The newly born Eurasian Economic Union unexpectedly absorbed Armenia only one day after it had been officially launched on January 1st, 2015. This step is definitely more political than economic, since the country has a GDP of only $10 billion (or less than one percent of the EEU’s total) and adds just 3 million people to the common market (roughly equal to two percent of the EEU population)(1). But Armenia’s joining the Union represents one more step that adds credibility to the Eurasian integration project, even if it has more a symbolic meaning. Union’s territorial expansion becomes more and more impressive which cannot but flatter Russia’s imperialistic aspirations, traditionally based on absorbing new territories. Moreover, Armenia has neither a common border with the EEU nor a direct railway line, that will no doubt obstacle their economic cooperation, if any.
Another obstacle in the way to integration is a frozen conflict in Nagorny Karabakh, a contested region de facto controlled by Erevan but not recognized by the international community. Armenia formally joins the EEU without Nagorny Kharabakh. The situation is worsened by a number of recent incidents on the contested Armenian-Azerbaijani border. For the first time in 20 years since the ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, an Armenian helicopter was grounded last week. Three officers died, while the one who grounded the helicopter was awarded a medal back in Azerbaijan. It is not the first time the neighboring countries break the ceasefire. Both countries are enhancing their military potentials. Armenia and Azerbaijan are among the most militarized countries in the world. Armenia occupies the third place in the world ranking of the most militarized countries per capita, after Israel and Singapore, with its arms purchase expenditure that amounted to $247 million in 2013. Its next-door arch-nemesis, oil-and-gas power Azerbaijan, has far outspent Armenia, forking out $3.4 billion on defense last year. But because of its larger economy (nearly eight times the size of Armenia’s) and more than threefold larger population, Azerbaijan landed in tenth place(2).
Azerbaijan does not conceal its intentions to one day regain the lost territories by military force, if needed. Besides, it is conducting a very active international policy, making clear and promoting its position abroad. Last year, the statement, made by the Commander of the Russian military base in Gyumri regarding readiness to react in case the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan starts caused a highly negative reaction of Azerbaijan public opinion. In a sense, the base in Gyumri and its hypothetic participation in the conflict is aimed to guarantee the fragile peace in the region. All this makes Armenia highly dependent on Russia, as a main supplier of cheap arms and a military protector in frames of Collective Security Treaty Organization agreements.
It is hard to overestimate the strategic importance of the 102nd Gyumri military base for Russia as well, since it is one of few Russian bases, located abroad. In this context the incident related to the Russian this base, which occurred only some days after Armenia became a full member of the EEU, seems to acquire not only strategic but also political importance. A conscript at Russian military base in Armenia, ran away from the military base and killed an entire local family of 6 people. He was later apprehended at the Armenian-Turkish border on January 13th. The reasons of this crime remain unclear. The attack sparked violent protests in Erevan and Gyumri, second largest city of the country leading to a number of arrests of the protestors, that demanded the investigation of this tragedy to be conducted in Armenia and the soldier suspected be extradited to Armenia, but the Russian side argues it contradicts Russian constitution. For this reason the parties agreed to conduct a conjunct investigation of the tragedy, but some in Armenia are skeptical Valery Permyakov will receive a fair trial back in his home country.
Russia and Armenia have very strong historical and cultural ties, strengthened by common religion which is at the basis of long lasting friendship among two peoples. Armenia was the first to adopt Christianity (Armenian Apostolic Church) as an official state religion as early as 301 AD, almost 7 centuries before Russia became Christian (Russian Orthodox Church). This factor of common cultural and spiritual identity has always played an important role in bilateral relations and now it gained a central role in Eurasian rhetoric, that implies a common cultural identity of the Eurasian peoples, formed as a result of mutual contamination and interaction in course of their historical development.
The tragedy is no doubt destined to test Erevan’s loyalty to Moscow. Some Russian media and Armenian experts suspect a linkage between these tragic events and a sort of an anti-Russian conspiracy plan, noting the fact that the soldier had three mobile phones when arrested and that suspect’s father is presumably a member of the same religious sect as the Ukrainian Parliamentary speaker Alexandr Turchinov(3). The homicide, which is unlikely to seriously harm the Russian-Armenian relations is being used by Armenian opposition in order to instigate anti-Russian feelings among the population, while in Russia the incident and its timing (right after Armenia joined the EEU project) is used as a propagandistic tool aimed at confirming the thesis of a global “anti-Russian plan”, aimed at preventing Russia from becoming a Great Power.
Diana Shendrikova, ISPI Research Assistant