Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Sargsyan’s Visit to the US Opens New Stage in Bilateral Relations

By Erik Davtyan

On May 6–8, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, along with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian and Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians Garegin II, paid a working visit to the United States (President.am, May 6). Not counting Sargsyan’s previous visit in September 2014 to attend the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, in New York City, this was the Armenian head of state’s first official trip to the US in five years. Sargsyan held a meeting with top US lawmakers, including Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader of the Senate, and Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic Minority Leader. They touched upon the importance of parliamentary cooperation between Armenia and the United States and emphasized US support in the development of Armenia’s economy, civil society and democratic governance. Additionally, President Sargsyan and the senators stressed the US engagement in the Karabakh peace process within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group. On May 6, the Armenian president also had a separate meeting with the US Minsk Group Co-Chair James Warlick (President.am, May 6).

The key result of the working visit, however, was the signing of the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) by Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and Assistant US Trade Representative Daniel Mullaney (Mfa.am, May 7). As Ken Hachikian, the Chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), argued, the bilateral trade and investment agreement promises to improve Armenia’s investment climate, identify priority growth areas, build trade capacity, increase the transparency of governmental processes related to imports and exports, expand agricultural trade and investment, as well as grow the level of trade in services, including banking, insurance and tourism (Armenianweekly.com, May 5). Reportedly, the intensification of US-Armenian trade relations will be coordinated by a special council that will convene at least once a year.

Indeed, this contract will bolster bilateral cooperation and the political dialogue. In the words of ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian, the agreement is a “win-win for US-Armenia economic relations” (Armenianweekly.com, May 5). The TIFA should be regarded as the “second wave” of recent US economic engagement in Armenia. Back in 2014, the US company ContourGlobal reached a $250 million deal to purchase the 405-megawatt Vorotan Cascade hydropower project—which is, in fact, the biggest single US investment in Armenia’s energy sphere. Therefore, the newly granted opportunities opened up by the TIFA may prepare the ground for further US economic representation in Armenia, as well as in the wider South Caucasus. Similarly, Armenia will now be in a better condition to reinforce its existing trade turnover with the US as well as diversify its domestic economy. Though Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) led to the delegation of a part of the country’s economic sovereignty to the EEU’s supra-state bodies, the TIFA will still serve as an impetus for potentially far-reaching perspectives in US-Armenian political and economic relations.

Directly following his working visit to Washington, President Sargsyan flew to Moscow in order to attend a session of the EEU’s Supreme Eurasian Economic Council and the events dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War (President.am, May 8). The fact that the working visit to the US was immediately followed by a trip to Russia served, indeed, as a unique message both to Russia and the United States—and, to some extent, to Europe. Obviously, arriving in Moscow and watching the joint military parade of several national armed forces (including Armenian) with Vladimir Putin and other heads of state shows Armenia’s traditional close ties to Russia. On the other hand, the two-part trip means that despite Yerevan’s membership in the EEU and the seeming imbalance in Armenia’s “East-West” relations, Armenian authorities aspire to develop the “Western direction” of the state’s foreign policy. The signing of a strategic trade agreement with the United States signaled just such an effort.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

FSB Worried About Spread of Radical Islam in the Urals

By Paul Goble

The director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, says that his organization is concerned about the spread of radical Islam among young people in the Urals Federal District (FD). He notes that over the past five years, Russian security services have identified about 600 Islamist “neophytes,” who have fallen under the influence of foreign radical missionaries that moved to the region along with migrant workers (Interfax, April 14).

According to Bortnikov, the threat of radical Islam persists in the region. Last year, he says, there were 19 cases brought against members of a cell of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group he identified as “an international terrorist organization.” Given the “growing flood of immigrant workers to Urals factories,” the authorities need to think about how to create “reliable legal and organizational-administrative barriers capable of blocking the penetration onto the territory of the district of persons who intend to engage in diversionary and terrorist acts.”

