On September 3rd, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan made a “surprise declaration” – as it is still sometimes referred to – that he would bring his country into the new Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) alongside Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Of course, it should have been anything but that.
The mountain republic, sometimes referred to as the “Kaliningrad of the Caucasus” due to its geographic isolation from its fellow EEU and CSTO members, has been playing a high stakes game here. A Russian military ally under the auspices of the CSTO, Russian soldiers patrol the country’s borders with both Iran and Turkey.
Armenia needs the Russian labor market as well: according to the World Bank, remittances from migrant workers abroad comprise some 21% of the country’s GDP, with Russia being the destination of choice for 61% of them.
While there are officially 59,351 Armenian migrants in Russia, the number of Armenians regularly working in the country for their livelihood may, according to expert Stepan Grigoryan, exceed 1.5 million when taking into account Armenians holding Russian passports and undocumented laborers. And Russia, after a series of agreements in the early 2000s, wrote off or reduced Armenian debts to Russian gas companies in exchange for shares in its energy infrastructure.
The policy of Armenian complimentarism, in which Armenian officials boast of maintaining warm relations with both the United States and Iran, hasn’t exactly come to an end. Still, it is unlikely to ever be quite the same again. In Armenia’s neighborhood, complimentarism by any other name is a basic necessity. Already, some analysts are predicting that Armenia may get the best of both worlds, providing its two neighbours with whom it has open borders, Georgia (a recent signatory to an association agreement with the EU) and Iran, access to EEU markets. Conveniently, Russia may have found its own form of complimentarism in Armenian membership, too, with the country being seen as a possible counterbalance within the EEU to Belarus and Kazakhstan, who have been adversely affected by the recent slump in the Russian economy and are disconcerted and disturbed at the precedent set by Moscow’s recent actions in Ukraine.
As I watched the Ukrainian crisis unfold from Yerevan, discussion of the country’s future membership in a “Russian” economic union had a more urgent edge to it. Serj Nigoyan, one of the first protesters killed on the Euromaidan in Kyiv, was declared a “victim of Putinism” at a solidarity protest outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Yerevan. A selection of photos lauding Armenian-Ukrainian friendship graced a public display board on Abovyan Street that September. At first, the faces of Presidents Sargsyan and Yanukovych gleamed, as did the cupolas of Armenian churches across Crimea. By March, when I left Armenia, they had disappeared, replaced with a note offering advertising space for sale. Perhaps, wondered a friend, he should buy the space and restore the display to its former glory?
Putin was in town in early December, and the authorities swiftly removed an offensive banner hung from a motorway overpass. Instead, they dedicated him the Unity Cross, a monument to Russo-Armenian friendship, in central Yerevan. The political opposition took to the streets in protest, with police making several arrests. I had arrived in the country the same day – by train from Tbilisi, Georgia – and found the streets decked in Armenian and Russian flags in the dawn. I resolved to wander with a camera for the occasion but, arriving at my residence, sleep soon set in. I had spent the previous night talking with a fellow traveller in the same compartment – an Armenian Yezidi who worked in Georgia, and was returning to visit her family. I told her that I was researching ethnic minorities in the country, to which she replied “How strange. You’re studying everything I ran away from”. In the autumn of 2014 and in cold retrospect, those are haunting words.
