Yerevan is seldom in the world headlines except when Turkey works itself into frenzy over a fresh move in an odd western capital to pass a parliamentary resolution naming the massacre of Armenians in the early part of the last century as “genocide”.
But that may be about to change. That is, if the 6-day-old mass protests in the Armenian capital, ostensibly against a hike in electricity prices with effect from August 1, snowball into another “Euromaidan” as in Ukraine last year.
Why Armenia? The short answer is that the country is a vital piece of real estate to hold for both the West and Russia. Consider the following.
Armenia is the only country other than Tajikistan where Russia has a big military base. A few months ago, Armenia under its current leadership of President Serz Sarkisian joined the Eurasian Economic Union, which the United States regards as a Russian project to integrate the former Soviet republics under its leadership.
If Armenia is brought into the western orbit, Russia gets practically shut out of South Caucasus, given the ambivalences in Moscow’s equations with Baku and the unfriendly policies of the pro-western government in Tbilisi.
Equally, Armenia shares a border with Iran and a pro-western government in Yerevan and the consequent shift in the balance of forces impacts regional politics.
Of course, if a regime change such as in Georgia in 2003 were to repeat in Armenia, it has security implications for Russia’s North Caucasus, which is a restive region threatened by extremist Islamist groups, some which enjoy external support.
The current protests can easily take an “anti-Russian” direction. The point is, Russia owns Armenia’s gas and electricity supply networks and the 40 percent increase in electricity prices is seen as part of excessive profiteering by Russian companies at the cost of the Armenian consumer.
A flashpoint arises if the latent popular frustrations against the corrupt government in Yerevan coalesce with the discontent over the steep hike in electricity prices and the disapproval of the government’s perceived kowtowing to Russian pressure. Suffice it to say, the rudiments of a classic “color revolution” seem to be available.
The influential Moscow politician, Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the Federation Council’s (Duma) International Relations Committee has warned that the crisis is following the script of “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine.
The well-known Russian pundit Sergei Markov wired to the Russian establishment has alleged that the protests in Yerevan are “being directed from an external headquarters” (read Washington). Of course, such allegations are difficult to prove in real time and the US media organs have been plainly dismissive, claiming that the “civil society” in Armenia is spearheading the mass protests and there is no “foreign hand” involved.
If the protests gather momentum, Moscow will be caught on the horns of a dilemma. With hindsight, Moscow has estimated that the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to heed Russian advice to use force to quell the ‘Euromaidan’ protests in a critical period in February last year proved to be his undoing and resulted in his overthrow.
By the same logic, the pro-Russian leadership in Armenia is walking a fine line.
On a broader plane, Armenia becomes a test case of the impact of the Ukraine crisis on the collective psyche of the people in the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Are the ‘masses’ in these regions drawing inspiration from the regime change in Ukraine and are they ready for their own ‘Euromaidan’? That is the question.
For sure, a new combative tone has appeared of late in the US’ Central Asia policy, possibly predicated on a reading that the “masses” in the Stans are ripe for revolution.
The recent statement at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington by the US Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Berschinski took a noticeably tough line regarding the “heavy-handed policies”, denial of religious freedom and political space, and prevalence of widespread corruption and “systematic abuse and ill-treatment of citizens” by the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia. It pointedly questioned the legitimacy of the recent re-election of the Presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the two key states in Central Asia.
To be sure, the US’ democracy project in Central Asia seems to be gearing up for action after a decade-and-a-half of hibernation following the American intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 when the accent was on the war on terror and regional stability.
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