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Monday Morning Meeting on Alignments and Realignments in Armenian Foreign Policy since the Velvet Revolution

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  • June 03, 2024
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Dr. Jason Wahlang, Research Analyst, Europe and Eurasia Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), made a presentation on “Alignments and Realignments in Armenian Foreign Policy since the Velvet Revolution” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 3 June 2024. The session was moderated by Dr. Rajorshi Roy, Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Centre, MP-IDSA. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director-General, MP-IDSA and other scholars of the Institute attended the session.

    Executive Summary

    The global arena is in flux due to the conflicts across the Middle East, Europe, and the Caucasus, creating widespread instability. This has revived great power competition and fostered realignments between global and regional actors. The same can be seen in the Eurasian region with the – Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts. Owing to these developments, in recent years, Armenia has contemplated various options for alignments and realignments in its foreign policy.

    Detailed Report

    Dr. Rajorshi Roy, in his opening remarks, provided an overview of the 2018 Velvet Revolution in Armenia, which saw widespread protest against the government, leading to the overthrow of the then President turned Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and the coming of the current Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan. However, Pashinyan today, faces increasing scrutiny and criticism for his policy decisions taken regarding Armenia’s shared border with Azerbaijan. Dr. Roy stressed the importance of Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia’s history and the formation of its national identity. In the last year, Armenia has lost the entirety of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Azerbaijan. This has given rise to massive criticisms and protests in Armenia against Pashinyan domestic policies. The ongoing geostrategic contestations in Eurasia have led to new alignments and realignments, Armenia being no exception. It has sought to strengthen its strategic autonomy and multi-vector policy by engaging with regional and extra-regional powers beyond Russia and China.
    Dr. Jason Wahlang commenced his presentation giving a brief overview of the recent conflicts in the Eurasian region, namely the Ukrainian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts, and how these developments have led countries recalibrating and recalculating their alliances with regional powerhouses, attracting attention from various global powers and organisations. In recent years, Armenia has undergone a profound political transformation – transforming from a presidential system to a parliamentary one. This monumental change, saw former President Serzh Sargsyan assume the role of the Prime Minister leading to widespread protests within Armenia. These protests were led by various civil society groups and the then–opposition member and journalist, Nikol Pashinyan – who later became the Prime Minister. This domestic shift in political leadership, coupled with regional defeats to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from 2020 onwards, has prompted a reassessment of Armenia’s security and foreign policy architecture, underscoring the magnitude of the transition and its implications.

    Regarding Armenia’s foreign policy Dr. Wahlang noted, that like most post-Soviet spaces, Armenia follows a multi-vector foreign policy known as the “complementarianism” foreign policy. This complementarianism necessitates pursuing a multi-vector policy, equilibrium-seeking diplomacy, and balancing ties with all regional and international stakeholders. This policy helps Armenia emphasise its partnerships not just with the West but also with Iran and India, while maintaining strong relations with Russia.

    Dr. Wahlang emphasised that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been omnipresent in regional geopolitics since the final years of the Soviet Union. Post the Soviet collapse it became a constant deterrent to permanent peace in the region and is deeply connected to Armenia’s foreign policy as well. This influence is visible in Armenia’s policy with its neighbours Azerbaijan and Türkiye, and with regional powers like Russia and European powers like France, and vice versa. One prominent example can be France's recent recognition of the Republic of Artsakh (the Armenian name of Nagorno-Karabakh). The policy has shifted with the current dispensation under Nikol Pashinyan and the recent defeats, especially with the leadership’s attempts to find perpetual peace.

    According to Dr. Wahlang, the Armenian diaspora plays an important role in its foreign policy, apart from playing a crucial role in the Armenian quest for genocide recognition. Their presence in major countries such as Russia, France, the USA, and India has been able to push some of the agenda of the Armenian state and also better relations with Yerevan.  One such example is the role of pressure groups such as the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) and Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), present in the United States and France, and how they help shape good relations of the countries with Armenia.
    Dr. Wahlang noted that the current leadership’s attempts to find a long-term solution to peace, particularly by delimitating the border, have not been received positively by the Armenian public. Protests against the regime in Armenia have been linked to the government's foreign and neighbourhood policy, i.e., Azerbaijan. The local populace within Armenia is active and has coordinated protests in the past regarding Armenia’s policies, particularly on Azerbaijan. Thus, the domestic situation does relate to foreign policy and impacts the popularity of the leadership.

