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Security and Stability in the Southern Caucasus

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More than twenty years ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Recommendation 1247 (1994)[1]. The Recommendation read: “In view of their cultural links with Europe, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia would have the possibility of applying for membership provided they clearly indicate their will to be considered as part of Europe”.

This proposition was an invitation to the South Caucasian States to remember, rethink and rebuild their European roots and identity.

At that time, the Russian Federation was still two years away from membership. Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996. Georgia followed in 1999 and, in January 2001, Armenia and Azerbaijan completed the membership as regards the Caucasus region.[2]

From the political point of view the Caucasus is part of Europe. That has been confirmed not only by the Pan-European Council of Europe but also by its smaller sister, the European Union, e.g. just recently when the summit of the Eastern Partnership took place in Riga with the participation of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

We often speak about European family of democratically-minded nations, about European, or Council of Europe standards. But what it is to be European? What is the meaning of Europe in the 21st century? What does it mean with regard to stability and security in a region belonging to Europe?

Seen from Baku, Yerevan or Tbilisi, the Europe of Berlin, Paris, London, Vienna may seem impossibly prosperous and peaceful. Let me remind that Europe of 1949, when the Council of Europe was created, was quite different: war-torn cities, ruined economy and uncertain future.

The Council of Europe was created as a reaction to the horrors of war. What was the remedy? Respect for Human Rights, pluralistic democracy and the Rule of Law. These were the principles enshrined in Article 3 of the Statute.[3] And Strasbourg, long the centre of bitter Franco-German conflicts, was chosen as the headquarters of the Organisation.

I invite you to pause and think for a moment: the guns of the Second World War went silent 70 years ago on 9 May 1945. Four years later, on 5 May 1949, the Statute of the Council of Europe was signed. Now imagine that four years after the Armenian-Azerbaijan cease-fire of 9 May 1994, on 5 May 1998, a regional Organisation for the respect of Human Rights, democracy and the rule of law was created and the town of Shusha was chosen for its seat.  

That is the meaning of Europe. Perhaps not everybody saw that back in 1949, but today there is no doubt: Europe is all about renouncing war, once and for all – also in the minds of political establishment and the public. Europe is all about reconciliation, assuming past history, learning how to live with one’s neighbours, accepting and enjoying diversity.

Europe is by far not yet perfect. There is still a lot to be done, not only in the Southern Caucasus, in Europe and its neighbourhood.

And what about the South Caucasus as part of Europe? Even without detailed knowledge of history, a look at the map is enough – with Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan, with their interspersed and mixed populations, Azerbaijan and Armenia are tied together like Siamese twins. As late as 2001, it was manifested in the “joint Council of Europe accession option for Azerbaijan and Armenia”, chosen by all Council member States.

When I spoke in 2002 to an audience in the Yerevan State University I used for the first time the metaphor of the Siamese twins. It was not to the liking of everybody. Several weeks later, the Armenian Ambassador to the OSCE mentioned it in Vienna and argued against my message. I found no reason to change my mind: yes, Azerbaijan and Armenia are inseparably linked together, as I pointed out also at the Baku University. trying to separate Siamese twins by the sword will inevitably lead to death for both. Azerbaijan and Armenia have only one future – to live together, as one organism, as two neighbours separated by borders which have lost all meaning in everyday life, as two states within the larger European family.

As Secretary General I was used to organize workshops of young people from still existing conflict regions, e.g. Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine in our proximity and of course the Southern Caucasus. In general it was always refreshing and promising how fast young people can overcome prejudices and stereotypes. E.g., when I had invited youngsters from Kosovo and the Middle East, on the first day the Albanians and Serbs from Kosovo told me how surprised they were seeing Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, while the participants from the Middle East were shocked that the relations between different people living in the same area could be worse than in their part of the world. But after one week they all became friends!

Another year I brought together again young Israelis and Palestinians, Greeks and Turks from Cyprus and … Armenians and Azerbaijanis. I asked them to sit together in regional groups and work on conflict resolution. But not on their own conflict, but on one of the other regions, the ones from the Middle East on the Cyprus conflict, the Cypriots on the Nagorno Karabakh issue and the Caucasians on the Middle East case. All of them elaborated reasonable suggestions, for Cyprus a blue print of the Kofi Annan plan – but one year before the Secretary General of the UN came out with it, for Armenia and Azerbaijan a compromise which seemed for me to be acceptable for the partners and a very interesting approach for the Middle East.

