The choice for Armenia: between Iran and the West

The Pashinyan-Blinken-von der Leyen meeting on April 5 in Brussels became an important milestone in deepening cooperation between Armenia and the Euro-Atlantic community. This event itself caused a sharp reaction from Moscow, Baku and Ankara. On March 28 the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated that “such events cause concerns in Russia, because US and EU officials are telling our partners outright that their main thrust is exclusively against Russia.” The official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry emphasized that such meetings cause concern in most countries of the region, since they are not aimed at establishing peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but “to provide an opportunity for the West, with its extremely destructive approaches, to gain a stronger foothold in the South Caucasus, creating new dividing lines, forcing the countries of the region to follow an anti-Russian agenda, destroying their centuries-old ties with Moscow, shaking the existing mechanisms of regional security and economic cooperation.”

Similarly, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry slammed the scheduled meeting as “one-sided and biased”. The official Baku statement surprisingly echoed that of Moscow in arguing the meeting “creates new dividing lines and so-called spheres of influence in the region”.

Azerbaijan's strategic ally Turkey also criticized the event in an April 4 statement, noting that “it is our responsibility to underline clearly that the trilateral meeting between Armenia, the EU, and the US on April 5 will undermine the neutral approach that should be the basis for the solution of the complex problems of the region”, while warning that “this initiative, which excludes Azerbaijan, will pave the way for the South Caucasus to become an area of geopolitical confrontation rather than serving the peace”.

This unprecedented synchronization of the approaches of the Moscow-Baku-Ankara axes follows the logic of the latters in closing the region to extra-regional players. According to unconfirmed information, before the meeting, Russia sought to involve Iran in jointly condemning the upcoming event along with Azerbaijan and Turkey, but Tehran refused to join this line.

Against the backdrop of an unprecedented deterioration in relations between Yerevan and Moscow and on the eve of the April 5 meeting in Brussels, Pashinyan took several steps that will inevitably lead to deepening tensions and alienation between the still strategic allies. The Armenian authorities froze their participation in the CSTO (and at the time of writing it became known that the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia will not participate in the CIS Ministerial meeting on April 12), Armenian banks refused to accept the MIR card payment system as an important tool for Russia to evade imposed sanctions, and Armenian TV channels banned the notorious talk show “An Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” in Armenia. In the same way, the Armenian side informed their Russian counterparts that from August 1, Armenian border troops will replace the Russians at Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport, which opens the door to the possible withdrawal of the 102nd Russian military base from Armenia.

In contrast to deteriorating relations with Russia, Pashinyan's government hopes that democracy is a guarantee of Armenia's independence and sovereignty, and the EU can be an important partner in this regard. The European Parliament resolution of 13 March on closer ties between the EU and Armenia, inter alia, “noting that if the Republic of Armenia wishes to apply to become a candidate for membership of the European Union, the institutions of the European Union should support this step”, was perceived in Armenia as a green light to begin the process. The very next day, March 14, at a meeting of the Government of Armenia, the Prime Minister of Armenia highly appreciated the adoption of the document, noting that “this is another opportunity to discuss the vision of the future of the Republic of Armenia, and I hope that political forces, NGOs, different layers of society, citizens will express their attitude to this message from the European Parliament, because such messages need a much wider response than at the level of just the government or the parliamentary majority.” To this end, the National Assembly convened parliamentary hearings on April 4 on new prospects and challenges for the European integration of Armenia, at which the main part actively supported the European path as a natural link for the reunification of Armenia with the European family, in contrast to the treacherous role of Russia as a serious threat to the security and sovereignty of Armenia. In addition, on the eve of the meeting in Brussels, experts and civil society representatives close to the Armenian authorities began to spread ideas about tangible and meaningful security, and economic and financial assistance from the United States and the EU.

Returning to the results of the Brussels meeting, it should be noted that although the very fact of the Armenia-EU-US rapprochement is a significant step towards long-term strategic cooperation, nevertheless, joint initiatives may prove difficult to implement, since the leaders failed to address several vital issues:

