By Emil Sanamyan
Leaders of Armenia and Russia will meet in Moscow on September 8 in what will be an opportunity to discuss a number of contentious issues that, according to the Russian president’s aide, have “accumulated” over the past two months. While many issues may be on the agenda, one issue – the prosecution of Armenia’s ex-president Robert Kocharyan – appears to overshadow all others.
A lukewarm start
Like many others, Russian officials followed last spring’s events that culminated in Nikol Pashinyan’s election as prime minister with incredulity and suspicion. But in spite of Russia’s long-standing opposition to “revolutionary” changes in post-Soviet republics, the Kremlin and its key lever of public influence – state-controlled media – stayed mostly neutral on Armenian events.
On April 25, just two days after Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, the Russian embassy in Yerevan hosted Pashinyan and two of his colleagues. Pashinyan subsequently said that a senior Russian representative assured him of non-interference in Armenia’s domestic affairs. The first two Pashinyan-Putin meetings – on May 14 in Sochi and June 14 in Moscow – initially appeared to have gone reasonably well. Pashinyan spoke of strengthening relations, particularly the “military-technical cooperation,” including purchase of Russian aircraft.
As Pashinyan revealed in a later interview, he thought that these meetings with Putin would be “more difficult than they ended up being.” The Armenian leader opined that he and Putin “don't have to agree on everything but can be sincere with each other.” In diplomatic language, references to sincerity and candor tend to describe talks marked by tension, and Pashinyan’s descriptions alluded to disagreements aired during the meetings.
A public spat
These disagreements came into the open in late July, after Pashinyan’s government moved to arrest Kocharyan along with retired general Yuri Khachaturov on what amounted to coup charges stemming from the post-2008 election crackdown. Khachaturov, who serves as secretary-general of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), was set free on bail after a phone call from Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Lavrov subsequently issued a public statement accusing the Armenian leadership of reneging on its words and engaging in “political persecution” of former leaders. In subsequent days, Putin and Pashinyan did not speak until after Kocharyan was released from custody by the Armenian court of appeals, in a decision that upheld his constitutional immunity from prosecution.
Russian leaders proved to be acutely sensitive to Pashinyan’s desire to put Kocharyan and other former senior officials in prison, likely because that set a precedent for other post-Soviet states. Kocharyan became the first leader of a former Soviet republic to actually go to jail; other prosecuted leaders, such as Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, preferred life in exile. This context is given less weight in the Armenian press than the impression that Putin and Kocharyan are believed to have maintained friendly relations. By publicizing his birthday phone call to Kocharyan, Putin has made his support for Kocharyan very personal – none of the other former Armenian leaders nor Pashinyan himself are known to have received such courtesies.
In additional signs of Russian support, upon his release, Kocharyan was interviewed by state-controlled Russian media, where he spoke of his return to politics. While Kocharyan’s chances of challenging Pashinyan politically are at this point highly doubtful, he can play spoiler, by trying to block early parliamentary elections and leaving Pashinyan vulnerable to replacement by the National Assembly still dominated by the former ruling Republican Party.
In what amounted to a response to Kocharyan’s challenge, Pashinyan announced plans for constitutional reforms that would make it possible for parliament to dissolve itself without Pashinyan’s resignation (though any reform would still need the backing of Republicans in parliament). And after the Appeals Court upheld Kocharyan’s constitutionally-mandated immunity from prosecution in the 2008 case, Pashinyan floated the notion of “transitional justice” as a way to sidestep such restrictions.
While keeping pressure on Kocharyan, Pashinyan sought to downplay the differences that emerged with Russia as a “natural” outcome of Moscow getting used to a new Armenian government. Reports of the new Pashinyan-Putin meeting on September 8 were leaked to the Armenian press shortly after Putin’s message to Kocharyan and even before a date was agreed. Pashinyan clearly realizes that a lasting breakdown in Russian-Armenian relations can have consequences for Armenia’s security and economics, and consequently for Pashinyan’s own political viability.
The Azerbaijan factor
Predictably, the Azerbaijani leadership has also sought to capitalize on this situation by floating the notion of gaining an observer status at the CSTO, which is seen as a way for Azerbaijan to shift the balance of forces in Karabakh in its favor. Ilham Aliyev visited Putin on September 1 and is now expected to host Putin at the end of the month. As a result, Pashinyan might be forced to consider concessions to Azerbaijan, such as on the matter of CSTO observer status. Russia would welcome this as a step towards the expansion of the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union. In exchange, Putin might be expected look the other way should Kocharyan again be jailed in Armenia.
Already, Pashinyan sought to assure Russia of his loyalty by curtailing outreach to the West, expanding purchases of Russian weaponry and taking part in Russian-led security operations in Syria. According to media reports, Pashinyan may even be pressured to sack some of the government officials seen as particularly critical of the Russian government. But it remains to be seen if either Pashinyan or Putin would be ready to compromise on the Kocharyan matter.
To be sure, relations between Armenia and Russia were never problem free and crises have occurred before. In the 1990s, these crises resulted in Soviet/Russian military actions against Armenian interests, threats of sanctions and diplomatic demarches. Under Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s negotiations with the European Union for a political and economic pact resulted in the increase in Russian gas prices and were accompanied by massive weapons sales to Azerbaijan. In the absence of Western security guarantees, Armenia was forced to abandon EU talks and join the Eurasian Union.
In the current crisis, Pashinyan will need to find a balance between his domestic political priorities and the country’s pressing security and economic needs.
Emil Sanamyan lives in Washington DC, and specializes in the politics of the Caucasus.