What did young Armenians and Azerbaijanis suggest to Israel and the Palestinians? The essence was, don’t argue about the past, don’t waste time by blaming each other for mistakes of the past – just start where you are now. This is of course the only way to solve the Middle East conflict – if you are going to the past you end up with the Holy Books as land register, arguments used by the extremists of both sides.

But then I asked my young friends from the Southern Caucasus – why shouldn’t we apply the same principle for your region. You do not need to deal with the past looking for problems. There are current problems enough. Of course, they are rooted in the past, and several of them belong to what I would call the Soviet legacy.

There is the problem of Georgia, with two separatist entities, protected and supported by Russia. Hundreds of thousands refugees from these entities are staying in the rest of Georgia, dismantled of their property, separated from their homes, now nearly since a quarter of a century. The result of the attempt of former Georgian president Mikhail Sakashvili to solve one of the conflicts with military means is well known. The situation with Southern Ossetia became worse than before when there was a kind of status quo for ethnic Ossetians and ethnic Georgians.

Azerbaijan is still suffering from the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. A large part of the country beside Nagorno Karabakh is occupied by Armenian forces, more than 1 million people had to flee from these 7 Azerbaijani districts and are living now as IDPs, far from their destroyed homes. I visited refugees in 2004 and about 9 years later. I realized that Azerbaijan did a lot to provide for a life of dignity for these people. They have suffered enough; they should not endure alone the consequences of an unsolved conflict. Due to the conflict Azerbaijan has to spend more than 4% of its GDP for the army. Another consequence of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is that the province of Nakhichevan is separated from Azerbaijan by Armenian territory and cannot be reached on land.

But Armenia is suffering from the conflict too: The economies of both sides have been hurt by their inability to make substantial progress toward a peaceful resolution. Also here more than 4% of GDP goes to the military. The border to Turkey has been closed by Ankara in support of Azerbaijan as retaliation to the conflict with Azerbaijan. Between Yerevan and Ankara is also the open question of the recognition of the genocide of 1,5 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire. Allegedly up to half of the population has left the country due to the circumstances. The situation seems even worse in Nagorno Karabakh where 180,000 ethnic Armenians lived before the armed conflict and according to well-informed sources only one third is left. Due to the conflict Armenia is to a large extent dependent on Russian support.

Talking about stability and security in the region one should not forget that Russia despite its involvement in Georgia and in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has its own problems in the Northern Caucasus, being confronted with islamist extremism.

The international community succeeded in my view only to freeze the conflicts. The OSCE is involved in mediation efforts in several unresolved conflicts:

The conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh – through the Minsk Group (co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States) and a Personal Representative of the Chairman-in-Office on the Conflict Dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference.

In the post-2008 conflict in Georgia – the OSCE, together with the UN and EU, co-chairs the international Geneva Discussions in the wake of the conflict in Georgia. It also, with EUMM, co-facilitates the meetings of the Dvani/Ergneti Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) dealing with matters that affect the daily life of populations on the ground

You see what I mean when I say one does not need to deal with the past looking for problems. There are current problems enough. Priority should be given to solve the current problems the population of the whole region is suffering from. I admit that I don’t have a perfect recipe. But what I certainly know is that there is no military solution for any of the conflicts. The key words are dialogue, cooperation and reconciliation.

This is what was happening in Europe, earlier or later. France and Germany have led the way. Shortly after Azerbaijan and Armenia joined the Council of Europe, the remaining border control facilities on the Bridge of Europe, connecting the neighbouring cities of Strasbourg in France and Kehl in Germany were completely dismantled and two new bridges were built.

This was my first message – Europe is all about reconciliation, tolerance and enjoyment of diversity. I am deeply convinced – with political will and courage, within only one generation the South Caucasus can be a completely different place.

My second message is about caring of the interest of the people. Fighting poverty, improving education and health services should be given priority to military expenditure.

My third message is about cultural and regional co-operation.

Here again, I wish to speak the exact words I spoke in Baku, in Tbilisi and in Yerevan: Regional and transborder co-operation have given a remarkable contribution to the reunification and prosperity of Europe, we believe they can do much more so in the Caucasus region. This works not only between France and Germany. We can see that in another troubled region of Europe, the Western Balkans. Former enemies in SEE formed a Regional Council as well as CEFTA. By far not all problems have been solved including very serious ones such as the dispute over Kosovo. Nevertheless Serbia and Kosovo can both participate in these activities.

