The last few weeks have been filled with significant events, the first of which, of course, was Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s monumental visit to Iran. It is no exaggeration to say that this visit is a historical one; not just in terms of its ceremonial aspects, but also in terms of its content. After this visit, it is apparent that the reason relations have not further developed between Iran and Armenia is not the fault of the former, but the latter. That’s because of the previous government who had always been bound—to a degree of humiliation—to Russia and could not overcome its objection to such a meeting.
The exceptional ceremonial respect demonstrated toward Pashinyan was an important sign. The official meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and PM Pashinyan took place in the presidential palace. Furthermore, Pashinyan met with Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, in his residence. Khamenei does not meet with every leader, especially when they hail from non-Muslim countries. Various statements by Iranian leaders regarding different aspects of Armenian-Iranian relations demonstrate that the country is in good standing to rid itself of its heavy dependence on Russia, which would facilitate Armenia’s relationship with Russia to become more healthy and balanced.
Crucial to understanding Armenia’s subordination to Russia is the realization that Russia is still an imperial power, and it thinks and acts accordingly, like for example, in its monopolization of Armenia’s energy sector. It has always worked hard to limit others’ gas supplies to Armenia, resulting in the country’s near complete dependence, notably through Russian Gazprom, which controls Gazprom Armenia. A few years ago, for example, there was talk of a potential railroad route to Iran’s main port, Bandar Abbas. But since the Armenian Railway Company is Russian-controlled, it never materialized. Russia even dared to intervene directly and openly when the director of the Russian State Railways, Yakoonin, stated that such a project was not economically viable. Russia’s control is so intense that it once even intervened in the production of the Armenian Army’s uniforms. Today, it is clear that the previous government of Armenia not only lacked the support of its own people, but that its public servants had many dealings with Russian cronies which limited the country’s ability to formulate a reasonably sound and independent foreign policy.
This is what makes Pashinyan’s recent trip all the more extraordinary. During the visit, Iranian President Rohani described Armenia as a transit country for gas from Iran to make its way to Georgia. If this were to materialize, it would indicate the beginning of the end for Armenia’s isolation from large international economic programs in the region, something for which Turkey and especially Azerbaijan have worked for decades and have achieved substantial success.
There is an important point related to Pashinyan’s visit to Iran that should be clarified. According to one of Armenia’s most respected political analysts and its former ambassador to Lebanon Arman Navasardian, Iran had conferred with Russia prior to making these economic proposals between Iran and Armenia public. Therefore, what happened during Pashinyan’s visit to Iran, although seemingly undesirable for Russia, had received a silent agreement because of the Iranian factor.
Some may be concerned about the United States’ position on such a visit, as well as the broader implications of deepening Armenian-Iranian relations (since it has recently voiced disapproval of such developments and it seems the primary purpose of John Bolton’s visit to Armenia last October was to make clear the anti-Iranian policies of the U.S.). But such an effort by the U.S. is in full opposition to Armenia’s strategic interests.
Prime Minister Pashinyan’s visit can be thus considered a new beginning for Armenia’s foreign policy. The implication was so powerful that Azerbaijan sources, which usually criticize and downgrade Armenia’s achievements and developments, had no other choice than to be silent, to the extent that it almost felt like the visit didn’t even take place! The same went for Armenian sources related to the Republican party and the former government. At the same time Pashinyan was in Iran, the newly elected speaker of Armenia’s National Assembly, Ararat Mirzoyan, made his first visit as a foreign official. Understandably, that visit was to Russia. Mirzoyan delivered a speech at the Russian Federal Council (the upper chamber of the Russian Federal Assembly). This was the first ever speech given by an Armenian National Assembly speaker to that body in the history of the Armenian-Russian inter-parliamentary relations. In almost perfect Russian, Mirzoyan spoke about Armenian-Russian relations in a positive and constructive matter, touching afterward upon the issue of Artsakh. He also referenced the Sumgait massacre and talked in general about the massacres and ethnic cleansings of Armenians in Azerbaijan. Notably, Mirzoyan condemned the fact that several deputies from the Russian State Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian Federal Assembly) were visiting Baku at that time to participate in events dedicated to the memory of the so-called Khojaly massacre. (Believe it or not, two members of that group were members of the Armenian-Russian inter-parliamentary group.) Later on, it was disclosed that Mirzoyan had consulted with Pashinyan and added this part to the speech at the last minute.