  • The event focused on strengthening Armenia's economic resilience, ignoring the existential security challenges Yerevan faces. The country's security resilience is of paramount importance, especially now that prestigious expert and intelligence communities are predicting the probability of new Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia.
  • Despite the European Parliament's resolution of March 13, not a word was mentioned about the prospects for Armenia's European aspirations. The Western leaders limited themselves to noting the achievements of the Pashinyan government in building democracy in Armenia.
  • In turn, Secretary of State Blinken insisted that the sovereignty and development of Armenia depend on its regional integration, which implies the normalization of relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Western leaders tried in an unprecedented way to gain Azerbaijan's approval of its relations with Armenia. Ahead of the meeting, Secretary of State Blinken and European Commission President von der Leyen respectively held telephone conversations with Aliyev to allay the latter's concerns about the substance of the upcoming negotiations.
  • At a joint press conference on April 5, EU leaders von der Leyen and Borel emphasized the importance of limiting Moscow's ability to evade sanctions and counter the hybrid war that Russia is waging against Armenia. the EU pledged assistance for 270 million euros for 4 years, and the United States - 65 million dollars to strengthen the economic resilience of Armenia. Obviously, however, the promised aid will not alleviate economic hardship when Russia takes punitive measures against Armenia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also predicted a dire consequence for the region in its statement after the meeting, stating inter alia: “We consider the high-level meeting in the Armenia-US-EU format that took place on April 5, 2024, in Brussels as another attempt by the “collective West” to drag the South Caucasus into a geopolitical confrontation. Irresponsible and destructive interference of extra-regional forces in the affairs of the South Caucasus, the desire to drive a wedge between the countries of the region and their neighbors can result in the most negative consequences for stability, security, and economic development in the region, provoke the emergence of new dividing lines, as well as an uncontrollable increase in tension.” The statement also contains a warning to official Yerevan: “We call on the leadership in Yerevan not to allow the West to deceive itself and lead the country down the wrong path, which is fraught with the emergence of a security vacuum, serious problems in the economy and outflow of population.”

The results of the meeting, which were positively received in the EU and the United States, on the contrary, caused strong disappointment among Armenians who are unable today, just six months after Azerbaijan’s forceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict, to accept calls for normalization of relations. Moreover, any such calls are perceived as an attempt to change the regional balance of power in favor of Turkey and its ally Azerbaijan.

For Armenians, Turkey is the heir to the Ottoman Empire, which committed the Armenian genocide from 1915 to 1923, a fact that, along with the academic consensus, is accepted by most EU member states (including Lithuania and Latvia) as well as the United States. The current Turkish authorities have repeatedly stated that they are proud of their Ottoman predecessors and refuse even to discuss the recognition of the genocide, using all the resources of the state to oppose the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the countries of the world.

The same applies to Azerbaijan, which since independence has followed the slogan “One nation, two states” along with its Turkish brethren. Azerbaijan's forceful actions in Nagorno-Karabakh have already led to a humanitarian catastrophe - the exodus of more than one hundred thousand Armenians from their ancestral land where they lived for more than two millennia. Today, the leader of Azerbaijan is publicly presenting claims to the entire territory of Armenia as historical Azerbaijani land, and as one of the conditions for signing a peace treaty with Armenia, Baku puts forward a demand to change the constitution of Armenia.

At a session of the National Assembly on April 10, the Prime Minister of Armenia presented the agreements reached in Brussels as a diplomatic success, stating that “With the results of the high-level meeting, the EU and the US expressed their political support for the sovereignty, democracy, territorial integrity of Armenia, as well as a stable, peaceful, secure, democratic and prosperous future for Armenia and the region.” At the same time, he had to admit that “We form artificial, but sometimes unartificial, expectations that some friends or allies should come and solve our problems. We must solve all our problems, this is the psychological formula of sovereignty. The opposite of the logic of a vassal, an outpost. To have an independent state, we must go beyond this logic."

Nevertheless, the Armenian government's unreasonably high expectations for the 5 April meeting may lead to a further erosion of Pashinyan's position in the country, whose popularity is steadily declining, reaching a historic low of 8% support, according to the latest opinion polls conducted by Gallup International.

Armenia today is at a loss - the existential need to replace Russia, which has failed to cope with the role of a regional policeman, does not provide a comforting choice - the alternative to strengthening Turkey and Azerbaijan is an alliance with Iran - a strong regional player that has supported Armenia for a long time, but is an outcast for the Western world, to which Armenia aspires to a greater extent than to the Eastern civilization.

Looking for support from the EU and the US, it is naive to count on them as a hard power to prevent military escalation in the region due to the fact that neither the European Union, nor any of the EU member countries, nor the United States sees itself in the role of a “policeman” in the South Caucasus.

The situation in the region and in Armenia is deteriorating, and various pessimistic scenarios are possible, ranging from internal events in Armenia itself, to new aggression from Azerbaijan and ending with major upheavals provoked by a possible escalation between Iran and Israel.

In such a situation, the mechanism of gradual adaptation of legislation, lengthy negotiations, and approvals, featuring the slow Western bureaucracy, does not look like an attractive path for Armenia, whose society requires solving the security issue “here and now”, and simply does not have time for a long-term transformation as from 2020 Armenia is constantly losing territory and lives under the awareness of the real risks of losing sovereignty.

While the main integration processes in the Middle East are taking place between historical opponents and direct enemies of Armenia, it is forced to seek military support from India and individual EU countries, for example, France. It is also necessary to recognize the sad fact - at a time when there is a war in Ukraine and in parallel the conflict between Iran and Israel is flaring up, capable of escalating into a full-fledged war that will engulf the entire region - the issue of Armenia’s interests does not have priority importance for the West and is left to be resolved by regional forces.

Published 17 April 2024

Author Sergejs Potapkins