I never thought that I would be writing such an article. I am not a politician. However, like any patriotic Armenian, I am very concerned about the situation in Armenia. In my opinion, today in the Diaspora we are missing the importance of what is going on in Armenia, and that is what I would like to discuss. The current situation cannot continue. There is a desperate need for change, and the implementation of a new constitution in April 2018 gives us such an opportunity.
The other reason I am writing this article is that it is hard to find reliable information about Russia in the Armenian media, whether in Armenia or in the Diaspora. What I have seen is one-sided—positive or negative—based on unreliable sources. Because I was educated in Russia and lived there for 14 years, I thought I could pass along a realistic picture about Russia and its policies toward Armenia.
I very much hope that I will be able to get my points across.
Armenia, Current Situation
“What can we do for Armenia?” is a crucial question. For 26 years, we have discussed and criticized our motherland out of concern. We are all aware that the situation has become desperate, especially in the last few years.
It was an appalling sign, early on, when so-called goghakan (semi-criminal) circles were unembarrassed and unafraid to be visible. Many of these goghakans or people in their families are members of the National Assembly of Armenia (MPs). These kinds of people usually have nicknames similar to bosses in the mafia.
Among these people are, Sashik, probably Armenia’s most hated man—and President Serge Sarkisian’s brother (real name Alexander Sarkisian, also known as the 50/50 man), Lfik Samo (Samvel Alexanyan, who has the monopoly over sugar imports and who also controls the Malatia neighborhood in Yerevan), Shmays (Arakel Movsisian, family originally from Qamishli, Syria), Nemets Rubo (Ruben Hayrapetyan; in Russian, nemets means German), Chiorny (Gagik Tovmasian, the former minister of transportation; chiorny means black in Russian), Tokhmakhi Mher (Mher Setrakyan), Mouk (Hovik Abrahamian, former prime minister; his nickname means mouse), Liska (Souren Kachatryan, the former governor of Syunik region), and others. Among these questionable men is also the well-known Dodi Gago (Gagik Tzaroukyan), who compared with the others is popular because he supports charities and helps people. In addition, I have to mention so-called generals of the armed forces who are corrupt who steal from the people and the army, and they keep people living in fear. The most infamous of these generals is Manuel Grigoryan of Etchmiadzin, who is like a cancer on his city and the surrounding area. I was told by an eyewitness that an individual was beaten cruelly by Gregorian’s bodyguards—just because Grigoryan’s car, inappropriately parked on the street, was scratched by that individual’s car. Grigoryan’s son is the mayor of Etchmiadzin.
The corruption in Armenia has probably never been as bad as it is now even though that phenomena has existed since the Soviet era. One reason for this increase in corruption and disintegration of the political system was the attack on the National Assembly and the killing of Karen Demirjyan and Vazgen Sargsyan on Oct. 27, 1999. After that national tragedy, so that Robert Kocharyan, the President of Armenia at that time, could stay in power, deals were made with the above-mentioned people and groups. As a result, those people became incredibly powerful and out of control. Moreover, Kocharyan, in return for forgiveness of Armenian debt owed to Russia, gave up an important part of Armenia’s energy and other important infrastructure to Russia. That deal created a huge imbalance between Armenia and Russia in Russia’s favor. And those problems have deepened and expanded dramatically during Serge Sarkisian’s presidency.
People over the years have become indifferent to the situation because they feel tired and exhausted. The main purpose of Sasna Tsrer’s actions in the summer of 2016 (the takeover of a police station) was to push the people to rise up. That did not happen, and the numbers that showed up to support the group were not enough to effect any significant change in the country. It seems that the time has passed when people were able to protest on the streets by the hundreds of thousands and achieve change. The situation is so dire that during the last elections, held earlier this year for the National Assembly, there were confirmed reports that a huge numbers of votes were bought for insignificant amounts, at an average of 20,000 drams, which is the equivalent of about $40. In effect, our people in Armenia are “supporting” their government even though it is the government abusing them. In other words, the victim is supporting his victimizer. Such behavior shows how deep and serious the crisis is in our motherland. The consequences could be tragic if we do not change our behavior. We should not blame others for our crisis, but instead, examine our own contributions to the current situation.
I believe that Armenians understand that the situation in Armenia should be our first concern. Here I would like to point out that even if the current government decided to make a change, it is not capable of doing so effectively. The current government is trapped by the situation that it created.
