Reaction in the South Caucasus to Russia’s armed occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula is conforming to a predictable pattern: the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan are staying silent, while officials in Georgia are offering full-throated criticism of Kremlin behavior.
The reluctance of officials in Armenia to comment on recent developments in Crimea is conditioned mainly by Yerevan’s economic dependence on Russia, combined with a desire not to completely alienate the United States and European Union, local analysts say. Although Armenia last fall turned its back on stronger ties with the EU in favor of greater economic integration with Moscow, President Serzh Sargyan doesn’t want to burn any diplomatic bridges.
“What happened in Ukraine is a clash between Russia and the West. In this case, if Armenia responds and supports the central government in Kyiv, then it would inevitably spoil its relations with Russia. If Yerevan defended the Russian point of view, relations with the West would be spoiled," said independent political expert Yervand Bozoian in explaining the official silence. “Obviously, it is not in Armenia's interest to spoil relations either with the West or with Russia.”
Dissent can be heard in Armenia, but it is coming from opposition elements that lack easy access to state media. As a result, alternative messages are having trouble gaining traction in the public realm. A statement issued March 3 by the opposition Free Democratic party, for example, cautioned that Russia’s “rough violation of international law may result in unpredictable consequences … not just for Russia and Ukraine, but many other nations.”
In Azerbaijan, there has been ample media coverage of events in Ukraine, including the Euromaidan Revolution in Kyiv and the subsequent Russian move into Crimea. Reports by state-controlled media outlets have been largely free of any particular slant. Likewise, top officials have offered no public comments on the Crimean situation. According to local observers, the lack of top-level official statements is a sign that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration feels energy-rich Azerbaijan is economically and politically secure enough to remain above the fray.
With little to gain from the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Azerbaijan is being careful not to lose anything by speaking out, said a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. “It is such a crisis that you cannot avoid taking sides when making a statement,” the official said. “The decision is to keep silent.”
On March 4, a few members of the Azerbaijani parliament attempted to start a floor debate on the Ukrainian crisis. Their efforts were quickly shut down by Parliament Speaker Ogtay Asadov, who, in calling for restraint, said that “Russia and Ukraine are two kindred nations and will solve problems by themselves.”
While silence may be the general rule for Azerbaijan on Ukrainian events, comments from some Aliyev administration supporters indicate there is not a lot of enthusiasm in the ruling class in Baku for the Euromaidan leaders who have taken charge in Kyiv. Ali Huseynli, an influential MP from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, expressed the belief that former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in an unconstitutional way. “It is a new trend in the world recently to carry out coups and terrorist activity under the pretext of revolutionary processes,” said Huseynli in comments distributed by the 1news.az website on March 4.
Concerning Crimea, there has been one relatively low-profile statement made by Eynulla Madatli, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Ukraine, who expressed public support on March 3 for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Such comments were made with the long unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in mind. Crimea’s forced return to Russia could potentially set a bad example for Azerbaijan’s own efforts to recover Karabakh, which remains under Armenian control. While Baku may feel compelled to speak out about the need for territorial integrity, it can’t do so too loudly because of Russia’s key role in the Karabakh peace process.
A similar geopolitical calculus is at work in Armenia: officials in Yerevan are treading carefully in part because the United States and France are also vital players in Karabakh discussions. Georgia, which fought a brief and disastrous war with Russia in 2008, feels no such need to finesse a response to the Crimea crisis. Seeing a direct connection between Crimean developments and their own 2008 conflict, Georgian leaders are emphasizing a need for a robust response from the international community to compel Russia into withdrawing its forces from Ukraine. If the United States and EU do not take a strong stance, “we may end up facing yet another wave of aggression and occupation” later on, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili warned in a March 2 statement.
“When tanks are loaded, we can’t fade into the background with statements,” Parliament Speaker Davit Usupashvili said March 3 in comments distributed by the GHN news service.
Elizabeth Owen, Marianna Grigoryan and Shain Abbasov provided reporting for this story.