The Case for Armenia’s Integration into Western Institutions

, by Noah Roth

The Case for Armenia's Integration into Western Institutions

Armenia’s recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region opened the way for meaningful avenues to normalize relations between the two countries. Having already started a similar process with Türkiye a few years before, Armenia can finally approach new foreign policy options - this signifies a critical juncture for the South Caucasus nation.

The Russia-Factor

Undoubtedly, Armenia’s traditional security patron, Russia, has had to majorly shift its security priorities towards the war in Ukraine and increasing confrontation with NATO, opening windows of opportunities and perhaps leading to a reorientation of Moscow’s preferred foreign partners. Be it because Moscow might prefer Azerbaijan due to its greater geopolitical importance and economic power or simply because its attention was locked on Ukraine - for Azerbaijan, it provided an auspicious opportunity. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has outlived the rage over his government’s loss of the territory so far, which signifies a greater dissatisfaction of the society with Russia, whose peacekeepers simply stood and watched as Azerbaijani troops retook control, while also occupying some Armenian lands. The CSTO, Russia’s mini-NATO, actually provides assistance in such cases, but to the dismay of the Armenians, nothing happened. Russia might not want to oppose important partners like Türkiye and Azerbaijan over economically small Armenia, and even intends perhaps to transfer its soldiers stationed there to Ukraine.

No Room for Armenian Flexibility

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia allied itself with Russia and other former Soviet republics to form the CSTO. Then, Armenia had just won the First Nagorno-Karabakh War against Azerbaijan, therefore looking for a nearby security guarantor made sense. Because of the contingency of another war breaking out, Armenia had few means of maneuvering its security policy anywhere but towards increasing dependence on Russia. The latter was happy to thus keep its influence in the region, and both parties to the conflict from pivoting closer to the West - a strategy that had already worked with Transnistria in Moldova and later in Ukraine with the Donbass and Crimea.

The Armenian stance transformed, however, when the country was swept by its own post-Soviet democratic revolution in 2018, ousting pro-Russian elements from power and replacing them with reformists. Consequently, Armenian-Russian relations became an international anomaly, with a democratic state relying on an autocracy for security. It proves difficult to find any precedents for this. Thus, Pashinyan, still faced with the territorial dispute, had no way to move away from Russia. This led to the peculiar situation when after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia immediately submitted applications to join the European Union - leaving Armenia as the only democratic Eastern European state to not yet have done so.

Looking West, not North

By not protecting Armenia, the main reason for Armenians to hold onto Russia disappeared. That Armenians primarily relied on Russia and its institutions due to its security concerns became unmistakably clear when after Armenia’s recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani, several high ranking Armenian officials, including PM Pashinyan himself, began publicly advocating for EU membership in early 2024. The anomaly that persisted since 2018 seems to eventually vanish later in the year, when the authorities plan to formally apply to the union. In fact, not only does this finally follow the ideology of the reformists, which the latter had to hide because of the potential of Azerbaijani aggression. It is also without alternative. Sandwiched between four autocracies, Armenia remains in a very volatile geopolitical position. Left without major allies, Pashinyan even resorted to conceding village enclaves to Azerbaijan without getting anything in return - to dissuade the Azerbaijanis from following up on their irredentist claims that parts of Armenia proper were actually “West Azerbaijan”. This pertains especially to the country’s southern Syunik region, through which Azerbaijan aims to reactivate an extraterritorial rail connection to its Nakhchivan enclave, therefore establishing a direct link to its closest ally, Türkiye.

Hence, Iran might emerge as the only regional dissuasion for any outbreak of hostilities onto Armenian soil in the short term, as Tehran has complicated ties with Türkiye in the Middle East and with Azerbaijan due to the latter’s relations with Israel and the Azeri minority in Iran. Tehran cannot allow Azerbaijani expansion, for it might face unrest by its Azeri minority as a result. And Israel might encourage Azerbaijan to provoke its arch nemesis Iran. It remains questionable, however, whether Tehran can rival Ankara’s influence in the South Caucasus.

Acting quickly, but not rashly

Armenia’s non-participation in recent CSTO meetings clearly display the government’s intentions. In June, Pashinyan voiced with certainty his country’s exit from the alliance, linked to another blow to the CSTO’s credibility by uncovering fellow member Belarus’ military support for Azerbaijan in the lead up to the recent conflicts. Ongoing talks about concluding peace and milestones such as prisoner exchanges indicate positive trajectories. Nevertheless, Armenia finds itself in one of the most vulnerable geopolitical situations. Whereas NATO membership before real normalization with Baku would doubtlessly fail due to Turkish vetoes, the country has strong incentives to move towards Western institutions, particularly the EU. Azerbaijan would certainly not try to disrupt its successful trade relationship with the EU by attacking one of its candidate countries. And unlike the case with NATO, neither Türkiye nor Azerbaijan can obstruct EU accession. The reestablishment of Armenian relations with Hungary and openings of embassies make opposition from within the EU further unlikely.

However, moving too quickly could provoke Azerbaijan - especially considering Azerbaijani President Aliyev’s staunch anti-Western language. It is against this backdrop that the Armenian leadership’s actions have to be understood. In order to augment its security, the country has to embrace the West, but simultaneously navigate a difficult peace process in an unfavorable position, critical public opinion, and the fact that leaving Russian institutions and expelling Russian soldiers from its soil would first off lead to a security vacuum. Hence, taking careful and meaningful steps takes the highest priority. This is imperative, especially since the Prime Minister’s peace plans face staunch internal opposition.

Moving west would enable the country to strengthen its young democracy and integrate into the European market, reducing its high economic and military dependence on Russia. This decreases the risk of Russia influencing internal Armenian affairs, as it is currently trying in Georgia or Moldova. In this sense, lacking a border with Russia is fortunate.

Georgia, the only other democratic state in the region, can serve as a role model, as it successfully moved closer to the West in recent years. After its application, the EU moved uncharacteristically quickly to grant it candidate status. Similarly, the latter acted quickly to support considering Armenian membership. France and the US, boasting large Armenian diaspora communities, must also play a key role and have already expanded defense cooperation with Armenia. In this way, the West has to actively engage Armenia and help it on its European way, while sending clear signs to Aliyev and Erdoğan that further hostilities are off limits. Armenia on its part increasingly moves to declare its alignment with Western positions, having had officials visit the infamous town of Bucha in Ukraine in May.

In a time of democratic backsliding, transatlantic commitment to fellow democracies is ever more important, and the West needs to use this time of waning Russian influence. Moving west can also reconcile civil society with the government, weakening the pro-Russian opposition that tries to capitalize on Pashinyan’s concessions. An Armenia that is integrated into the EU might also fuel EU-Azerbaijani trade. And lastly, even though Tehran may be opposed to Armenia going west, its leverage over Yerevan is unclear, and Armenia could be a mediating ground for European-Iranian discussions.

The road leading west symbolizes the only way forward for Yerevan - but it will require prudent decision-making. If Armenian leaders manage to navigate these storms successfully, the country can finally join the rest of Eastern Europe on its European path.

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