However, the political courage, the difficult compromises, the reconciliation efforts – this is all for the region to accomplish. But Europe can help. The events in Ukraine have demonstrated that we would need a genuine Pan-European security system – including Russia. Such a system should have a conflict management instrument which can be applied without further discussions. And such a system should cover of course the Southern Caucasus too.

I am convinced that peace and reconciliation in the Southern Caucasus is feasible. In Baku as well as in Yerewan I expressed my wish to go one day by train from one capital to the other. And perhaps, like Strasbourg, one day the town of Shusha will become the symbol of reconciliation.

 


[1] http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=15281&lang=en

[2]http://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/47-members-states

[3]http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/Commun/QueVoulezVous.asp?NT=001&CM=8&DF=27/05/2015&CL=ENG

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Eastern Europe

“Ukrainian Spring” Zelensky style

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The spring of 2019 may someday go down in the history of Ukraine as a time when Ukrainians experienced what could be described as a period of a “psychological thaw.” No matter who may be saying what about his or her “sixth sense,” or all sorts of quasi-scientific analyzes, hardly anyone either in Ukraine or elsewhere in the world could imagine the country’s top job ending up in the hands of a buffoon! The main hopeful was Yulia Tymoshenko, followed by Yuriy Boyko, with Petro Poroshenko trailing far behind in fifth place. Volodymyr Zelensky was just a virtual candidate, one who could only be voted for “just for fun,” as young people use to say these days.

How come? Tymoshenko had her electoral victory stolen by Poroshenko, who was still president then. Even funnier, he actually handed that pilfered victory to an absolute outsider, and long before the first round of elections to boot. That is why ordinary people turned away from the traditional candidates and voted for Zelensky in protest against the oligarchic president’s disregard for the rule of law and the very lives of his people.  This is what lies on the surface though, but there have been much deeper changes going on in Ukrainian society than what just meets the eye.

What happened in the spring of 2019 actually ushered in a whole new era!  By this I certainly do not mean the end of the “Poroshenko era” and the advent of the “Zelensky era.” Too much credit for both of them! Small wonder, that the new president feels so ill at ease in his newly-acquired job. Quoting William Shakespeare, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

I have heard a lot of enthusiastic praises sung to the new Ukrainian president, as well as his absolutely wrong and manipulative comparisons with the Russian president by ordinary and not so ordinary people here in Russia. It won’t be long, however, before all this enthusiasm is replaced by disillusionment once President Zelensky’s first 100 days in office are over and his popularity both in and outside Ukraine has waned.  My question is whether his enthusiastic supporters in Russia are ready to publicly admit their mistake.

Let’s get back to the whole new era that made its entrance in the spring of 2019. In fact, Poroshenko’s departure and Zelensky’s election signal the start of a new era, when the old generation politicians step down making way for new, younger ones. That this transition occurred without another Maidan does not attest to its evolutionary nature though. On the contrary,  there have been more than revolutionary changes going on in Ukraine, and this primarily concerns the consciousness of the Ukrainian people. Indeed, Zelensky’s inaugural speech fully answered the aspirations of three-thirds of his compatriots, because it was exactly what they wanted to hear from their newly-elected president. Moreover, an analysis of posts in social networks revealed another very interesting phenomenon: all of a sudden, the generation of forty-year-olds began to seriously consider the possibility of participating in the workings of the country they live in, not for the purpose of personal enrichment or satisfaction of their own ambitions, but for a chance to work for the benefit of all.

So what, you might ask: a generation change is something every country goes through. What is the “trick” behind Zelensky’s election? Well, the “trick” is that people hope that there will be no relatives of Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, Yanukovych or any other well-known politician and official among the new generation of managers; that all these newcomers will be self-made people. People are fed up with the powers-that-be where corrupt and thievish dads hand their posts over to their equally corrupt and thievish offspring. This is the main reason for the choice Ukrainian voters made in March and April. I do not deny the effectiveness of political technologies or the veracity of conspiracy theories, of course. I’m just trying to explain why people voted for Zelensky and what they hoped for. Take a look at the so-called “ZE-Team.” Yes, many of them are “childhood friends,” “partners,” someone’s “protégés,” etc. But there are also people with scientific degrees and excellent professional reputations, not someone’s children, but people who have achieved something with their brains. This is the only thing that inspires a cautious hope for a generally positive trend now emerging in Ukrainian society.

