Is this our fate as a nation? To always be denied the warm embrace of true freedom? Since the fall of the Cilician Rupenian Kingdom in 1375, Armenia has experienced sovereignty as a nation only a little over 32 years. The good news? Thirty of those years have been in our lifetime. Why is it that we are always under the watchful eye, or more often the thumb, of a greater power? The easy answer is that is the fate of the small nations. There are countless examples throughout history to support this premise. Empires, kingdoms or colonial powers…call them what you wish, but they have always been there to subjugate those with less means. But is that the full answer? Is it possible that years of oppression have created a “victim” mentality that encourages dependency? We are still struggling as a people to shed the victim behavior of the Genocide and take our rightful place as a respected contributor to civilization. That’s been over 100 years. We are on the eve of the 30th year of the Republic’s independence, and some large questions loom on our fulfillment of the term “sovereignty.” We hear this word frequently when referring to the foreign relations of Armenia and the border incursions that are far too common. The term represents the self-governing power, authority and control over a specific territory. It is the basis for creating a constitution, laws and systems of governance. Certainly, Armenia is in the United Nations recognized by all member states including the Republics of Azerbaijan and Turkey who violate that recognition regularly.
How well does Armenia fit the definition in 2021 of a sovereign state? The infrastructure elements such as a constitution, system of governance, rule of law and civil rights of citizens are in place. We can debate the effectiveness of the conformance and the consistency of application, but the foundation is in place. Armenia is undoubtedly on a maturation curve relative to its market economy, social development and civil society. But the presence of these factors is consistent with a sovereign state. The volatility is in the areas of economic development, border security and foreign policy. Unfortunately, these are significant factors in the true definition of sovereignty. If sovereignty reflects the freedom of a state to make decisions that guide its present and future and maintain control over that process, then Armenia is in a disadvantageous position. Essentially, the citizens of a nation surrender some of their fundamental freedom in exchange for security. It is the basis for most social contracts in modern democracies. Security can be expressed economically with the pursuit of material needs and also through safety at the individual and national level.
In today’s Armenia, the ideal of full sovereignty is embraced, but the events of the past year have taken us in the wrong direction. It is important to understand that over the last 30 years, pieces of sovereignty have been traded for greed and more recently fundamental survival. In the earlier years, there is little doubt that parts of our sovereign economic structure were exchanged for individual personal gain and primarily for Russian interests. As a result, Armenia went from a Soviet state as part of a centralized network to an oligarch-based monopolistic system where prosperity was limited to few and poverty became institutionalized. The struggle to recover economic sovereignty has been a major shortcoming. There has been progress with diversified investment from the Middle East, Europe and Asia, but the inertia created by the earlier transition is powerful.
For example, Russia controls the energy sector in Armenia, and on several occasions the Armenian government has agreed to compromises to maintain supply and affordable pricing. Armenia’s membership in the Russian controlled Eurasian Economic Union creates market opportunities but also comes with significant constraints in the area of partners, trade volume and pricing. The presence of corruption in the narrow definition of a market economy serves to further frustrate the general population and diminish hope. Pashinyan was swept into power in 2018 on an anti-corruption mantra. Progress has been made, but until the poverty rate declines (estimated at 30-percent) substantially the impact is minimal. Economic growth nationally in the absence of building a stronger middle class runs the risk of making Armenia a “have and have not” society. Doubtful? Travel outside of Yerevan where a majority of the population resides.