Although there may be some Muslims in the Middle Volga and Urals region who have been influenced by Islamist radicals from Central Asia, there are three reasons why Bortnikov’s remarks appear to point to a significant shift in Russian policy toward the largest, but also the quietest Muslim community in the Russian Federation. And that change, almost certainly, will spark resistance and reaction.

First, Bortnikov is the most senior Russian official to make this kind of charge about the Urals FD. His statements will encourage more officials and specialists to discuss this issue, possibly blowing it out of proportion. Over the last decade, a growing number of journalists and commentators, both regional and Moscow-based, have written or spoken out on Islamist radicalization in the Middle Volga. Now, there will be an explosion of such articles, regardless of whether Bortnikov’s trend analysis is even valid.

Second, by linking the issue of Islamism in the Urals to the increased presence of Central Asian migrants, Bortnikov has encouraged anti-immigrant sentiment. Indeed, many local officials may be encouraged to denounce these immigrants as a way of protecting themselves against charges from Moscow. They would rather not risk being accused of somehow protecting or encouraging the presence of Islamist radicals. In that case, it will be Central Asians, rather than locals, who will be the first victims of what could possibly become a witch hunt.

And third, Bortnikov’s words are certain to lend credibility to the writings of radicals such as Rais Suleymanov, a former analyst of the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), who has become notorious for his attacks on Islam and the Tatar establishment. Support from above could quite possibly open the way to renewed attacks on not only on Islamist groups in the Middle Volga, but also on the leaders of the predominantly Muslim republics there (for background, see Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, December 30, 2014).

All things considered, the future of the Middle Volga may well resemble the past of the North Caucasus. This outcome is something the Moscow could not possibly support, but is nonetheless a future it seems to be doing everything to provoke.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Siloviki Increasingly Moscow’s Weapon of Choice in Regional Affairs

By Paul Goble

Short on the supply of carrots it used to keep the Russian Federation’s regional leaders in line in the past, Moscow is increasingly relying on the siloviki (security services personnel) and the courts to bring them to heel. Over the last month, this development has led to the dismissal and arrest of a number of regional heads and is casting a shadow over others, who are fearful that they may be next. Such fears have the potential to change politics in Russia’s regions: many leaders there will hew even more closely to Moscow’s line lest they find themselves behind bars, while at least some others may think about other means of avoiding that fate.

In its March 2015 report, the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation noted that three of the top five events in Russia’s regions had involved the use of siloviki to arrest and charge the heads of regions or other top regional-level officials. Ranking number one in its list of events was the arrest on corruption charges and dismissal of Sakhalin Governor Aleksandr Khoroshavin; ranking fourth was the arrest of Chelyabinsk Oblast Vice Governor Nikolay Sandarkov; and ranking fifth were the arrests of prominent politicians and business people in Karelia. Each of these actions sent a signal far beyond the borders of the regions and republics involved (Fpp.spb.ru, March 2015 Report, released April 7).

The March 4 arrest of Sakhalin Governor Khoroshavin marked “the most high-profile intervention of the law enforcement organs into regional politics over the last several years,” according to the Foundation. Because of the publicity it received, his arrest and removal from office signaled to other regional heads that Moscow is now prepared to use similar tactics against anyone who does not do exactly what the center wants. This gives Moscow yet another means to move against them in a nominally non-political way.

The arrest of the Chelyabinsk vice governor also creates a precedent, one that the St. Petersburg Foundation suggests is likely to be “used in the course of future elections.” That is because it strikes at the heart of what has been Moscow’s method of funneling resources to regional elites so that they are in a position to use “administrative” means to ensure that they win. But now with this arrest, it appears the Kremlin is casting about for a new means of channeling such resources, something that will limit the power of regional elites still further while potentially, at least in some cases, reducing the imbalance between the resources available to incumbents and those in the hands of opponents. As a result, what appears to be intended as a tightening of the screws may work in the opposite direction.