What will happen next? Well, there will be disappointment. War, economy and diplomacy will most likely continue to weigh down the new government.  Moreover, the period of universal admiration of Ukraine by the collective West will prove rather short-lived and will make way for indifference, irritation or even hostility, which could ultimately force Kiev to gravitate away from its present geopolitical course. The life of ordinary people will not become any better either. The big question, however, is the impact that the advent of a young productive class will have on the state of affairs inside Ukraine. Will today’s sixty-year-old elites wish to turn to the emerging generation of forty-year-old leaders? What I would like to know, however, is the name of the country these sixty-year-old elites actually live in…

From our partner International Affairs

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Armenia’s position blurred the progress for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and leads to an escalation

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The conflict between two South Caucasus countries – Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh became as one of the bloodiest and long-lasting conflicts contributing to instability in the region. After a ceasefire agreement signed in 1994 halting the armed skirmishes in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, Armenia and Azerbaijan pursued, albeit a fragile, diplomatic negotiations to reach a peaceful end to this bloody conflict.

However, peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairing countries (namely the US, France and Russia) have been lasting for decades without any tangible results to achieve total peace. The current status-quo in the conflict zone was mainly favored by Armenian leadership until today in order to continue illegal activities in the occupied territories and seek for legitimacy for its occupation policy.  However, four-day April 2016 fights demonstrated once again that status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone is very indeed dangerous.

All these developments clearly show that the status quo in the conflict zone should be changed as soon as possible, because such situation cannot be kept “frozen” any more. Any tangible result on the conflict resolution requires, first of all, Armenia to take finally result-oriented actions in order to achieve peace and prosperity in the region.

Following the government change in Armenia in 2018 with the fall of the government of Serzh Sargsyan composed of so-called “Karabakh clan” and take-over of ruling by Nikol Pashinyan (as a new Prime Minister) through mass protests against corruption and cronyism in Armenia, there was hope that the new government in Yerevan would change the situation and choose peace instead of sticking to the previous government’s policy of occupation.

The first high-level meeting (since the velvet revolution in Armenia) between Azerbaijan and Armenian foreign ministers took place on 11 July 2018 in Brussels with the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs. Actually, in the first meeting the Ministers discussed the certain parameters for re-engaging in substantive negotiations and vowed to take confidence-building measures. These meetings were conducted regularly until and after the first official meeting of head of states of Azerbaijan and Armenia in Vienna in 2019.

The first official meeting between Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was held on 29 March 2019 in Vienna. In an interview to the Russian TASS news agency President Ilham Aliyev noted “we have discussed the issues related to strengthening trust measures during contacts between people and the negotiating process should be supported by humanitarian measures”. President Aliyev also emphasized that “it is of huge importance that the format of talks remained unchanged and only Armenia and Azerbaijan discuss their problems as it was many years before”.

Prime Minister Pashinyan also regarded “the meeting as positive”, but he ruled out “that there has been a breakthrough in the negotiation process, or an evolution”.

Unfortunately, despite all aforementioned talks and positive thoughts, Pashinyan changed his position and started to support the previous Armenian policies on the conflict. Later, he even said that he will not engage in any discussions of “land for peace”. Pashinyan also demands that the format of negotiations should be expanded from the current bilateral format to include officials from the separatist regime (so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”) established in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. It is very obvious that Pashinyan’s that proposal aims to maneuver in the negotiations or to preserve the status-quo in the conflict zone. Whereas, it seems unacceptable for Azerbaijan when Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh region, which were forced to leave their homes and became refugees, are not considered in this regard. 

The process clearly illustrates that new Armenian government is not ready for compromise to reach a peace with Azerbaijan. Instead of constructive engagement, they opted for sticking to hate speech. For instance, during the UEFA Europa League Final in Baku (29 May 2019) Arsenal’s player Henrikh Mkhitaryan (of Armenian origin) refused to visit Baku despite all high security guarantee promised by Azerbaijani government. His choice was regarded as being part of a “dirty” political game instead of playing football. Nikol Pashinyan even hailed his position in his twitter feed. Whereas, until now, many Armenian athletes participated at the Baku 2015 European Games, and many others at the international events hosted by Azerbaijan, and there were no threats and incidents for them.

