For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Armenia, in many ways, must offer a welcome contrast to Ukraine and its building protests against economic integration with Russia and its proposed trade bloc, the Customs Union.
The South Caucasus country, where Putin popped in for a visit on December 2, depends on Russia for energy, migrants’ jobs, border guards and security, among other needs, and opted out of closer ties with the European Union in favor of eventual economic merger with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
It also knows how to put on a Soviet-style show of homage for a leader openly nostalgic for the Soviet past.
It all adds up to a place where Russia would like to stay. In comments in Gyumri, the northern Armenian city which hosts the Russian military's 102nd army base, Putin stressed that Russia “never intended to leave the Transcaucasus” following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and sees no reason to do so now.
“Just the opposite, we are going to reinforce our positions in the Transcaucasus, based on the very best that we inherited from our ancestors, and based on good relations with all countries of the region, including Armenia,” he declared, without elaboration.
To smooth over any hesitations, Putin came bearing (as for Ukraine) the gift of gas. Rather than the 156,000 drams (about $374) per 1,000 cubic meters announced earlier this year, Moscow now will charge Armenia lower, domestic prices for exported gas. Details were not available.
In turn, Armenia has handed over complete control of the country’s gas distribution company, ArmRusGazprom, to Russia’s mammoth, state-run gas exporter, GazProm.
But not all Armenians, cost-conscious though they may be, are happy about this gigantic guest extending its stay indefinitely.
In the largest recent demonstration against closer economic ties with Russia, hundreds of protesters, some carrying Ukrainian flags and posters supporting Ukrainian demonstrators, poured into central Yerevan in the afternoon of December 2 to tell Putin to “go home” and to remonstrate with the government that “Armenia is not an object for trade.”
At least 110 people were detained during the protest, according to the interior ministry; two journalists were among them, according to reports. Some parliamentarians claimed that individual activists had been hauled into police stations for warnings against protesting Putin’s visit; others alleged that state employees were ferried out to wave flags at the visiting Russian leader.
Ahead of Putin’s arrival, roads and streets in both the capital, Yerevan, and the northern city of Gyumri, which hosts Russia’s 102nd army base, were hastily repaired, artificial turf was laid, a love song from a Soviet-era film piped through loudspeakers in Yerevan, and thousands of Russian flags distributed. Pro-government national TV channels endlessly praised the centuries of friendship between Armenia and Russia; a monument to commemorate that friendship was erected in downtown Yerevan.
“The ‘king’ has arrived,” drily commented one Gyumri resident, who asked not to be named. “They even banned funerals in Gyumri today, and people are not allowed to approach the places [Putin] is supposed to visit. Every spot is under strict control.”
“Seeing the events unfolding in Ukraine, the Armenian authorities undertake such unprecedented preventive measures,” claimed independent political analyst Yervand Bozoian. “The Ukrainian developments can move to Armenia as well, so they try their best to prevent Putin’s visit from inciting similar actions.”
Some may question that prediction – a series of national protests against the Armenian government faltered this spring for lack of momentum – but irritation with President Serzh Sargsyan’s government for high unemployment, rampant corruption and a perceived lack of attention to social-welfare runs strong.
For many Armenians, Yerevan’s September decision to opt for closer ties with the Customs Union over the European Union seems destined to isolate the blockaded, poverty-stricken country still further.
On November 29, during a discussion about neighbor Georgia initialing an accord for closer ties with the European Union, a talk-show host for the online TV station Civilnet.am, a government critic, lamented that now Georgia and Armenia “will be living in two different worlds.”
That prospect does not seem to concern President Sargsyan, however.
“We live in a rapidly changing world,” he said in Gyumri. “New approaches are needed constantly, and these are easier to find through joint efforts, within the framework of integration unions and processes. This is the reason stipulating Armenia's choice to join the Customs Union and enter the united economic area of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.”
Some local analysts and opposition politicians have charged that pressure by Russia, which controls Armenia’s energy supplies as well as other strategic industries, led to the about-face.
Standing amidst a police cordon in Yerevan, human-rights activist Arthur Sakunts, an outspoken opponent of Armenia’s membership in the Customs Union, declared the protest “only the beginning of the fight.”
“We will continue struggling” to force a reversal of the government’s decision, he pledged, without elaboration.
But for many Armenians, closer ties with Russia, the destination for most of the country’s labor migrants, carry no downsides. “Putin has come, and now everything will be fixed in this country,” commented 41-year-old Karen Alumian, an unemployed Yerevan mechanic who added that his “relatives prosper in Russia.”
“In any case, Putin can manage this country better than Serzh [Sargsyan],” he concluded.