The Armenian Weekly March 2014 Magazine:
Armenia’s Foreign Policy in Focus
Writing after the first year of Serge Sarkisian’s presidency, I half-jokingly suggested that Armenia’s leader may have come under the influence of Buddhist “third way” philosophy, trying to find a balanced compromise path that would take him clear of the confrontational approaches of his two predecessors. Now, some years later, the third president’s years in power are likely to be remembered for three major failures in achieving compromise breakthroughs: the Turkish-Armenian protocols (officially declared dead of “exhaustion” in 2010), the EU association and free trade negotiations (killed last September), and the Custom’s Union/Eurasian integration process (fatally wounded by the Ukrainian crisis).
Through each of these initiatives—dragged out over years—the president managed to annoy key constituencies: many in the Armenian Diaspora, Russia’s leadership and, most recently, the European bureaucrats and the pro-reform minded activists in Armenia. In all three cases, the initiatives came from Sarkisian—under varying degrees of duress—but were killed by circumstances that he could not really influence.
But even outside the realm of big politics, Sarkisian’s credibility has long been shot, his eloquently prepared speeches contrasting greatly with actual policies. Here is a listing of some of the more memorable foreign policy blunders of recent years that serve to illustrate Sarkisian-style policies in the Karabagh conflict—a subject in which Armenia has a greater say:
– In August 2012, several Armenian NGO groups circulated a letter warning that the Hungarian government had struck a deal with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and was about to transfer (read: release) the murderer of Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan to Azerbaijan. Nothing is known to have been done by Armenia to prevent the extradition. Following the extradition, release, and hero-like treatment given to the murderer, Armenia severed diplomatic ties with Hungary and launched a legal complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. Sarkisian said that Armenia’s relations with third countries will henceforth depend on their attitude to the Budapest scandal. After many tough words, there was no accounting on what was, in fact, done. On the one-year anniversary of the extradition, the issue could have been completely ignored if Margaryan’s father had not attempted a suicide. In the meantime, Sarkisian went back to negotiating with Aliyev and even said that the latter’s “re-election” was good for Armenia.
– In June 2010, four Armenian soldiers were killed and as many were wounded in one of the single bloodiest episodes for the Armenian Army since the cease-fire on the Line of Contact with Azerbaijan. Sarkisian continued on his trip to Russia and Germany, and visited the wounded only two weeks later. Armenia initially refused to return the body of an Azerbaijani army serviceman who launched the kamikaze-style attack resulting in the deaths. Then, after Armenian civilian Manvel Saribekian was captured on the border and died in Azerbaijani prison, his body was exchanged for the one of the psycho, who was already declared a national hero. The “extradition” was brokered by the Russian Patriarch and Armenian Catholicos. Talks with Aliyev continued.
– Also in 2010, a new Stepanakert airport was built in Karabagh, the Armenian leadership declared its determination to begin direct passenger flights from Yerevan, and Sarkisian promised to become one of the first passengers. Now, more than three years later, with Azerbaijani threats to kill passengers mid-air and requests from the American, French and Russian Minsk Group diplomats to hold off, flights have yet to materialize. In effect, Armenia and Karabagh have surrendered full sovereignty over their airspace.
– On the matter of Karabagh’s status, Armenia’s official line has also undergone an unpleasant transformation. Under former president Robert Kocharian, Armenia ruled out any subordination of Karabagh to Azerbaijan and reserved the right for unilateral recognition of Karabagh in the absence of progress in negotiations. Today, the so-called Madrid Principles accepted by Sarkisian are a muddle of both self-determination and territorial integrity principles. With no resolution in sight, Armenia has made recognition of the Nagorno Karabagh Republic (NKR) conditional on fresh Azerbaijani military aggression. Remarkably, Sarkisian even described calls for recognition of NKR by some of his political opponents as “foolishness and treason.”
To be fair to Sarkisian, his domestic policies are a substantial improvement on both of his predecessors’. The political opponents are mostly left alone and the activists have enjoyed greater room to campaign. If one is to generalize, following Levon Ter-Petrossian’s tough-at-home, soft-abroad approach and Kocharian’s tough-at-home and tough-abroad approaches, Sarkisian is proving to be soft in both.
Armenia remains adrift and in dangerous waters. Vladimir Putin’s move into Crimea is a calamity that—unless it is somehow reversed—will lead to Western efforts to isolate Russia, with consequences for its remaining allies, Armenia among them. While Armenia may have few options when dealing with the world’s top players—Washington, Brussels and Moscow—the country should do better when it comes to defining objectives and following through on core security issues.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Armenian and Russian in the September 2013 issue of Analyticon, a Stepanakert-based magazine.