In general, sportsmen may have a very positive role in conflict and hate situations. For instance, according to researchers from Stanford University, Liverpool’s Egyptian football striker Mo Salah effect is having an impact beyond the stadium walls, who found a drop in hate crimes around Liverpool since Salah signed with the club in June 2017. Mo Salah often celebrates goals by dropping to his knees and touching his forehead to the grass in the sujood (an Islamic prayer position), while Liverpool fans have a chant that goes: “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim, too”. Henrikh Mkhitaryan with arrival to Baku could also use this opportunity to convey a peace message to other Armenians.

The short-term environment of peace was deteriorated by another provocation by Armenia against Azerbaijan. On 30 May 2019, during the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs’ visit to Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani officer was killed by an Armenian sniper shot. On 9 June 2019 another Azerbaijani soldier was killed by the Armenian side, and Armenian Defense Minister awarded that who executed the Azerbaijani servicemen. These military incidents were followed by proportional casualties in Armenians’ side as well. Moreover, on June 12, 2019, Azerbaijan’s trainer plane has been detected and targeted by Armenian anti-aircraft missile system at the frontline (on Fizuli direction), but no incident was registered.

All aforementioned facts confirm that Armenian new government sticks to old mechanism, and all attempts to change the format of negotiations to present de-facto Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent party are just a maneuver to maintain the status-quo in the conflict. It is necessary to consider that, the conflict hitherto causes violence and human suffering for both nations, and without tangible results, further civil and military causalities will be from both sides. Both Armenian and Azerbaijan people suffered enough from this bloody conflict, and it is very time to achieve a peace in the region. As the Armenian journalist, social activist Susan Jaghinyan emphasized – “Sargsyan and Kocharyan destroy[ed] the people, if they continue[d] their rule, the Armenian people [would] not exist in the future”.  After Velvet Revolution, Armenian people managed to change a regime, and now Armenian new government has all chances to prepare its population for peace and benefit from the regional economic cooperation. As soon as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolves, the Armenian people will be able to benefit from the opportunities of the current regional economic cooperation of Azerbaijan with other partners.

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Armenia-Iran: Good neighbourly relations absolute necessity

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Some experts believe that Iran’s cooperation with Armenia could become costly for the latter owing to the ever increasing hostility demonstrated by US President Donald Trump towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. They predict that American sanctions and extensive pressure on Iran could throw Armenia into a kind of blockade.

What comes to mind in connection with this is the words that are thought to have been said by Napoleon Bonaparte: geography is destiny. Even though it could not always be the case but it definitely is with the Caucasus. There are few if any regions whose military, strategic and economic significance would combine with unprecedented ethno-religious diversity on a fairly small territory with historically conditioned disputable issues. This naturally creates all the conditions for an atmosphere of permanent tension which over the last two centuries has repeatedly exploded in armed conflicts and wars.

In the 21st century, the situation in the Caucasus is formed by a most sophisticated political gamut of bilateral and multilateral relations among three former Soviet republics of Transcaucasus – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, and also, not in the last place, by the Caucasian states of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Besides, one should not forget about the military and political influence of non-regional countries, first of all, the United States, the European Union and Israel.

Undoubtedly, today we are witnessing the influence of multiple forces in different areas of  Caucasian politics, and these forces are dragging Caucasian states into various alliances. Moreover, the regional policy of each of the South Caucasian states is determined by a variety of factors that spring from the specifics of bilateral and multilateral relations.

But we will not analyze the whole spectrum of complicated and entangled relations between groups of countries and within groups proper. We will focus on relations beween Iran and Armenia.

What is the role of Armenia, taking into account the US anti-Iran sanctions?

Iran is the largest multi-ethnic state in the Middle East. Present day Iran is home to more than 40 nationalities, each at a different level of socio-economic development. The multi-million population of Iran is ethnically related to the peoples of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia.

For centuries, Iran has been maintaining close economic and cultural ties with the peoples of the Transcaucasus. But its relations with Armenia stand out as somewhat specific.

Significantly, the first state formations of Armenia and Iran appeared in the VII – VI centuries BC, that is, nearly 3 thousand years ago. Since then their territories and regimes have undergone numerous changes, but Armenians and Persians, as state-forming ethnic groups, have passed through the centuries unchanged.

