On the field, a recent qualifying match between the Armenian and Russian national teams ended in a scoreless draw. Outside the stadium, the football contest kicked up an emotional debate among Armenians about the two countries’ strategic partnership.
Thanks largely to the Russian team’s failure to crack Armenia’s defense, neither team managed to score in the March 26 game, played in Yerevan; Armenia now holds second place in the same qualifying group as Russia, 10 points behind its strategic partner in the standings. The two teams will play again on June 4 in Moscow. Poland and Ukraine will co-host the Euro Cup final round in June-July 2012.
While huge billboards in Yerevan promoted the soccer match as a “game of friendship,” there were limits to the bonhomie. In a bid to contain disturbances by rowdy Russian soccer fans and ticket scalping, the Armenian Football Federation limited sales of three-plus tickets to Armenian passport holders.
The satirical ArmComedy News Network underlined those misgivings with an article that described how make-believe, drunken Russian soccer fans confuse Yerevan with a Russian town and try to run “individuals of Caucasian ethnicity” out of town.
Many pro-opposition Armenians saw the event as symbolic of larger foreign policy “games” being played between Armenia and Russia. The resentment largely focuses on security matters. One key target for those who decry what they term Armenia’s “Russification” is the 49-year lease granted last year to Russia for a military base in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri.
The government asserts that the base and the Russian soldiers who guard Armenia’s borders with Turkey are a necessity, “one of the guarantees of national security.” The opposition, however, counters that Russia only pays attention to Armenia’s security concerns when it advances its own strategic interests in the region.
A March 16 meeting in Moscow between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan only added insult to that perceived injury. The date marked the 90th anniversary of the 1921 agreement by which Armenia lost to Turkey its national landmark of Mount Ararat, and other territory.
To protest Medvedev’s choice of a meeting date with Erdogan, Armenian youth groups of various political loyalties marked the day by demonstrating outside the Russian Embassy in Yerevan.
“That meeting with the Turkish prime minister clearly shows that Armenia’s strategic partner, Russia, does not respect either the sentiments of the Armenian people, or Armenian authorities; celebrating with no worries the 90th anniversary together with Turkey,” fumed Vahan Hovhannissian, head of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun parliamentary faction.
But if opposition members and some analysts criticize Russia for allegedly taking Armenia for granted, many Armenians still view Russia as the economic buoy that keeps them afloat. During the month of January of this year, for example, individual remittances from Russia topped $49 million. Overall last year, about $1.1 billion was sent from both individual and commercial sources from Russia to Armenia. In addition, roughly 200,000 Armenians migrate each year to Russia – an outflow that has recently provoked criticism of one Moscow program that pays for migrant workers to move to Russia.
Nonetheless, for the government, such close economic and security ties are a critical safety net. As tensions with Azerbaijan over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh have increased, so have the meetings between President Serzh Sargsyan and President Medvedev; the pair met nine times during 2010. So far, in 2011 they have met twice.
Even some of those who see Russia as a necessary, though bossy senior partner, can be skeptical of Moscow’s intentions. Armenians now often ironically repeat 19th century Armenian writer Khachatur Abovian’s line: “May the moment be blessed when Russians set foot on Armenian soil.”
“We all know that the Russians have always exploited us and sold us out whenever it was in their interests, but it is also a fact that the majority of people in our country live off the money earned in and sent from Russia,” elaborated 68-year-old historian Petros Ghazinian, whose two sons work in Moscow. “That means we have to be grateful to them, no matter what.”
A former Central Bank head maintains that gratitude should have its limits. “We should always keep in mind that ‘you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket,’” argued Bagrat Asatrian, a pro-opposition economist who headed Armenia’s Central Bank from 1994 until 1998. “Right now, our status is not even that of a Russian province.”
The sell-off of Armenian energy and telecommunications assets is a source of bitterness. Over the past decade, some 80 percent of Armenia’s energy network has been sold to Russia, including responsibility for management of the Metsamor nuclear power station. Russian-owned companies control most of Armenia’s telecommunications network and its railway line. Under a 2002 debt agreement, the Hrazdan thermo-electric power station and the MARS electronics and robotics plant also now operate under Russian ownership.
Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the governing Republican Party of Armenia, considers criticism of Armenia’s economic ties with Russia as groundless. “We have always been partners with Russia, and, in any case, our business deals are mutually beneficial,” he asserted. Russia ranked as Armenia’s main trade partner in 2010, with $700 million worth of turnover. Official data cites Russian investment for 2010 at about $300 million.
The end justifies the means, added Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Samvel Nikoian, also a Republican Party of Armenia member. “[Y]es, sometimes we need to put up with some losses, but we gain a strong partner, both militarily and economically,” Nikoian said.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.