By Grigor Hakobyan
Since the change of government in Armenia last year Armenia’s foreign policy is gradually taking shape. It is developing very slowly and steadily but so far it hasn’t fully matured yet. Armenia’s foreign policy attempts to balance between competing interests of the East (Russia) and the West (US/EU/NATO) while refusing to benefit from the ongoing political confrontation between the two sides. Furthermore, the present status of Artsakh became a point of discussion in Armenia as Armenia’s foreign policy establishment attempts to figure out which approach will be most beneficial to the security of Armenian people-treating Artsakh as an independent republic or as one of Armenia’s provinces in par with Syunik Region, Ararat Region and others. Consequently, what changes are needed to resolve this question and how effective is the present course of Armenia’s foreign policy ?
To some political activists and observers in Armenia and abroad the present foreign policy of Armenia seems no different from the foreign policy of the former regime which actively sought closer ties with Russia and Iran while avoiding making significant steps towards closer relationship with the US, EU and/or NATO. As such the present foreign policy of Armenia appears to them as defeatist and supportive of continuous Russian dominance over Armenia, while for others present foreign policy of Armenia is on the right course. In their opinion it is safer to cooperate closely with Russia, China and Iran in addition to hosting Russian troops in Armenia rather than making abrupt changes towards closer cooperation with the US, EU and/or NATO due to seeming lack of Armenia’s importance to the strategic calculations of the West.
Recent formulation made by Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan during summer Pan-Armenian Games in Artsakh that “Artsakh is Armenia Period” followed by the contrary response from Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev attracted criticism from the Minsk Group Co-chairman Russia which argued that such statements do not contribute to the peaceful resolution of the conflict and therefore both sides should abstain from making such statements going forward to allow for the OSCE Minsk Group work out the details of a peaceful conflict resolution process. This process has been ongoing since 1994 but to no avail.
Dramatic developments in the Middle East involving yet another Turkish invasion of Syria, this time its northern provinces followed by massacres of Kurds by Turkish armed forces and their Syrian proxies has endangered the lives of tens of thousands of Armenians and other ethnic and religious minorities residing in northern parts of Syria thereby further complicating global response to address this issue and burdened Armenia’s foreign policy with another hot spot to keep their eye on while trying to save fellow compatriots and possibly reevaluate the role and mission of Armenian peacekeepers in Syria. There are two choices to make, either enlarge the peacekeeping contingent and expand the scope of their mission in Syria or pull them out altogether.
Historically, a very close alignment with one super power against another super power (e.g. Roman Empire v. Byzantine Empire) wasn’t sustainable in a long term and close alliance with two competing super powers also didn’t work in practice. Soon or later a time would come where Armenia had to make a decision which side to support, in case of refusing to support any side it would become the enemy to both of them while choosing one side against another led to significant consequences imposed by the winning side to the detriment of Armenia’s national security. One such decisive but wrong decision by Tigranes the Great (140B.C.-55B.C.) led to the collapse of the Armenian Empire. The negative consequences of his decision reverberate even today, after two thousand years since the incident. Consequently, the Armenian foreign policy must be taken very seriously as it doesn’t have room for any error; some decisions could become detrimental to the survival of Armenian people and its statehood.
The decisions made today may become decisive for the course of history that Armenia will embark upon. The consequences of such decisions may lead Armenia to its end or continuity of its statehood for many years to come. Leaving CSTO and removing Russian troops from Armenia presently will not make Armenia any more secure than it is today and similarly joining NATO or hosting NATO bases in Armenia anytime in a near future will not decrease the number of security threats facing Armenia later.
Presently, number one threat to Armenia’s national security is Azerbaijan under Aliyev’s rule supported by Turkey under Erdogan. In case if Armenia becomes a member of NATO or hosts NATO bases on its territory its number one threat will become Russia followed by Iran, China and possibly Turkey, depending if Turkey remains in the NATO alliance or not. Concurrently, even if Turkey remains in NATO it doesn’t mean that Armenia without Russian troops present will not be attacked similarly how Greece was attacked by Turkey in 1974 despite the fact that both countries were members of NATO.
