|Armenia in Russia's Embrace
By Kim Iskyan, The Moscow Times
Armenia is one of a small and dwindling number of former Soviet republics that assuages, rather than aggravates, Russia's hurt ego in what used to be its geopolitical backyard. While the special relationship between Russia and Armenia is hardly new, its increasing intensity holds important implications for the smaller country's future, as well as for the balance of power in the Caucasus and throughout what remains of Russia's old sphere of influence.
Goodwill between Armenia and Russia has deep historical roots and is sustained by Russia's recent role as Armenia's protector. Russia is the ace up Armenia's sleeve against feared aggression by Turkey, Armenia's historical enemy, and as a deterrent to a renewal of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorny Karabakh (during which Russia supplied critical military assistance to Armenia). As a consequence of the war, both Turkey and Azerbaijan blockade their borders with Armenia.
Armenia plays eager host to a few Russian bases and a few thousand Russian troops, who patrol Armenia's borders with Turkey and Iran. During the Georgian political crisis in November 2003, the Russian and Armenian defense ministers signed agreements deepening their military cooperation, and, a few days later, then Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called Armenia "Russia's only ally in the south."
Indeed, Georgia appears increasingly determined to remove itself from the Russian orbit, particularly after the recent crisis in Adzharia. And Russian relations with Azerbaijan, never particularly warm, remain dominated by oil concerns. Armenia is one of the relatively few former Soviet republics where Russian troops are welcomed and where they don't have to rub shoulders with the U.S. military, such as in Georgia or Kyrgyzstan.
On another front, Russia has staged what appears to be a benign takeover of a number of Armenia's economic arteries.
Virtually the entire Armenian energy sector is under Russian control, following the transfer last year of the management of Armenia's critical nuclear power plant, and six hydroelectric plants, to UES as part of a broad equity-for-debt deal. Armenia receives its natural gas from Russia via Armrusgazprom, which is 45 percent owned by Gazprom. Rostelecom is a possible buyer of Armenia's telephone monopoly. Russian financial institutions, often under ethnic Armenian management, are slowly moving into Armenia's banking and insurance sectors. And with Russia one of Armenia's largest trade partners, the health of the Armenian economy is closely linked to that of Russia's, as the slowdown following the 1998 financial crisis demonstrated.
Russia is the gray cardinal of the Armenian political scene, in contrast to the meager influence it exerts on domestic politics in most other CIS countries, with the exception of Georgia, Moldova and Belarus. Prior to Armenia's February 2003 presidential election, President Robert Kocharyan made a pilgrimage to Moscow to receive the blessing of President Vladimir Putin; some analysts viewed the transfer of Armenia's energy assets to Russia as a quid pro quo for Putin's continued support.
Indeed, the Armenian government is highly vulnerable to any disruption -- inadvertent or otherwise -- of the flow of energy resources from Russia, and works hard to stay in the good graces of the Kremlin.
The close links between powerful members of the Armenian diaspora in Russia and Putin spurred rumors recently that Putin, now freed from the distraction of getting re-elected, might become more involved in Armenia's domestic political scene to solidify Russia's position in Armenia. In the meantime, Kocharyan seems to be taking a page out of Putin's handbook on authoritarianism, tightening the state's grip on the media, stifling dissent and otherwise trying to limit the scope for the evolution of a credible opposition.
Armenia's official foreign policy is to foster amicable relations without picking favorites -- a rational policy for a small, isolated nation flanked by unfriendly neighbors in an unstable region. Armenia leverages the political clout of the Armenian diaspora in the United States and, to a lesser degree, the European Union, to win governmental aid and assistance. It also hedges its military bets by participating in NATO Partnership for Peace exercises and lending quiet support to the American war on terror.
U.S. and EU concerns in the region are focused on the politics of oil and pipelines in Azerbaijan and the Caspian area more generally -- with changes in Georgia now also jockeying for the limited attention that the West allots to the Caucasus. Meanwhile, efforts to deepen relations with southern neighbor Iran (such as through the construction of a natural gas pipeline) receive frosty glares from the West and a mixed reception from Russia.
Russia is home to roughly 1.8 million Armenians -- com