An Armenian general is now at the helm of the CSTO military alliance. In this op-ed for commonspace.eu Dr Benyamin Poghosyan argues that for Armenia this may prove to be a double edged sword.
The South Caucasus is one of the battlefields in the current Russia-West confrontation. As a part of the former Soviet space, the region is perceived by Russia as an area of its legitimate "special interests." This view serves as a cornerstone of Russian policy aimed at restoring its influence in the South Caucasus and thwarting growing Western presence in the region. For the West, including the United States, NATO and the EU, the view of the region is defined by its role as a key transit route for Caspian energy resources to reach Europe circumventing Russia, and as an important gateway to exert influence in the nearby Middle East. Regional geopolitics competition is further complicated by the onset of Iranian and Turkish competition. Turkey is trying to strengthen its position in the region through its strategic alliance with Azerbaijan and growing cooperation with Georgia, while simultaneously being careful not to harm its delicate relations with Russia. For Iran, the main concern is to prevent growing Western, Turkish as well as Israeli influence in the South Caucasus, and to use its geographic location to launch new transit routes towards Europe.
The three internationally recognized states in the region - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, are pursuing different foreign policy goals. Armenia is fully anchored in the Russian sphere of influence, using its strategic alliance with Russia as leverage to balance Turkey and to receive modern Russian weapons for relatively low prices. Meanwhile, the April 2016 four-day war over Nagorno Karabakh proved to Yerevan that it couldn't solely rely on Russia to secure the de facto independence of Karabakh. The large-scale sales of Russian weaponry to Azerbaijan over the last several years, as well as a rather ambiguous position of Russia during the 2016 hostilities, were alarming to Armenia. Although Armenia's membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union, as well the current stalemate in Russia-West relations do not leave much room for foreign policy maneuvering, since April 2016, Armenia has made significant gains in deepening its relations with the West, initialing on March 21, 2017 a new Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU, for example.
Georgia, on the other hand, continues to pursue membership in both the EU and NATO, although both sides have a clear understanding that this is not a likely outcome for Georgia in the foreseeable future. Since 2012, the new Georgian authorities have made some efforts to improve relations with Russia, which resulted in the re-opening of Russian markets for Georgian products, although Russia's recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence effectively limits any option for a real breakthrough in bilateral relations. Georgia continues to position itself as a main Western partner in the region and as a key transit route for connecting both the Caspian basin and Persian Gulf with Europe, thereby trying to increase its significance for Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran.
For Azerbaijan, its foreign policy vision is centered on balanced relations with both Russia and West and a reliance on its natural resources. The strategic alliance with Turkey boosts Azerbaijan confidence in its dealings with Russia, the West and Iran. Azerbaijan is cultivating closer military cooperation with Russia, thus modernizing its army and putting pressure on Armenia. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is not excited over the possibility of membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, or the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh, which inevitably will only result in a dramatic increase of Russian influence in Azerbaijan.
Russia actively uses institutionalized mechanisms for increasing its influence in the post-Soviet space. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is one of the tools which Russia views as crucial in this regard. The six-member military alliance extends to Central Asia, and to the South Caucasus through the membership of Armenia, as well as towards a central European direction as a result of the membership of Belarus. On the other hand, CSTO member countries mainly view this organization through the prism of relations with Russia. The lack of foreign policy coordination and even overt contradictions between CSTO members do not bode well for the unity of the organization. This is especially true for Armenia, whose leadership has reiterated many times that anti-Armenian behavior and statements by some CSTO members regarding the Karabakh conflict is a key obstacle on the road to a more coherent alliance. The recent decision by Belarus, for example, to extradite the blogger Lapshin to Azerbaijan was another proof that CSTO members are not keen to take into account Armenian interests. Membership in the CSTO is seen in Armenia as a step valued mainly from the perspective of its strategic alliance with Russia.
Since last autumn, the main issue for Armenia was the postponement of the election of Armenia's representative as Secretary General of CSTO. The organization made a decision that the position of Secretary General should be rotated among member states according to alphabetical order which gave Armenia the number one spot. The decision was expected to be announced at the October, or failing that the December, 2016 summits of CSTO but it was postponed due the absence of Kazakhstan and Belarus leaders, respectfully. This delay was perceived in Armenia to be a direct result of Azerbaijani influence, which put Armenia in a difficult position within the alliance. The decision on this issue was finally made on April 14, 2017, and the former Armenian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff, Yuri Khachaturov, is now appointed as the CSTO Secretary-General.
This appointment has both positive and negative implications for Armenia. The decision decreased the level of anxiety within Armenian political circles and proved that Armenia is still capable to defend its interests within the CSTO alliance. Obviously, any decision on the CSTO Secretary-General position cannot be made without Russian consent, and resistance regarding the appointment of Yuri Khachaturov was overcome through Russian lobbying, which is a sign that Russia is not ready to abandon Armenia. Meanwhile, in view of the current impasse in US-Russia and Russia-NATO relations, and given that this situation is unlikely to change in the short-term, Russia may try to use the CSTO more actively in its ongoing disputes with the US and with NATO. In this case, an Armenian Secretary-General at the helm of the CSTO may complicate Armenia's efforts to develop its relations with the West. As for regional geopolitics, the CSTO is perceived as just another arm of Russia, and any change in its leadership are not likely to bring serious changes in the current status quo.
Dr Benyamin Poghosyan is Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia. He contributed this op-ed to commonspace.eu
Photo: Dr Yuri Khachaturov, the newly appointed Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO)
European Commissioner Johannes Hahn held discussions with officials from the South Caucasus on the margins of the Munich Security Conference