Armenias Foreign Policy: Complementary or Conformable?

International Eurasian Institute for Economic and Political Research
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April 14, 2004 Analytic Data

Armenia’s Foreign Policy: Complementary or Conformable?
by Tigran Martirosyan

The formulation of Armenia’s foreign policy, as with any nation, depends on
a number of variables that are commonly used in international assessment of
the rank of a nation in the global hierarchy. While somewhat mechanistic,
these variables typically include the critical mass of human and material
resources; degree of national cohesiveness based upon historical, social,
cultural, religious, and ethnic factors; economic development and density of
networks of trade; type of government and degree of openness to new ideas;
political and military capabilities comparative to neighboring states;
consistency of goals for exerting influence beyond its borders; number and
complexity of external issues, including conflicts, that a nation can handle
simultaneously; and geographical range based on location and physical reach
to other subjects of the hierarchy.

Among these variables, geographical location as a principal determinant of a
nation’s vulnerability, exercises perhaps the most powerful constraint on
the way Armenia’s foreign policy is made and on the set of the country’s
foreign policy choices. Landlocked between the Black and Caspian Seas,
Armenia is tackled with a challenge of overcoming its geographical
vulnerability made more dramatic by the scarcity of natural resources, an
ethno-political conflict, a decade-long blockade imposed by two hostile
neighbor states, socio-economic declivity, government’s inability in
instituting effectual state structures and an associated exodus of human
resources. In order to deflect the threats to its national security and
ensure development, Armenia has chosen a foreign policy centered on a
geopolitical balance among its immediate neighbors, contending regional
powers and global power centers, and multilateral organizations — all
affecting Armenia and the southern Caucasus region. The policy had come to
be known as a policy of `complementarity.’

Taken after the `principle of complementarity’ introduced in the European
Union’s (EU) Maastricht Treaty to denote cooperation between the member
states and the EU’s executive body, Armenia’s policy of complementarity —
in and of itself an inter-relation of reciprocity whereby one element
supplements the other — sought to provide equal opportunities for all
external powers with divergent interests to engage in Armenia. The elements
that Armenia’s complementarity framework entailed were the peaceful
settlement of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, expansion of membership in
international — especially European — organizations, engagement in
post-Soviet, European, and Euro-Atlantic security structures, furthering
good-neighborly relations with Iran and Georgia, regulating relations with
Turkey and Azerbaijan, and fostering regional stability and economic
integration. Distinctive of this set of elements was the uncontested foreign
policy objective to forge opportunities in Armenia and the region, in which
the interests of Russia and the West would overlap rather than branch off.

In the early years following independence, Armenia was relatively successful
in keeping a delicate balance primarily due to the `syndrome’ of immediate
post-Cold War uncertainty in policymaking circles of both Russia and the
West in regards to the former Soviet republics. In mid-1990s, however, when
their policies in the region substantiated in a somewhat fictitious format
that set the north-south axis with Russia, Armenia, and Iran vis-à-vis the
east-west corridor with the U.S., Turkey, and Azerbaijan, Yerevan engaged in
a complex balancing act with Russia, on the one hand, and the U.S., on the
other. Given the prevalence of the defense and security factor over the
economic aspect in the national consciousness of newly independent Armenia,
as well as the geopolitical proximity of Russia and closed borders with
Turkey and Azerbaijan as a result of their blockade of Armenia, Yerevan
assumed asymmetry in regulating the level of its relationship with one or
the other power. Armenia was thus able to establish positive relations with
only two of its four neighbors — Georgia and Iran, and has made a notable
progress in expanding membership in international organizations. Yet,
relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain hostile, and the protracted
conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh slanted from principally a conflict over
self-determination between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan to a `territorial
dispute’ between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Above all, Yerevan has failed to
ensure that it maintains complementary, albeit asymmetrical, relationship
with both Russia and the West.

