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Will Armenia move towards the West?

The Russian media has been speculating on a possible Armenian drift away from Moscow. Long the Kremlin’s staunchest ally in the Caucasus, a rift between the two countries would rewrite the books on post-Soviet geopolitics in the region. “It seems that Moscow has already received from Armenia what it wanted, and has lost all interest in it,” the Russian newspaper Izvestia writes in an article entitled “Strategic apathy with predictable consequences.”

The article accuses the current Armenian administration of nepotism and corruption, claiming that Armenia has become a country where kinships mean all, and people from Yerevan and Karabakh occupy the most influential positions. President Kocharian, the article speculates, is trying to break off from Russia in a bid to maintain his power.

As evidence, author points to Kocharian’s conspicuous absence from the last CIS summit; he was down with a cold, the administration said. Word is that he had been spotted going for a dip in the chilly waters of Sevani Lake at the time-doubtfully a curative measure. Nor did US State Department official Matt Bryza’s Yerevan stopover, a visit not exactly trumpeted by the Kocharian administration, serve to shore up Moscow’s trust in its traditional ally. According to the paper, Bryza worked out a deal with Yerevan authorities on the placement of two American radio-locating stations.

If Russia does indeed see its influence wane with Kocharian, it may be out of the game in Yerevan for a while. The Kremlin has not previously seen fit to cultivate relations with any opposition parties.

“Someone has asserted earlier that there is no need to work with the opposition in CIS countries; we should only focus on ruling administration. Whether it is true or not, such an approach led to the failure of relations with Georgia and later with Ukraine. And now it is Armenia’s turn. Americans do not refrain from working with the opposition, and as we can see from Georgia’s example they have won,” the paper writes.

Talk like this could be making it to print with a mind to influencing the election campaigning already underway in Armenia. Armenia has parliamentary elections coming up in 2007, and presidential elections in 2008. Kocharian is now finishing out his second term and his constitutionally prohibited from running again, leaving the opposition favored by some analysts to pull out a victory.

The Armenian president apparently “tried to correct his blunder” of sitting out the CIS summit by meeting Putin in Sochi. Here, Kocharian met with near-taunts from the Russian president, who expressed his pleasure that ‘Azerbaijan days’ are celebrated in Russia. Putin characterized this statement as a positive contribution to Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict settlement, but Kocharian did not exactly see things the same way.

Georgian analysts and politicians are of varied opinions. MP Van Bayburt thinks there will be no substantial change in Russian-Armenian relations in the next two or three years. The Yerevan administration, he says, has long practice in walking a delicate tightrope between Russia and the West.

Political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze, however, highlights Russia’s purchase, en masse, of the industrial infrastructure in Armenia. This rubs the wrong way for many citizens there, who look at the Russian investment as sheer aggression. In response to that antagonism, perceived or real, Armenian foreign policy crafters are increasingly on the look-out for Western hands to shake. Sakvarelidze thinks that Moscow has difficulty in conducting itself as an equal with countries that, realistically, depend on Russia, painting the picture of a suzerain lording over a vassal. The Kremlin likes to see ‘partners’ on their knees, he says, to leave the other party no option but a vulnerable embrace of Russia and its interests. “With this kind of politics, eventually everybody will lose-including Russia,” Sakvarelidze warns.

Strong Armenian diasporas, who exert disproportionate control on politics in Yerevan, are also pushing the administration into a Western orientation. The first president of independent Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian, clearly gravitated towards the West. Many think that his eventual resignation was brought about by the pro-Russian lobby in the country. Perhaps rumblings in the Russian media are a sign that the Kremlin is once again dusting off its playbook of preventive measures.

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