By Nora T. Kalinskij
It took less than two weeks of protests for Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, the former two-term president who had previously said he would not take the premiership, to step down from the position. The leader of the protests last week called it a “velvet revolution,” a reference to the pro-democracy color revolutions of the early 2000s that swept the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. But this was no color revolution. The color revolutions pulled states out of Russia’s orbit. Armenia, however, has nowhere else to go.
Limits of the West
In the color revolutions of the past, the West offered indirect support to the protesters through vehicles like nongovernmental organizations. Yet there is no overt evidence that the United States or any European countries directly funded or otherwise materially supported the Armenian protests. In fact, no Western government even made statements criticizing Sargsyan or his government. A few Western-funded NGOs went so far as to sign a petition in support of the protests, but this hardly suggests that a dramatic political transformation is imminent.
But just because the protests were unlikely to have been directed from abroad does not mean foreign powers can’t take advantage of them. If Armenian unrest continues – with Western help, perhaps – neighboring Azerbaijan could be tempted to try to take advantage. Both countries are in a vulnerable spot in the South Caucasus near Russia’s border, and instability there would force Moscow to divert resources from places the West is focused on, like Syria, to restore control. For now, with the way things are trending, the West is content to watch the situation unfold. Armenia is a key Russian ally in a crucial buffer zone, so Russia is already on the defensive.
But although the West could make things worse, it cannot hope to flip Armenia into the Western camp. The opposition in Armenia has traditionally criticized Sargsyan for his close ties with Russia, yet there is no strong anti-Russian current in Armenian politics. The Way Out alliance, or Yelk, the one liberal party in the parliament that opposes integration with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, holds only nine seats out of 105. For now, there will be an interim government, and the protesters are calling for a new election. But even if protest votes weaken the ruling Republican Party, the new government will follow the foreign policy lines of the previous one when it comes to Russia. Unlike the 2013-14 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, where a majority of the country was pro-West, in Armenia even the interim government will lean toward Russia. Instability, not regime change, is the West’s goal for now.
This is because Armenia’s economic and defense imperatives dictate a close alignment with Russia. Armenia is landlocked, and its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed. It has about a 27-mile (44-kilometer) border to the south with Iran, and a much larger border with Georgia to the north. In 2016, 31 percent of its imports came from Russia via Georgia, including energy resources, food supplies and transport vehicles. The fortunes of numerous Armenian oligarchs depend on trade with Russia, and, as is common in post-Soviet states, they wield considerable political power. If Armenia is to avoid a severe recession and import shortages of energy, food and other essentials, good trade relations with Russia are a must.
Russia also shields Armenia from security threats posed by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Armenia is locked in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and a number of Azerbaijani provinces that Armenia occupied during the war over the region in the early 1990s. The border between the two countries is always tense, with daily cease-fire violations. Russia keeps the conflict from boiling over by making sure that no side gets enough of an advantage over the other that warfare would become an option. It does this by positioning itself as the primary weapons supplier of both sides. If war between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out, Turkey may intervene on the side of Azerbaijan. Such a conflict would threaten to spill over into Russia’s Muslim regions in the North Caucasus. War in the Caucasus is the last thing Russia wants, especially as it’s considering how best to respond to U.S.-led airstrikes against Assad regime targets in Syria.
Azerbaijan does not have a decisive military advantage over Armenia, but if unrest in Armenia leads to political chaos in the upper echelons of the government, Azerbaijan might seek to take advantage and reconquer some of the territory it lost in the 1988-94 war. The political situation in Armenia isn’t yet so dire, so for now Azerbaijan is biding its time. But members of parliament in Azerbaijan have endorsed the protests in Armenia in hopes that Sargsyan’s removal will be followed by the demise of a clan of Armenian politicians who hail from Nagorno-Karabakh, Sargsyan being one of them. Azerbaijan’s statements of support for the protests are an indication that the country seeks to exploit the protests for its own ends.
The Turkish threat to Armenia is less straightforward. Turkey, like Russia, is bogged down in Syria. But even though Turkey is not in a position to project military power in Armenia, the South Caucasus is as important for Turkey as it is for Russia. Moreover, Turkey’s ambition and power are growing, which is worrying for Armenia. Just last month, Armenia scrapped a peace agreement it signed with Turkey in 2009, accusing Turkey of making no efforts to ratify it. Animosity between the two countries goes back over a century, and besides, Russia is easier for Armenia to work with – it’s farther away and less demanding. A Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia, acts as a security guarantee against the Turkish expansionism that Armenians fear. It’s also a guarantee that Russia will not forsake Armenia.
Until Armenia’s economic and defense constraints change, it will continue to need to align with Russia. But even though the protests may not be a color revolution, that does not preclude them from having serious consequences. The U.S. and EU, Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey each has its own interests in Armenia’s fate. A fragile political environment forces Russia to ensure that its position in Armenia remains strong and creates possibilities for challengers to try to weaken Russia or even to increase their own standing in the Caucasus. Because Armenia is in the middle of these forces, the resilience of the protests constitutes a serious threat to the South Caucasus’ fragile political balance. The likeliest scenario is still that they fizzle out, but the fault lines they have laid bare are not going anywhere. There is a lot of tinder here waiting for a match.