Q&A: What’s Behind Armenia’s Decision to Skip UNGA Vote on Georgia’s IDP Resolution?

The United Nations General Assembly adopted on June 4 a resolution reiterating the right of return of all displaced persons and refugees to Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia.

Similar resolutions have been passed by the UN General Assembly for 12 years running now, with the first one initiated by Georgia back in May 2008, before the hostilities of the Russo-Georgian war have started.

Following the war, Tbilisi sees the document, even through it is non-binding, as an important diplomatic instrument to keep the international attention focused on humanitarian aspects pertaining to effective Russian occupation of the two regions. Growing number of the supporters serves also as a public shaming of the Russian delegation – pointing to its international isolation.

All European Union countries and the United States, as well as the growing number of countries from the rest of the world (79 in total, by 2019) vote for the resolution, affirming the right of those displaced from the two regions, to return to their homes. A handful of others votes against – 15 states, including Russia, made this choice in 2019. Large proportion abstains – 57 in 2019. Some are trying to stay out of the great-power game, while some others are too distant to care for Georgia issues. This list of abstainers also includes Switzerland, which does not want to compromise its status of a diplomatic go-between. Yet, another group, too torn by conflicting priorities to vote either way, decides not to show up.

This year marked the first time the Armenian delegation, which traditionally voted against the resolution, decided to skip the voting procedure, in an apparent attempt to signal a change in its policy. The usual decision to vote against – disappointing, but received with understanding by the Georgian diplomacy –  was caused by the complications related to Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

So what changed now? To reflect on this question, Civil.Ge has approached five Armenian foreign policy experts – Richard Giragosian, Anahit Shirinyan, Armen Grigoryan, Erik Davtyan and Johnny Melikian. We offer their responses below.

Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), a Yerevan-based think tank

This year, Armenia has skipped the UNGA vote, in a move widely seen as a more careful and cautious diplomatic position on the issue. For Armenia, despite expectations and perhaps pressure from Russia, the decision was a compromise, aimed at no longer angering its important neighbor Georgia, while seeking more flexibility from the Moscow line in UN votes.

At the same time, with the coming to power of a more open and more democratic government in 2018, Armenian foreign policy has now adopted a more innovative and emboldened diplomatic strategy, no longer blindly following Russia. Moreover, in dealing with its crucial neighbors, Georgia and Iran, Armenia will now seek more distance from both the Russian and the American “party lines.”

Nevertheless, Armenia will remain cautious on issues that pose any diplomatic question over territorial integrity or any issue that would have influence or hold precedence over the Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) conflict.

And under this new, more innovative and assertive foreign policy, there is also a degree of greater confidence or enhanced competence in diplomacy. Thus, Armenia is now moving away from its past voting record of an overly fearful submission to Russian preferences, or of failing to uphold the moral high ground when it comes to the Russian seizure of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, or on Syria, where any blind allegiance to Moscow’s policy preferences would inflict diplomatic penalties on Armenia. And this change will only be bolstered by Armenia’s now demonstrable democratic credentials and dynamic diplomatic credibility.

Anahit Shirinyan, foreign policy analyst

I believe the move was within the logic of the formula that the Pashinyan government has suggested for Armenia-Georgia relations — not allowing that third party factors indirectly impede these relations. Cooperation between the two countries has been constrained due to Yerevan and Tbilisi aligning themselves with each other’s rivals – Yerevan with Moscow, and Tbilisi with Baku and Ankara. This would be translated into voting against each other’s interests at multilateral platforms such as the UN. More broadly, third party factors have hindered the Armenian-Georgian cooperation from reaching its full potential.

Since coming into power through the Velvet Revolution in May 2018, Pashinyan has prioritized building closer ties with Tbilisi. His first official visit was to Georgia, signaling the importance that Armenia attaches to its northern neighbor. The dynamics of formal and informal meetings between the officials of the two countries has grown. Armenia’s move to skip the recent vote at the UN sends the message to Tbilisi that Yerevan means what it says. The move entails a bit of a sacrifice on the part of Armenia — Russia certainly noted the sudden change. But this also means that Yerevan expects that Tbilisi will respond in kind when there is a UN resolution that concerns Armenian interests — usually those resolutions are initiated by Azerbaijan. These reciprocity may entail small steps to begin with, but they would establish that Yerevan and Tbilisi want to take control over the dynamics of their bilateral relations and ward off any third party influence.

