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Russia–Armenia Relations and the April Revolution

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Starting in April, 2018, Armenia witnessed a remarkable political revolution, prompted by Serzh Sargsyan’s attempt to remain in office by becoming the country’s Prime Minister. As massive crowds packed Yerevan’s Republic Square, the veteran Armenian politician ultimately bowed to popular pressure and stepped aside on April 23. The second phase of the April Revolution saw the ascendancy of protest leader Nikol Pashinyan to the Prime Minister’s office. Pashinyan’s proposed electoral reform promises to pave the way for a more competitive political system in Armenia, breaking the monopoly of the ruling Republican Party, which has dominated Armenian politics since the late 1990s.

Even more remarkable was the lack of any foreign involvement in the April Revolution. There were no “little green men” in the Ararat valley, nor was America’s Victoria Nuland on hand to pass out cookies on Republic Square. In reality, the involvement of United States was nonexistent, while the role of Russia was minimal, although not insignificant. In contrast to the reaction to the Electric Yerevan protests in 2015, there was no rush in the Russian media or among Russian political elites to draw parallels with the Ukrainian Maidan or the “color revolutions.” Instead, Moscow was cautious and pragmatic, emphasizing the necessity of a legal transition of power. Publicly, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova even supported the demonstrators, writing “Armenia, Russia is always with you!”

Two-sided nature of the Russia-Armenia relations

The Russia-Armenia relationship is two-sided. For Armenia, Russia means protection from neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey. For Russia, Armenia represents an important ally in the Caucasus, a region critical to Russian security concerns. Therefore, Russia observed the recent developments in Armenia very closely. Behind the scenes, Russian officials were in contact with both sides in order to gain a clear understanding of the events. According to protest leader Armen Grigoryan and certain unnamed sources, the opposition emphasized to Russian officials that the protest was strictly domestic and was not directed in any way against Russia. This message was further emphasized by Pashinyan to the delegation of Russian Duma deputies who visited Yerevan. Not only were Russia-Armenia relations under no threat, but they would be “deepened” should Pashinyan become Prime Minister. The protest leaders also made an effort to ensure that no EU or American flags were flown during the Armenian protest.

Russian officials were also in contact with representative of the Armenian government and the ruling party. In the early days of the protest, it became clear to Moscow that Serzh Sargsyan had no political future. His decision to remain in power was a major misstep in the Armenian context, and therefore supporting him would be a liability for the Russian side. However, in terms of his successor, Moscow was initially more inclined to support acting Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan. A reform-minded politician, Karapetyan governed Armenia from the Prime Minister post effectively for a year and a half, although the Republican Party machine prevented him from making major changes. The former chief executive of ArmRosGazprom, he also has good business and political contacts with Russia, including with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Russian-Armenian billionaire Samvel Karapetyan (no relation to Karen). Therefore, he represented both stability and change to Moscow.

However, it soon became clear that the protestors in Yerevan wanted to abolish the ruling Republican Party machine entirely. Although Sargsyan’s bid to stay in power served as the immediate motivation for the protests, the causes – chiefly jobs and economic inequality – were much deeper. Fundamental changes were required to remedy them. In this case, Pashinyan’s bid, to both become interim Prime Minister and to reform the electoral laws, represented a better alternative for the demonstrators. Gradual reform of the existing system was no longer a tenable option. Therefore, Moscow remained neutral, while Karapetyan rejected the offer to become the Prime Minister candidate of the Republican Party, leaving the ruling party with no candidate to nominate.

Putin-Pashinyan personal chemistry

The situation was reinforced by Pashinyan’s meeting with the Duma MPs on April 29, which cleared the way for his eventual victory on May 8. Notably, after Pashinyan’s election as Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin was one of the first political leaders to congratulate him. Later, in a phone conversation with Putin, Pashinyan exchanged greetings with him on the occasion of Victory Day, commemorating the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Notably, Pashinyan’s grandfather and namesake, Nikolai, fought in the Red Army and died in the war. The new Armenian PM also reaffirmed Armenia’s commitment to the Eurasian Economic Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). However, within the context of the Eurasian Economic Union, he may push for a more democratic and egalitarian relationship among the member states to ensure that smaller republics, like Armenia, will have more of a say in determining the policy of the union.

