Armenians watched Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's August 6-7 visit to Turkey with a mixture of hope and suspicion. While many in Yerevan see potential benefits arising out of closer Turkish-Russian ties, worries persist among Armenian leaders and experts that Turkey's importance in the eyes of the Kremlin may come to outweigh that of Armenia.
Officially, there was no indication that the issue of Armenian-Turkish relations was discussed in any form during Putin's trip to Ankara. The visit led to Turkey's agreement to environmental impact studies relating to the Russian-backed South Stream gas pipeline project, as well as the signing of accords on Russian construction of a nuclear power plant, the country's first.
So far, the Armenian government has adopted a neutral tone on the visit. But after more than a year of attempts at normalizing relations with Turkey and reopening the Armenian-Turkish border, the visit nevertheless stirred mixed feelings in Yerevan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Of course, it is not a pleasant thing to see your strategic partner [Russia] building ambitious programs with countries with which Armenia has problems," the online magazine new.am quoted MP Aram Safarian, a member of the Prosperous Armenia Party, part of Armenia's government coalition, as saying.
Yet in the energy sphere, Armenian and Russian interests can easily coincide with those of Turkey, noted Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute. "Russia is a major shareholder in the Armenian energy system and is interested in the possibility of exporting Armenian electricity to Turkey. This indicates that Turkish-Russian contacts are beneficial to Armenia," he said.
Electricity exports to Turkey were expected to start in April-May 2009, but so far have not begun. There has been no official explanation for the delay, but, presumably, diplomatic obstacles are to blame.
One opposition member, though, believes that Russia's involvement in Turkey may upset the existing balance of power in the South Caucasus, with uncertain results for Armenia.
"Russia has already somewhat shattered the balance in the region by intensifying its contacts with Turkey and, especially, with Azerbaijan," said political analyst Styopa Safarian, a MP affiliated with the Heritage Party and member of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. Moscow recently signed an agreement with Baku on gas sales to the Russian republic of Dagestan and named a price for gas purchases from the second phase of the country's ambitious Shah Deniz project. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Other experts are more optimistic, believing that the Kremlin will push officials in Ankara to reopen Turkey's border with Armenia. Such a development would ease Armenia's ability to export goods. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Russia, in fact, is interested in opening the Turkish-Armenian border, as after the August 2008 war, it lost Georgia as a route to Armenia, its military and economic partner," observed Iskandarian.
Whether that interest is sufficiently strong to have prompted Putin to try and decouple the reopening of the border from the Karabakh peace process remains unknown, however. Ankara has insisted that Armenia meet a set of conditions on the conflict before it will reopen its border with Armenia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In late July, President Serzh Sargsyan stated that he would not visit Turkey in October unless the border is open or is close to opening by that time. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Turkey maintains that it is sincere about wanting to see the border with Armenia reopen, although no noticeable progress has been made on this score recently. "Turkey has prospects in the Caucasus both in terms of Turkey-Armenia and Armenia-Azerbaijan relations," Turkish Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on August 9, the APA news agency reported. "That's why Turkey is resolute to normalize the relations with Armenia and our contacts on this theme continue."
Haroutiun Khachatrian is an editor and freelance writer based in Yerevan.