There needs to be real, dramatic change when the new constitution is implemented in April of 2018; otherwise, the consequences could be very negative.
The Russian Impact
Many Armenians blame Russia for the current situation in Armenia. The blame is partly valid, but it certainly is not the only contributing factor. Russia has been corrupt since the days of the Russian Empire; however, in contrast to Armenia, Russia is powerful and wealthy because of its natural resources. It has also open borders. In addition, there is another important difference between Armenia and Russia today: Vladimir Putin is a popular president among his people. The Western media unfairly provides biased, negative information regarding Putin’s leadership. It is undeniable that Putin was fairly elected three times as the President of Russia. Most importantly, he became a national leader in the eyes of most Russians because he was able to unify a country where more than 100 ethnicities live. Following the humiliation many Russians felt in 1990s, he inspired national pride. Right or wrong, Putin’s actions are relevant to the Russians’ mentality and their way of life. This is the source of his power. Armenian leadership pales in comparison to the Russian counterpart’s. It is one of our current deficiencies as a nation that we do not have a national leader, someone like Khrimian Hayrik, Garegin Nejdeh, or Aram Manoukian. Potentially, such a person may exist somewhere, but our situation does not foster the development of such a leader.
Moreover, I would like to point out that Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch, Kirill I, are having a major positive role in keeping the peace in Russia and in unifying the Russian people. Russia has about 20 million Muslims and more than a hundred different ethnicities. Russian Orthodoxy has served as the main source of national identity for the Russian people. As a result, the state does not control the Church, but instead there is a mutual understanding and common interests between the Church and the state.
Over the past few years, and especially after last year’s war in Artsakh, there has been an increase in anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia and in the Diaspora. This growing discontent is mainly a result of Russia’s large arms sales to Azerbaijan. We know that in politics there are no friends, morals, or feelings; there are only interests. Russia has its own interests as a powerful government. Russia wants to keep control over the former Soviet territory as much as it can. Russia hopes to prevent Azerbaijan from becoming an enemy like Georgia. One of the ways to keep Azerbaijan under control is to be its weapons supplier. A second and more powerful way for Russia to influence Azerbaijan is the Artsakh issue. In reality, Russia does not want a final solution to the conflict in Artsakh because once Azerbaijan no longer needs support from Russia it could turn to Turkey and pursue becoming a NATO member, like Georgia. Until the Artsakh conflict is resolved, Azerbaijan will be dependent on Russia. We know that to keep the strategic balance with Azerbaijan, Russia supplies weapons to Armenia with long-term credit and sometimes even for free. I would like to repeat, this shows that Russia is a difficult ally, and that the Armenian government has to deal with it and does whatever it can to decrease the negative impacts of such policies of Russia.
Regarding Artsakh, international powers oppose a long-term war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So one of the remaining possibilities is a short war, like the one of the last year. Azerbaijan gained very little during that war because of the heroism of our young soldiers and their martyrdom. Our losses could have been far less if our army were better organized and more alert. I am confident that lessons were learned, and there will be fewer casualties and a better and more powerful response in the case of a new war. I would like to point out an interesting fact: In January of this year, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked a question by an Azerbaijani journalist about what Russia would do in the case of a new war. He responded that the Artsakh conflict is not an internal issue for Azerbaijan. He continued by saying that there are many international parties involved, and it is better for Azerbaijan to not start a new war. Additionally, it was interesting to see that during last year’s war, the Russian state media and public opinion, including the opposition, were more pro-Armenian despite official Russian neutrality. I think after seeing the Azerbaijan army’s bad performances despite the great amount of money spent for weapons and training, Russia became convinced that in the case of a new war Azerbaijan will not be successful—therefore the reason for Lavrov’s statement.
Russia is powerful and has its own interests that are not necessarily aligned with Armenia’s interests. That situation is not uncommon between allies. The Armenian government has to work to fix the problems that exist in our relationship with Russia. Cutting ties with Russia and not being its ally is not an option. People who suggest doing so cannot see the consequences, and misguide public opinion either intentionally or unintentionally. Without Russia as our ally, there is no guarantee that another power would be willing to assist Armenia. It is unclear whether any country would be willing to establish a military presence within Armenia to guarantee our security against Turkey: People must remember the words said to us before, “Our fleet cannot climb up to the Armenian mountains.” Also, recall what happened in Georgia in 2008. Some people, as support for such an anti-Russia argument, bring up Lenin’s disastrous policy toward Armenia in the 1920s. Lenin was an international revolutionary; he did not have national feelings. Today, he is rejected by the current leadership and by the majority of Russian people. Actually, he gave up more Russian territories than Armenian territories. Near the end of the WWI, Russia could have taken significant territory from Germany since Russia was on the winning side. Instead, Lenin made a deal with Germany: Lenin would return territories to Germany if they would support his bid for power. That is exactly what happened.