And finally the wave of arrests by Moscow siloviki in Karelia—begun earlier this year—has expanded, involving the chairman of the Petrozavodsk city council, a former Federation Council (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) member, and two opposition Yabloko party activists, one of whom is also on the republic capital’s city council. The first two arrests passed largely unnoticed there, but the latter two sparked two mass protests and demands for the ouster of the Moscow-installed republic head.

The Karelian protests are the exception that proves the rule: Despite expectations that the worsening economic crisis in Russia would lead to a coming together of social and political protests, that has not happened. However, Moscow’s use of the siloviki to control regional affairs almost certainly is going to provide more occasions for that in the future.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Russia Reacts to Armenia’s “European Week”

By Erik Davtyan

Although, on September 3, 2013, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan declared Eurasian integration to be of primary importance for his country, and even though Armenia officially became a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) on January 2, 2015, officials in Yerevan have, nonetheless, continued to maintain some high-level relations with the European Union. However, following Armenia’s “European week”—the period in late March punctuated by a series of reciprocal visits, high-level talks, meetings and signed agreements between Armenia and the EU (see EDM, March 25)—Russian anger at Yerevan has become much more apparent.

On March 30–31, the chairman of the State Duma (lower house) of the Federal Assembly of Russia, Sergey Naryshkin, paid a working visit to Yerevan and held multiple meetings with top Armenian officials, including President Sargsyan (President.am, March 30). Naryshkin was also received by the speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia, Galust Sahakyan (Parliament.am, March 30). Friction in the bilateral relationship between the two allies became apparent during Naryshkin’s appearance at the Armenian parliament. Answering a question posed about Russian weapons sales to Azerbaijan, he confirmed that “the sales of the weapons, no doubt, have a commercial component” (Ra.am, April 1). Moreover, Naryshkin defended the practice by noting that all states that produce modern weapons naturally aim to provide income for their military industries. The Russian Duma chairman’s remarks that Armenia’s strategic partner will continue such military cooperation with Azerbaijan, which has hostile relations with Armenia, can be read as a warning to Yerevan. Specifically, though left unsaid, Naryshkin’s comments seemed to imply that any further rapprochement between Yerevan and Brussels would result in Moscow ramping up such arms sales to Baku as a form of pressure.

In fact, the sale of Russian weapons to Azerbaijan became a serious matter of concern in the second half of March. On March 18, during his 5th “At the Foot of Mount Ararat” media forum, President Sargsyan highlighted the seriousness of the issue. He declared that the main reason for concern is not the quality of the Russian armament but the fact that the weapons, bought by Azerbaijan, are being directed mainly against Armenian soldiers along the border. He declared that this issue may have a negative influence on Russian-Armenian relations (Silkroadreporters.com, April 7). On March 23, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan complained about the same issue to the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Nikolay Bordyuzha, as well as to the CSTO Joint Staff chief, Lieutenant General Aleksandr Studenikin. Armenia is one of the founding members of the Moscow-led CSTO military alliance, and is the only member in the South Caucasus.

The two allies made some subsequent attempts to iron out these problems in bilateral relations. On April 7–8, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian made an official visit to Moscow (Mid.ru, April 8). During the joint press-conference with his Armenian counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov specifically mentioned “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal involvement last year in international efforts to prevent a further escalation in tensions in the [Karabakh] conflict zone.” In his remarks, Lavrov tried to soften the tough statements made by Naryshkin, in Yerevan, the previous week. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the original message delivered by the Duma chairman in the Armenian Parliament, just following Armenia’s “European week,” had served specifically to caution Armenia against any further possible rapprochement with the EU—especially ahead of the upcoming Eastern Partnership summit in Riga.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

‘The Most Ukrainian Russians’ Are in Western Ukraine

By Paul Goble

Ethnic Russians form 15 percent of the population of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, but they are quite different from their counterparts in eastern Ukraine. Almost unanimously, they speak both Ukrainian and Russian, and believe that anyone living in Ukraine should speak the state language. And, according to Igor Rotar, a Russian √©migr√© journalist who visited the city last month, the Russians of Lviv support Kyiv in the country’s fight with Russia, just as much as the city’s ethnic Ukrainians (Rosbalt.ru, April 9).

