Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Visit to Armenia Highlights Sad Fate Awaiting Those Who Cooperate with Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 10 – The dramatic events in Ukraine have overshadowed just how fateful the choice between Europe and Eurasia is for the countries around Russia’s periphery, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Armenia throws those issues into high relief not only in the South Caucasus but elsewhere as well.

            In an interview with an Armenian news outlet, Stepan Grigoryan, the head of Yerevan’s Analytic Center for Globalization and Regional cooperation, says that too many Armenians and too many others as well have concluded that Putin’s visit there did not have serious consequences. They could not be more wrong (1in.am/rus/armenia_interview_38166.html).

            He provides five reasons for that conclusion, all of which should be a matter of concern in the region and in the West. First, Armenia suffered serious economic harm because of the delays the Russian president’s visit entailed.  “The role of Russia [in Armenia] is great, and this visit made its influence obvious,” something no one should forget.

            Second, not all Armenians welcomed Putin or the signing of an accord further tilting Yerevan toward Eurasia not Europe. The response of the regime was to arrest more than 100 of them, an indication of the kind of repression it will take to make membership in the customs union work or at least of what the Kremlin expects.

            Third, Armenia handed over 20 percent of the ownership of its gas company to meet certain debts, but as Grigoryan notes, “it is unclear where these debts came from and how they were acquired, but with the arrival of Putin, we lost even this.”

            Fourth, Moscow showed that it was quite prepared to break its promises once it got what it wanted. Earlier the Kremlin had promised to build an atomic power station for Yerevan; now, it says that it will simply remodel the old one.

And fifth, the failure of Armenia’s political class to speak out against any of these shows just how difficult a position it finds itself in and how much more difficult its status is likely to be in the new dispensation in which the president rather than the  government as a whole makes all the decisions.

A major problem, Grigoryan continues, is that Europe and the United States which have a vital interest in a European choice and thus in working with those in Armenia and elsewhere who oppose a Eurasian choice do not seem to be able to cooperate or even to have a clear idea about who is the real opposition in these countries and who is not.

These problems were on display in Vilnius, the Yerevan analyst says.  The EU and the US invited people they identified as opposition figures who in fact were not and then “told us well look what a poor opposition you have.”  Grigoryan says that he asked the EU and US officials “how do you know that this person is really an opposition figure? It would be interesting to  know their criteria, would it not?”

The most important thing that the EU and the US must do in working with Armenia, Grigoryan continues, is to “correctly study” political and social realities there “and to work with those people and organizations which really are bearers of European values and democracy rather that first make a choice and then find that these people are in no way connected with democracy and declare that there are no democrats in Armenia.”

Europe and the United States cannot and indeed should not “create” a new pro-Western force in Armenia – that would constitute interference in the internal affairs of that country – but they must increase their attention to and understanding of what is actually taking place on the ground. Otherwise, Moscow will pick up ever more of the pieces, and “anti-democratic tendencies” will intensify.

Armenia was not ready to sign an accord with Europe at Vilnius, and as a result, it looked unprepared not only in comparison with Georgia and Moldova who did sign but also with Azerbaijan which didn’t but which had taken real steps toward exploring and discussing one. Moreover, Yerevan was not part of the NGO meeting that accompanied the Vilnius summit.

Grigoryan does not draw any broader conclusions from his discussion of Putin’s visit to Yerevan and Yerevan’s decision to tilt toward Eurasia rather than Europe – the consequences for his country are serious enough -- but three are obvious and disturbing for others as well. 

First, Moscow is prepared to make all kinds of promises as inducements to get its neighbors to go along with what it wants but then go back on them once it has pocketed an agreement. Any other country being offered anything positive by Russia should be aware of this possibility.

Second, the tilt toward Eurasia is a tilt not only away from Europe and the West but away from democracy itself, pushing those countries which move in that direction toward ever greater presidentialism and ever less competitive parliamentarianism in much the same way Putin has acted in the Russian Federation as well.

And third, as Grigoryan’s article makes clear, governments that make a Eurasian choice will be expected by Moscow to take a hard line against civil society, arresting anyone who protests what they are doing and thus throwing back any progress toward the kind of future the peoples of these countries hoped for not so long ago.

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