On June 4, the UN General Assembly again adopted Georgia’s annual resolution on the right of return for internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugees in Georgia, including its breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The resolution is part of Georgia’s diplomatic campaign to maintain international attention on the consequences of Russia’s August 2008 invasion and its ensuing partial occupation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Support has steadily grown, from 48 affirmative votes in 2009 to 81 in 2018, outvoting a Russia-led bloc of 13-19 opposed.
Armenia, Georgia’s southern neighbor and a strategic Russian ally, has counted among the opposed since its first adoption in 2009. Armenia’s opposition is driven by its close relationship with Moscow and the potential precedent set by the resolution; Armenia sees key similarities between Georgia’s predicament and the situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by Yerevan-backed local Armenian forces.
That changed this year, with Armenia for the first time abstaining from the vote. While only a symbolic step for Armenia-Georgia relations, it is significant as a compromise breaking from a long history of lockstep voting with Russia at UNGA on issues of territorial integrity, such as its votes against Ukraine over Crimea’s annexation and the Kerch Strait.
Armenia’s abstention, while nowhere near a major reorientation, may be an important indicator for just how “multi-vector” the foreign policy of Armenia’s enormously popular Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan will be.
Armenia’s foreign policy has been described as “multi-vector” since independence. It was explicitly so under Armenia’s former leader, Serzh Sargsyan, before his ouster in last year’s “Velvet Revolution” that brought Pashinyan to power. This approach to foreign policy is defined by its drive to diversify political, security and economic ties by taking a “both/and” approach to alignment in international affairs. This approach tends to have the unstated objective of alleviating dependency on a dominant partner –while still maintaining that dependence where it is beneficial.
For Armenia, this dominant partner is Russia. Yerevan depends heavily on Moscow for its security, which remains tenuous due to the still highly unstable conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has traditionally offset this dependence by bolstering economic ties with the EU, Iran, and China – excepting hiccups where Moscow exercised a veto, such as its 2013 scrapping of an EU-Armenia Association Agreement. The drive has allowed Armenia to avoid being closed off from the international arena, while retaining the Russian security guarantee by remaining highly responsive to its red lines
Pashinyan’s rise brought this foreign policy into question. His “pro-Western” reputation has required him to actively reassure Russia of Armenia’s commitment to their strategic alliance. But simultaneously, Pashinyan’s domestic efforts, including the prosecution of pre-revolution officials – like the CSTO’s secretary-general of the CSTO, General Yuri Khachaturov – have been highly disagreeable to Moscow.
Observers have called Armenia’s strategy “unclear”. It is a country seeking an “independent foreign policy” while in practice tying itself closer to Moscow. The abstention from Georgia’s IDP resolution could be seen in the same light; a transactional loss of a little favour in Moscow, and the next day sending another deployment to Syria to win back some points. However, it may also indicate an effort by Pashinyan to revive multi-vectoralism – at least in a regional form.
Should Armenia be interested in bolstering regional leverage beyond Russia, Georgia and Iran are the obvious choices. They represent Armenia’s only access to the international community given closed Turkish and Azeri borders, and potentially provide it a valuable position as a North-South transit hub. However, continued Armenia support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia makes it difficult to imagine a Georgia interested in significant strategic-level trilateral collaboration.
Overcoming this obstacle to strategic relations with Georgia could pay dividends for Armenia. Azerbaijan, Armenia’s main adversary, has developed a number of trilateral mechanisms, particularly the Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan and Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran formats, which contribute to Armenia’s geopolitical isolation. Armenia has worked to alleviate its isolation, most recently in an Armenia-Greece-Cyprus mechanism inaugurated on June 4, but that mechanism’s principal value will likely be vis-à-vis Turkey. Developing nascent talks of gas transit between Iran and Georgia through Armenia into a trilateral mechanism, by contrast, might provide significantly greater leverage vis-à-vis Azerbaijan.
Diversifying strategic dependence on Russia through deeper trilateral collaboration with Georgia and Iran could provide Armenia significant geopolitical benefits without crossing a Russian red line. Abstention at the UN, if developed into a more neutral approach to Georgia’s breakaways, might be a first step in reviving a regional prong for multi-vector foreign policy.
Scott Bryce Aubrey is a master’s candidate at NPSIA and a former Desk Officer for the Caucasus and Central Asia at Global Affairs Canada.
Image courtesy of the Georgian Government
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.