On May 14, Pashinyan and Putin met in Sochi where they had very positive and constructive talks. In the meeting, Putin hailed Armenia as a “close ally and partner in the region.” For his part, Pashinyan assured Putin that “there is a consensus in Armenia: no one has ever questioned the strategic importance of the Armenian-Russian relations, and I think it will not be questioned ahead.” He also met with Eurasian Union Chairman and former Armenian PM Tigran Sargsyan and held a rally with the Armenian community of Sochi.

Why Armenia’s opposition shied away from anti-Russian rhetoric

While Russia exercised incredible restraint in reaction to the April Revolution, the leaders of the revolt also learned valuable lessons about Russia-Armenia relations and the potentially adverse impact of their past anti-Russian statements. Given the extraordinary importance of the Russia-Armenia relationship, most Armenian politicians across party lines traditionally understood that Russophobia was counter-productive for the country. However, in recent years, some Armenian opposition leaders, taking cues from developments in Ukraine and Georgia, began to incorporate such discourse into their attacks on the government. Although Pashinyan has never been known to be exceptionally anti-Russian, even he adopted this position in his criticism of the Eurasian Economic Union.

In one way, anti-Russian rhetoric was useful for both the Armenian government and the opposition, to alert Russia that it could not take Armenia for granted. However, the April Revolution demonstrated that Armenian Russophobia could also be fatal for the opposition. Amid their stunning success, it soon became clear that anti-Russian policy was in fact hindering their far more important objectives (e.g., challenging the Republican Party monopoly). Consequently, Pashinyan moved quickly to reassure the Russian press and the Russian political elite that the revolution was not directed in any way against Moscow.

Meanwhile intending to capitalize on Pashinyan’s past remarks, the ruling party attempted to paint the revolutionary leader as a reckless Russophobe for both Russian observers and Armenia’s domestic audience. In the end, they failed to convince these two audiences, both of whom gave Pashinyan the benefit of the doubt. However, it was a close call for Pashinyan and it clearly illustrated the pitfalls of unnecessary anti-Russian bluster in Armenia.

Alternative path

Not only is anti-Russian discourse counter-productive in terms of its immediate political impact, but also in terms of its broader relevance. The April Revolution in Armenia has regional and even global significance that the Rose or Orange Revolutions or the Maidan would never attain since they allowed themselves to be blinded by the allure of geopolitics and national chauvinism. Shifting away from the geopolitical context, the revolution in Armenia presents an alternative path for the post-Soviet states. Instead of excluding Russia and casting it as an “eternal enemy,” why not include it in broader regional discussions about democracy, economic justice, and state-building?

Although each former Soviet republic is unique, they all share broadly similar socioeconomic problems as well as the common historical and cultural experiences of Imperial Russia and the USSR. In an age of globalization, these commonalities are the foundation for greater regional cooperation. Therefore, maintaining broad transnational cultural and economic connections across the post-Soviet space is an asset for all. The April Revolution in Armenia is significant as is a civic movement that realizes such potential.

First published in our partner RIAC

PhD candidate in History at The Ohio State University in Columbus, focusing on Russia, Eurasia and Caucasus, MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

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Eastern Europe

Latvians will choose their future

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The general elections in Latvia will take place on October 6, 2018. On Saturday Latvians will choose their future. Though it sounds very pathetic, future of the country really depends on the results of these elections.

In an interview with Latvian information agency LETA, Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, commenting the atmosphere during this pre-election period, said that a serious battle of people’s minds and hearts is going on right now.

And this is true. But this fight is too cruel. Just this pre-election period shows all things bad as they are. The “truth” about corruption on high banking and political levels all of a sudden has been poured out on population. “Latvia’s central bank chief has been charged with bribery. A lawyer liquidating the bank that was accused of bribing him was killed in a hail of machine-gun fire. One of the country’s biggest lenders was shut down after the U.S. levied allegations of money laundering and violations of sanctions on North Korea. What’s going on in Latvia? “ ask the authors of article “Where Latvia’s Financial Corruption Scandal May Lead” published in Bloomberg on September 27.

Situation in small Latvia reminds gangster times in the United States, when criminals held people in awe. The difference is only in the fact that American gangsters were not high ranking officials. Gangsters’ activity was officially considered criminal. On the contrary, Latvian case demonstrates activity of corrupted authorities, who influence the whole country, all 2 milllion people.

