Armenia urgently needs to reform its diplomacy

By Vicken Cheterian

Armenia urgently needs to reform its diplomatic institution. More than any other state institution, it will be the foreign ministry that will enable Armenia to solve some of its many problems in the immediate and medium term, namely to redress the disequilibrium with Baku created since November 2020. While military reforms are needed to preserve what is there, it is only through diplomacy Armenia has a chance to change the new balance of power in its favor.

In this, I am in full agreement with Armenia’s former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who in a recent article argues: “in Armenia’s post-war period diplomacy must assume a primary and qualitatively new role. The military preparedness of the Armenian army is extremely important. But its usefulness is limited to reining in Azerbaijan’s blatant aggressions. Today the army cannot and will not solve the overwhelming and urgent problems before us. That can only be done through effective diplomacy.”

Yet, in this article, I will argue that in order to achieve political results and assume a “qualitatively new role”, Armenia needs major changes in its diplomatic strategy, culture, resources it uses, and institutional environment.

Let us enumerate the challenges in front of Armenia’s diplomacy. The most urgent task is to restrain bellicose Azerbaijan by creating an international alliance that forces Azerbaijan to abandon its diktat and engage in negotiations. Armenia might be able to profit from the mistakes made by the rulers of Baku and therefore recover some of the political losses of 2020 only by skillful diplomacy in building large alliances and isolating Azerbaijan (it was the same way Azerbaijan succeeded militarily last year, by bringing in several actors against an isolated Armenia).

The second important task is to become relevant to Russia. Armenian policymakers took Russian support for granted. In the post-war period, Armenia is even in greater dependence on Russian military support, and a burden on its resources. This support will not materialize if Armenia is unable to provide services in return to Russia. Diplomacy could be one of the major areas through which Armenia could become relevant to Russia.

France and the US are two countries that might be interested in redressing the balance of forces between Armenia and Azerbaijan, be sources of major investments, assistance to reform Armenia’s obsolete administration and industry, and even be partners in strengthening Armenia’s military. All this should be done without crossing “red-lines” and angering the Kremlin. This can only be done through the art of diplomacy.

Armenia needs much diplomatic skills to talk to Ankara and ensure that Turkey will not be a security threat in the future. Armenia also needs to convince Ankara to remain neutral in the Karabakh conflict, a precondition to be able to negotiate with Baku. In the past three decades, this proved to be mission impossible. Again, only high-quality diplomacy could solve such tasks, which became even more difficult after 2020.

Finally, Armenia needs to engage with Iran, that major neighboring power that has been much ignored. Iran is a complex and rich country with huge potential politically, economically and strategically, and it deserves much more attention. It is one of the keys to redressing the balance of forces in the Karabakh conflict.

In its foreign policy strategy, Armenia needs an active rather than passive approach, based on searching for asymmetric solutions to Azerbaijani pressures. During the war, and in the post-war period, an over-confident Azerbaijani leadership accumulated enormous contradictions and mistakes, giving Armenian diplomacy many occasions. In order to profit from this, Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs should gear into active rather than passive mode. In the last two decades, Armenia’s diplomacy was a conservative one because the task put in front of it made it defensive: to preserve the status quo. This strategy made certain demands from Armenian diplomats: to run their daily routine instead of harness the full capacity of the ministry towards problem solving. Today, this conservative culture needs a revolution to turn Armenian diplomats into problem solvers, rather than representatives of a “normal” state.

The nomination of Ararat Mirzoyan, a politician and not a diplomat, is a right step for two reasons. First, Armenia needs a politician with a vision and the skill-set to lead its foreign relations, rather than a career diplomat. Second, since 2018 there was evident dissonance between the office of prime minister and the diplomatic service, something that might be sorted out with Mirzoyan heading the foreign ministry. Now communications re-established, Armenia needs not only a foreign policy vision but also a leader that can harness all the energies of its diplomatic apparatus to achieve results. Will Mirzoyan be that leader?

To achieve the monumental tasks in front of Armenia’s diplomats, the country needs to mobilize all possible resources: available at the ministry, harness more resources available in Armenia, and evidently search for additional resources within the Diaspora(s). For many years Armenia’s diplomacy was ignoring many of the resources that were at its reach. Take one example: the Karabakh problem. The details of the Karabakh negotiations were concentrated in the hands of a few, four or five people. When I asked questions on Karabakh to diplomats in key capitals, they simply did not have information. Many embassies in key capitals are simply dormant, while qualified diplomats are posted in secondary countries. The ministry needs to emphasize its human resources management. A small country like Armenia, if it decides to solve problems rather than keep them, cannot afford such a luxury. The entire foreign ministry should be harnessed to problem solving, not to observing protocol. To achieve those aims, the foreign ministry should recruit the best, use all of its human resources, and create all conditions that its diplomats are initiative takers. They should be not only skilled diplomats but also have the instinct of entrepreneurs.

To have an efficient diplomacy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not enough. Any country needs a broader institutional environment. In this Armenia has several problems: for decades key universities and research institutions were kept out of working on real political questions, turning them increasingly parochial and irrelevant. Since the defeat of 2020, a gap emerged between the political class and the intellectual and technocratic circles in Yerevan, this second accusing the first of being responsible for the 2020 disaster, and the first reacting by isolating itself. There is another way, that of political leaders engaging the urban educated classes, entering not only in dialogue but also offering cooperation to overcome some of Armenia’s many problems.

There is much talk about establishing “think tanks” with the understanding that at least part of the failure of 2020 was caused by being unable to read international politics. I have counted eight such projects of late. While Armenia has serious gaps in human resources to fill more than two think tanks with people who have basic understanding of international politics, diplomacy, security, law or economics, yet the major challenge will not be in human resources: if a think tank produces relevant reports, will government officials read them? Will they consult those few experts available?

Finally, Yerevan ignored the rich resources at its disposal in Diaspora communities. Many of Armenia’s current problems can be solved if Yerevan develops the vision and the leadership to use the potential of Diaspora communities and individuals. Yet, this can be done only by changing Armenia-Diaspora relations, giving more voice, tasks, but also responsibility to Diaspora individuals and organizations. Yerevan and Diaspora organizations need a serious discussion on future division of labor, which should be based on non-interference in the political affairs of the other side, and developing complementarity and considering the other side as “partners” in problem solving and achieving tasks.

For three decades various leaders in Yerevan failed to arrange Armenia’s relations with its Diasporas. Bring the Ministry of the Diaspora – or the “High Commissioner” as it is now labeled – to the foreign ministry, and make this “super ministry” not only the main instrument in solving Armenia’s current political problems, in developing Armenia-Diaspora relations, but also the powerhouse of Armenia’s reforms and modernization effort.

Eventually, Armenia will be able to develop a successful foreign policy only if it enlarges the resources it invests in its diplomatic effort. These resources are available in Armenia and among Armenians abroad, yet are unused because of the Brezhnevite style political culture in Yerevan. To build long-term cooperation with forces inside and outside Armenia, politicians in Yerevan need to democratize decision-making processes, to open up its diplomatic culture, in order to bring additional human capital much needed to solve some of Armenia’s foreign policy challenges.

Is Yerevan ready for a more democratic political culture?

Vicken Cheterian teaches at the University of Geneva and at Webster University Geneva.