We are not looking for dramatic re-alignments

We are not looking for dramatic re-alignments

Mikayel Zolyan

We talked about New Armenia’s foreign policy with Mikayel Zolyan, in the past a well-known political commentator, today member of the standing committee on Foreign Relations of the National Assembly of Armenia, representing “My Step” faction of the parliament. Mikayel Zolyan answers Regional Post’s questions on how Armenia’s new government is going to build its relations with the world: neighbours, Russia, EU, USA, and others.

Interview : Artavazd Yeghiazaryan

 

 

What is new government’s main course in foreign affairs? Does Armenia go West, or stays close to Russia, or tries something else?

I think the very question that you are asking reflects a pattern of thinking about foreign affairs that we are trying to overcome. The question is not whether we want to have a pro-Russian or a pro-Western orientation. Our foreign policy can have only one orientation: it has to be pro-Armenian, or to use a better word, Armenia-centered. I know it sounds like a banality, nobody in their right mind would dispute that Armenia’s foreign policy should be Armenia-centered. But it’s one thing to announce that, it is another thing to implement that principle in real life. This government, unlike the previous ones, has no problem of legitimacy inside the country, it has no links with shady characters inside and outside Armenia, no business interests in foreign countries, so its sole priority is to pursue a foreign policy that is in the interests of all Armenian citizens. This makes our position stronger and allows us to have a sincere discussion on all issues with all our partners, whether in the West, in the East, in the North or in the South. At the same time, the new government has said on numerous occasions that we are not looking for dramatic re-alignments in our foreign policy, we are going to continue to work with our partners, and to honor our commitments. The same applies to Armenia’s participation in international organizations and integration projects.

Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan

Meeting of Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Munich

 

Critics say that Armenia has lost its importance for Russia, though PM Pashinyan already had several meetings with Vladimir Putin and says that nothing’s changed. Where are we now in this relationship?

Armenia’s relationship with Russia is very important. It is based on the interests of both countries. Armenia needs Russia and Russia needs Armenia. So, it is my firm belief that whoever is at the helm in Moscow or in Yerevan, our cooperation will continue. It is our approach is that our relations should be based on mutual respect for each others’ interests and each others’ sovereignty, and that means that if there are any issues that need to be discussed, they need to be discussed openly and sincerely, with no taboo topics. I believe that ultimately this approach will earn us more respect in the eyes of the decision-makers in Moscow, and help to make our relations stronger. Our cooperation with Russia is developing not only on the level of two-sided relations, but also within structures of regional integration, such as EAEU.

Nikol Pashinyan and Vladimir Putin

Nikol Pashinyan and Vladimir Putin

 

Recently there have been several reports in pro-Kremlin Russian media against the new Armenian government. Do you think it's some kind of a signal or it doesn't mean anything?

Russia is a big country, and its government system is quite complicated, so there can be some forces in Russia that do not want to see the friendship between Moscow and Yerevan develop further. Thus, there are different lobbyist groups that are trying to poison the relationship between Russia and the New Armenia, and some of these groups can be quite powerful. Time after time, we see how influence of such groups produces media attacks against Armenia. However, as the development of Armenia-Russia relations shows, the higher level decision-making in Moscow is not affected by these attacks. So, responding emotionally to such media attacks would only help those who stand behind them. At the same time, maybe we should be more active in working with both the Russian government and the Russian society, to present an adequate and truthful image of Armenia’s policies.

 

An important part of Armenia’s foreign affairs is a Karabakh conflict. What are the main principles that the new government adopted? Is NKR going to return as a party in the negotiation process?

Our approach to the Karabakh issue is based on several principles. As Pashinyan has said, any resolution of the conflict should be acceptable to the societies of Armenia, Artsakh and Azerbaijan. This again may seem somewhat obvious, yet so far no leader involved in the negotiations had articulated this thesis (and Azerbaijani side has still failed to articulate this thesis as well). Another principle that we are putting forward, is that Armenia will not negotiate under threat. In the past Azerbaijani side has been using the threat of use of force, as well various provocations and incidents on the line of contact in Artsakh and on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, as a political tool. We have clearly indicated that this is unacceptable. We also believe, that before we talk about any substantial breakthrough, we need to change the atmosphere around the conflict, we should exclude hate speech, ethnic hatred, militarist propaganda coming from all sides of the conflict. Finally, we believe that all sides of the conflict need to have a seat at the table, which means that Artsakh should return to the negotiations process.

 

When talking about pro-Western vector, people usually mean the United States. Is Trump’s USA a good partner for Armenia?

Armenia-USA relations have traditionally been warm and friendly. USA has helped Armenia a lot, starting from the first days of independence, not to mention earlier period. American Armenian community is a bridge that brings the two countries together. Today USA is going through a period of re-appraisal of its foreign policy, and its relations with many of its vital partners are going through significant transformations. Against this background, we can say that USA-Armenia relations can be characterized as constructive and stable, and continuity in these relations is not under threat. Obviously, there are some issues which Yerevan and Washington see differently, for example when it comes to the sanctions against Iran, or Armenia’s humanitarian mission in Syria, but, just as in case with all other partners, open and sincere discussion of such issues ultimately only makes the relationship stronger.