Today, Russia’s policy is different. For example, Russia supported the Syrian government during the Syrian war despite immense pressure. From a strategic viewpoint, Russia supports Syria most likely because it is the only Russian ally in the Middle East. The same thing is true about Armenia; our country is the only ally to Russia in Transcaucasia. The relationship with Azerbaijan cannot be as deep as it is with Armenia, which is a strategic ally of Russia, whereas Azerbaijan is a strategic partner and looks toward Turkey as its strategic ally and big brother. There have also been recent, visible improvements in the Russian-Turkish relationship. This happened on Russia’s terms. For instance, Turkey apologized for taking down a Russian warplane. One of the positive results of these improvements was a dramatic shift in Turkey’s policy toward Syria. Aleppo’s liberation was partly a result of that change. It was also partly because of President Trump’s new policy toward Syria and refusal to arm the Syrian opposition since the majority are thinly veiled Muslim jihadists.
After looking at Russian policies, it seems to me that Russia is closely watching and keeping the situation in its neighborhood under control. For me and for many, despite the existing problems, it is clear that Russia is the most trusted power committed to Armenia’s security for its own interests. Typically, it is believed that authoritarian countries have more stable policies since there is no change in leadership. For this reason, we can count on Russia for a long time since our interests align with theirs.
Each country has to know how to pursue its own interests, and I think it is mostly the Armenian government’s weakness that causes the huge current imbalance in Armenian-Russian relations. For example, there was a summit of Eurasian Economic Union’s prime ministers scheduled to occur in Yerevan in the spring of 2016. That meeting was moved to Moscow by the request of Kazakhstan, which was trying to show its support for Azerbaijan. Despite this humiliation for Armenia, the prime minister at that time, Hovik Abrahamian, attended the summit and did not boycott it. Even if that meeting was important for Armenia, Abrahamian still could have sent his deputy instead of attending himself, and thus sent a message. More recently, an exhibition at Hovhannes Tumanian’s museum depicting Stalinist terror was dismantled presumably because it portrayed Russia in a negative light. On the other hand, Garegin Nejdeh’s statue was put up in the center of Yerevan after last year’s war, even though that angered Moscow since Nejdeh was staunchly anti-Soviet and had cooperated with Nazi Germany. However, because of its weakness and lack of support from its people, the Armenian government cannot use the full potential of the country and the Armenian people to counteract the imbalance in its relations with Russia.
Most recently, there have been signs of positive changes in the Russian approach to Armenia and the Artsakh issue. It seems there is a consensus among the three international powers involved in Artsakh talks—Russia, the US, and France—to freeze the conflict: in other words, to keep the status quo, which aligns with Armenia’s and Artsakh’s interests. During a recent visit to Baku, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked about the difficulties of resolving the Artsakh conflict in this period. In other words, there will be no change in the status of the conflict. The other positive recent development was Armenia’s signing of a partnership agreement with the European Union. This agreement gives Armenia more flexibility and hopefully less dependence on the Russian economy and more possibilities of improvement.
However, to have a strong government requires having the support of the people and being less dependent on a corrupt system. Otherwise, the Armenian government will not be capable to use the potential of the country and the Armenian people in its relations with others, including Russia.
What to Do?
All this brings us to the most important question: What to do. We cannot focus only on what we want or what we dream of; we must also deal with the current situation. Politics is the art of dealing with realities. What can we truly accomplish given the current situation?
I think it must first be acknowledged that any long-lasting internal armed conflict would be fatal for Armenia. Some people do discuss this type of conflict from time to time. However, I will not address this option, since it would be disastrous.
Another option could be the use of peaceful strikes and civil disobedience on the national level to effect change within the regime. But as I noted earlier, that is unlikely given the level of political apathy of the majority of the people in Armenia. However, if something like this were to be organized, it should be used only for a short period of time. Armenia cannot survive any long-lasting instability.
