ARMENIAN TUG OF WAR A Country Searches for Balance between Moscow and
By Uwe Klussmann
DER SPIEGEL 34/2007 – August 20, 2007
*Armenia stands out from its Caucasus neighbors because of its close ties
with protector Russia. But the United States is also working to establish a
beachhead in the small but strategically located country.*
Visitors to Yerevan — the capital city of the smallest republic in the
Caucasus, snuggled between Europe and Asia — inevitably find themselves
wondering whether they have landed in the right country. Young Russian women
control passports at the airport alongside Armenians. The country’s
second-largest city, Gyumri, also seems like a garrison town from the
neighboring country. Indeed, the 5,000 soldiers on the Russian base provide
livelihoods to local craftsmen, bakers, taxi drivers and innkeepers.
Even the village of Lusarat is under foreign protection. Russian soldiers
patrol in front of the barbed wire that separates Armenia from Turkey. The
settlement lies by the foot of the eternally snow-capped Mount Ararat,
Armenia’s national symbol. The locals like to call the mountain — which
became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and has stood on
Turkish territory since 1923 — the "Biblical Mountain." It’s a name that
was also made popular by a Russian — the poet Alexander Pushkin.
Yes, it’s true, relations with Russia are good, confirms Armenian President
Robert Kocharian, speaking softly. He is sitting in the presidential palace
in the capital with an oil painting of a bleak steppe landscape behind him
— and he immediately addresses the issue that has made Armenia unique in
the Caucasus. The country’s neighbors — be it rebellious Georgia or
oil-rich Azerbaijan — have strained relationships with Moscow: Georgia is
pushing to become a NATO member, and Azerbaijan’s political stance is
Kocharian says his country will "not join" the Western military alliance,
arguing that Armenia would not stand to gain greater security from the move.
Instead, it would "spoil our relations with Russia and Iran." Armenia’s
military pact with Russia is a response to the country’s "national security
needs," Kocharian adds.
Moscow has recently been listening very carefully to what the government in
Yerevan has to say about the issue. True, Russian President Vladimir Putin
also praises his country’s relations with Armenia as "splendid." But he
knows that, in the struggle for spheres of influence on the territory of the
former Soviet Union, the United States is building another front line in
Armenia — thereby putting pressure on Russia. Washington is wooing members
of the political opposition and dispatching economic and military aid to the
oldest Christian country in the world, which finds itself wedged between
mostly Muslim neighbors.
The large US embassy building on the edge of Yerevan hints at Washington’s
ambitious plans for the country. Led by retired navy officer and embassy
Chargé d’Affaires Anthony Godfrey and renowned experts on Russia, some 800
US government employees are working here to boost Armenian support for
The United States has transferred $1.5 billion to the impoverished Caucasian
nation since its independence in 1991.
An agreement reached in March 2006 between Washington and Yerevan promises
Armenia, which lacks raw materials, an additional $235 million during the
next five years. The overseas aid will provide money to fund everything from
the expansion of rural water pipelines and preventive medical checkups for
women at risk for breast cancer to tax investigator training.
One Western European military official believes the US strategists are
progressing "on tip-toes." One day the Pentagon sends three dozen
instructors to Yerevan to train military officers; another day, it invites
45 Armenian officers to the George C. Marshall European Center for Security
Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the German state of Bavaria, along
with the deputy defense minister.
Still, the United States faces a lengthy tug of war with Moscow. The
Russians also have some aces up their sleeve: They sell the Armenia military
technology at prices charged to Russia’s own military and 90 percent of
Armenian officers are trained in Russia.
Moreover, the Russians provide almost all of the natural gas consumed in the
country, and the pipelines belong to Gazprom, the industry giant controlled
by the Kremlin. Another Russian energy giant, United Energy Systems (UES),
is the operator of Armenia’s only nuclear power plant, as well as most power
plants and the country’s power grid. Additionally, Moscow’s foreign trade
bank controls Armenia’s state-owned savings banks.
But having control over the Armenian economy by no means ensures a country
can win its people’s hearts. When Russia raised the price of natural gas
from $54 to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006, resentment spread
immediately. Even pro-Moscow politicians complained that the Russians do not
invest in most of the businesses they have purchased.
Members of the pro-Western political opposition such as Artur Bagdassarian,
the former parliamentary chairman, and Raffi Hovanissian, the former foreign
minister, are trying to fan the flames of anti-Moscow sentiment. "We want to
be friends of Russia, but not vassals," Bagdassarian emphasizes.
Hovanissian, a former Armenian exile and US citizen who has returned to his
home country, is pushing for a "rediscovery of sovereignty." Despite
cautious support from Washington, though, both politicians’ parties achieved
only 13 percent of the votes in May’s parliamentary election.
But that could also be a result of the fact that the presidential office
has begun exercising close control over the television and radio channels.
Excessive amounts of government propaganda have been broadcast ever since.
Still, the friends of the West in Yerevan face a dilemma: Any gesture of
rapprochement towards NATO could also come across as an attempt to curry
favor with Armenia’s archenemy Turkey. The genocide perpetrated against the
Armenians in 1915 by Turkey ensures that relations with Ankara remain
venomous to this day. Turkey still keeps its borders to its eastern neighbor
closed, partly due to the conflict surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The mountainous region is officially part of Azerbaijan. But after a war of
secession during the early 1990s, the Armenians created the Republic of
Nagorno-Karabakh — an area shaped by ethnic cleansing, where a Kalashnikov
rifle is in greater demand than the Internet. The Azerbaijanis were driven
out of Karabakh, and the Armenians out of Azerbaijan.
Given the tensions they share with their neighbors, Armenians are happy to
accept their limited sovereignty in return for protection both from vengeful
Azerbaijanis and the unpopular Turks. The border troops of the Russian
intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), guard strategic
For signs of Armenia’s deep ties to Moscow one need look no further than
Yerevan’s Republic Square, where souvenir peddlers sell Armenian and Russian
flags as a two-pack bargain. Across the street, in a government building
that dates back to the Stalinist era, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan promises
that a "victory of pro-Western forces" is "out of the question" during the
presidential elections to be held at the beginning of next year.
Kocharian’s term in office will soon end, but if he has his way Prime
Minister Sargsyan — the former defense minister who has the Kremlin’s
backing — will become his successor. Nevertheless, Moscow’s emissaries
tirelessly issue warnings about "geopolitical rival" Washington when they
visit Yerevan — as if the Russians don’t quite trust the Armenians, who
Putin describes as "brothers."
Sargsyan says his country is "connected to Russia by a thousand threads,"
trying repeatedly to reassure Armenia’s protector. But he sometimes strikes
a different tune when talking to people from Western Europe. Then, the
politician, who knows the West well, describes himself as "pro-Armenian" and
says he is in favor of opening his country up more to Europe.
(c) DER SPIEGEL 34/2007
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