Armenia’s Foreign Policy in Contemporary Era: Interview with Paruyr Hovhannisyan

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia in Yerevan (Credits: SpecialEurasia)

Kavkaz Files ISSN 2975-0474 Volume 25 Issue 2
Author: Silvia Boltuc

Armenia’s geopolitical landscape underwent significant shifts following Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh in September 2023. While historical alliances with Iran and Georgia continue to hold strong, an increased engagement with the European Union and the United States reflects Yerevan’s aspirations for deeper integration with Western institutions.

Amidst these dynamics, Yerevan maintains a nuanced stance, balancing its relations with Moscow, its traditional ally, and the imperative to diversify its partners without compromising regional stability.

Concurrently, Armenia remains committed to normalising relations with Turkey and pursuing ongoing negotiations with Azerbaijan to achieve lasting peace.

During our official visit to Yerevan, SpecialEurasia met with Paruyr Hovhannisyan, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, with whom we discussed Yerevan’s regional and foreign policy.

Since our last meeting in October 2022, the South Caucasus has undergone significant changes, including Azerbaijan’s complete takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, in September 2023. Can you provide more details on this situation and Baku-Yerevan’s confrontation?

“Since our last meeting in October 2022, the South Caucasus has experienced significant developments, most notably Azerbaijan’s complete takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh in September 2023. The region has been ethnically cleansed, with the majority of the population leaving lands that had been inhabited by their ancestors for over two millennia. Only a few Armenians remain, with their situation currently unclear.

These events have impacted the prospects for peace talks. Negotiations were halted for several months but resumed with a meeting in Berlin on February 28-29th, 2024, involving Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers, Ararat Mirzoyan and Jeyhun Bayramov, respectively, in the presence of German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. This meeting followed discussions in Munich between the Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, and the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. Another meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan took place on May 10-11st, 2024, in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Despite numerous challenges, the exchange of draft agreements has continued.

Notably, the border delimitation process has commenced with clear reference to the Alma Ata Declaration of 1991, which asserts that the boundaries of former Soviet republics should become official borders, thus ensuring the territorial integrity of each country. This is particularly important for Armenia, which has faced constant threats of attack. The border delimitation commissions have developed and submitted work regulations for endorsement by their respective governments, with the hope of approval by July 1st, 2024.

Progress has also been made on a draft peace treaty, with the ninth version recently sent to Azerbaijan. Only a few elements remain to be addressed, and the agreement is closer to being concluded than ever before.

Regarding the opening of communications, Armenia’s willingness to open all transportation routes and explore additional energy exchange possibilities has been positively received. At a recent Central Asia-South Caucasus conference on connectivity organised by the Italian Foreign Ministry in Rome, Armenia’s proposal to make the South Caucasus a link between Central Asia and Europe, named the ‘Crossroads of Peace’, was well-received. There is hope that this concept will be included in the European Union’s Global Gateway plan.

In summary, progress has been made on the draft peace treaty, border delimitation, and expectations for opening communications. However, challenges remain, particularly in light of recent demands by Azerbaijan’s President regarding changes to the Armenian constitution and the disbanding of the Minsk Group. These requests are difficult to fulfill and raise concerns about Azerbaijan’s genuine interest in concluding a peace agreement. While significant progress has been made with EU and US mediation, establishing lasting peace in the region requires a genuine commitment from all parties involved.

From Armenia’s perspective, there is an undeniable desire to improve relations with Azerbaijan. However, recent statements from Baku create significant issues and raise doubts about their willingness to pursue peace.”.

Historically, Armenia has been perceived as a close ally of Russia. In light of recent events, particularly concerning Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, how is Armenia working to enhance its relations with the West, specifically Europe and the United States?

“Indeed, there is considerable frustration regarding Russia’s stance. In the past year, Russian peacekeepers were the sole military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, yet the region was left devoid of Armenians, save for a few. This raises serious concerns about the effectiveness of the Russian peacekeeper mission.

