How will the Armenian president-initiated Constitutional referendum affect Russia’s future relations with Armenia?
I think Russian considers the referendum as Armenia’s internal affairs. It rather cares for the domestic stability in Armenia. However, the victory of the ruling party at the referendum does not ensure a long-term victory of the regime or domestic stability in Armenia. The voting outcome - amid a high percentage of “NO” votes, not high turnover, and fraud claims – is not impressive enough to speak of Sargsyan’s ‘double-digit’ victory. Meantime, the referendum once again proved the weakness of the Armenian opposition, lack of recognized leaders and alternative program of the country’s future. For Russia it is easier to work with the incumbent authorities, as Moscow unlike the West fails to “work” with opposition forces. Therefore, Moscow will further build relations with the incumbent regime in Armenia despite its low public support. The authorities of Armenia in turn will be idling and counting for Moscow’s support. Meantime, the protesting capacity of the Armenian public is high enough and a new opposition force will emerge inevitably – it is a matter of time.
There are views that the Constitutional amendments in Armenia were “ordered by the West” with far-reaching goals that run contrary to Russia’s interests, indeed. How substantiated are these viewpoints?
I think Armenia and the South Caucasus, generally, are not among the West’s priorities. Yet, it does not mean that Washington and Brussels are indifferent to what is taking place in Yerevan. At present, Sargsyan is acceptable to both Moscow (like any other power in the post-Soviet area) and the West. The latter cannot “tear” Armenia off Russia, at least, because of the security guarantees it received form Russia. In addition, Armenia is not Ukraine and the stakes are not that high here. However, Russia does not want and cannot “tear” Armenia from the West. Moscow understands that Yerevan is a kind of bridge linking the West and Russia.
On October 12, EU Council for Foreign Affairs authorized the European Commission to launch negotiations with Armenia and EU over a new legally binding document after Yerevan abandoned the talks for the AA and DCFTA earlier in 2013. Armenia continues cooperating with the EU in many fields of mutual interests within the EaP. What do you think of Armenia’s euro-prospects?
It is more important how Brussels sees these prospects. After a two-year break, the EU stopped hesitating and shifted from its “either…or” policy to “both…and” one. In Brussels they have finally decided that Armenia can combine the cooperation with the EU and the participation in the Eurasian integration projects. Yerevan has strived for it from the very beginning. Suffice it to say that Moscow did not oppose such developments either. This time Armenia’s policy of balancing between the two poles that is criticized by many has brought fruits. It is evident that the point is not the boasted “deep and comprehensive” free trade area between Armenia and EU (Armenia is too small a market for the EU and can offer a very small volume of goods and services). There are more important things: energy, transport, standards, relations with neighbors (with Georgia that signed the EU AA). Visa facilitation is possible as well, though this will not happen soon due to the terror threat in Europe. As for the EU membership, none of the post-Soviet countries (except maybe Moldova) will get it in the visible future.
On December 8, seven advanced Mi-24 attack / transport helicopters and Mi-8MT multi-purpose helicopters were delivered to the Russian airbase "Erebuni" in Armenia from Krasnodar region. One more lot of helicopters will be supplied to the air base by the end of the year. Is the recent strain in the relations with Turkey is behind Russia’s military build-up in Armenia? How long will this continue?
I don't think the build-up of the air base 'Erebuni' is connected with the strain in the relations of Russia and Turkey, though reinforcement of the Armenian-Turkish border in such situation is quite justified. I think, it is necessary to take into account the Kurdish factor in Turkey, including in the regions bordering with Armenia, as well as the threat coming from the 'Islamic State.' After all, Armenia is in the zone which that 'caliphate' claims. Despite the growing threat from Azerbaijan, the major task of the Russian Armed Forces in Armenia at present is to neutralize the Turkish factor rather than resist Azerbaijan's provocations.
Getting between two fires is not strange to Armenia. There was a similar situation in early 1990s. Then Armenia and Russia overcame it properly. Although Azerbaijan is stronger now, despite the crisis elements in its economy, Russia is stronger and more self-confident too. Therefore, the military build-up in friendly Armenia will be continuous.
Unlike Yerevan Baku supported Ankara after Turkish forces shot down the Russian warplane over Syria. This once again dispelled the illusions about the Russian-Azerbaijani alliance. What do you think of the prospects of Moscow-Baku relations?
Only partisan and shortsighted experts cherish such illusions. These experts may be committed no so much to Baku as to Russian (and even international) businesses having interests in Azerbaijan. Russia and Azerbaijan have mutually advantageous economic ties. As for the security (except mutual interest in the security on the Caspian Sea), foreign policy and integration priorities, and finally, the civilization vector (‘an inherited monarchy’ presidency-for-life is impossible in Russia), Russia and Azerbaijan have no common interests there. Ankara – Baku relations are harder than it may seem at first sight. The two countries have very similar challenges (radical Islamism), but the ruling elites of Turkey and Azerbaijan are not able to meet these challenges adequately. Ankara is not happy with Baku’s aspirations for leadership in the region. These countries interests may not coincide in many issues (for instance in Georgia. Turkey is not happy with Baku’s efforts to use the oil and gas factor as a method of blackmail. The partnership of Turkey and Azerbaijan is not balanced and has upward and downward trends. These are not relations of “senior and junior brothers.” Yet it is necessary to take into account that if at any moment Baku takes advantage of the chaos in the Eurasian region and unleashed large-scale armed attack in the Karabakh conflict zone, it will be very hard for Moscow to adopt the decision it has to adopt given its commitments of the ally-state. Yet I do not think that an armed conflict is possible in the visible future. Furthermore, there is another factor – Iran – and the growing Russian-Iranian partnership.
The Line of Contact in Karabakh and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border remain an area of regular civilian and military casualties. OSCE MG is trying to organize a meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. What do you think of that meeting and of Russia’s role in this protracted conflict?
The upcoming meeting of Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev has no prospects, though in the current tense situation any meeting is good. Amid the regular human deaths on the line of contact between the Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani troops and on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, the Karabakh conflict settlement has no prospects either. The only thing the OSCE Minsk Group can and should do now is to stabilize the situation on the line of contact, stop the provocations, efficiently control the ceasefire and to unambiguously name the party that violates the ceasefire. For that purpose, it is necessary to set up a permanent institution of observers. The best possible option for Russia is to work out a plan to deploy peacekeeping forces in the region, including not only Russian but also foreign servicemen, as well as to ensure the security and to stop the incidents. It will be possible to think about the further steps in the conflict settlement only after stable security is established, but it's a long shot.