The only option that seems possible is a peaceful transition of power from the current regime to a better one. Taking into consideration all the abovementioned facts and conclusions and the current situation, I see only one possibility for this kind of transfer of power. The current Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan, should remain in his position after the new constitution is implemented in April 2018. That means he, rather than Serge Sarkisian, should become the head of the executive branch of the government and the state.
Karapetyan is a charismatic and an experienced corporate executive. He is wealthy and a political outsider of the current system. Therefore, he is not dependent on Armenia’s current politicians. He is not beholden to Armenia’s semi-criminal, corrupt, and oligarchic system. His main disadvantage is that he has strong ties with Russia and has had them since before he became Armenia’s prime minister. Most of his life he has worked for the Russian state-controlled gas industry. That, however, raises concerns about Russia’s exerting even more control over Armenia and over Armenian policy toward Artsakh.
There are reliable sources that indicate Russia wants Armenia to give up some of the territories of the buffer zone surrounding Artsakh to Azerbaijan, without receiving any concessions in return. That move would be beneficial for Russia, since it would keep Azerbaijan in Russia’s orbit; such a transfer of territories would also look like a balancing of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and show that Russia can do something for Azerbaijan. Actually, Russia’s Lavrov expressed this same idea indirectly during last year’s Artsakh war. I don’t think, however, that there are big differences between Sarkisian and Karapetyan considering this matter. Sarkisian already looks weak in front of Putin. Anyway, there are some indications that Sarkisian already tried to give up some territories from the buffer zone, but he was stopped from doing so by the people of Artsakh. To prevent any misunderstanding, I would like to emphasize that there is no talk about giving up Artsakh itself. All international parties involved in the negotiations, including Russia, understand that there is no way that Artsakh could be a part of Azerbaijan.
Although Karapetyan’s coming to Armenia was an Armenian initiative, I assume it was done with Russia’s knowledge. Being aware of Russia’s imperialistic approach to Armenia, I realize that Russia does not want for Armenia to become powerful and fully independent. However, I also think that Russia does not want its ally, Armenia, to be very weak.
If we think logically, we might guess that Karapetyan did not come to Armenia just to be a prime minister. Additionally, we might assume that everything was agreed upon with Sarkisian, including Karapetyan’s transition to leader of Armenia. To have this transition happen smoothly and peacefully, Karapetyan needs to get the support of the army and the security apparatuses. Karapetyan might face opposition here from a group of high-ranking officers who are corrupt and have connections with the oligarchs. However, I hope that Sarkisian and his command have already thought about this and made the required arrangements. The support of the army must be guaranteed for Karapetyan. Besides the military support, there is another condition without which a peaceful transition of the power is not possible. Sarkisian and his people and their families must be granted a guarantee of immunity upon their leaving power. Back in the day, in Russia, that’s how Yeltsin transferred power over to Putin.
Recently, there have been some issues raised from parts of both the ruling party and the opposition about Karapetyan’s becoming the leader of Armenia. Usually, these people argue that Sarkisian should remain the leader of the country. For now, it is likely that this type of talk will increase. People who have benefited from the current situation are likely afraid of Karapetyan. They worry about his statements and are concerned about his possible future actions. They are troubled by the likelihood that they will no longer benefit if he becomes leader. For instance, Karapetyan has spoken about ending monopolies in different sectors of the Armenian economy. Many specialists say those monopolies are the main obstacle to improving the economy in Armenia.
Here I would like to express my concern about Serge Sarkisian, who is well known for not keeping his promises and for his chicanery. I very much hope that I am mistaken, and that this is not the case. In the end, I hope that Sarkisian is considering what history might say about him. If he does not go through with the transition of power, the situation in Armenia will worsen, and the level of migration will increase. For these reasons, Armenian-Russian entrepreneur Ruben Vardanyan. who is well informed, said Karapetyan is our last hope.
And here, I hope that we will be surprised by the actions of brave, revolutionary patriots who may be able to inspire the people to rise up and to support a quick, beneficial change. I am saying this because our young people’s heroism during last year’s war in Artsakh gives me hope that there is still a healthy element within our nation. It is not a coincidence that the government was confused for a while after that war.
In conclusion, I hope that I was able to describe the current situation in Armenia correctly and was able to answer the question regarding what to do. As a Diaspora, we have to both support and continue pressuring the current government for a peaceful transition of the power in Armenia in April 2018. Only then can we hope for an improvement and for slowing down out-migration, with a vision of creating a powerful and prosperous Armenia in the future.