Before Azerbaijan’s military offensive, there were significant provocations, including the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh and the closure of the Lachin Corridor, which escalated tensions. Despite these events, Russian peacekeepers did not take effective measures to address the situation.

Frustration also peaked in 2022 when Armenia’s sovereign territory was attacked. Armenia appealed to Russia bilaterally and to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), expecting defence from this alliance. However, there was hesitation and prioritisation of Azerbaijan as an important partner, leading Armenia to question the reliability of this organisation. Consequently, Armenia has suspended its participation in CSTO activities and refrained from high-level meetings within the coalition, prompting reflections on the health and equality of these relations.

Conversely, there is significant momentum in Armenia’s relations with the European Union and the United States. Europe has historically been a primary supporter of Armenia’s transformation, the largest donor, and a major trade partner. Currently, efforts are underway to develop new partnership priorities aimed at bringing Yerevan as close to the EU as possible. Achieving maximal integration with the EU and utilising all available tools is Armenia’s clear objective. The candidate country status for Georgia serves as an important precedent in this context.

Similarly, relations with the United States are advancing. On June 11st, 2024, another round of the US-Armenia Strategic Dialogue (USASD) was held in Yerevan. During this meeting, a vision for deepening bilateral ties was outlined, which will be formalised in a Memorandum of Understanding, upgrading the dialogue to a Strategic Partnership Commission. Numerous areas of common interest were discussed.

The dynamics of Armenia’s relations with the EU and the U.S. are unprecedented. This also extends to relations with single EU member states. This period marks an exceptionally active phase of cooperation and interaction with Brussels and Washington, surpassing previous levels of engagement.”.

Considering Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), how does Russia remain a vital partner for your country?

“Armenia does not view its relationship with Moscow as confrontational. We seek to maintain healthy and mutually beneficial relations with all partners, including Russia, given its proximity and significance.

The Eurasian market, particularly our links with former Soviet countries like Russia and Kazakhstan, remains crucial for Armenia and its economy.

At the same time, we aim to diversify our economy and policies to enhance our resilience. For a small, landlocked country like ours, it is natural to utilise all available opportunities. Even Kazakhstan, for instance, one of the richest countries in natural resources, is pursuing a multivector foreign policy. This strategy should be understood and respected by all neighbors and partners. This is the general approach we are adopting.”.

Paruyr Hovhannisyan
Paruyr Hovhannisyan, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia (Credits: Twitter Account)

Is there a risk that Armenia might lose international support from both traditional allies, such as Russia, and potential new partners, like the West, given the strong energy sector ties between Brussels and Baku, as well as Moscow and Baku?

“The energy sector is indeed significant and influences agendas and lobbying efforts. However, other factors, such as regional stability, democracy, and various economic sectors, are also critical.

While the energy factor plays a role, it cannot be the sole basis for lobbying interests. Armenia’s historical relations with several European states, the influence of the Armenian diaspora, and other relevant factors also contribute to our international standing. In addition, as I already mentioned, Armenia serves as a natural connection between Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Europe.

We do not view Armenia as an arena for competition or rivalry among global powers. Our goal, exemplified by the ‘Crossroad of Peace’ project, is to foster equal opportunities and maintain healthy relations with all neighbors. We aim to cultivate closer relations with the EU due to shared standards and approaches, but in a non-confrontational manner.

Our objective is to introduce additional opportunities for regional cooperation, not to provoke or upset any country. Our policies are driven by the need to defend our national interests and ensure development and peace for our population, which urgently needs stability and development prospects.

This approach reflects the current government’s narrative, which has garnered substantial understanding. The progress we have made in peace attempts, even under challenging circumstances, demonstrates the sincerity of our agenda. Diversification is essential for our survival, and our efforts are not directed against any other country but rather towards creating favorable conditions for Armenia in these turbulent times.”.

In a previous interview with SpecialEurasia, President Vahagn Khachaturyan discussed the normalisation of relations between Armenia and Turkey. After nearly two years, what is the current status of this process?