Instead, what Armenia needs to do is to strengthen itself to the point where it can become militarily self-sufficient and self-reliant, capable of defending itself on its own while Russian troops are covering security gaps that Armenia is not able to address at this point. Soon or later Russian troops are going to leave Armenia as they have done a few times in the past, therefore Armenia needs to take advantage of this opportunity that will not last for long to develop its military capacity to the point where it will be capable of covering all security gaps that will be left after Russian military withdrawal from Armenia in the future. In light of negative population growth in Armenia, to develop above mentioned defense capacity Armenia should consider drafting women to military the same way that Israel does with its citizens.
One way around this issue would be attracting another million to two million Armenians from diaspora back to their homeland within the next few years which at this point is not practical due to a host of issues in Armenia such as low wages, few economic and employment opportunities, high interests’ rates on mortgages and business loans, small market for doing business, and high cost of housing which do not suffice to accommodate the influx of a large number of people back to Armenia. Failure to accommodate just twenty thousand or so Armenian refugees from Syria for the past ten years is a glaring evidence in support of the argument above.
In the past five years, thousands of Armenian refugees from Syria ended up leaving Armenia for Europe, Canada and United States after failing to settle down and throw roots in Armenia. Most of the future repatriates will be interested to settle in urban areas such as Yerevan as most of them are college educated working professionals from service-based economies, consequently they have no connections whatsoever with farming or manufacturing fields. Very few repatriates will be willing to settle in rural communities or engage in agricultural work which Armenia has plenty of.
Moreover, the city’s infrastructure is not optimized to welcome another million or so urbanites where most of them will be driving cars rather than utilizing public transportation or bicycling to work. The cost of new homes in Yerevan is way above what most repatriates will be willing to spend while many city services are in dire need for repair or replacement. Many residential buildings in Yerevan that would be more affordable to live in are literally more than fifty years old and are in the process of crumbling. As such, it is not practical to expect an influx of millions of repatriates for the next few years to establish positive population growth in Armenia and therefore drafting women to military in par with men is the only viable choice at this point in case if Russian troops withdraw from Armenia.
The third option to correct population growth in Armenia and have enough male recruits to join military for the next twenty years is having more children per family which will not resolve the problem at hand in short-term to mid-term as none of them will be ready to be recruited for the next eighteen to twenty years. As a result Armenian military will have hard time recruiting enough male soldiers to defend its borders in all directions until then. Therefore, drafting women to military as it is done in Israel is the only viable option at this time if Russian troops withdraw from Armenia tomorrow as some political activist in Armenia and diaspora demand, leaving behind major security gaps for Armenia to fill-in on its own.
Resolving the status of Artsakh as an independent state or part of Armenia de-jure is yet another big issue to tackle for the foreign policy establishment in Armenia. De-facto Artsakh is part of Armenia but de-jure it was neither recognized by anyone as part of Armenia nor as a republic of its own. The most appropriate solution to the status of Artsakh is to formalize it as part of the Republic of Armenia de-jure. Regardless whether the present status quo continues or Artsakh formally becomes part of Armenia, or a republic of its own, the war with Azerbaijan is inevitable. Therefore, there should be no hesitation in formalizing relations between Armenia and Artsakh as one, unified state. What needs to be taken into consideration is the timing for taking this step. The sooner it happens the better as it is always advantageous to nudge history into Armenia’s favor rather than become the victim of unfavorable historical event that were nudged forth upon Armenia by its’ enemy.
Constitutions of the republics of Armenia and Artsakh must be revised and combined into one, representing one nation and one state before formalizing Artsakh’s integration with the Republic of Armenia. The unified constitution of Armenia should also include a package of constitutional amendments that will create checks and balances in the government between executive, legislative and judicial branches of Armenia. Furthermore, a bill of rights same or similar to the American bill of rights should be incorporated into the unified constitution of Armenia to strengthen personal freedoms, ensure constitutional protections and due process for every citizen in Armenia.
In fact, one of the constitutional amendments should include the right of citizens residing in border towns and villages to bear arms and form militia in time of war to support Armenian troops in the front lines. Frequent civil defense drills should be mandated by the new constitution also to foster well-trained and well-prepared militarized citizenry capable of taking arms and defending their homes in case of military invasion by any neighboring state. That will deter Azerbaijani-Turkish war machines from ever considering or attempting to occupy Artsakh, Zangezoor or any other part of Armenia any time soon.