Moscow cautious about Pashinyan’s government picks but prefers to wait & see further developments

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 17 May 2018
Moscow cautious about Pashinyan’s government picks but prefers to wait & see further developments

Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan’s bloodless departure from power still triggers diametrically opposed theories and will do so in years to come. The man, who came to power, with blood of protesters on his hand in central Yerevan, and of those innocent Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh, was not expected to quit so easily.

Opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan, who was jailed for protesting Sarkisian’s tyranny, despite a stroke of fate replaced him after almost a month-long peaceful protests across this tiny nation of around 3m population.

After assuming office, on May 14 Pashinyan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin as the Armenian prime minister on the fringes of the Higher Eurasian Economic Council in Sochi.

Russia and Iran woo Armenia to keep it under their influence. Both regional powers no doubt pursue their own agenda and national interests. The Russian-led EAEC is at this stage important for Armenia as the way to cooperation with the Russian Federation.

However, Moscow has good reasons not to trust the Armenian leader, since for several years Pashinyan actively criticized the Eurasian integration. It is obvious that Pashinyan now needs to assure Putin of strong Armenian-Russian relations, despite the change of government.

However, in order to find out the truth, it is worth taking a closer look at his government appointees. Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan was previously a banker and worked for an American bank. Another Deputy Prime Minister Ararat Mirzoyan is the coordinator of the International Fund for Financial Systems (IFES), which actively works with the American National Endowment for Democracy (NED) NGO. The third prime minister is Tigran Avinyan. Earlier, he was involved in the sale of Vorotan hydro-power plant cascade to the US, which was built in Armenia back in Soviet times.

Pashinyan’s government ministers also deserve attention. For example, Defense Minister David Tonoyan was allegedly recruited by the CIA in 2005 when he led Armenia’s permanent mission to NATO. Up until his appointment, he worked at a bio laboratory. The Minister of Education is a member of the board of the Civil Contract party, which is sponsored by the same NED. Suren Papikyan, Minister of Territorial Administration and Development, has also ties with the party. Also Finance Minister Atom Janjugazyan is a graduate from the US Agency for International Development under the State Department.

Such a composition of officials in the new Pashinyan government precisely indicates the connection with the West and friends of the prime minister have not got appointed to the key posts in the government without a reason, Ivan Arkatov, Russian political expert, public figure and author of the leading video project Smysly, believes.

Now PM Nikol Pashinyan's position remains completely unclear. On the one hand, he says that relations with Russia will not be affected, but, on the other hand, it is worth thinking about what will happen in a few months, when the new ministers get accustomed and fly into a passion, the expert argues.

For the United States, it would be logical to arrange a peak situation in Armenia, so that the neighboring state becomes a sore spot for the Russian Federation. Also with the help of Pashinyan, the West can annoy Turkey. Most likely, the situation will become more complicated, Arkatov is sure.

It is noteworthy that Pashinyan promised not to make personnel reshuffles. As a result, the government is formed of "11 friends of Pashinyan". Thus, it becomes obvious that the Armenian revolution did not happen just like that and it is highly likely the Armenian-Russian relations can seriously suffer in the near future.

However, some experts believe Armenia’s foreign policy will hardly undergo any substantial changes. There are still many objective preconditions for Armenia's dependence on Russia. First of all, this is due to a certain isolation of Armenia - it is surrounded by unfriendly states.

First, it's about Turkey and Azerbaijan. This is also due to the complex and conflict-filled situation in the Caucasus. Among other factors, experts quote Armenia's significant orientation toward post-Soviet values as evidenced by the latest polls showing that the Armenians remain nostalgic for their Soviet past and feel sorry for the collapse.

Therefore, the new leadership will not hurry to decisively and drastically change the country's geopolitical orientation. Protests and mobilization of civil society in Armenia erupted against a clearly negative trend, that is, a seemingly endless sticking to power by Serzh Sarkisian and officials affiliated with him. Meanwhile, the positive part of the agenda is yet to be cleared up.

Obviously, it will be of a compromise nature. In particular, this is indicated by a voluntary resignation of Sarkisian. Apparently some agreements have been reached, guaranteeing his status and security, or even a certain continuity of power.

We should not expect that the new leadership will decisively and drastically change the country's geopolitical orientation Therefore, the objective circumstances for Russia to preserve its influence over the country, the unclear nature of the new Armenian government, and the need for this cabinet to seek compromise with their own people, their moods and expectations, as well as with the previous government - all of this leads us to suggest that the new authorities will make no sharp movements and transform the country at a light pace.

This is especially true of Armenia's foreign policy course. But, obviously, changes in Armenia will start from this very moment. An active search will start for alternative political models and alternative development vectors. Foreign-political contacts will intensify, although they never actually shrank under the previous government. That is, Armenia had quite active diplomatic and other types of contacts with the western world and never severed them. Besides, the West will now start perceiving Armenia from a different perspective.

It is quite possible that Armenia's foreign political vector, if it doesn't start to change dramatically, will certainly be adjusted. Thus, the country will see withdrawal from being directly tied to Russian politics. Moreover, the external factor that has a significant impact on this is the change in Turkey's positioning in the region and in its global policies. When Turkey is a U.S. ally and an active NATO ally, it's one thing, but when Turkey sides with Russia and Iran, the United States, as a leading geopolitical player, is beginning to seek new allies and new coalitions. So, Armenia can take advantage of the trend and limit its dependence on Russia.

Moreover, the Armenian diaspora is very powerful in the U.S. But first, Armenia will have to overcome its own political crisis, and then find some more or less viable economic model, and only then think about geopolitical alliances and a geopolitical game. Such are the starting conditions. But first, Armenia will have to overcome its own political crisis, and then find some more or less viable economic model, and only then think about geopolitical alliances and a geopolitical game. It should be noted that along this path, pro-Russian forces in Armenia will keep trying to regain ground from time to time.

There is a difficult situation in the Caucasus: one thing is what we hear the parties declare and how we see them from our perspective and a completely different thing is what's going on there in terms of all sorts of local intertwining and political dependencies. Therefore, political rhetoric may vary.

Therefore, I don't believe there will be a purely ideological twist in either direction. But the internal struggle will be quite serious. Various groups and elites could exploit different slogans, while the "Russian card" will remain very active. After all, keeping a focus on Russia remains one of the obviously winning landmarks for a significant part of the country's population. But I think that in the end, Armenia will choose a vector that will be directed toward getting rid of any dependence on Russia.

Most likely, Sarkisian's resignation came as a surprise for the Kremlin and now, Moscow has taken a wait-and-see position precisely because the situation is being read so poorly understood, and little can be predicted. At the same time, Russia is not seeing a real threat to its influence on Armenia.

They are not seeing any prerequisites for Armenia to become much stronger and more independent as a result of the latest events. Rather, on the contrary, Moscow expects that the internal crisis will weaken Armenia, and thus there will be room for control over the country. Therefore, Russia will keep waiting patiently and remain restrained in its response.