The picture Rotar has drawn of the ethnic Russians of Lviv differs tremendously from the one painted by the Moscow media; According to Russia, western Ukrainians are portrayed as “Banderites” (referring to the controversial World War II–era nationalist partisan leader Stepan Bandera) and even Nazi fanatics, who are intent on driving out or killing all the ethnic Russians that they can. Rotar’s observations are an indication that ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine can a common ground with ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian speakers—something that would be virtually impossible for the latter in the Russian Federation.

Upon learning that the journalist was from Russia, Rotar’s Ukrainian taxi driver told him not to believe what Moscow media are saying about Ukraine in general and western Ukraine in particular: “You will not have any problems speaking Russian here.” Rotar says his own experience convinced him that the driver was right. A few Ukrainians did refuse to speak Russian with him until they found out that he was not a Ukrainian citizen. Then, they spoke Russian freely because, as a foreigner, “you are not obligated to know Ukrainian!” But even those who took that “nationalistic” position were a clear minority.

According to Rotar, Russian parents who want their children to study Russian have no problem in that regard either. Five schools in Lviv feature Russian as the language of instruction, and all others teach Russian as a subject. After initially turning away from Russian, some Lvivans are now using it again because it gives them a competitive advantage in the workplace. This is especially true among tour guides, seeing as, until the war, Lviv was one of the top ten destinations for Russian tourists.

Both ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians stressed that Lviv is “not eastern Ukraine.” “The local Russians here are entirely different. The majority of us,” said one Russian, “support the idea of independence [of Ukraine from Russia]!” Even the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is “infected” with Ukrainian nationalism; its priests collect aid for Ukrainians fighting in the east. Admittedly, that church is tiny: only 80 of the 2,000 parishes in the oblast are under its jurisdiction. The rest are subordinate to the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.

Some anti-Russian feeling can be found, to be sure, says Rotar. And anti-Moscow graffiti has been appearing occasionally on Russian churches and other facilities. Some streets are also being renamed in ways Russians would not appreciate. For example, Lermontov Street (named after Russian 19th-century writer Mikhail Lermentov) is now Dzhokhar Dudayev Street (the first president of the post-Soviet Chechen Republic of Ichkeria). But the Russian Center, which is headed by a monarchist-imperialist, is still able to do its work without any interference. That would not be true of a Ukrainian organization trying to operate within the Russian Federation, Rotar concludes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Russian Expert Recasts North Caucasians as Patriots of Russkiy Mir

By Valery Dzutsev

The newly re-established Agency for Nationalities Affairs (see EDM, April 6) should combat Russian isolationism, according to a leading expert on the Caucasus of the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), Yana Amelina. RISI had previously claimed responsibility for spearheading Russian policies in Ukraine (see EDM, January 20). Amelina writes that though Russian media coverage has been dominated by the Ukrainian conflict, once that topic loses steam, the favorite slogan of Russian nationalists—“Stop Feeding the Caucasus!”—will return to prominence.

However, Amelina points out that North Caucasians do not want to secede from Russia. This, she claims, is supported by evidence that Chechens and Ossetians were among the most ardent supporters of Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. North Ossetian historian Ruslan Bzarov explains this point to Amelina in an interview: “Without Crimea and the Caucasus, the Russian Empire–USSR–Russian Federation cannot exist in its current borders and retain the geopolitical meaning that is familiar to us. This is a historical fact that has no alternative.” North Ossetian mufti Hajimurat Gatsalov goes even further. In an interview with Amelina, he states that Russia “must bring under control the entire Caucasus,” especially the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea coasts. This suggests potential incursions into Georgia and Azerbaijan. According to Amelina, such attitudes are widespread across the North Caucasus (Sevkavinform.ru, April 9).