An idea which is deeply rooted in both the Iranian and Armenian consciousness is that Persians and Armenians boast ancient culture that cannot be thrown into oblivion. This explains cultural ties between the two nations and a comprehensive respect for the specifics of each other’s national and religious mentality.

At present, Iran is home to more than 200 thousand Armenians. Iranian Armenians enjoy substantial rights. Under the Constitution of Iran, they have guaranteed representation in parliament and local councils. Not so long ago, Russian Orientalist Karine Gevorkian reported that in 2018, a young Armenian woman was appointed head of the financial department of the Iranian oil company.

The Armenian Christian community is the largest of its kind in Iran. Functioning throughout the country are about 200 Armenian churches and about 30 Armenian schools. Some universities have departments of the Armenian language and culture. Iran publishes books and magazines in Armenian. Also, there are Armenian theatrical, cultural, and sports societies, and the Armenian Club.

It should be pointed out that Iranian Armenians are taking an active part in the social and political life of the country.

Naturally, Iranian Armenians maintain permanent ties with the Republic of Armenia, which undoubtedly cements Iranian-Armenian relations at the state level.

Although Iran and Armenia are not comparable in their scope and position, as history and current geopolitics show, they need each other.

Iran is interested to maintain ties with Armenia, in the first place, because, as it was already mentioned above, the country is home to an influential Armenian community. Secondly, given that the Armenian diaspora exists in many countries of the world, it could become a kind of bridge connecting Tehran with the capitals of other, not always friendly, states where an Armenian community is also active. Also, it is through authoritative Armenian lobbies that Iran could secure favorable political and economic solutions. Thirdly, the territory of Armenia, as a neighboring country, is important for Iran as a corridor to the North (through Georgia) and further to Russia, which is clearly beneficial for Iran considering the current  geopolitical situation.

Armenia, in turn, is also interested in friendly relations with neighboring Iran, not only on account of links between the Armenian diaspora and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran assumed a fairly balanced position regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, by refraining from backing fellow believers from a neighboring country and complying with the Minsk format, the decisions of the Minsk Group (OSCE).

Moreover, the continuing trade and economic ties between Armenia and Iran have become, to a certain extent, a lifeline for Yerevan. Blocked by Turkey and Azerbaijan from two sides, Armenia  has only two windows to the outside world: via the borders with Georgia and Iran. Therefore, for Armenia Iran is of vital importance. The Armenian-Iranian border, running through the Araks River, is the shortest for two countries – a mere 35 km. Nevertheless, this border is of great importance, both for Armenia and for Iran, being used for developing trade and economic relations between the two countries and promoting touristm. Statistical data say Iranians (and not only Armenian) enjoy visiting Armenia.

In recent years, Armenia and Iran have seen a successful implementation of various economic programs. One of the first projects was a bridge erected across the Araks River. Also, two high-voltage power transmission lines have been built, a third one is currently under construction.

One of the key areas of economic cooperation between Armenia and Iran is provided by an interim agreement signed in May 2018 between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) on the creation of a free trade zone. Thus, there have appeared opportunities for merging the 180-million market of the EEU with the 80-million Iranian market. Since Armenia is the only EAEU country that has a land border with Iran, it plays a crucial role in cooperation between the EAEU and Iran, which provides it with an opportunity to develop its relations with Iran.

Undoubtedly, Armenia and Iran’s shared interest in bilateral cooperation envisages good prospects for the future. However, it is not that simple, as there have arrived new times, both for Yerevan, and Tehran.

In 2018 Armenia saw a change of government, as a result of which Nikola Pashinyan was elected Prime Minister. There have been changes in domestic policy. As for foreign policy, at least in relation to Iran, there have been no particular  changes and, in all likelihood, there will not be any. Given the present-day conditions, good-neighborly relations between Yerevan and Tehran are not a luxury, but an urgent need.

In this regard, Nikola Pashinyan’s official visit to Iran in February 2019 is of special significance. During the visit the two parties held high-level talks with the participation of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who rarely receives foreign guests. The negotiations were held in a fairly warm atmosphere, with both sides underscoring the importance of bilateral relations and expressing readiness to exert efforts to develop them.