Armenia’s complementary relationship with these two power centers, if fitly
maintained, stipulates that Armenia develops military and security
cooperation with Russia, which Yerevan deems as an exclusive framework
guaranteeing the security of Armenia, while advancing economic cooperation,
regional integration, and democracy-building assistance programs with the
West, chiefly with the United States. However, the recent series of dubious
`debt-for-equity’ swaps that granted Moscow an unreserved ownership of
Armenia’s economic enterprises primarily in energy sector by writing off
Armenia’s debts to Russia, have reinforced the partnership between Yerevan
and Moscow thus curtailing considerably the area for expanding Armenia’s
relations with the West. Although it was evident that Russia had almost no
incentive to utilize these enterprises, including hydroelectric plants and
Armenia’s sole nuclear power plant, to full capacity or finance their
modernization, the authorities in Yerevan have bent to Moscow’s pressure to
exert control over Armenia’s economy. In doing so, the government in Yerevan
has essentially allowed a third country to attain a political dominance over
the fundamental attributes of Armenia’s national sovereignty – defense,
national security, and economy. Armenia’s foreign policy has thus
transcended distinctly from complementary to conformable.

This transition has actually invalidated Yerevan’s policy of complementarity
and is precarious because it may lead to a situation when Russia surrenders
Armenia’s national interests. With troops patrolling Armenia’s borders,
joint groups running Armenia’s security structures, companies owning
Armenia’s energy sector, and even international flights from and to Yerevan
operated by Russian `Siberia Airlines,’ Moscow may lose its interest in
Armenia. Apathetic to overly compliant authorities in Yerevan, Moscow may
try to play the Nagorno-Karabakh card in an effort to appease Azerbaijan and
drag the country under the Russian sphere of influence at Armenia’s expense.
Alongside with the U.S. that has suspended sanctions against Azerbaijan for
its blockade of Armenia and considers allocating $8.75 mln in military
assistance for Azerbaijan but only $2.75 mln for Armenia in 2005, Russia may
re-launch a mediation effort in Nagorno-Karabakh by exerting pressure on
Yerevan for greater concessions. It appears that mediators may revive a
once-contemplated project for exchange of a land corridor over Armenia
linking Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave for the Armenian-controlled
Lachin corridor connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh as an option to
settle the conflict. Armenians may thus venture to lose the fruits of their
hard-won victory in the self-determination struggle in Nagorno-Karabakh, if
Armenian side ever considers this embarrassing and potentially detrimental
project seeking a settlement at the expense of Armenia’s territory instead
of a comprehensive agreement on the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Amply reasonable from Moscow’s perspective, Russia’s assertiveness in
advancing a policy that meets its own national interest rather than the
interests of Armenian independent statehood, is, however, not the only
factor that contributed to the downgrading of Armenia’s foreign policy. Nor
is it the major one. There are several other, more eminent, factors.

One is the smaller state adaptation to the fluctuating geopolitical
interests of mightier states. For a smaller state with many areas of concern
such as security and diplomacy, economic choice and constraint, domestic
political institutions, and the challenges of ethnicity and nationalism, the
possible exercise of power politics, i.e. diplomacy in which the greater
nations threaten to use pressure or force in order to obtain their
objectives, has a direct implication. A smaller state tends to regard
virtually every interfering mightier state as a potential contender that may
threaten its own security, sovereignty, and fundamental national interest.
Therefore, the adaptation tactics that a smaller state applies to `mollify’
a powerful state does contain a certain degree of conformism. However, the
unremitting application of conformism as an instrument of adaptation cannot
attain the longer-term interest of a smaller state. The more effective
foreign policy tool to deter a threat likely to emerge from a mightier state
is the balance of power. When the balance is upset, as in the case of
Armenia’s relations with Russia vis-à-vis Armenia’s relations with the West,
a smaller state must consider a set of responsive actions to return to the
position of optimal equilibrium. The foreign policymakers in Yerevan have
disregarded the trivial operational precept that power must be
counterbalanced and have thus placed Armenia’s security in jeopardy, a move
that may have unrecoverable consequences for the country.

