Amid a grand display of Russian flags in Yerevan, Russian and Armenian leaders on August 20 signed an agreement that extends Moscow’s lease on its Gyumri military base near Turkey to 2044. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan framed the deal as a way to guarantee peace in the South Caucasus, but critics contend that the pact is not a partnership between equals.
The original base deal, signed in 1995, was due to expire in 2020. Using language often heard in reference to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and in support of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Medvedev cited regional peace-building as the reason for Moscow’s interest in the extending the lease on Gyumri. “We will make joint efforts to maintain peace and security,” declared Medvedev at a joint press conference. “We will use the potential to preserve peace in the Caucasus. We all need it. Armenia needs it, other countries need it, and Russia needs it. We will together tackle the dangers we still face, and we will help each other.”
Similarly, Sargsyan stressed that “[t]he strategic partnership with the Russian Federation proceeds from our people’s interests, and we’ll do our best to develop these relations.” Sargsyan, who formerly served as Armenia’s defense minister, added that the agreement will expand Russia’s “scope of geographic and strategic responsibility.”
Under the terms of the new agreement, the base in Gyumri, along with the Armenian armed forces, will provide for Armenia’s security, as well as defend Russia’s own interests.
With an apparent ear to regional and domestic sensitivities, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on August 18 denied that the agreement will change the base’s role, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Speaking on Armenian television, Lavrov also attempted to deflect concerns about Moscow’s alleged sale of an S-300 air defense system to Azerbaijan, saying that Russian leaders would “never supply arms to regions where such supplies may destabilize the situation.” S-300 anti-missile systems are already present at Gyumri. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Such statements and reassurances, however, have done little to assuage the concerns of opposition politicians and some political analysts who see the base deal as an attempt by Russia to use Armenia to gain a tighter strategic hold on the South Caucasus. In this campaign, they worry, Armenia’s own national interests will be left by the wayside. “Apart from [national] dignity, this challenges Armenia’s sovereignty, the independence of its foreign policy and vital national interests,” declared Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovhannisian.
Political scientist Sergei Minasian, deputy director of Yerevan’s Caucasus Institute, noted that nobody can predict what will happen in the next several years, and how the current situation in Armenia, which, he says, now favors Russia, might change. “Russia is just trying to derive benefits from this situation and have as many guarantees for its military and political presence in the South Caucasus as possible,” said Minasian. “Similarly, availing itself of the moment, Russia extended the term for [its] Sevastopol naval base in Ukraine.” In April, Ukraine, under newly elected, Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovich, ratified an agreement that extended Moscow’s lease on the Crimean naval base by 25 years.
Representatives of the governing Republican Party of Armenia maintain that the lease extension is in keeping with Armenia’s national security interests. “When the Russian military base changes its functions and defends not only Armenia’s frontiers, but Armenia’s security as well, I’ll virtually exclude a military resolution of the Karabakh issue [with Azerbaijan] or hostilities in this region,” commented Republican Party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov.
Hovering in the background during Medvedev’s visit was one political leader who illustrates Minasian’s point about the changing backdrops for strategic alliances. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, an ally-turned-antagonist for the Kremlin, arrived in Yerevan on August 18 for a “private visit” -- a visit seen by many local observers as an attempt to meet with Medvedev.
Lukashenko has recently become the target of a sustained smear campaign by Moscow after Belarus balked at recognizing the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russian media reported that Medvedev, who will stay in Yerevan until August 22 to take part in an unofficial summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), had no intention to meet with Lukashenko; whether Lukashenko would attend the CSTO summit was not immediately clear.
On August 20, Lukashenko instead met with former Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who enjoys warm ties with Moscow. A Kocharian spokesperson confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that the meeting occurred, but declined to comment further.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.