    Dr. Jason further explained Armenia’s foreign policy in four phases. First, the “Rise of Un-Sovietised Nationalistic Foreign Policy after 1991”, under President Levon Ter Petrosyan. This policy was based on the first war of Nagorno-Karabakh, wherein the leadership tried to establish Armenia’s own image by shedding its former Soviet image. However, it still maintained strong relations with Russia. The second phase focused on “Shift in the Nature of Foreign Policy towards Multi-Vectorism”, under President Robert Kocharyan. During this time, there were attempts to create a feeling of diversification which also included trying to improve relations with European nations. The third phase saw “Disconnect between European Aspirations and Security-driven Russian/Eurasian Constraints”, under President Serzh Sargsyan. During this phase Armenia joined Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) instead of furthering improved relations with Europe. The fourth phase is “Diversification due to Rising Geopolitical and Regional Complexities”, under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Under his leadership, Armenia tries to engage with countries of the West, and countries like Iran and India.

    Focusing on current developments within the Armenian State, Dr. Jason stated that the current protests against Armenia’s political leadership led by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan have gained great prominence. According to Dr. Wahlang, the domestic populace has been more active in this protest as compared to the previous demonstrations. This is because the delimitation process would transfer territory from Armenia to Azerbaijan and is being seen as a compromise on Armenian sovereignty. The Armenian leadership, on the other hand, is attempting to find a solution for perpetual peace in the region. The main effort is based on the Armenian leadership's focus on the Crossroads of Peace Project, which aims to connect the neighbourhood through various connectivity projects and, in return, bring about peace in the region.

    As mentioned before, Armenia is trying to diversify its relations with various major powers. Dr. Jason highlighted that the Armenia-Russia relationship is based on three key sectors – security, economy, and natural resources. Russia is the security provider and the main arms importer of Armenia and has long been Armenia’s principal supplier of weapons and ammunition. In recent times, due to Russia’s pre-occupation in Ukraine, there have been certain issues, like Russia’s inability to meet the demands for the supply of arms. Moreover, the presence of the 102nd military base in Gyumri and the presence of Russian troops protecting the borders near adversarial neighbours such as Türkiye and Azerbaijan show the relevance and importance of the security and military aspects in this relationship. Dr. Wahlang pointed out that both nations are economically linked, with about 40 per cent of the Armenian economy being dependent on Russia.       Moreover, Russia dominates the gas distribution outlets in Armenia, with Gazprom Armenia owning all the gas distribution infrastructure. Russia also has a monopoly over grain and petroleum products. In 2023, the trade volume between the two nations reached a record high of USD 4.16 billion, the highest since the Soviet collapse.

    However, the two former Soviet Republics’ leaderships have been at loggerheads with one another since the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, with the Armenians accusing Russia of not supporting and not providing assistance to them. This clash is due to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation’s (CSTO’s) inability to involve itself in both Nagorno-Karabakh and when Armenian territory was under threat. This has led to Armenia suspending its participation in CSTO and even threatening to leave the organisation altogether. Despite these disagreements, the two leaders have maintained contact and made attempts to bring about solutions.

    Dr. Wahlang noted that the European Union (EU) has sought to increase its presence and carve a space of its own in Armenia. There have been significant attempts to strengthen this partnership, like Armenia joining the European Union Eastern Partnership and the signing of the Armenia–EU Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2017. There have also been discussions in Armenia about joining the EU, particularly after the War in Karabakh, but these discussions have not moved forward. He also highlighted that the EU is Armenia's second-largest trade partner after Russia. Moreover, in the recent conflict with Azerbaijan, the EU has been proactively trying to forge a peaceful solution. These steps have been seen positively by Armenia.