Another factor is the phenomenon of individual conformism of policymakers.
Some foreign policymakers in Armenia appear to have adopted a lop-sided
concept that in order to protect its national interest, a smaller state
should change its behavior whenever the international environment changes.
They argue that while the national interest influences what a smaller
state’s government wishes to do, it is the international environment that
determines what it is apt to do. However, the notion of national interest
must be too vague for these policymakers to follow in the decision-making,
because they are not trained or inclined to serve the national interest.
Rather, they are inclined to serve the self-interest and to appease higher
officials or external patrons whose interests often adversely affect
Armenia’s national interest. The hierarchical and co-optation practices that
govern access to higher levels of the career for these policymakers favor
conformism that stifles creativity and the capacity for their autonomous
thinking, rather than innovation. If it is true that the behavior of a
smaller state should change with the international environment, then it is
equally — if not exceedingly – true that a smaller state has extraordinary
strengths to survive in the contemporary world by maneuvering deftly and
advancing tidily its importance into greater security and sovereignty.
Application of conformism to the changes in the international environment
may be a gainful tactics in the short term. In the longer term, however, a
consistent foreign policy influenced by the international environment but
determined by the national interest is the best foreign policy.

The next factor is the apparent interest of the major power centers to deal
with submissive governments in smaller states. For both the United States
and Russia, the authoritarian or pseudo-democratic puppet regimes are
generally preferred over the governments that meet genuine liberal
democratic or national patriotic criteria, because the former are viewed as
perfectly compliant and therefore susceptible to political control and
influence. Russia plays a strong hand in Armenia not only because Armenia is
failing to attract Western investment in its economy, but also because the
U.S. is slow to take a firmer stance in developing a better-governed, modern
society and diversifying the country’s economic, foreign policy, and
security options. Instead, guided by a notion that weak societies with
embryonic democratic features are not necessarily an improvement over strong
authoritarian regimes, the U.S. is preoccupied with maintaining stability in
the region that permits Washington to advance its petroleum-oriented
interests but actually denotes stagnation in countries like Armenia. The
authorities in Yerevan have recognized and exploited to their benefit this
hidebound policy approach in which mightier states tend to impose political
control over the effective sovereignty of the smaller states. The important
point here is, however, that any artificially imposed stability ultimately
leads to regression and from there on to instability and turmoil that the
West is so fervent to avoid. Genuine liberal democratic societies that make
proper provisions for leadership succession are more stable than
authoritarian or quasi-democratic regimes that are subject to the whims of
single leaders and thus more prone to arbitrary, adventurist, and
self-defeating behavior.

The major factor of conformism in Armenia’s foreign policy is the
unpopularity of the ruling elite. The Soviet totalitarian experience fueled
into Armenia’s authorities a political culture already marked by
authoritarian traditions implying that they never experienced a political
system that could be classified as anything close to liberal or
participatory. The current political system of a strong authoritarian
presidency immune of efficient control and accountability to the populace
that has enticed most of Armenia’s ruling elite, offers widespread practice
of vote-rigging and subverting the rule of law. The disgruntled population
at large has virtually no belief in their ability to influence or change
their leadership. Therefore, the government’s veering towards Russia
essentially demonstrates the need to secure its existence in power at any
price. When a government does not summon a broad-based popular support at
home, it becomes more prone to bending under the pressure from the outside
or turn to an interested external power for protection. However, the
evidence of Armenia’s contemporary history shows that virtually no
government that reaches office through the unfair election can claim

