Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia Eyes Benefits from Russian-Turkish Crisis

Experts say that Armenians can gain politically and economically from increasingly fraught relationship.
By Yekaterina Poghosyan
  • Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan (left) with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin after signing the Eurasian Economic Treaty on October 10, 2014. (Photo: Armenian president's website)
    Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan (left) with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin after signing the Eurasian Economic Treaty on October 10, 2014. (Photo: Armenian president's website)

Armenia has been closely following developments in the increasingly belligerent relationship between its long-term foe Turkey and its ally Russia. Some commentators fear that Armenia could be drawn into the confrontation, while others believe it stands to benefit from a bolstered relationship with Moscow.

Moscow and Ankara have been at loggerheads since Turkish fighter planes downed a Russian Su-24 bomber for allegedly breaching Turkey’s airspace on November 24.

Some experts believe the crisis prove a political and economic windfall for Armenia, a staunch Russian ally with a fraught relationship with neighbouring Turkey. If used wisely, these opportunities could bolster Armenia’s standing both in its bilateral relations with Russia and in the region.

Unlike some former Soviet states, Armenia immediately made its position clear on the downing of the plane, which was taking part in Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria. The next day, Armenia’s defence minister Seyran Ohanyan denounced Turkey’s actions as a blow to international efforts to fight terrorism.

The deputy speaker of Armenia’s National Assembly, Eduard Sharmazanov, also condemned the Turkish authorities. He drew parallels with his own country’s confrontation with Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

 “Last year, on the orders of the criminal regime in Azerbaijan that is regarded as Turkey´s little brother, an Armenian helicopter was brought down. This probably gave Turkey´s political leadership the impression that such a serious crime could go unpunished,” Sharmazanov said during a meeting with the chairman of the Russian State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, on November 27.

“The world is changing. New political approaches are taking shape, new situations in which Armenia has proven that it is a Russian ally and that the Russian people are a fraternal nation,” he continued.  “Turkey has not changed over the past 100 years.”

Sergey Minasyan, deputy director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, said the deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations, as well as the wider Syrian crisis, had made Armenia more important than ever for Moscow.

“One has to remember that Armenia is the country closest to Syria where Russia has a military base,” Minasyan told IWPR.  “The Armenian-Turkish border is guarded by Russian border guards and there is a land connection between them.”

He noted that the Armenian-Turkish frontier also marks the divide between NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a regional defence bloc that includes Armenia, Russia, Belarus and three Central Asian states.

“All these factors play a role,” Minasyan said.

Against the background of strained relations with Ankara, Moscow will try to leverage its ties with Armenia, he continued.

Only a day after the downing of the Russian plane, a draft law criminalising denial of the Armenian genocide was submitted to the Duma by a group of Russian lawmakers. The bill proposes a penalty of up to 500,000 rubles (7,500 US dollars). This year marked the centenary of the Armenian genocide. Relations between Armenia and Turkey, which refuses to recognise the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians as genocide, continue to be overshadowed by the issue. (See Armenians Mark Genocide Centenary.)

Russia has begun reinforcing its military presence in Armenia by deploying an additional seven Mi-24 attack and Mi-8 transport helicopters to the airbase it uses near the capital Yerevan. More will be delivered by the end of the year, according to the Russian defence ministry.

The Russian airbase was established in 1995, in addition to another military base in Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri, close to the Turkish border in western Armenia. These arrangements are particularly significant in light of the Russian government’s approval for plans to create a common air defence mechanism with Armenia on the southern border of the CSTO. (See also Armenia, Russia in New Air Defence Deal.)

“It seems clear that Russia has already embarked on a policy to strengthen its military positions throughout the ‘near abroad’,” Richard Giragosian, head of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan, told IWPR.  “This means that as the only Russian base in the region, the Russian bases in Armenia will also be a priority for Russia to strengthen.”

This new security context means that Armenia is more important than ever for Russia, Giragosian continued, adding that “the key question is how Moscow treats Yerevan”.

He said that Russia had in the past taken Armenian support for granted.

“For too long, Russia´s rather arrogant approach has been too disrespectful to Armenia,” Giragosian said, “especially as Moscow has recently emerged as the number one-arms provider to Azerbaijan.” (See also Energy, Arms Trade Clouds Armenia's View of Moscow on recent tensions in the relationship.)

The Russian-Turkish crisis has also triggered a debate about its potential effect on the frozen Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over Nagorny Karabakh.

There are frequent shooting incidents on the “line of control” surrounding Karabakh and across the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border, although full-scale conflict ended with the 1994 ceasefire. This effectively froze the conflict without resolving it and left the Armenians exerting de facto control over Karabakh and adjoining districts. (See Shifting Ground in Azerbaijan-Armenia Confrontation on a recent upsurge in fighting.)

Minasyan said that Turkey would not respond to the tensions by encouraging Azerbaijan to launch larger-scale military operations in the Karabakh zone.

“I think that on the contrary, we will see the opposite,” Minasyan said. “Azerbaijan, which is struggling to maintain a balance in the face of deteriorating Russian-Turkish relations, will keep its head down, knowing that if the situation is aggravated, Russia will participate directly this time.”

This meant that Azerbaijan would not seek to create tensions in the conflict zone, as Russian support for Armenia would then become more open, he continued.

Giragosian agreed that Turkey would not choose to intervene now.

“The risk is rather that Russia may seek to exploit the escalation in hostilities in a bid to deploy Russian peacekeepers, which would directly challenge Armenian interests and threaten the security of Nagorny Karabakh,” he said.

In economic terms, too, it seems likely that Armenia will reap some short-term benefits from the Russia-Turkey crisis. After President Vladimir Putin announced sanctions against Turkey and signed a November 28 decree imposing restrictions on imports of some Turkish products, the Armenian government quickly volunteered to fill the gap. In early December, Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan urged businessmen to seize the chance to increase exports to Russia.

This opportunity could be most relevant to fruit and vegetable producers.

“Companies in Russia have already begun taking an interest in deliveries of goods which Turkey can no longer supply,” Hamlet Tadevosyan, director of the company Araratfood, told the newspaper Haykakan Zhamanak. “These are very large volumes – tens of thousands of tonnes.”

Armenia, however, cannot entirely replace Turkey’s role as a source of agricultural goods. It does not have anything like the capacity to produce the amounts that the Russian market requires.

Transporting the goods is another obstacle. As a result of the Karabakh conflict, Armenia is subject to a partial blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Freight shipments to Russia go via the Georgian mountain pass at Verkhny Lars, which closes several times a year due to severe weather conditions. Then the goods have to be transported by sea from the Georgian port of Poti, which significantly increases delivery times.

Armen Grigoryan, who head of competition and globalisation research at Armenia's State Economic University,  says maritime freight shipping is expensive at about 90 dollars a ton, and moving perishable goods by sea is almost impossible,  

Both Giragosian and Minasyan agreed that recent events were unlikely to affect relations between the three South Caucasus states – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – each of which was already going its own way.

Giragosian said Georgia was trying to move ever closer to Europe, while Azerbaijan was developing into a Central Asian-style, energy-based authoritarian state.  Armenia, on the other hand, was a more stable and reliable ally for both Russia and the West, he concluded.

Yekaterina Poghosyan is a journalist in Armenia.