Eclipsed by a media storm over US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s explosive Armenia trip, an even more bizarre visit by another figure close to the Trump administration seems to have gone largely unnoticed.
On the 19th of October, the Russian outlet EAdaily, quoting Armenian sources, announced the personal attorney to President Trump, Rudy Giuliani would be in Yerevan for the Eurasian Week Expo. According to the Eurasia Week Expo’s official agenda, the former New York City mayor was scheduled to take part in a panel discussion on the “potential for technological breakthroughs in the Eurasian Economic Union” on Tuesday October 23.
Appearing in an interview with Shant TV along with Russian-Armenian businessman Ara Abrahamyan, Giuliani explained: “The purpose to come here was to discuss national cybersecurity from an economic perspective, a topic which has interested me both professionally and personally for 15 to 20 years.” He went on to say that in the years following 9/11 he has been providing professional security consulting to municipal and national governments across the globe.
In the same interview, he also reaffirmed his view that the Armenian Genocide was a historical fact, praised his warm relations with the American-Armenian community and highlighted the similarity between the Armenian and Italian immigrant experience. (Giuliani is himself of Italian heritage.)
The presence of such a high-profile American figure at a business forum for the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Union has nonetheless reignited speculation about the depth of ties between the Trump administration and the Kremlin. Joshua Kuchera, Caucasus editor for Eurasianet, tweeted:
And I’m not a big COLLUSION! guy, but there is really no good explanation for why Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, is in Armenia hanging out with a bunch of Eurasianists.
— Joshua Kucera (@joshuakucera) October 22, 2018
The former mayor’s security firm, Giuliani Partners, has provided its services to various foreign groups including the exiled Iranian Mujahideen-e-Khalq, which was until recently designated a terrorist organization in the U.S. For this reason, photographs at a cybersecurity conference in Ukraine showing him with Kharkiv mayor Hennadiy Kernes of the Kremlin-backed Party of Regions raised eyebrows. The same Party of Regions which ruled the country until the 2013 Maidan Revolution became the center of another controversy when Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. According to investigators, the party had paid Manafort $17m in kickbacks over several years.
Giuliani has made the trip to Ukraine another three times since then under the guise of cyber security contracts where he found time to meet with Poroshenko administration officials. These backchannel negotiations with high ranking Ukrainian diplomats coincided with revelations that the Ukrainian government had paid former Trump attorney Michael Cohen up to $600,000 for access to the President.
A public-relations outfit TriGlobal Strategic Ventures, which the New York Times describes as “a company that provides image consulting to Russian oligarchs and clients with deep Kremlin ties” has been organizing trips for Giuliani Partners to Russia and Ukraine as far back as 2004. TriGlobal’s advisory board includes none-other than the Kremlin-linked Armenian businessman Ara Abramyan.
Others still have suggested financial self-interest as a more likely motive for the visit. Abrahamyan, who personally sponsored Giuliani’s speaking engagement, may have hoped that the promise of insider disclosures by a high-ranking Trump confidant would boost interest in an otherwise dull forum. This theory isn’t so far-fetched considering the former mayor’s admission to receiving money for political speeches abroad. Giuliani had gotten into some hot water recently when the Washington Post revealed that he had continued to work for foreign clients in Brazil and Colombia while serving as President Trump’s personal attorney.
Whatever the motive, it’s unclear how much of the Forum Giuliani actually attended. His only televised appearance came in the form of a talk on cybersecurity on a panel with Sergei Glazyev, an advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin (and possible successor) currently on the US sanctions list. The rest of his schedule included a visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial where he laid flowers and a meeting on cybersecurity strategies with the Armenian Defense Ministry. He also met with the Chief of Police to share experience on the use of new technologies for crime reduction.
Curiously enough, despite freely opining about US foreign policy issues outside his purview like North Korea and Iran, Giuliani insisted to journalists that as a private citizen he could not comment on the official US recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
According to political analyst Suren Sargsyan with whom Giuliani met separately, even private visits by high-profile Americans close to the Trump administration constitute a form of covert diplomacy. Afterall, Giuliani was only narrowly passed over for Secretary of State (Bolton was briefly considered as well). Sargsyan qualified the forum as an opportunity for Armenia to strengthen relations with the United States.
Regardless of the circumstances which brought Giuliani to Armenia, Bolton’s visit may have spoiled chances of strengthening Yerevan’s position vis-à-vis Moscow and Washington.