Armenian Foreign Policy Is About to Change

As the US influence in South Caucasus increases, Armenia is edging closer to revision of its foreign policy priorities. Rapprochement with Georgia is one of the signs of this painstaking process.

Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan told the Mediamax news agency on April 4 that “uncertainty has emerged” in the South Caucasus after the war had started in Afghanistan. The intention of the US administration on increased military assistance to Georgia generated further anxiety in Armenian policy circles.

It seems that Armenia began to re-assess the regional situation from the mid- and long-term perspective. Recent declarations of the Armenian officials reflect solidifying pragmatism of the Armenian foreign policy, anticipating improved communication with Turkey and building close ties with Georgia.

At the press conference held 4 April, Armenia’s foreign minister declared that in shaping its approach Yerevan takes into account both regional and international processes. Among them – lifting of the US restrictions on arms supply to Azerbaijan and Armenia; increased US military presence in Georgia and Central Asia and continued unease between the United States and Iran – Armenia’s close ally.

In an unprecedented announcement, Armenian foreign minister also acknowledged the essential role of Turkey in the Caucasus. He said, “We will try to liven our communication with Turkey… Armenia must keep the channels open for the dialogue with Turkey.”

According to senior fellow Archil Gegeshidze at the Georgian Foundation for Strategy and International Studies (GFSIS), “Armenia perceives the Turkish role in the Caucasus equation correctly and sees normalization of relations with Turkey as inevitable”.

However, Armenia would have to overcome the legacy of mistrust and animosity, associated with the dispute over Armenian genocide in Ottoman Empire, and more recent disagreement over Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in which Turkish diplomacy backed its prime ally – Azerbaijan. Though, according to Mr. Gegeshidze, despite the problems, changed tone of the Armenian top officials points out that the long-term calculations are taking precedence over past disagreements.

Prudent regional policy on behalf of Armenia implies a complex balancing act amidst the vested interests of the regional powers. “Armenia will try not to upset this balance. Consequently, the pace of distancing from Russia should not exceed the pace of strengthening western influence and interests in the region,” remarks Archil Gegeshidze.

Aside from foreign-policy prudence, Armenian President Robert Kocharian has to have an eye on internal politics as well, not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor – Levon Ter-Petrosian. Ter-Petrosian was forced to resign after he attempted to steer away from a traditional close alliance with Russia and profess more balanced approach towards the west and Turkey.

Some analysts in Georgia like Alexander Rondeli, President of the GFSIS remains skeptical over the extent to which Armenia can be able to distance from Russia. Rondeli says, “Russia has invested too much into Armenia” to allow for radical shifts in Yerevan’s policy.

According to GFSIS experts, the nature of relationship between Armenia and Russia will largely depend on the dynamics of relationship between US and Russia on fundamental issues, including the Caucasus.

Under these circumstances rapprochement with Georgia becomes the least controversial testing ground for Armenia’s new approach. Yerevan hopes to get rid of possible isolation by means of Georgia. Georgia will serve as both political and economic lifeline through which Armenia tries to tackle new challenges and use new opportunities.

Against the background of Turkey and Azerbaijan, Georgia is the most neutral ally to the United States in the region for Armenia; hence Armenian decision-makers seem posed to attempt to demonstrate their loyalty to the west by encouraging cooperation with Georgia. Otherwise, they risk falling in the camp rival to the US interests in the region, alongside with Iran and Russia.

On April 4 special, closed hearings were held at the National Assembly of Armenia (the Parliament) on future relations with Georgia, America’s new role in the Caucasus and other substantial regional issues for Armenia. The Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian and the Defense Minister Serj Sarkisian delivered their testimonies.

At the press-conference held after the hearings Oskanyan said Armenia would pay special attention to the development relations with Georgia, since stability in this country is of great importance to Yerevan: “We shall try to do everything within our possibilities to ensure stability in Georgia.”

This approach has explanations beyond the purely geopolitical calculations. Economically, transit route through Georgia ensures contacts with the outside world to the landlocked country, virtually blockaded from Azeri and Turkish sides.

Georgia, on its side seems to be going along with Armenian policies. In the beginning of April Georgian Chief of General Staff Joni Pirtskhalaishvili visited Yerevan to sketch future military cooperation.

During the meeting with Armenian Prime-Minister, Andranik Markarian emphasized they would like to see “Georgia as a strong, stable and economically developed country.”

Georgia is deeply interested in revitalizing its ties with Armenia. Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti province, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, has been a source of unease in Georgian politics. The fears persist that the Armenian population may step up the sentiments for greater autonomy and it is feared, that the Russian military base stationed in the region may act as a fuse to destabilize one additional region of the troubled Georgian state.

From time to time there are rumors in Samtskhe-Javakheti according to which Georgian authorities are going to lend military bases to Turkey that seeds panic among local Armenians. The situation is further complicated by the fact substantial part of local citizens is employed at existing Russian military base. Moscow always uses this factor masterfully to pressure both Tbilisi and Yerevan.

But the geopolitical dйtente triggers frequent visits to Samtskhe-Javakheti both from Yerevan and Tbilisi aimed at defying separatist sentiments in the region. “The whole problem lies not in Javahketi, but outside of it”, said Stepan Markarian, a top aide to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian.

There is a concern in Tbilisi that Armenia will use ethnic Armenian population against Georgia. Though, emerging pragmatism in Armenian politics convinces many that the Armenian government would not make such step. “Armenia did not do that, could not do that and will not do that, especially under these new circumstances”, observes Archil Gegeshidze.

At present, Armenian officials’ hint towards foreign policy alteration fully responds to the logic of the mentioned processes in the region. Unless existing trends change, relations between Armenia and Georgia become more intense and warm.

By Revaz Bakhtadze,
Civil Georgia