criticized because of its compliance with international law. And from the standpoint of the CSTO, which includes Belarus, Karabakh has always been Azerbaijani, and there have been no guarantees of military assistance within the framework of the CSTO on Armenia's unmarked borders.

    In general, support for Pashinyan's position from POLITICO as a mouthpiece of the global liberal establishment once again suggests that it is not irritation by Pashinyan with Lukashenko's specific and long-standing position, but that he urgently needed to send another signal to the collective West that "I'm ready to move away from Moscow." Pashinyan chose a loud but politically minimal step for this - attacking Lukashenko. At the same time, it is a trial balloon before repeating something similar regarding the Kremlin.

    "Six lame ducks" will not help

    The already precarious position of the current Armenian government is exacerbated by two new dangerous developments. Firstly, there is a growing crisis within the collective West, including the EU and France, where attention is shifting away from Armenia. Even "Politico" recently didn't hide its sarcasm about the meeting of the G7 in Italy, labeling it as a gathering of six "lame ducks" with the Italian Prime Minister Meloni.

    Indeed, looking at the group photo of the nine leading Western politicians from the G7, we see: two unelected Eurocrats (Leyen and Michel, who can't stand each other), two leaders who just lost elections (France and Germany), and another who is likely to lose soon (UK), along with the Prime Minister of Canada with the lowest rating in half a century and his Japanese counterpart with a 26% approval rating. Also present in the photo is the leader of the world's superpower, who has been spared legal accountability due to age-related mental decline. The fact that leaders with uncertain prospects gathered at the main summit of the collective West was noted by other invited leaders: Zelenskyy, who had no choice, attended, while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declined, citing religious pilgrimage commitments.

    However, the most painful aspect for Pashinyan is the weakening of Macron. Following devastating losses in the European Parliament elections, Macron had to announce national parliamentary elections, which are also likely to weaken his position. The question is not whether Macron's party "Renaissance" will win, but rather by what margin the far-right "National Rally" led by Le Pen will triumph. Undoubtedly, not only Macron's party but also some other political forces in France are inclined to conspire with Armenian nationalists, making Macron's political end not the end of French intrigues with revanchists. However, in the critical months ahead for Pashinyan, as he reorients towards the West, he cannot count on real serious help from Paris.

    Moreover, another important card slips from Pashinyan's hands — the Iranian one. It was Iran in the 1990s that saved Armenia from collapse when territorial gains left it isolated and blockaded. Back then, Armenia received vital supplies through Iran until the situation improved. Of course, circumstances have changed now, but recently Yerevan has continued attempts to rely on Tehran to sabotage Baku's proposals for regional unity and connectivity. This has involved repeated warnings about the mythical danger of "Pan-Turkism" and absurd rhetoric about the need for Yerevan and Tehran to "jointly resist neo-Ottoman fascist monsters and liberal fascism" (this is a real quote from an Armenian expert at a recent conference in Iran).

    These attempts have not achieved much success lately for understandable reasons: Tehran is irritated not so much by Pashinyan's radically pro-Western course as by his attempts to involve external global powers in regional affairs. It's not about ideology but geopolitics — Iranians dislike the prospect of Western military presence on their borders.

    One of the outcomes of Pashinyan's continued political course will be Iran reevaluating its relations with Armenia. As a result, Armenia will find itself squeezed not only from the east and west by Azerbaijan and Türkiye but also from the south by Iran. Its only remaining gateway to the world will be the Georgian corridor, which global powers are also actively destabilizing. All this negativity outweighs the uncertain prospects for Western aid to Armenia on the other side of the scale.

    In conclusion, in the strategic reorientation Armenia has been undergoing in recent months, there have been many theatrical gestures and deceptive rhetoric. However, concrete steps in real policy have been minimal. Yet, the reorientation is underway. Moreover, it is evident that Pashinyan is willing to align with the West on absolutely any terms. This implies that he may prefer formal peace and continuing attempts to overturn the results of defeat over actual normalization. Armenia itself lacks the resources for this. Obviously, Western countries are not prepared to invest significantly in Armenia, especially now. This poses the risk of Armenia becoming even more isolated and impoverished — making it an even more pliable tool in the hands of adventurous external players and its own revanchists.

    The views and opinions expressed by guest columnists in their op-eds may differ from and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff.


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