Georgian lessons, Armenian Fears. Russian Armenians through the prism of Russia’s “Armenian” policy
The mistreatment of the Georgian population in Russia sent ripples of apprehension into Armenia and highlighted the repercussions of angering Russia. It is no surprise, hence, that Armenian leadership framed the decision to join the EEU as inevitable, repeatedly citing its positive implications for the Armenian community.
The question of why post-Velvet Revolution Armenia has not revised its unwavering allegiance to Russia has been subject to vigorous political debates. Post-Rose Revolution Georgia’s thorny path to fundamental rapprochement with the European Union provides insights into the harrowing challenges of pulling away from Russian influence. Along with crippling economic sanctions and political punitive measures inflicted on Georgia, the Kremlin resorted to mistreating the Georgian community in Russia. This development sent shock waves through Armenia with regard to the severe consequences for Armenia’s possible deviations from Russia for the Russian Armenian community.
Russia possesses the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia proper, making it home to the largest community in the Armenian diaspora. The Armenian population of Russia is estimated around 2.5 million, and Russia ranks as the top country for labour migration from Armenia. Thus, Russia remains the most popular destination for Armenian migrants, and according to various estimates, remittances sent to Armenia from Russia account for over 10 per cent of Armenia’s GDP.
Given that Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) eliminates visa-related-barriers and thus facilitates the free movement of the Armenian labour force, massive outflows of the Armenian population to Russia seems bound to continue. Interestingly, Russia has not tended to oppose the influx of Armenians. Rather, it has skilfully used the large Armenian community to tighten its economic and political grip on Armenia.
Notably, during a 2012 meeting, the head of the Union of Armenians in Russia, Ara Abrahamyan, contended that around two million Russian Armenians support Vladimir Putin. The Russian president sarcastically responded, saying, “how many Armenians are living in Armenia? According to Russian estimates, their number is less than 3.2 million.”
Clearly, Putin’s ironic statement stems from the growing number of Armenians in Russia and the possibility that Russia may become home to the largest Armenian population.
The discourse on Armenia’s membership in the EEU has been characterised by a strong emphasis on the large Armenian community in Russia as a major factor for Armenia’s decision. There have been concerns that Armenian migrants would be subject to harsh mistreatment in the case that Armenia deviates from a Russian-led foreign policy trajectory. This assumption is based on the Russian authorities’ massive crackdown on the Georgian population in Russia after Georgia’s rapprochement with the European Union and NATO. This could perhaps be the reason why Abrahamyan praised Armenia’s decision to join the EEU, emphasising its positive implications for the Armenian community in Russia.
In fact, Armenian leadership and Russian Armenians have learned well from the “Georgian lesson” and Russia’s response to Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. In October and November of 2006, under the banner of “fight against irregular migration and organised crime”, Russian authorities detained thousands of Georgians and expelled more than 2,300 of them, including many Georgians residing legally in Russia. The Russian government’s campaign against ethnic Georgians occurred amid Georgia’s growing attempts to redefine asymmetric relations with Russia and pull the country out of Russia’s authoritarian influence.
In an attempt to punish Georgia’s “deviant behaviour”, the government targeted the Georgian population in Russia. Russian officials made repeated public statements framing Georgians as illegal immigrants, criminals and calling for measures to be taken against them. Russian television stations, the largest of which are owned or controlled by people close to the Kremlin, actively supported and justified discrimination against Georgians. Through daily news programmes and other programming, they often quoted senior officials making strong anti-Georgian statements. Concurrently, Moscow police began to conduct widespread document inspections of ethnic Georgians. The crackdown spilled over into other parts of Russia and resulted in unlawful detention of thousands of ethnic Georgians.
All of this prompted then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to posit that Russia was not willing to tolerate Georgia’s transformation into a European democracy that would no longer be susceptible to Russian coercive policy. It is evident that Georgia’s experience of successful reforms angered Russia and prompted it to “correct the deviant behaviour” and prevent democracy from spreading throughout the post-Soviet region. The situation came to head in 2008 with the war incited against disobedient Georgia and all of its ensuing consequences.
Overall, along with other issues, the mistreatment of the Georgian population in Russia sent ripples of apprehension into Armenia and highlighted the repercussions of angering Russia. It is no surprise, hence, that Armenian leadership framed the decision to join the EEU as inevitable, repeatedly citing its positive implications for the Armenian community. It is also no wonder that there has been broad consensus among the representatives of Armenia’s political leadership that despite the resentment that Russian policy may generate, Armenia should avoid provoking Russia. Otherwise, Russia could severely punish it by arming Armenia’s fiercest enemy Azerbaijan, increasing gas prices and cracking down on the Armenian community in Russia.
In an attempt to avoid the spill-over of colour revolutions into Armenia that could eventually result in revising relations with Russia, the Russian government launched a large-scale propaganda campaign against the rise of civic activism in Armenia. Clearly, opposition to Russian coercive policies has been at the heart of major protests and demonstrations in Armenia. These include mass protests, dubbed “Electric Yerevan”, over electricity price hikes of the Russian-dominated Electric Network of Armenia in 2015, and large demonstrations against the devastatingly harmful supply of Russian military hardware to Azerbaijan in the wake of the 2016 April war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Notably, the Kremlin propaganda machine consistently fed the narrative that, similar to Georgia and Ukraine, the unrest in Armenia might have been incited by the United States to pull the country away from Russian influence.
Moreover, in an attempt to obstruct EU-Armenia co-operation, Russia launched a large-scale campaign against the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in March 2017. More specifically, Armenia’s decision to develop a partnership with the EU in the form of CEPA was regarded as a betrayal and outright defiance of Russian interests. Some propagandists compared Armenia’s behaviour to that of a cheating wife who starts an affair with another man. Essentially, such statements were meant to put pressure on Armenia, not least through the large Armenian community in Russia.
Yet, the Kremlin did not overreact to mass anti-government protests in April 2018 before the Velvet Revolution. Rather, the Russian propaganda machine portrayed Armenia as a weak and powerless state that would maintain its allegiance to Russia, regardless of the power transition. These claims frequently emphasised the factors that make Armenia irreversibly compliant with Russia, ranging from the influential and large Armenian diaspora community to the country’s heavy energy, economic and political dependence on Russia.
Essentially, the Kremlin conveyed its warnings to Armenia through Mikhail Leontyev, a well-known Russian journalist and TV anchor who is also the vice president and spokesman for the Rosneft oil company. Leontyev contended that Armenians exist thanks to Russia’s support.
Studies show that in recent years, violent racially-motivated attacks and murders, often perpetrated by ultranationalist and neo-Nazi groups have become common occurrences in Russia, especially in large cities. Although there have been some convictions for violent hate-related crimes, the Russian government has done little to effectively combat these dangerous trends. Armenians in Russia would not feel safe amid the hatred, pervasive racism and xenophobia. They would thus encourage the Armenian government to avoid angering Russia. Not surprisingly, Pashinyan did not cross the “red line” and shortly after being put at the helm of Armenia, he confirmed the country’s allegiance to Russia.
Aram Terzyan is a visiting senior lecturer at the UNESCO Chair of Human Rights, Democracy and European Studies of Brusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences in Yerevan and a research fellow at the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute.