The tragedy in Gyumri could become another crack in the stronghold that Putin has built in the former Soviet Union. A Russian soldier killed albeit whole Armenian family near the military base he served. The Armenian society wants the murderer not simply to be punished but to be punished by Armenian authorities. Russia is facing a dilemma – surrendering the criminal would pacify the Armenian public opinion but it also could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and fear (something Russians thinks they can not afford in the region that is ruled by rule of brutal strength rather than by rule of law); not surrendering him can seriously damage relations with Russia’s only ally in the South Caucasus. Most probably the soldier will remain locked at the Gyumri military base until the Armenian society somehow calms down and then he will be transported to Russia. If necessary he could stay at the base for decades; the rights of the Russian servicemen never were priorities of the Russian government and military leadership.
But no matter what Russia does, the relations with its ally have been already harmed. The question is how serious is the damage.
Armenia at first glance looks to be Russia’s loyal ally. As a landlocked country, being at odds with Azerbaijan (the largest South Caucasus state) over Nagorno Karabagh and viewing Turkey as its historical foe, Armenia has no other way but to choose Russia over everyone else. This did not start in 90-ies, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Armenians welcomed Russia’s expansion in the South Caucasus back on late 18th century since it was their chance to get rid of the Turkish domination and rebuild their ancient state. Maybe Russia was not too close to their heart but it was the enemy of their (Armenians’) enemy. When the Soviet empire started to crumble (in late 80-ies) Armenians was among the first (along the Baltic nations and Georgians) to demanded independence. However their fight for independence soon grew into a fight for Karabagh – a territory that was an indispensable part of Armenians’ national identity. When the Soviet Union collapsed Armenians realized they were in a very dangerous position (being blockaded by Azerbaijan and its strong protector, Turkey) and once again Russia was their only choice. As Russia is the only country that has benefited from the Karabagh conflict a legitimate question can be asked: maybe Armenians were manipulated into shifting their priority from seeking independence to seizing Karabagh and thus allowing Russia to stay in the region.
In 1997 Armenia and Russia signed an agreement on friendship, cooperation and mutual support. This landmark document made Armenia albeit a military protectorate of Russia (with the Gyumri base serving as the main tool for protection and Russia’s military presence in the region). Its text did not openly guarantee military support for Armenia but at the same time it obligated both sides to consult with each other in case any of them were threatened. Besides, the agreement allowed Russia to protect Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran.
Since then Armenia’s security policy can be formulated very simply: preserving Karabagh with Russia’s help and to some extent balancing the Russian influence by the US. Balancing Russia by the US was called policy of “complementarism.” Armenia was trying its best not to fall fully into the Russian sphere of influence. It started to cooperate with NATO and became a part of NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan (2005). The powerful Armenian lobby in the US helped a lot with “complementarism” and despite its allegiance to Russia Armenia received significant assistance from the Americans. However playing this game proved to be quite difficult as Russia under Putin’s presidency became increasingly assertive. In 2013 it became more than clear that “complementarism” had its strict limits. It was always a certainty that the cooperation with NATO could never go beyond partnership plans, but at the same time Armenians believed that close partnership with the EU would be allowed. They worked seriously on Associate Agreement with the EU hoping to initiate it in late 2013 (at Vilnius summit). However Putin suddenly decided that Armenia could not be allowed to go that far and he summoned the Armenian president to Moscow for a face-to-face talk. According to reliable sources Putin made his Armenian colleague sit and wait for him not for a few hours (like he does with the Western leaders) but for one day. That gesture indicated Putin’s intentions: Armenia was to be blackmailed. It was to make a choice – either getting close to the EU and losing Russia’s support or join Russia dominated Customs Union and Eurasian Union. Armenia had to yield. As Azerbaijan was getting richer and stronger thanks to oil windfall Armenia could not afford to lose its only ally in Russia.
Russia won easily. However this victory had its price. Putin’s blackmail deeply offended Moscow’s small but ambitious ally. It looked to become the last straw after which the Armenian society would not tolerate any new affronts. The Gyumri tragedy became more than an affront. The fact that it was not meant does not change the situation. 2013 events combined with the Gyumri events will make it very difficult for Moscow.
That does not mean of course that Russia will automatically lose its only ally in the South Caucasus. As long as the Armenians are not ready to make any serious concessions over Karabagh they will face relentless Azerbaijani hostility. With declining population and staggering economy it will be simply impossible for Armenia to neutralize this threat without Moscow’s military assistance. Negotiating with Baku has proved to be extremely difficult task for Yerevan not only because Azerbaijan is equally intransigent over Karabagh but also because the Armenian public opinion, being ignited by anti-Azerbaijani and anti-Turkish sentiments, will not tolerate any concessions. Russia is more than well-aware of these simple truths.
But at the same time Russia will find it difficult to get serious concessions from Yerevan. The Armenian officials will be able to appeal to the public opinion that will not tolerate any more encroachments from Moscow and thus Yerevan’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Russia will be strengthened. The Armenians will be able to frighten their Russian counterparts with the prospect (or rather spook) of the Armenian Maydan – something Moscow genuinely fears. In fact Armenia is no alien to rallies and political turmoil. In early 2008 tens of thousands challenged the results of presidential elections in Yerevan. The government looked to be doomed until it resorted to violence and everything ended in killings and arrests that saved the incumbent government. But the question is could the Yerevan regime survive another such upheaval. For the last years Armenia has fallen dramatically in terms of democratic development and good governance and so the public discontent could burst out any moment, especially after the Gyumri events. Plus, the Armenian society is getting increasingly annoyed with the fact that for almost two decades the country has been run by so called Karabagh clan (which definitely puts Karabagh on the top of the agenda somehow neglecting other priorities). Armenia is not a typical post-Soviet dictatorship and its society is desperate for changes and reforms that can finish with corruption and brain drain and boost economic development.
Doubtless, the Russians are well-aware of these truths too. If they are not then it is even worse for Moscow. If it does not realize that after the Gyumri events it has to be more careful both with the Armenian public opinion and the Armenian authorities then it may risk losing its ally. If Moscow pushes further its agenda with its small partner the latter may slip away. The Armenians may start to remember and realize that their country have lost a lot for the last two decades. Many of their economic assets were overtaken by Russia only in order not to fall into somebody else’s hands. The country has left out of major regional projects (like energy and transport corridors) and its democratic transformation has stalled.
But the fact is that Putin’s Russia never has shown necessary respect for popular opinion. Putin is strong when it comes to bullying his colleagues and bribing policymakers in partner countries but he never actually realized the importance of winning hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. He managed to win hearts and minds of Russians through state propaganda but he hardly seems to care that much when it comes to someone else (Ukrainians, Belarusians or Armenians). So it should be no surprise if Moscow disregards Armenian sentiments and consequently alienates its ally. In fact Russians’ first reaction after the Gyumri events was to transport the murderer to Russia and only vociferous protests from the Armenian officials kept them from doing that.
Making disastrous mistakes has become business as usual for Moscow since the annexation of Crimea. So nothing should come as a surprise. When cracks appear it is only a matter of time…