Armenian President Robert Kocharian has been embarrassed by his decision to recognize the "official" outcome of last month's Ukraine's presidential run-off, results that were subsequently discredited as fraudulent. Kocharian's action on the Ukrainian vote underscores that Russia continues to exert heavy influence over Armenia's diplomacy.
A new run-off election is scheduled in Ukraine for December 26 after the country's Supreme Court tossed out the "official" results from the late November balloting. That vote was marred by charges of fraud even before the polls closed. However, the dispute did not prevent Kocharian from rushing to recognize Russia's preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, as the winner. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Political observers in Yerevan believe Kocharian's quick endorsement was prompted by Russian pressure. Regardless of the cause, Kocharian's action is certain to damage Armenia's effort to build better relations with Western nations, which did not recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian election results.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has doggedly stood by Yanukovich, accusing the United States and the European Union of meddling in the internal affairs of what Russia calls its "near abroad." Putin was unusually quick to congratulate Yanukovich on his fraudulent victory over the Western-leaning challenger Viktor Yushchenko.
Kocharian looked uneasy as he was asked by reporters on November 26 to explain his backing of Yanukovich. "If Yushchenko was elected I would congratulate him. But it is Yanukovich who was elected and we congratulated him," he said, pointing to the figures released by Ukraine's Central Election Commission
Kocharian's foreign minister, Vartan Oskanian, claimed in televised remarks on December 3 that Yerevan stuck to international law, whereas the international community was motivated by political expediency. The explanation became even more questionable the next day when the Ukrainian Supreme Court voided the official vote results, endorsing allegations of massive electoral fraud.
Interestingly, news of a congratulatory message sent by Kocharian to Yanukovich was first reported by state-run Russian media. Furthermore, Kocharian's office never issued any statements to that effect, leading the Yerevan newspaper "Iravunk" to joke that the Armenian leader had to watch Russian television to find out whom he has congratulated.
"In my view, [Kocharian's administration] is not acting independently and Russia's influence is clearly visible here," Stepan Grigorian, a political analyst critical of the Armenian government, told EurasiaNet. "I believe that this step was taken at the behest of Russia."
Lending credence to this theory is the fact Armenia has little reason to like Ukraine's outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who handpicked Yanukovich as his successor. Ukraine has repeatedly supported its arch-foe Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, with Kuchma denouncing "Armenian occupation" of the disputed enclave as recently as in June. Ukraine was reportedly the sole non-Muslim nation to have backed a pro-Azerbaijani draft resolution on Karabakh submitted to the UN General Assembly less than a month before Kocharian's letter. Incidentally, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev did not congratulate Yanukovich.
The Armenian president may be worried that the anti-government protests in the Ukrainian capital, dubbed "orange revolution," could have a spillover effect in Yerevan. Kocharian's political foes have expressed their solidarity with Yushchenko and are reportedly regrouping for a fresh push for power. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Yushchenko's likely victory in the December 26 re-run of the Ukrainian ballot could embolden opposition leaders not only in Armenia, but also in other CIS states, including Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some Armenian opposition leaders have already declared that the West is ready to back a similar anti-government revolt in Armenia. Media reports have suggested that several prominent oppositionists will soon set up a new opposition alliance with a clearly pro-Western agenda.
The Kocharian administration itself has sought to forge closer links with the West in recent years, stepping up Armenia's participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program and planning to send troops to Iraq. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Foreign Minister Oskanian told a German news agency last month that his country also hopes to join the EU within 20 years.
Some observers believe that Kocharian's credibility is now damaged in Western capitals, thus undermining what Oskanian has characterized as Armenian's desire to maintain a "complementary" foreign policy. "He [Kocharian] once again underscored that Armenia remains totally within the orbit of Russian foreign policy," wrote a commentator for "168 Zham," an independent Yerevan weekly.
Meanwhile, Grigorian, the political analyst, suggested that Yerevan may have a difficult time in re-gaining Europe's confidence. "By congratulating Yanukovich together with Belarus, Armenia acted against the EU and the OSCE," he said. "Let them not think Europe will forget this."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.