If the North Caucasians are so supportive of Russia and Russian territorial aggression abroad, it is unclear why so many Russian troops are stationed in the region. Even more puzzling is why North Caucasians are still deprived of the right to elect their own governors, while ethnically Russian regions are entrusted by Moscow to hold their own gubernatorial elections. Some natives of the North Caucasus, such as Bzarov and Gatsalov may have internalized the Russian state’s views to a certain extent, but this is yet to have an effect on Russia’s differential treatment of the region. Perhaps most importantly, Russian experts’ calls for the unity of ethnic Russians and ethnically non-Russian North Caucasians is most likely to sound hollow to Russian nationalists. Moscow may ignore and sideline ethnic non Russians, but it cannot ignore the opinion of ethnic Russians for long. As the economic downturn hits the country, nationalist slogans to do away with subsidies for the North Caucasus are likely to be reinvigorated, forcing North Caucasian supporters of Russian expansionism to review their positions.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sino-Armenian Relations Upgraded to Higher Level

By Erik Davtyan

After a “European week” of active negotiations and mutual visits between the Armenian authorities and high officials from the European Union (see EDM, March 25), Yerevan shifted its focus to East Asia. On March 24–28, Serzh Sargsyan, the president of Armenia, paid a state visit to the People’s Republic of China (President.am, March 23). The last state visit to China by an Armenian head of state took place more than ten years ago (by then-president Robert Kocharyan). Thus, Sargsyan’s trip highlights the growing importance of developing Sino-Armenian relations. During the visit, President Sargsyan held a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, which resulted in the signing of a myriad of important agreements. These included the “Joint Declaration on Friendly Cooperation and Further Development and Enhancement of Relations,” as well as accords concerning the cooperation on the legal assistance, custom affairs, loans, education, scientific degrees, tourism, etc. (President.am, March 25). Additionally, President Sargsyan had meetings with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and the chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Zhang Dejiang. He also delivered speeches at Peking State University and at the Boao International Forum.

The results of the visit should be analyzed from both political and economic aspects. In the context of political interests, both parties touched upon territorial disputes. The Joint Declaration stated that Armenia confirmed its support for the “One China” policy, expressed its stance against Taiwanese independence, and stressed that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. In regards to the Karabakh conflict, the Chinese expressed a balanced position, confirming that the conflict should be resolved “according to the universally recognized norms of international law” (President.am, March 25). In fact, the successful development of bilateral relations concerned even politico-military affairs. The Joint Declaration also stated that Armenia and China “will not participate in any alliances or coalitions that focus against either party’s sovereignty, security or territorial integrity” (President.am, March 25). Consequently, though this document does not constitute a  military alliance, it contributes highly to mutual support for national security between the two countries.

As for the economic aspect, several points should be taken into consideration. First, Armenia and China signed the Memorandum on Promotion of Cooperation in Building the Silk Road Economic Belt. This immense project was proposed the President Xi in October 2013, with the aims of creating an economic “bridge” between Asia, Europe and Africa (Xinhuanet.com, March 28). Since Armenia is situated at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Russia, the new Silk Road initiative may play a significant role in boosting the Armenian economy and international trade. The discussion of Armenia’s participation in the project will most likely be analyzed by the Armenian-Chinese Inter-governmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation.

When delivering his speech at the Boao International Forum, on March 28, President Sargsyan touched upon Armenia’s readiness to become a center of interest for Asian businessmen. In this context, the North-South Road Corridor (connecting the northern and southern state borders of Armenia to high-quality international highways), as well as the future Armenia-Iran railway, can be used for developing the proposed Silk Road Economic Belt (President.am, March 28). These steps show that Armenia is attempting to diversify its international economic relations as much as possible. By being a part of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), negotiating with the EU, and seeking new cooperation with Asia, Armenia is attempting to engage in ongoing and prospective economic projects to not only expand its international economic relations, but also to overcome the blockade and isolation policy of Turkey and Azerbaijan.