The loss of border security has been a particularly visible and humiliating experience for Armenians this past year. Generally, what happens in remote border areas is not a headline item for those enjoying the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Yerevan. All that changed with the 2020 Artsakh War. After independence, Armenia was one of the newly independent nations that didn’t drift far from “mother Russia.” The presence of Russian border guards on the Turkish-Armenian border was an initial surprise for diaspora Armenians as they gazed at Ararat from Khor Virap. Actually, nothing changed in this regard from the Soviet times. Russian maintained its border presence as the head of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Ironic that the term “independent” is used to rationalize the continued presence after 1991. Granted, the Russian presence is a deterrent to the vile Turks, but we must also remember what we are mortgaging. The Russian base near Gyumri (102nd) is a constant reminder. Usually the presence of foreign troops in another country is tied to a military pact (US troops in Germany NATO) or as a result of a peace plan (US troops in South Korea). Ostensibly the Russian troops are there to protect Armenia (through the Collective Security Treaty Organization—CSTO) yet despite numerous provocations in Tavush, Syunik and other southern regions, this presence has had no impact. Again, there are those who say the deterrent of presence is the benefit. That comes with a price also. The border violations in the last six months by the Azeri military are both dangerous and publicly humiliating. The Azeris seem to have no fear of the Russian presence which suggests an understanding that defines the limits…all at Armenia’s expense. The border incursions in Syunik, Tavush, Gegharkunik, Yeraskh and elsewhere are violations of international law and an affront to the sovereignty of Armenia. The criminals remain a few kilometers into Syunik, and the only response has been more Russian border troops. Can Armenia defend itself? Is this situation temporary? Is it truly a sovereign nation when it cannot defend its borders and answers only with more dependency on Russia and rhetoric?
There is no doubt that the relationship with Russia is unique. The political relationship goes back to the 4th and 5th Russo-Persian Wars with the Treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay (1813, 1828) that formalized the transfer of Eastern Armenian provinces to Czarist Russia. The relationship has transcended the Czarist period to the Bolshevik/Soviet times to the current Russian Federation. What some describe as “strategic” others describe as dominant. In fairness, a small landlocked nation with few natural resources usually trades security and survival for sovereignty. The relationship is often described by both parties as a “partnership.” Any concept of shared responsibility or shared risk is certainly not on an equal footing in this relationship. The benefit for Armenia is survival and for Russia control of its backyard. The collateral is a piece of Armenian sovereignty. We tend to analyze today’s reality from a modern perspective, but this type of arrangement is not new for an Armenian state or people that has always lived on the edge of survival. It is critical that when mortgaging your future, you maintain enough “equity” or critical mass for the civilization to continue. PM Pashinyan learned this lesson the hard way.
He came onto the scene with anti-corruption and pro-western thinking that was bound to hit a wall with Russia at one point. That moment for Russia to display its power and “message” was the 44-day Artsakh War. Russia armed both sides and watched the carnage as Turkey and Azerbaijan violated international and humanitarian law against a brave Armenian military and an inexperienced government. They humiliated Armenia by stopping the onslaught just as Shushi was captured by the Azeri. It is now clear that an agreement was made with the Turks on Syria while the land-grab Azeris got their bounty. The OSCE Minsk Group was nowhere to be found as the so-called tripartite agreement was announced that carved up Artsakh with no mention of the border violations, illegal weapons use and jihadist mercenaries. The “partnership” in this case delivered survival, but Armenia paid a heavy price. The outlaw Azeri nation was emboldened by the lopsided agreement, enabling the border incursions we witness daily. With each violation, Russia dispatches more troops as border guards. Anyone care to wager on when those troops will leave? Many were surprised this week by the appointment of former speaker of the National Assembly Ararat Mirzoyan to the foreign minister post. Mirzoyan is certainly a Pashinyan loyalist and an insider but has no real experience as the top diplomat and negotiator for his nation. The selection seems to suggest a dependable choice for Pashinyan and one who will not upset Russia. Mr. Pashinyan is paying very close attention to pleasing Russia. Lesson learned?
If the goal of Armenian nationhood is to experience a sovereign prosperous existence, then short term tradeoffs are acceptable. But for every setback there must be a recovery plan. If we objectively look at economic sovereignty, the past several years have delivered some improvements, but overall the sovereignty of the nation has degraded. Walking down the streets of Yerevan, life seems reasonable. Stores are open; people are going about their daily lives, and all seems calm. But lurking behind these facades is a slow decaying of the reason for nationhood. The border violations must be resolved by Armenia. Short term mediation from Russia in Armenia proper only re-enforces the vassal state perception. What good is strengthening the military if they are not enabled to protect borders and provide security? Trading sovereignty for survival has diminishing returns. We are there.