Following the annexation of Crimea, Armenians were faced with another dilemma. Their government tried to resolve it through its no vote on a UN resolution, in which it refused to condemn Russian actions in the peninsula. Russian “reunification” with Crimea, some felt, held parallels for the de-facto state of Nagorno-Karabakh, widely (but de jure) accepted as the territory of neighbouring Azerbaijan by the international community. The 1988 protests, and subsequent violence, over Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the first tears in the fabric of the Soviet state. “Miatsum”, or unity, was the rallying cry of Armenians on Yerevan’s central square. While Armenia has historically based its support – though not recognition – of the secessionist government in Nagorno-Karabakh on the principle of self-determination, Azerbaijan has opposed it on the grounds of respect for territorial integrity. Azerbaijan itself was faced at the UN vote with the task of not provoking Russia with full-throated criticism while simultaneously supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The West’s concern for Crimea, reasoned Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, only highlighted its duplicity and double standards given its relative lack of concern for the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
During my last few weeks in Yerevan from late February to early March, the city felt a little on edge. Ukraine was on the mind and in the air. The appointment of Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s ethnic Armenian Minister of the Interior, on February 27th, was well received. But not without appropriate cynicism. “He’s Hay [Armenian]”, went one pro-European wisecrack “but his boss is a Russian” – though none of Avakov’s superiors identified as ethnic Russians. Days earlier, after Yanukovych had fled Kiev, one Armenian news website suggested Armenia as his possible refuge. Clutching at straws perhaps, but this was harvest time in a season of conspiracies.
If “miatsum” was the cry of Armenian protesters in 1988, it echoed around the monumental squares of a Soviet city not designed for political dissent. Yerevan’s squares can hold impressive crowds and are central to political life: as Thomas de Waal noted, the Armenian word for glasnost, hraparakutiun, is derived from hraparak, meaning square. On March 2nd, shortly before I left Armenia, people on the square commemorated the deaths of ten opposition protesters in 2008. Then, President Robert Kocharyan had stepped down in favour of president elect (and current President) Serzh Sargsyan, whose rise to power was ascribed to electoral fraud by the opposition. Opposition leader Raffi Hovhannisyan and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian took to the stage, microphone in hand, retelling the events of those days.
October 2014 would again see Yerevan’s Freedom Square become the focus of opposition protests calling for Sargsyan’s resignation. I approached a protester holding a banner bearing a lengthy slogan and photographs of politicians. “Who are these people?” I asked. “Sadists!” he replied, without elaboration. Their names, it seemed, were academic. I tried again, further away, and decided to elaborate. Were their banners protesting the deaths in Ukraine, I asked? “Of course not!” responded one woman, looking about her warily. “That won’t happen here,” she continued, “we’re peaceful people!” Nearby, a man in a Russian tracksuit – to which most were indifferent – was accosted by a group of overeager twentysomethings: “How can you not be ashamed?” they cried. “What for?’ he retorted, “It’s Maslenitsa!”
I left it all behind for Georgia, where I found it all again, though painted in Ukrainian national colors. The drive to Tbilisi was long and frozen. My Armenian friend would hold forth and smoke patriotically-named local cigarettes. I may have quit, though I miss their smell, as I miss the journeys. Driving through Shirak province, we passed Spitak, a town levelled in 1988 by a 7.0 Richter scale earthquake, killing up to 50,000 and leaving thousands more homeless. On the outskirts of the nearby city of Gyumri, the concrete shells of new housing for the survivors still stand empty, judged unsafe in the event of further tremors. In other cases, there were simply no funds available to complete them. One man present during the rebuilding efforts was Viktor Yanukovych, in whose honour a (small) local square was named in 2008.
I got out and walked the length and breadth of Yanukovych Square. The kitschy log hut Café Ukraina looked closed. The bilingual Armenian-Russian signs bore the traces of stickers, posted by opposition activists in protest. Feeling it inappropriate that Yanukovych should be so honoured, they had attempted to rename the square in honour of Serj Nigoyan – though their stickers were soon removed with little public discussion. Local people were uncomfortable with their principled youth. The earthquake must come first, and Ukraine thereafter. “That was a time” reflected my friend, Artash, ”when everybody helped each other. They came and helped Armenia.”
We descended into Lori Province, with its remaining villages of Molokans, descendants of Russian sectarians banished to the south Caucasus in the early nineteenth century. Perhaps, we joked, Russia would come and “rescue” them, too?
Crossing the border to Georgia on the road to Bolnisi, a cratered, potholed road spread out across a forested valley. Artash smiled a wry and dry smile, and welcomed me “to Europe”.