We have continuously pursued the normalisation of relations with Ankara. There have been some positive developments in this regard. Following the devastating earthquake in Turkey, Armenia was among the countries that provided humanitarian assistance, sending aid and rescue workers. Subsequently, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan visited Ankara.

There have been multiple exchanges at the level of Foreign Ministers, as well as between the Prime Ministers and Presidents, and meetings between special representatives. We have agreed on some relatively small measures and are committed to improving relations.

However, we often feel that these relations are overly dependent on our talks with Azerbaijan, which remains a significant obstacle.

From our side, we have made substantial efforts to demonstrate our commitment to normalising relations. Given that Turkey is our largest neighbor, normalising relations without preconditions is crucial.

We hope to have better opportunities now for establishing peace and accelerating this process, particularly in implementing agreements such as opening the borders for citizens of third countries, and ultimately, fully opening the borders.

Our common border, one of the few remaining closed borders from the Cold War era, has been shut since 1993, with brief openings on February 11st and 14th for earthquake relief delivery. However, it remains closed, reflecting a relic of the past that we hope to change.”

How would you assess the current state of Armenian-Iranian relations in the regional context?

“Currently, Iran’s support for Armenia’s borders and territorial integrity is highly valued.

Moreover, Iran plays a significant role in regional connectivity and the energy sector, which is crucial for us in this uncertain situation.

The relationship between Yerevan and Tehran exemplifies good neighborly relations, which we strive to maintain. We have numerous joint projects at various levels and ongoing exchanges, reflecting a common desire to enhance regional stability. In this regard, our cooperation is particularly close, especially given the current geopolitical context.

Iran, along with Georgia, serves as a critical gateway for Armenia, as our borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed. Our common border is one of our primary links to the outside world.

Various regional projects, from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf, and potential connectivity initiatives involving Iran, might hold significant interest not only for Armenia but also for Europe.

Iran has never objected to our aspirations to strengthen ties with Europe. Even our cooperation with NATO, as a non-member country, has not posed any issues. It is vital to underline that this partnership aims to modernise our defensive capacities, achieve higher standards, and engage in political dialogue, without targeting any regional country.

There is mutual respect for each other’s sensitivities, and despite any challenges, we have always managed to find understanding.”.

President Vahagn Khachaturyan recently emphasised the importance of Armenia’s close and amicable relationship with Georgia, founded on mutual trust and a centuries-old friendship between their peoples. How would you describe the current state of relations between Yerevan and Tbilisi?

“We signed a ‘strategic partnership’ memorandum on January 26th, 2024, elevating our relations to a new level.

Like with Iran, Armenia and Georgia share a millennia-old relationship. Apart from a brief border escalation in 1918 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, our countries have never been at war.

Historically, as two Christian nations surrounded by larger Muslim empires like the Ottoman and Persian Empires, and also the Seljuks and the Arabs, our challenging neighborhood has fostered cooperation rather than conflict. This shared experience has led to strong ties between our states.

While there is occasional competition in some areas, this is normal for neighboring countries. Overall, our relations have been healthy.

Recently, shared interests in democracy and a European perspective have brought us even closer. We face similar security concerns and challenges, and we share the need to diversify our policies and options.

Additionally, there is a significant Armenian community living peacefully in Georgia, further strengthening our bond. Georgia also serves as our main transportation gateway, with its Black Sea ports being vital for our trade.

Notably, Tblisi’s candidacy for EU membership has influenced our European ambitions. Given our geographical constraints, Georgia is our only connection to Europe, making their EU candidacy crucial for our own aspirations.

Moreover, despite joint infrastructure projects with Azerbaijan, Tbilisi has maintained a neutral stance in the region. They have facilitated peace efforts, such as organising the meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers on July 16th, 2022. Georgia is genuinely interested in establishing peace between Yerevan and Baku and normalising Armenian-Turkish relations, as they are aware of the regional impact of potential conflicts.

In summary, our relations with Georgia are based on mutual ties, interests, and a shared desire to settle disputes in challenging times. Our cooperation is growing across all fields.”.

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