Ilmars Rimsevics, who’s been in charge of Latvia’s central bank as governor or deputy since 1992, is accused of soliciting a bribe from Trasta Kommercbanka AS, a small lender that was shut in 2016 after being implicated in a $20 billion money-laundering scheme. Specifically, he’s accused of receiving 250,000 euros five years ago.

It is difficult to imagine, that he got a bribe once, ruling the bank for so many years. Nobody saw his misconduct, nobody knew about it. Nonsense!

Now it is a question of trust to all top officials in Latvia.
For example, about 1 percent of all U.S. dollars moving around the world in 2015 were going through Latvia, according to Daniel Glaser, then a top official in the U.S. Department of the Treasury. It means that Latvia had a chance to become the second Switzerland at least.

But Latvians did not even feel the benefits. They tried to survive in 2015 and they continue to survive in 2018. Nothing has changed. Rich people have become richer and poor have become poorer. That is Latvian Reality.

The other news stroke Latvians this week. Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis confirmed that EUR 2 million more could be allotted for national defense.

He said with pride that “thanks to the increasing budget revenues, the funds will not have to be taken away from other national economy sectors.”

A question arises: why should these additional revenues go to defense and not to other national economy sectors? Is it the sphere that needs money most of all?

Corrupted political system decides for people where their money should go and for what purposes. It is well known that it is very difficult to track money spending in military sphere because this sector of economy is not transparent to the society due to security measures.

The only thing Latvians can do under such circumstances – to choose the right politicians to rule the country and they are surely should not be the same corrupted officials.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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DELFI, which is the major Internet portal in the Baltic States providing daily news, stated on September, 10 that the number of emigrants from Lithuania exceeds that of immigrants by 1,000 in August. Shocking statistics shows that the country has registered a negative migration balance. Some 4,382 people left Lithuania in August. Thus, Lithuanians are leaving the country despite authorities’ claims on economic growth, stability and favorable perspectives.

On the one hand, according to “Lithuanian economy review – 2017”, the GDP growth in Lithuania accelerated. In 2017, as compared to the previous year, Lithuania`s GDP increased by 3.8%. On the other hand, this fact contravenes the increasing number of emigrants.

What makes people change their life and say “Good bye” to their homes? This is a rhetorical question. The answer lies on the surface.

Lithuanians do not satisfy with their standards of living. For example, survey of public opinion and market research company “Baltijos tyrimai” reveals that Lithuanians still haven’t domesticated the Euro. The pool conducted in July shows that more than 46,3% of Lithuanians blame the European currency in lowering their life standards. In other words they do not agree with the authorities’ decision to adopt the euro.

People compare their life with the other European countries and it is not in favor of Lithuania. The words and promises are not fulfilled, corruption flourishes. Thus, Freedom House document “FREEDOM IN THE WORLD 2018” reports that “the major problem for Lithuania’s democracy – corruption – continued to dominate the public sphere, as a series of scandals plagued members of the Seimas (parliament) and public institutions. Even Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė on Monday called on lawmakers not to waste their time on squabbling.

Officials, who today name themselves democrats, did not manage to get rid of Soviet thinking and way of behavior. When they get political power they forget about their duties. Permanent political scandals in small country led to the fact that people stopped believing authorities. And authorities’ activity is seemed to be suspicious in all spheres of life.

Thus, Lithuanians are wary of a new agreement on the country’s defense policy for the next decade signed by Lithuania’s parliamentary parties on Monday. The document calls for joint efforts to resist “irresponsible speculation that sets defense funding in opposition to other sensitive areas”. It means that Lithuanians do not have the right to decide to what area allocate budget money though they pay taxes. They do not have the right to speak on this topic and express their opinions if they contradict the official point of view. The parliament members forget the basic human rights. Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations states that ”everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

An ordinary person cannot solve the puzzle why television and Government controlled media describe his country just another way he sees it. Freedom House states also that “Regional economic disparities remain acute. The minimum wage remains one of the lowest within the EU, and the share of the population at risk of poverty and social exclusion is a little over 30 percent.

This discrepancy forces Lithuanians to seek better life abroad, usually in Old Europe. More than 20 years of expectation is too much. Life is too short to waste it to sit around waiting for changes.

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Eastern Europe

Will Russia serve the old wine in a new bottle?