Armen Grigoryan, political analyst, fellow at the Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN)

It was probably a combination of several factors [that influenced change]. In recent months, contacts between the Armenian and Georgian officials have been intensifying on different levels. As the importance of deepening the Armenian-Georgia relations is well-understood in Yerevan, even a symbolic yet noteworthy action was perhaps considered useful. The timing was also quite fortunate, as the latest worsening of the Russo-Georgian relations had not yet happened. So, skipping the vote rather than voting against the resolution like before was probably viewed as the safest way to indicate that Armenia intends to pursue it foreign policy independently, and that it could be reconciled with the Armenian policymakers’ perception that they have to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin. At the same time, although the Armenian government would still be careful in avoiding steps that could be perceived as confrontational in Moscow, the Russian state-run media’s involvement in a propaganda campaign by former President Robert Kocharyan’s proxies to destabilize the political situation in Armenia required some kind of reaction.

More recently, another important development took place: as Russian ambassador to Armenia Sergey Kopirkin started a series of meetings with some former officials and their remaining allies, he was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia and was warned that further interference in the internal affairs of the country would be impermissible. Many would consider this quite unexpected, but several officials and MPs, particularly those coming from the expert community, understand that further concessions to Russia will endanger the fragile order in Armenia. So, although steps towards a policy less dependent on Russia will remain very cautious, there will likely be some more moves.

Erik Davtyan, PhD, assistant professor at the Faculty of International Relations, Yerevan State University

In my opinion, the Armenian government wanted to deliver a simple message both to the Georgian society and the government that Yerevan is making the first step towards reaching a consensus on issues that potentially affect the Georgian-Armenian relations. It goes without saying that Armenia has always recognized Georgia’s territorial integrity, so this step was a kind of a gesture of continuing its commitment to the non-recognition policy vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This particular case looms large as voting against each other in international organizations (no matter resolutions are binding or not) resonates negatively in both countries (particularly at the societal level) and is perceived as disregard towards each other’s sensitive issues and core national interests. Obviously, this step was also stipulated by Armenia’s expectations of reciprocity in terms of Georgia’s voting behavior on the Nagorno Karabakh issue.

Johnny Melikian, research fellow at the Center for Regional Studies of the Public Administration Academy

Armenian-Georgian relations could be characterized as a neighborly partnership with mutual trust and benefit. In the last few years, the bilateral cooperation has intensified, including in the fields of political dialogue, humanitarian issues and economy (trade, tourism, infrastructure, energy sector etc.).

The decision of the Armenian delegation not to vote against the resolution is undoubtedly a massage to Tbilisi that Yerevan is ready to deepen the bilateral cooperation. It was also a step to go back to the “gentlemen’s agreement,” adopted informally in the 90s, with the main idea being to cooperate and not to vote against each other at multilateral forums. It was also a result of the past two rounds of informal meetings between prime ministers Nikol Pashinyan and Mamuka Bakhtadze. It seems they have reached an informal agreement not to vote against each other.

It also should be mentioned, that for Armenia voting for the resolution would be impossible considering the Nagorno-Karabakh issue; voting for the resolution, which is co-sponsored by Azerbaijan, and discussed under the agenda of the UNGA’s 73th session, named “Protracted conflicts in the GUAM area and their implications for international peace, security and development” would be against Armenia’s interests.

So, summing up, we can say that by not voting against the resolution, Armenia has made a positive step towards Georgia, preserved its strategic partnership with Russia, and, finally, spoiled Azerbaijan’s propaganda efforts in Georgia, which has consistently used this issue against Armenia since 2008.

This publication was prepared with the support of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting within the framework of the “Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes” Project. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.