Which country do Armenians regard as Armenia’s “main friend”?: Attempting to interpret changes in Armenian Perspectives on Foreign Nations

By Sean Eriksen
International Volunteer

While Armenia’s 2018 revolution cleared the way for a new government that has promised a vast transformation of Armenian politics, in the field of foreign relations the new Prime Minister Pashinyan has been remarkably similar to his predecessor. As compared to, for example, Georgia or Ukraine, Armenia has long fallen into the category of post-Soviet state that observes friendly relations with Russia at practically all levels of society. Indeed, although Pashinyan has been careful to rhetorically distance himself from strict alignment to either Russia or the West (i.e., the USA and the EU), in practice, he has inherited a respective closeness and distance which could never be anything but rhetorical: Armenia is a member of both the Russian-led CSTO and EEU, as opposed to NATO and the EU. And parallel attitudes are reflected in the wider population in the sense that, according to the 2017 CRRC Caucasus Barometer, 64% of Armenians regard Russia as their country’s main friend, followed by France at 17%, with the USA coming in sixth place at 2%. But however high the number might still be, the identification of Russia as Armenia’s main friend fell by 20% from 2013-2017. Unfortunately, there is little explicit information on the reasons why Armenians gave these answers, which have been reflected in other surveys, and an exploration of this topic necessarily relies on careful speculation. However, through cautious reflection on the causes of this current situation it is possible to identify several reasons to expect Armenia to move closer towards the West.

While it did not ask respondents to give reasons for why they identified a particular country as Armenia’s main friend, the 2017 Caucasus Barometer gives insight into the factors that shape Armenian views on international relations by showing that Armenians unequivocally prioritise economic development. Indeed, more than half of respondents chose either unemployment or poverty as the most important issue facing the country; whereas only 12% selected either ‘lack of peace’ or ‘unresolved territorial conflicts’, despite the nation’s ongoing war with Azerbaijan. Notably, Armenia is a landlocked country that has been embargoed by both Turkey and Azerbaijan, forcing it to conduct trade only through air cargo, Georgia, and Iran, which has itself almost always been isolated by international sanctions. According to the World Bank, the result is that, using the passage through Georgia, Russia is by far Armenia’s largest trading partner, buying more than a quarter of its exports, dwarfing US or even EU engagement and allowing economic factors to partially explain the relationship. 

However, an economic relationship of great depth is not necessarily one that is mutually beneficial. As highlighted by an analyst from RWR Advisory Group, a consultancy firm specialising in the surreptitious economic influence of Russian and Chinese companies, Russia exerts control over various Armenian economic sectors—especially mining, energy, and transportation. In 2015, major protests against the then-president, Serzh Sarksian, erupted over his agreement to an electricity price hike initiated by a Russian-owned company that held a monopoly on distribution, indicating that acquiescence to Russian economic interests is harmful to an Armenian politician’s domestic political standing. That such Russian leverage over Armenian policy can be mitigated by diversifying economic ties is in itself motivation to pursue a deeper relationship with the West. 

The 2017 Caucasus Barometer revealed that Armenians are secondly most concerned with national security, as expressed by 12% of respondents selecting either lack of peace or unresolved territorial conflicts as the most important issue facing the country. This is unsurprising in a small nation that has been denied statehood for most of modern history, while being a victim of frequent ethnic cleansing and one infamous genocide, and which is otherwise still at war with Azerbaijan. It is reasonable to conclude that these factors also affect their relations with other countries. It is therefore notable that Russia has often been regarded as the chief foreign defender against the Turkish state. As far back as 1829, Alexander Pushkin detailed in his ‘Road to Arzrum’ how the Russian army was cheered by Armenians in the streets of captured towns during one of the Russo-Ottoman Wars. Of course, contradictory events stand out: most notably, the 1920 Soviet invasion of Armenia, which brought an end to the first independent Armenian state since the fall of the Kingdom of Cilicia in 1375, and the prompt cession of much of the traditional Armenian homeland to Turkey in the Treaty of Kars, including the spiritually important Mt Ararat. But in these circumstances the United States still positioned itself badly, from the Armenian perspective, by allowing the accession of Turkey to NATO soon after Stalin demanded an annulment of the Treaty of Kars, and consequently becoming a major contributor of military aid to Turkey. In this fashion they inadvertently appointed themselves the defenders of a status quo in which traditionally Armenian territory remained abroad.

Yet the extent to which Armenians perceive the United States as a friend to Turkey may diminish as a result of the real breakdown in the US-Turkish relationship. Largely since the rise of President Recep Erdoğan, according to official US government figures, military aid to Turkey has been slowing rapidly and, in 2017, ceased altogether. In 2018, the countries even briefly targeted sanctions at each other’s top officials over a dispute about the detention of an American pastor in Turkey. While this has been occurring, the Turkish relationship with Russia has been improving dramatically, marked by frequent visits and, in 2018, the sale of a Russian missile system to Turkey. Certainly such warmness between Russia and Turkey has caused frustration on the part of the Americans, and cannot be pleasing to Armenians either. 

This also raises the associated matter of Armenia’s ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is the final major factor affecting Armenian feelings towards foreign nations. As such, one would expect Armenian security ties to Russia, most importantly through membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), to cement the relationship. However, Armenia’s inclusion in the CSTO has ostensibly no bearing on the conflict against Azerbaijan, even as a deterrent, as was made evident by the 2016 Four-Day War, where Russia was impartial even in rhetoric. Moreover, while Russia does sell arms on credit to Armenia, Azerbaijan in recent years has purchased about 65% of its weapons from the Russian Federation, which likely has some effect on the perception of Russia as Armenia’s main friend. In comparison, due to an OSCE embargo, many Western countries have agreed to prohibit arms sales to both belligerents. 

Although it is impossible to be sure of why Armenians identified certain countries as their main friend, reflection on likely reasons gives cause to expect major change. This conclusion may be drawn from the weakening of factors that historically have tied Armenia to Russia, as well as those that have caused tension between Armenia and the West. It is sensible to reiterate that this change in attitude has already begun to manifest in the way that identification of Russia as Armenia’s main friend fell 20% from 2013 to 2017. As such, although the Velvet Revolution did not have a foreign policy element in the fashion of, for example, Euromaidan in Ukraine, there are nevertheless many reasons why the new and future governments will change the country’s international course.

The views of the author of the article do not necessarily coincide with those of CRRC-Armenia.