European or Eurasian?: Armenia continues its search for foreign policy priorities

Political autumn came early in Armenia as the struggle of Russia and the West over wielding more influence in Armenia began to take more prominent features already in August.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who paid an unscheduled visit to Moscow on August 8, apparently agreed to Armenia joining the Eurasian Union, a nascent Russian project widely believed to be an effort to restore the former Soviet Union.

A real public debate is now on in Armenia over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal on the establishment of the Eurasian Union, with advocates of the “back to the USSR” mode still failing to provide any solid arguments for such a move. Opponents, meanwhile, argue that the project has not even gotten off the drawing board and debating on whether to join it or not is premature given that no one knows exactly what it is going to be like. Still, all seem to understand that Putin is going to take all sorts of steps to achieve the fulfillment of his dream of collecting the peoples of the former Soviet Union back under Russia’s roof.

One such steps may become the military exercises of the Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that was originally due to be held in Armenia on September 3-7, with the participation of the presidents of the CSTO-member states (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). Putin’s visit was supposed to become the strongest argument in favor of “returning to the USSR”.

But the war games were suddenly postponed for 12 days. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Russia these days is busy holding an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which also appears to be very important for Putin. And the exercises were eventually postponed to make it more convenient for him to pay a visit to Armenia. Meanwhile, on September 5, again with an unplanned visit, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is scheduled to visit Armenia. It is yet not known what he might propose to the South Caucasus country.

It is remarkable that Armenia, which had planned to participate in the summit of the recent Non-Aligned Movement in Iran at the presidential level, at the last moment decided to send the foreign minister to Tehran instead. And it happened after Reuters published a “preemptive” story about Iran using Armenian banks to launder its “nuclear” money.

All these events have exacerbated the geopolitical choice for Armenia. Where to go - west or north? Armenia does seem to have one clear answer to this question. But apparently it will have to give only one clear answer and do it now as it will be presidential election time soon and the main contenders in this election are likely to be geared to different foreign policy orientations.

The incumbent president clearly states his European orientation, although the steps of his government on reforming the oligarchic system do not seem quite effective to Western partners now. The West argues that Armenia does not have enough political will. And it is not known yet whether Western democracies will support Sargsyan’s reelection bid.

Nor is it known who is going to become Sargsyan’s main rival and advocate of the Russian direction. Some say Armenia’s second president Robert Kocharyan could join in the fray, but he hasn’t spoken yet whether he is going to run for president again or not. Much is likely to depend on Putin’s ability to convince Armenia to seek salvation in Russia.

The developments around the extradition of Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani army officer who axe-murdered a sleeping Armenian in Hungary eight years ago and was handed over and immediately pardoned in Azerbaijan on August 31, are being used for this purpose. The Russian press has already published some materials claiming that the Armenians are disappointed with European justice, the West and NATO.

But most importantly, experts who appear to be serving the interests of Russia, began to suggest that the Safarov case requires a retaliation. It is obvious that if the Armenian side, or someone instead of it, provokes an incident in Karabakh and Azerbaijan responds, Putin will have a good occasion for introducing Russian forces or the CSTO’s RRF into Karabakh. If troops are sent to Karabakh, it will be a strong argument in favor of the Eurasian Union.