In the course of above-mentioned talks, representatives of Armenia and Iran signaled the high level of political cooperation, emphasizing yet again that the current level of economic cooperation does not match the full potential of the parties involved. Although by the end of 2018, trade turnover between Armenia and Iran had reached $ 364 million, which is the highest figure since 1991.

Among major projects of the Armenian-Iranian bilateral economic cooperation program is  the construction of the third power line, the implementation of the Meghri hydropower project, the North-South highway corridor, trilateral and quadrilateral economic cooperation with Georgia and Russia.

What makes the visit to Iran by Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan special is that Iran is under the US sanctions. In 2018, a transitional year for Armenia, the United States subjected Iran to unprecedented pressure. In addition, the US “secondary sanctions” were imposed against all countries, legal entities and physical persons of foreign countries which dare to maintain relations with Iran. This meant a challenge for Armenia, in many ways economically connected with Iran.

In October 2018, US National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to secure support for US plans to further isolate Iran. Reports say Washington is lobbying for the closure of the Armenian border with Iran through opening the border with Turkey.

While in Yerevan, Bolton told Prime Minister Pashinyan that since the United States will pursue the policy of sanctions against Iran, the Armenian-Iranian border is a “big problem.” Pashinyan responded by saying the following: “We respect the requests and national interests of any country, but Armenia has its own national  interests, which do not always coincide with the interests and ideas of other countries.” But as they say, there could be options.

It is necessary to emphasize that Washington, despite its hostile policy towards the IRI, has always had to tolerate cooperation between Armenia and Iran. Such tolerance is due to the US awareness of the geo-economic situation of Armenia, which, without extensive ties with Iran, will face social and economic problems. In addition, as said before, the Armenian lobby has a lot of sway in Washington, especially in the US Congress, which does not give much say to Iran’s opponents with regard to Armenia. That this is true is confirmed by the absence of any US sanctions against Armenia. That’s why John Bolton all but voiced proposals, and not warnings or threats. Suren Sargsyan, Chairman of the Armenian Center for American Studies, said recently, “Washington is fully aware of the situation and the realities that exist in the region. This means that the United States will never pressure Armenia into rejecting Iran or Russia. And this is good, because Washington knows that we will not survive without Iran and Russia … “

As is known, besides the United States Iran has another “big friend” – Israel. Apparently,  the strengthening of Armenian-Iranian relations is not welcome in Jerusalem, and Yerevan is aware of this. The Armenian diplomacy has taken sophisticated measures to neutralize the negative Israeli reaction. Right after Prime Minister Pashinyan’s visit to Iran, Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigor Hovhannisyan paid a visit to Israel, where he discussed opening an embassy in Israel “in order to bring bilateral relations to a new high”. The Armenian delegation also focused on organizational issues related to the upcoming visit to Israel by Armenian Prime Minister Nikola Pashinyan and Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan.

In all likelihood, the main point of Prime Minister Pashinyan’s foreign policy agenda and the main goal of his government is tolerance and absence of problems in relations with foreign countries: with Moscow, with Tehran, th Washington, with Brussels, with Jerusalem.

Thus, it is possible to conclude that the change of government in Armenia and large-scale US sanctions against Iran and its partners did not affect the stable nature of Armenian-Iranian relations. In these conditions, the Armenian-Iranian border is unlikely to ever be closed – a complete blockade of Armenia is highly impossible. Moreover, the small Armenia, pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy, has become an important factor in ensuring security in the South Caucasus. 

From our partner International Affairs

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The World Bank approved today a $310 million loan to reduce and mitigate flood risks in the lower Kelani basin...

Newsdesk13 hours ago

ADB, Uzbekistan Renew Development Partnership with New 5-Year Strategy

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has endorsed a new Country Partnership Strategy (CPS) for Uzbekistan. The 5-year partnership strategy, from...

Economy16 hours ago

Results of the Afreximbank Annual Meetings 2019

The Afreximbank Annual Meetings 2019 and the associated Russia–Africa Economic Conference have come to a close. The events ran from...

Human Rights18 hours ago

Moratorium call on surveillance technology to end ‘free-for-all’ abuses

Surveillance technology should be banned immediately until “effective” national or international controls are put in place to lessen its harmful...

Reports20 hours ago

New Zealand can improve well-being through better policymaking and reforms

New Zealand’s economy has stabilised, with solid growth supporting well-being through jobs and incomes. Ongoing implementation of the government’s new...

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