The shattering events Armenia has undergone in the last two years—the 2018 Velvet Revolution, the defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war, and the resulting crisis—couldn’t fail to impact on the country’s foreign policy. The regime change sparked hopes that Armenia’s democratization would guarantee international support and protect it from external threats. The second Karabakh war showed at great cost how naive and unfounded those expectations had been. Now Armenia must chart a new foreign policy course under the difficult conditions created by the defeat in Karabakh and the tense standoff within the country.
The 2018 protests were principally about democratization and social justice, leaving little room for foreign policy. The revolution’s leader Nikol Pashinyan took pains to emphasize that it had no geopolitical context, unlike some other post-Soviet uprisings. Still, the protest leaders declared their intention to build relations with the external world “from more independent positions.”
Once elected prime minister, the impulsive Pashinyan, inexperienced in foreign policy, tried to transfer to it the same populist narrative that had helped him to succeed at home. In international settings, the new government talked about reform, social justice, and a “democratic breakthrough” in the belief that striving toward democracy would make the country immune to external threats, attract investment, and guarantee help from foreign partners in solving their socioeconomic problems.
Pashinyan’s massive support (75 percent and more) showed that most Armenians believed that the government’s promise to turn Armenia into a “lighthouse of democracy” both in the region and beyond truly would help their country to build better alliances at long last. Belief that the world was now on Armenia’s side was regularly boosted by statements of support from the EU and United States, as well as by the neutral position adopted by Moscow during and after the regime change in May 2018.
In his first year in power, Pashinyan tried to make the most of the idea of Armenia’s democratic breakthrough, but during his first trip to Brussels for the NATO summit in July 2018, European leaders made it clear that no significant financial support would be forthcoming. Nor did the United States, following then president Donald Trump’s isolationist path, show much interest in “democratic Armenia,” despite the efforts of Armenian lobby groups.
Pashinyan’s populist tendency to bend foreign policy to the requirements of domestic policy stopped Armenia’s new authorities from properly tackling the country’s main foreign policy problem: the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which they largely tried to ignore. In July 2018, for example, when many in Yerevan were already talking of impending war, Pashinyan said that “Russia was in a position to prevent war,” effectively pushing responsibility for preserving the status quo onto Moscow.
This irresponsible attitude toward Karabakh continued, despite clear signs of problems brewing, with no attempts made to restart peace talks. And still, Pashinyan’s government continued to count on its “democratic immunity” in the belief that the world would not allow a war against a democracy. “Any attempt to resolve this conflict the military way is an attack against democracy, human rights, and peace,” Pashinyan repeated from his election until August 2020.
Even before war broke out in Karabakh in the autumn of 2020, Armenia twice had the opportunity to see that such an approach was fatally flawed. The country received no significant international aid in the fight against COVID-19. Nor did Yerevan see any international gestures of friendship following the July clashes on the border with Azerbaijan, far from Karabakh. On the contrary, the international co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group said at the time that changing the settlement process format—something Pashinyan had insisted upon since May 2018—was “not conducive to resuming a constructive dialogue.”
Following its defeat in the forty-four-day Karabakh war with Azerbaijan, Armenian diplomacy—including its many diaspora organizations—was practically paralyzed. The loss of 75 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh, the uncertain status of another 2,500 square kilometers, the many prisoners of war in Azerbaijan (whom Baku refuses to release, in contravention of the November 9 ceasefire agreement), and problems with regional communications have all plunged Armenia into a deep political crisis.
Armenian diplomacy has lost the ambitiousness that had marked it since the 2018 revolution, and will depend far more on external factors from now on. A multi-vector foreign policy will remain in Armenia’s national interests, but now that will be easier said than done.
The Biden administration has already announced its readiness to more actively support democracy in the post-Soviet space. It’s not yet clear how substantial U.S. support will be, but Pashinyan is counting on it, and preparing to send a new ambassador to the United States: Lilit Makunts, head of the ruling party’s parliamentary faction, and a loyal associate of the prime minister.
A no less important question is how far Russia is prepared to support Pashinyan’s government. For now, it looks like the current regime is still the most convenient partner for Moscow to work with on implementing all the terms of the Karabakh ceasefire agreement, which the Kremlin helped to broker. But it won’t stay that way forever.
Another argument increasingly heard in Armenia’s corridors of power is for a new attempt to normalize relations with Turkey. The new foreign minister Ara Ayvazyan, who was appointed after the war, said last month that given the changed landscape in Karabakh, Turkey no longer had any reason to keep its border with Armenia closed. Still, any attempt by Pashinyan to seize on public apathy to push through an unpopular foreign policy initiative is fraught with risk.
Finally, the Armenia-EU Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement, signed back in November 2017, came into force on March 1, 2021. Yet a pivot on Armenia’s part toward the EU looks unlikely right now, and in any case would not be very popular among Pashinyan’s supporters. The EU, for its part, is not prepared to seriously engage in a rapprochement with Armenia at the height of a pandemic.
Pashinyan’s primary concern right now in his foreign policy decisions is how they will impact on his popularity at home. In terms of socioeconomic stabilization, he needs to canvass support from Moscow, but this will not be easy: many prominent members of the Armenian diaspora in Russia—and potential investors—are demanding his resignation.
Another small but active group at home that Pashinyan could have counted upon are those who favor orientation to the West and hope for help from the United States and Europe. Of course, large-scale aid is unlikely to come from those quarters right now, meaning it won’t be easy for the authorities to find a balance between that group’s requirements and the preferences of voters who put socioeconomic issues above geopolitics. The same is true of finding a balance between cooperating with Moscow and the West. The current extent of the standoff between Russia and the West leaves a weakened Armenia with even fewer opportunities to achieve a balancing act than it had before the 2018 revolution.