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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

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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