Living with Big Brother: Armenia-Russia relations are based on language, culture and, lately, economics

Marina Simonian’s daughter will start school next fall in Yerevan, but she has not yet enrolled her anywhere. There is no shortage of schools; the Armenian capital has 209. But only one of those schools, for children of Russian military and diplomats in Armenia, has a Russian-based curriculum.

When Simonian, who is now 33, was a schoolgirl, up to 40 percent of Armenia’s schools were Russian. But when Armenia gained its independence in 1991, a movement started to make the mother tongue the primary language and Russian-language schools disappeared, disappointing citizens such as Simonian.

“I want my daughter to know Russian well because I know that she will learn Armenian in any case,” Simonian says. “Russia will always be our friend . . .”

These days the language of friendship is commerce.

In the first 10 months of last year Armenia’s import-export trade with Russia rose to $274.5 million. And while Russia represents only about 13 percent of the 11-country Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) trade, the total exchange was a 50 percent increase on the part of the Russians.

Overall during the same time period, trade with European Member states was up by 55.5 percent, including an 86 percent increase between Germany and Armenia. Significant as it is, the massive increase on the Germans’ part – $227.4 million – nonetheless falls short of Russian trade.

Once Big Brother, Russia’s Armenian ties now represent big finance opportunities that are largely responsible for the steady growth of the little republic’s economy.

And, as other post-Soviet states are showing Western inclinations, Armenia has maintained fidelity to Russia, led by the Armenian Diaspora – estimated to be up to 1.5 million.

It is common to hear Russian spoken on the streets of Yerevan, but the same cannot be said for Armenia’s northern neighbor Georgia where, at least in the capital Tbilisi, there is a chauvinistic attitude towards Russian. In Armenia, Russian is spoken and welcomed in cafes, beauty salons, restaurants, and casinos, which usually have signs in three languages: Armenian, Russian and English.

Most of the foodstuffs imported to Armenia are from Russia such as oil, flour, cereals, tea and beverages. Few of these products contain information in Armenian for consumers – a problem acknowledged by officials for many years, but one that is so far unresolved.

Armenia’s popular culture is largely under Russian influence (though it is also influenced by Western trends), not least because several generations in the country grew up on Russian culture. Modern youth in Yerevan adopt the latest fashion and pop music fads from Moscow, and “Moscow style” means in Armenia to be chic, open-minded and with a lifestyle dictated by the speed and hustle of the Russian capital.

Some in Armenia believe that such pro-Russian sentiments simply reflect the realities of many decades of Armenian-Russian relations. Others say that 70 years of Soviet rule transformed relations between Armenia and Russia to the level of servant and master, disfiguring the self-consciousness of Armenians. A third strand of opinion, drawing on historical facts, argues that without Russia’s protection, Armenia as a state would not exist today.

Most recently, though, analysts in Yerevan also argue that Russia has hijacked Armenia through its program of “equities for debt”, which has led to Russian ownership of 70 percent of Armenia’s energy supplies, and 25 year management rights to the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline. There is considerable concern that, by paying off its debts through resources, Armenia becomes too dependent on Russia.

While arguments rage over the nature of the relationship, one fact is clear – Russia continues to be the home of Armenia’s largest Diaspora. According to a study on labor migration by the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), most Armenian migrants (43 percent) prefer to look for work in Moscow. The survey found that, during the last three years, 90 percent of labor migrants left for CIS countries, overwhelmingly to Russia.

Rooted relations

Khachatur Abovyan, consider by many the founder of contemporary Armenian literature, wrote in his novel “Wounds of Armenia”:

“Blessed is the day when Russians stepped onto Armenian land.”

Abovyan wrote those lines 165 years ago in the firm belief that the revival of Armenia was possible only as a result of friendship between Russians and Armenians.

New challenges and 21st century realities make the words appear outdated, or at least raise another question: Does Armenia want to count on Russia in the future as well?

The answer, as revealed in the following articles, surely seems in the affirmative. More notably, Russia has not simply taken Armenia to its bosom, but, in matters of international business, sees self-serving opportunities there.

And, less the view of Russia’s relations be skewed in favor of Armenia, none should forget that the super power is also engaged with Armenia’s arch enemy, Azerbaijan.

Russia’s transnational energy companies such as Lukoil and GazProm are in fact lobbyists in Azerbaijan, a country which has traditionally had an influence on the Russian oil sector. Russia also relies on the Azeris for security information; it has a 10 year agreement with Baku, until 2012, to make use of the Gabalin radar installation in Azerbaijan, for which it pays $7 million per year. From Gabalin, Russia can exercise control over aircraft and missiles for a distance of up to 6,000 kilometers south of the station.

Russia’s influence may be weakening in parts of the Caucasus, but the region remains of vital strategic importance to it. Russian strategists used to say that if they lost the so-called TransCaucasia, they would sooner or later lose control over Northern Caucasia, which in turn would lead to the collapse of the country.

Friendship and foreign policy

The need by Russia to keep strong ties throughout the region sometimes puts Moscow at odds with Yerevan.

Russia sometimes appears to ignore Armenian interests in projects of potentially vital importance, such as the construction of a “North-South” railroad connecting Russia with Iran through Azerbaijan.

Experts fear that the railway will deepen even further Armenia’s economic isolation. Armenia’s railway infrastructure can connect to that of any other country in the region – such as the Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi line and the Yerevan-Nakichevan-Julfa route, but none of them operates now because of the continued blockades by Turkey and Azerbaijan.

“Russia takes Armenia’s cooperation with NATO very personally, but what does it offer in return? If Armenia was given a chance to be part of this project, which connects Asia with Russia and gives the further prospect of links into Europe, that would increase Armenia’s role in the whole region as well as expanding trade with Russia,” says Stepan Grigorian, political expert of “Armat,”a center for democracy and civil society development.

Vahagn Aglian, research officer at Armenia’s Institute of History and political expert for the “Noravank” foundation, sees recent developments in Armenia-Russia relations as evidence of a serious transformation in Moscow’s foreign policy.

“In my opinion, the modus operandi of President Putin’s administration is to regard the South Caucasus as a single region, which is more typical of US strategy. The policy of Yeltsin’s Russia was based on personal political preferences, which has given way to a more rational approach towards post-Soviet countries. Armenia is not an exception in that.”

But whether singled out for unique investment, or the benefactor of Russia’s broader regional policy, the Russia-Armenia link – primarily grounded as a Moscow-Yerevan connection – appears as surely part of Armenia’s hopeful future as of its burdened past.

Orgvanizations such as Ara Abrahamian’s Union of Armenians in Russia underscore the tightening ties and expanding influence of Armenians there. Meanwhile, multi-million dollar deals between the two nations attract “Fortune 500” type attention.

But the greater part of the connection is found in a growing number of previously unheralded Armenians finding places of prominence in the business and cultural life of Russia. It is seen, too, in the growth of small and medium-sized businesses that have Moscow-Yerevan ties, as Diaspora and homeland both are emerging from conditions that previously restrained them.

This is the Moscow-Yerevan connection we highlight within this issue.

Information for this article was reported by Julia Hakobyan.