If Yerevan is anxious about rectifying the situation in which the balance of
complementarity in its foreign policy has been subrogated for the inertia of
conformity, it needs to enhance Armenia’s position within the evolving
triangular cooperation among the EU and NATO, Russia, and the U.S., with
stronger emphasis on the EU and NATO aspect. This aspect may enhance
Armenia’s ability to maintain an optimal balance with both Russia and the
U.S., because Europe is a power center where other major powers can come to
terms in regards to smaller states like Armenia. Agreeing that their aim is
to cooperate, not to compete, with Russia in the former Soviet space, both
Europe and the U.S. seem to take up the challenge to place greater emphasis
on Europe’s `new neighbors’ in the southern Caucasus. In all probability,
their long-term goal is to create stable and upward-moving partners — a
goal that may be as much in Russia’s interest as it is in the West’s. The
dangers facing Russia such as the nexus of terrorist and weapons of mass
destruction threats facilitated by failed states and religious extremism,
trafficking in persons, and the AIDS epidemic, are similar to those facing
the EU and NATO, and the U.S. They appear to share a conviction that dangers
are most effectively met when they act in concert. The convergence of their
interests, therefore, entitles Armenia as one of the focal players in
regional and broader European integration and security.

Recognizing Russia’s positive role in maintaining Armenia’s security,
Yerevan also needs to follow changes in the global system of security and
expand cooperation with NATO as it develops important partnerships with both
the EU and Russia. With seven members of the Partnership for Peace (PfP)
that joined the Alliance, NATO will work to refocus PfP on the southern
Caucasus, which the transatlantic community considers a front-line region in
the war on terrorism, and where PfP’s culture of cooperation and
inter-operability can make a greater contribution to the West and Russia’s
common efforts in strengthening regional security. NATO’s relations with
Europe and Russia are key to the transatlantic community’s ability to act
collectively. Just as EU and NATO enlargement have brought more security to
Europe, Russia’s cooperation with both Europe and NATO could help foster
security and political reform in the southern Caucasus and in Armenia, in
particular. Because NATO’s enlargement is not just a zonal expansion but
also a pursuit of new patterns to oppose threats that may erupt outside its
operational borders, Armenia may choose to elevate its security level by
participating jointly with NATO in confronting these threats. As the most
effective organization in the field of military and political security, NATO
potentially may offer its good offices for confidence building between
Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Armenia and Turkey.

Armenia’s foreign policy can be conformable solely to the country’s
fundamental national interest, which should be implicitly understood as
strengthening of Armenia’s independent statehood. In order to overcome its
geographical vulnerability and maintain significance to the outside world,
Armenia needs to focus on creating foreign policy alternatives by preserving
an optimally proportionate relationship with all interested states and
organizations. Conversely, a tendency to become a client state dependent on
one or the other power center has grown considerably in Armenia. It has come
to the point when Armenia is unable to defend and foster its own foreign
policy agenda that should be helping involve Armenia’s impoverished and
disenfranchised population in the state-building process by promoting
foreign investment, searching for new markets, and diversifying transport
routes for Armenian exports. It is uncontestable for probably every
sober-minded policy expert that in the harsh geopolitical location in which
Armenia finds itself, military and security cooperation with Russia is
crucial for Armenia. However, foreign policymakers in Yerevan need to come
to realize that there must be limits to Armenia’s partnership with any
country that could prevent a partnership from swerving from a mutually
profitable cooperation to a stiff patron-client relationship.

To avert such a scenario, Armenia needs to forge a domestic policy focused
on statehood-reinforcing measures to overcome the high poverty rate,
autocratic trends, and the widespread governmental corruption, complemented
by a comprehensive foreign policy seeking to increase the country’s weight
within the relationships between Russia and NATO and the West, Europe and
Russia, and Europe and the United States. In order to minimize and utterly
prevail over clientistic and conformist trends in its foreign policy,
Armenia needs to counterbalance its partnership with Russia with those
Western programs that aim to promote economic reform, encourage democratic
habits and practices, and help the people build their own civil society.


Tigran Martirosyan is a Washington-based analyst writing on developments in
broader Caucasus region and a PhD candidate at George Washington University.
Mr. Martirosyan formerly worked at the Johns Hopkins University-affiliated
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, and held a senior diplomatic post in
Armenia specializing in the analysis of U.S. policies towards the region.