In the grand scheme of things, Armenia is a relatively insignificant country. No major transportation routes traverse it. It has minimal natural resources. Its economy is stagnant, and its major export is, in fact, migrant workers, a steady flow of whom has depleted the population by several hundred thousand since independence. Strategically, it is entirely dependent on Russia, which supplies most of its arms at preferential rates, maintains several military bases, guards its 'external' borders, and owns much of its economic infrastructure.
Reports of today's sensational about-turn by Armenia’s current president during a visit to Moscow should therefore not have come as a surprise; Armenia’s long-standing insistence on initialling the Association Agreement with the European Union during the Vilnius Summit in November this year – despite of its military-strategic dependence on Moscow – had been far more puzzling. And yet, that policy formed part of a longer tradition, a ‘silent accord’ whereby Yerevan was allowed to participate in European integration processes by Moscow, provided it co-operated with Russia on the military front, and did not pursue actual membership of any Euro-Atlantic structures.
That silent accord was cancelled today. After having tentatively and unsuccessfully pressured the Ukraine and Moldova – two states similarly poised to initial their Association Agreements with the EU – with its usual “food hygiene” shenanigans, the Kremlin decided to try with the weakest link in the chain by pushing Yerevan into line. Outsiders know little of what was said during the Sargsyan-Putin talks; what is certain, however, is that Armenia decided to instantaneously undo the results of four years of arduous negotiation and legislative action, in an about-turn that was nothing short of sensational.
Some might argue that what happened today was simply the culmination of a much longer-term lack of strategic vision on the part of Armenia’s leaders: in view of Armenia’s resulting dependence on Russia, the only reasonable thing left for Sargsyan to do when ordered to jump would be to ask ‘how high?’. In that sense, the cynicism in the post-meeting statement that Armenia had made a ‘rational’ choice was palpable. But those pointing to Armenia’s pre-existing dependence on its northern neighbour as an exceptional circumstance miss several important points with implications for far larger participants in the Eastern Partnership programme.
Firstly, those who dismiss Armenia as an exceedingly dependent, and, therefore, unimportant exception should ask themselves why, in light of its dependence, and Yerevan's almost impeccable record in accommodating Russia’s concerns, Moscow would still have insisted on its head of state performing such a humiliating about-turn. Armenia already being so dependent, adding it to the Eurasian Customs Union would surely have made only a minute difference to the bilateral strategic relationship with Moscow? Did Russia pressure Armenia – rather opportunistically - because it could get away with it? Or did it pressure Yerevan to make a broader point, to both the European Union and the near abroad? The odds are that Moscow was pursuing a rather more substantial prize than little Armenia with its approach.
This feeds into my second point, on the increasingly imperial nature of Putin’s attitude towards the former Soviet Union. Russia might have mastered the neo-liberal narratives of ‘economic expediency’, it might keep up the formal niceties of Westphalian sovereignty (at least outside of Georgia), but it retains a highly hierarchical view of the ‘near abroad’ which has been reinvigorated in recent years. The various problems with ‘food hygiene’, and implicit threats against migrants of former Soviet states that would not want to join Putin’s pet project could (and probably should) be seen as the 21st-century disciplinary practices of empire, reinforced, in the broader societal narrative, by an uncritical acceptance of Russia’s colonising past and a profiling of collective ‘Russian’ values against decadent, individualist ‘Western’ ones.
These claims to ‘civilisational alterity’ from the West, of cultural specificity – referred to in Russian as samobytnost – have been taken over by pro-Russian nationalist and traditionalist groups throughout the Soviet Union. They were particularly visible in Armenia, in the run-up to the volte-face by Serj Sargsyan, with a host of conservative groups and individuals viciously and at times mendaciously campaigning against the use of the term ‘gender’ in the country’s EU-mandated gender equality legislation. Artificially mobilised or not, these homophobic and misogynistic groups saw the choice between Russia and the EU as one between two competing value-systems: Russian/Eurasian – based on authoritarian, patriarchal collectivism – and European – based on liberal, egalitarian individualism.
This creates a double danger further afield, with Europe's soft power being confronted by an entirely warped Russian version of the same. Firstly, by constructing Russian (and former Soviet) values as fundamentally different, Russia constitutes an effective mobilising mechanism among its sympathisers throughout its region, one that can be used, in conjunction with ‘harder’ economic levers, to hammer home the message of ‘Eurasian separateness’. This is especially true in places like the Eastern Ukraine, with its Russian speakers; a little bit of homophobia can do wonders in getting those Eurosceptic juices flowing. Secondly, and more importantly, the promise of unfettered authoritarianism being construed as ‘culturally innate’ can sound appealing to semi-criminalised politicians and oligarchs that litter the region’s elites (as Putin would know). EU conditionalities can be a pain sometimes; Russian tutelage comes with no such (domestic) strings attached.
It is, of course, possible that all of this is an unfortunate misunderstanding, and that president Serj Sargsyan did have a sudden, miraculous Pauline conversion to the Eurasian Customs Union in the hallowed halls of the Kremlin today. Alternatively, Putin might have decided to make a point by humiliating the head of state of one of his closest allies, in the name of higher aims. In any case, Europe’s policymakers will ignore this smallish (?) incident at their, and the Eastern Partnership’s, peril.