The next day, in response to an Armenian reporter’s question, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, tried to abdicate the responsibility of the Russian executive branch of the government saying that the question had to be addressed to the MPs. After the journalist’s assertion, Zakharova justified that the deputies are independent from the government, something that did not correspond to the reality of Russia because everyone knows that Duma’s elections are controlled by the state. On the other hand, Armenian Ambassador to Russia Vardan Toghanyan expressed his anger over the anti-Armenian actions of Russian MPs in an interview with Eco-Moscow radio station.
The previous regime was fraught with scandal and illicit personal enrichment and enmeshed in business dealings, to the extent that even the smallest demonstration of independence would have been difficult, or even impossible.
And here is the historical turning point of which Pashinyan often talked about, and we saw it from Russia’s highest official ground in a clear and powerful way in Mirzoyan’s speech. There is this component in Pashinyan’s frequent use of the word proud; the component of Armenia’s foreign policy is proud to be characterized professionally as an independent policy. Naturally, even superpowers cannot be fully independent. Everything is understood in dimensions and forms—just like an individual who is spiritually established and morally clean, an individual who has no reason to be afraid is natural and easy to be independent. It is the same case with governments and countries.
The previous regime was fraught with scandal and illicit personal enrichment and enmeshed in business dealings, to the extent that even the smallest demonstration of independence would have been difficult, or even impossible. But the new leadership of Armenia is not (yet) corrupted. Its members are for the most part not involved in private interests, and they enjoy the political, economic and—most importantly—moral support of the Armenian people (and also, it is worth mentioning, of the European states). This makes it possible for Armenia to have some semblance of an independent foreign policy.
Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that in politics, interests are the primary motivation for any decision. Today, if Russia has a military base in Armenia, it goes without saying that this is for its own strategic interests more than for Armenia’s security. The reason is obvious. Armenia is only Russia’s strategic ally left in the Caucasus, a region that was under Russian control over the past two centuries and up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. It may be that for Putin, Pashinyan is not an easy partner in comparison to Kocharian or Sargsyan, but Putin is a nationalist and respects Pashinyan, who passionately and frankly defends the national interests of his country.
Russian analysts have talked about this ad nauseum. That is one of the reasons Russia’s sale of Su-30SM fighter aircrafts—an aircraft which can also be used for offensive purposes—took place on favorable terms for Armenia. This did not happen during the previous government. This is an indication that the top leadership of Russia accepts the ‘New Armenia,’ and no matter how independent the New Armenia is in comparison with the old, Russia has decided to work with it and take into consideration its pragmatic approach.
Few talking heads will admit it, but true politics is not just a process of regulating powers and interests. Genuine politics embrace morality, one aspect of which is the protection of national dignity when it comes to foreign policy.
In my opinion, only two things could potentially prevent New Armenia from achieving success in these dealings, the first being a war on the borders of Armenia (something that is less likely for now but still possible). The second would be if Prime Minister Pashinyan were for any reason immobilized (which is why his personal safety should remain a top priority, given that there are individuals and circles within and out of Armenia whose anti-Armenian interests contradict with the ‘New Armenia’). Otherwise, the prospect of a prosperous and militarily strong, civilized and modern country seems realistic and is not far from materializing.
Few talking heads will admit it, but true politics is not just a process of regulating powers and interests. Genuine politics embrace morality, one aspect of which is the protection of national dignity when it comes to foreign policy. Great politicians differ from the average ones in that they accomplish goals and objectives while keeping politics moral by all means and sometimes even by sacrificing their own lives. Such politicians were and are few. Among them were Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Charles de Gaulle, Anwar Al-Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin and a few others.
Here’s why Mirzoyan’s speech is historical: it is a manifesto of New Armenia’s new policies done in the right place at the right time. The ‘New Armenia’ will take its decisions independently. The ‘New Armenia’ will no longer serve the interests of others if it contradicts its own national interests. The ‘New Armenia’ will no longer ignore any attempt to humiliate the dignity of the Armenian people, no matter where it comes from. And finally, the ‘New Armenia’ will itself decide with whom and to what degree it should develop its relations, taking into consideration the supreme national and moral interests of Armenia and the Armenian people around the globe. As Pashinyan would say, “Dukhov.”