    With regard to Armenia’s relations with France, Dr. Wahlang pointed out that France has been Armenia's second-largest foreign investor since 2016, totalling €229 million. Its investments are primarily in agri-food, water and banking sectors. In recent times, this relationship has been further strengthened by the growing defence cooperation, which includes the sale of air defence systems, radars and sensors. Apart from Defence, Armenia has gained support from France in Nagorno-Karabakh, including aid for looking after the refugees.

    Emphasising Armenia's relationship with Türkiye and Azerbaijan, Dr. Wahlang noted that they have a history of conflicts and discontent. Türkiye’s constant and unwavering support for Azerbaijan since the start of the first Nagorno-Karabakh conflict till current times has been seen as further evidence of Armenia's anti-Türkiye stance. Moreover, Türkiye’s military and drone support for Azerbaijan became a decisive factor in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. There has, however, been a change in approach, with attempts at peace-building, including the opening of the Armenian-Türkiye border after thirty years to supply aid to Türkiye during a major earthquake in 2023. The new leadership in Armenia under Pashinyan is attempting to find permanent peace in the region through new avenues of diplomacy and connectivity.

    According to Dr. Wahlang, Armenia and Iran are important allies, with both sharing a border and common interests and threats. Iran is important for Armenia in connectivity projects, including assisting and cooperating with India. Armenia, Iran and India have also recently met for trilateral cooperation. Given Armenia’s landlocked status, its terminal in Chabahar Port could help assist Armenia in connecting with the world. He emphasised that with Armenia attempting to diversify its foreign policy and resource allocation, Iran can be a good option. However, Iran's fractured relationship with the West and Armenia's diversification attempts towards the West could become a stumbling block for long-term cooperation.

    With regard to Armenia-India relations, Dr. Wahlang stated that the two nations share a historical relationship, with trade being the base for it in the past. Armenia has also long supported India's territorial integrity and sovereignty on the issue of Kashmir. The two nations share a robust defence relationship as well. In recent years, India has decided to appoint its own defence attaché to Yerevan. When it comes to defence trade, India has exported the Swathi weapon-locating radar system and Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers, as well as anti-tank munitions and artillery guns. Additionally, the two nations have scope for cooperation in the field of Information Technology and pharmaceuticals.  The only deterrent in the relationship is the lack of connectivity.

    Lastly, Dr. Wahlang concluded his presentation by emphasising that Russia is still a prominent player in the region, and it may view the Armenian attempts at diversification towards Europe negatively. He also stressed that considering the gains to both sides, India could emerge as a long-term partner to Armenia.

    Comments and Questions

    Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy, complimented Dr. Wahlang on his comprehensive presentation highlighting the complexity surrounding Armenia’s geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic situation. He pointed out that this is the first time in the history of Azerbaijan that all the territories historically claimed by them are under their control. He stressed that Armenia finds itself in a dilemma as its traditional supporter, Russia, is not able to do much. This raises concerns about Armenia exploring other options and the obstacles involved in it. Regarding relations of Iran and Türkiye, Amb. Chinoy stressed on their influence in the region. He also mentioned the memorial for the Armenian Massacre in Isfahan, highlighting Iran’s sympathy for the Armenians. He noted that it is important to look at Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel and the US, predicated on oil and gas pipelines, and their traditional relations with Türkiye.

    Dr. Swasti Rao, enquired about Russia’s weapons supply to Azerbaijan, value of connectivity with countries like Georgia and how Azerbaijan could impact the future of India-Armenia relations.

    Gp Capt. (Dr.) RK Narang (Retd.), enquired about the payment process of the weapons trade between India and Armenia.

    Dr. Wahlang responded to the comments made by the Director General and the questions raised by MP-IDSA scholars.

    Report has been prepared by Ms. Anusua Ganguly, Intern, Europe and Eurasia Centre, MP-IDSA.