Opinion: Armenia achieves its foreign policy objectives in 2017, but ambition remains constrained by geo-political factors
17 January 2018

Geopolitcs constraints Armenia's flexibility in the sphere of foreign policy. But the signing of an agreement with the EU was a positive step, says Benyamin Poghosyan in this op.ed

2017 was another dynamic year for Armenia's foreign policy. There was no progress in the Karabakh negotiation process, Azerbaijan and Turkey continued their "war of attrition" strategy against Armenia, and the strategic disagreements between Russia and the West put additional pressure on Armenia, restricting its flexibility. However, Armenia managed to end the year with a positive step - the signing of a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the EU.

Karabakh conflict 

The 2016 "four-day" war in Karabakh was a wakeup call for Armenia. The escalation proved that large scale war was possible despite multiple analyses arguing that the international community or multinational oil/gas companies would not allow Azerbaijan to destabilize the situation in the region. The second myth broken by the "Four day" war was the unshakable security guarantees provided by Russia, and reinforced by Armenia's membership into Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The vague Russian reaction, as well as its continued sales of modern arms to Azerbaijan after April 2016, was a clear sign that Russia perceived Armenia as a state totally under the Kremlin's control and with no foreign policy alternatives, and did not bother itrself to think much about Armenia's attitudes and reactions.

With regards to Karabakh, the main task for Armenia in 2017 was to keep the pressure on Azerbaijan to launch investigative mechanisms for ceasefire violations, as was preliminary agreed in the May 2016 Vienna and June 2016 Saint Petersburg summits, whilst simultaneously fortifying the Karabakh-Azerbaijan line of contact with modern devises for visual control. The October 2017 Geneva Presidential summit has shown that the sides are too far away to reach any breakthrough in negotiations, and the main objective of the mediators is the prevention of an outbreak of large-scale hostilities. Given the forthcoming transformation of Armenia into a fully parliamentary republic in April 2018, as well as the scheduled autumn's 2018 Presidential election in Azerbaijan, the negotiation process may be further stalled.

Relations with Turkey

Turkey continued its policy of isolation and blockade against Armenia, overtly connecting any improvements in relations with changes in the status quo in Karabakh. The 2009 Armenia - Turkey protocols are dead, and given the importance of the nationalist vote for Erdogan in the 2019 Presidential elections, it is likely that Ankara will harden its rhetoric on Armenia in 2018. Yerevan's position is clear: Armenia-Turkey relations should be normalized without any preconditions, and the 2009 Protocols  cannot  be stalled forever, they should be either ratified or nullified. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in his speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2017 stated that Armenia will declare the two Protocols null and void  before this Spring 

Relations with Russia

Despite the growth of a negative attitude towards Russia, due to the April 2016 escalation in Karabakh, Armenia continues to be fully anchored in Russian sphere of influence. The weight of history, as well as the necessity to counter Azerbaijani-Turkish joint pressure effectively prevents Yerevan from making substantial shifts in its relations with Russia. The 2.5 million strong Armenian community in Russia, generating annual remittances exceeding one billion USD, is another factor fomenting Russian influence. One of the key tasks for Armenia in its relations with Russia in 2017 was the necessity to expand cooperation in military sphere, to keep the balance of power with Azerbaijan which actively buys modern weaponry from Russia, as well as Israel, Belarus and other countries.

In the framework of Armenian-Russian military cooperation two important milestones were achieved in 2017. The agreement on the establishment of a joint Russia-Armenia military force has been ratified by both Armenian and Russian Parliaments. On December 6, 2017, the Armenian Parliament also ratified the Armenian-Russian 100 million USD state export loan which will allow Yerevan to purchase arms manufactured by Russia.   In 2015 Russia provided a 200 million USD military loan to Armenia which is now in the final stage of realization.

Efforts to develop relations with the West

Despite being incorporated into Russia's sphere of influence Armenia has made efforts to develop relations with the Euro-Atlantic community.   Western financial and technical assistance, as well as strong Armenian communities, particularly in the US and France, have played a significant role in fostering Armenian relations with the US, EU and NATO. Obviously, Armenia was obliged not to cross any red lines in its cooperation with the West which may jeopardize its relations with Russia. Thus, periods of Russia-West confrontation did not bode well for Armenia's efforts to deepen cooperation with the Euro-Atlantic community. In 2013 Armenia was one of the first victims of increasing Russia-West tensions when it was forced to enter the Customs Union, and later EAEU, despite the successful negotiations with the EU  of an Association Agreement which was on the point of being signed. However, in late 2015 Armenia managed to re-launch negotiations with the EU to sign an "Association Agreement light". The EU - Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement was initialed in March 2017, and was signed on November 24, 2017 during the Eastern Partnership Brussels summit. Definitely, both the EU and the Armenian leadership had a clear understanding that any new EU-Armenia agreement should not contradict EAEU regulations. Given the decline in interest and involvement of Euro-Atlantic institutions and actors in the South Caucasus, and growing Russian consolidation of its positions in the region, CEPA has little chance to bring about substantial changes for Armenia in geopolitical terms. However, the agreement will strengthen Armenia's positions in the region, will allow more EU funding for the struggling Armenian economy, and may accelerate the reforms process in the country.

Despite growing Russia-NATO-tensions Armenia has managed to maintain its current level of cooperation with the Alliance. The 2017-2019 Individual Partnership Action Plan is being implemented, and Armenian peacekeeping forces continue to participate in NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo. There were no significant changes in Armenia - US relations, and given the US domestic political turmoil as well as tensions with Russia, Iran and North Korea, Armenia and the South Caucasus in general are not among the top US priorities.

Armenia has overall managed to achieve its main foreign policy goals in 2017 - to prevent the outbreak of large scale hostilities in Karabakh, to keep the establishment of ceasefire violations investigative mechanisms as a priority in Karabakh negotiation process, to receive additional military hardware from Russia, and to make a step forward in its relations with the West. 

source: Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is the Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia. He contributed this op-ed to