Anzhela Amirjanyan

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Nowadays, one of the main features of global political developments are non-violent or color revolutions. These revolutions are brought about by wide-spread corruption, poverty, unemployment and a deep gap between masses and the ruling elite with the latter being the biggest political risk for the ruling party. Most analysts argue that these factors are combined also with outside support, which can culminate in the revolution. However, what happened in Armenia after a few weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the Velvet revolution, that brought down the regime and has exercised true people power, is considered to be unprecedented for it didn’t owe its origin to the external assistance or wasn’t an attempt by ‘‘US to export democracy’’ in Armenia. The geopolitical factor was initially excluded.  In fact, Russia has traditionally had negative attitude towards color revolutions and has seen them ‘‘as a new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties’’.This means that Russia, desperate to maintain its own standing in the Caucasus, was likely to intervene in the events unfolding in Armenia. However, the Kremlin didn’t view turmoil in Armenia as a Ukraine-style revolution. Asked if Russia would intervene, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the matter was “exclusively an internal affair” and Russian action would be “absolutely inappropriate”. Moreover, after Armenia’s unpopular leader Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Armenians “a great people” and wrote, “Armenia, Russia is always with you!”

The prospect of a Russian intervention was low for 2 key reasons

One of the possible reasons behind Russian inaction was that Moscow didn’t regard the revolution in Armenia as a threat to its geopolitical prerogatives, but rather as an opportunity to make a strategic move through a global panic over Russia’s continued warlike behavior. Satisfied that this is genuinely an internal Armenian issue directed at an incompetent and ineffective government, Russia proved with its muted response to Armenia’s color revolution that Kremlin embraces the policy of non-interventionism.

Secondly, a rapid spread of pro-Western sentiment among local journalists, civil society representatives and youth was prevalent in Armenia in the past decade. This process only accelerated after Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly decided in 2013 to join Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) over EU Association Agreement.Yerevan’s decision of September 3, 2013 to involve in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was mostly conditioned by Moscow’s ultimatum imposition, which left a deep track in the perception of Armenia-Russia relations and formed a comparatively new cliché. Anti-Russian sentiments were on rise in Armenia in recent years due to major levers of influence that Russia maintained over Armenia: Armenia’s corrupt oligarchic system and the military threat coming from Azerbaijan. Civil society and the opposition in Armenia viewed Russia as the sponsor of the autocratic, oligarchic system of governance in Armenia. They have traditionally criticized the government for having closest ties with the country which provides 85 percent of arms export to Azerbaijan-a country which is in continuous conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.  This anti-Russian sentiment reached its apex in 2016 when the intense fighting broke out in Karabagh known as Four-Day War. This drew the public attention to the Russian-supplied arms which played a role in the deaths of dozens of soldiers.

Both opposition leaders and civil society members demanded not only Armenia’s exit from the EAEU, but also an end to the Russian military presence in the country. The anti-Russian rhetoric was useful for both the Armenian government and the opposition to alert Russia not to take Armenia for granted.Hence, in one way the April Revolution in Armenia was a test for Russian-Armenian relations, and Russia viewed it as a new impulse for mutually beneficial relations aimed at restoring the damage of Russia’s protective image among Armenians.Needless to say,Armenia is important to Russia, as losing Armenia would cause fundamental changes in Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus. Furthermore, Armenia can’t cherry-pick among its closest allies because its landlocked position limits the freedom to maneuver in its foreign policy and its economic and defense imperatives dictate a close alignment with Russia. This was reaffirmed by new prime minister and protest leader of Armenia, Nikol Pashinian, who not only supported maintaining the current Russian-Armenian relationship but also suggested a “new impulse” for political and trade relations during the meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 14. During another meeting a month later, Armenian PM expressed his hope that ‘’the relations will develop more effectively on the basis of mutual respect for the best interest and sovereignty of the two States’’.

On the whole, Armenia will continue to pursue its “Complementarian” or multi-vector foreign policy, which means that no radical change in the realm of foreign policy is expected to take place.  Yet there is no strong anti-Russian current in Armenian political and society rhetoric. The recent civic movement was significant in realizing the potential of Russian-Armenian mutual relations for economic development and security. Undeniably, Russia should adopt new approaches towards Armenia and it should realize that under new circumstances the backward-looking policies are destined to be counter-productive. In Armenia people hope that Kremlin wouldn’t serve the old wine in a new bottle.

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