 

Many Armenians are waiting impatiently for visa-free regime with Europe, and it looks like it’s getting more realistic after the revolution and democratic changes...

I don’t think our perspective on the relationship with Europe should be limited to the visa free regime. Visa free regime is one of our goals and it remains a high priority, but it is a part of a bigger picture. The revolution of 2018 showed that values that are usually called European, such as democracy, human rights and social justice, are close to the heart of the majority of Armenians. We are doing our best to build a state and society that would be based on these values, and it is natural that we expect Europe’s appreciation and help in this difficult process. At the same time, we believe that values should not be linked to geopolitics. As we have been saying both in Brussels and in Moscow, our friendship with EU is not directed against Russia, and vice versa. So far, Armenia has been able to maintain a close relationship with both Brussels and Moscow, in spite of all the complications in the relations between these two actors, and we hope that it will stay that way. We should also not forget two-sided relations with specific EU countries, and these relations also have a great potential.

 

Iran is considered to be a good ally for Armenia, at the same time Islamic republic is also quite close to Azerbaijan. What are Pashinyan's ideas about it? What did his latest visit to Iran give?

Iran is our friend, neighbor and partner. In general, the new government is working on creating closer relations with its immediate neighbors. The Armenia-Turkey border remains closed, so relations with Iran and Georgia acquire strategic importance. As with other countries, we have outlined that our relations with Iran are not aimed at any third countries, and also that our relations with third countries cannot be aimed against Iran. Iran’s policies in the region have also been based on careful appreciation of the delicate balance in the region, and respect for Armenia’s interests. Iran has been a stabilizing force in the South Caucasus in general, and when it comes to Karabakh conflict in particular. At the same time, we still have not fully realized our potential for economic cooperation with Iran and we need to do that. The same goes for Georgia. Armenia and Georgia have had a mutually beneficial relationship, based on respect and understanding, but we still have to realize our full potential, especially when it comes to economics.

 

Relations with Georgia were always officially warm, but also envious from both sides, and from time to time some local conflicts even took place. What is going to happen in that direction?

Relations with immediate neighbors, Georgia and Iran are a priority for this government. Our firm belief is that whatever the comlpexities of geopolitics, our relations with our immediate neighbors and friends are a priority, and I am glad that the Georgian side looks at our relations in the same way. Armenia and Georgia have a history of close ties and friendship that is literally thousands of years old, and today we are cooperating in many spheres, but there is still much more we can do. Take for example the communications: some of the roads (on both sides of the border) are in bad conditions, the train and bus connections between Yerevan and Tbilisi could be improved, to put it mildly. The new government has plans to fix this, and there is also willingness to cooperate from the Georgian side. There is also a large Armenian community in Georgia, which should serve as a bridge between the two countries. Besides, Georgia has a valuable experience of reform, successfully combating government inefficiency and corruption, and this is an experience, from which we can learn a lot.

Nikol Pashinyan and Mamouka Bakhtadze

 Nikol Pashinyan holds informal meeting with Georgian Prime Minister Mamouka Bakhtadze

 

Armenia's membership to the Eurasian Union is mainly considered as a part of Armenian-Russian relations, but there are, obviously, other countries in the union. How would you describe Armenia's role in it?

Our approach to the Eurasian Union, as well as other integration structures in the former USSR, is based on the realization that these structures have a great potential. EAEU is a huge market and it can be a great boost for Armenia’s economy. At the same time, unfortunately, the EAEU is still far from realizing its full potential, except for Russia, the economic links between these countries are quite weak. Take for example airplane flights, there are very few flights from Yerevan to other EAEU countries, most of the communication goes through Moscow. As to the CSTO, it is important in terms of Armenia’s security, however, unfortunately, not all of its members are equally committed to making CSTO an efficient organization, which requires taking each others’ interests into account and, for example, refraining from selling weapons to a country that is in conflict with a CSTO member. However, we believe that these are all issues that can be resolved, the important thing is not to shy away from discussing these issues, but to have a sincere and constructive discussion.

Heads of EEU member states

Heads of EEU member states

 

Relations with other countries, visa decisions. It was much discussed that citizens of India can enter Armenia without visa. Why India? How is the process going on?

Obviously, our relations with the world are not limited to the directions with the countries that we’ve discussed. China is becoming an important player in our region and Armenia has played a special attention to the relations with Beijing. India is another rising global giant, and we see a lot of potential in our relations with India. As to the issue of “Indian migration” into Armenia, it has been blown out of proportion. Yes, we do have some Indians who have come to Armenia to work and to live and we welcome them. At the same time, migration should be well-regulated, otherwise it would create problems both for the migrants and the host country. In any case, we need to understand, that if we want Armenia to be a developed country, we need to be ready to accept a certain level of migration and multiculturalism. And so far, based on what I’ve seen, most Indians in Armenia have been able to integrate well, learning the Armenian language and respecting the local traditions. We also need to develop our relations with other parts of the world. Middle East remains a high priority, especially given the current instability in the region. Thanks to the Armenian Diaspora communities, we do have some important links to Latin American countries, Canada, Australia, but we could still do more. Also, Africa has so far been a relatively blank spot for Armenian diplomacy and there are plans to address this vacuum. In general, I would say that New Armenia is a country that is open to the world, and at the same time is conscious and proud of its heritage and identity.