News that Armenia is deploying soldiers to Kazakhstan has not been received well among Armenians.
The Defense Ministry confirmed on January 7 that it had sent 100 soldiers from a peacekeeping unit as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeeping mission to Kazakhstan.
The Armenian involvement in the CSTO mission is ironic on several levels.
For one, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan – who, as the current chair of the CSTO’s Security Council, formally announced that the organization had agreed to Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s request for military aid to defend him from street protesters – had himself come to power in 2018 as the result of popular street protests.
In those protests, the then-ruling authorities chose not to use force to suppress the protests. As part of the campaign to pressure the government to step down, Pashinyan urged supporters to surround government buildings. Armenia’s service members in Kazakhstan will now be "protecting important state and military facilities," the ministry said in its statement.
Pashinyan initially gained prominence as one of the leaders of the 2008 protests against fraudulent elections, which the then-government violently suppressed in what eventually became known as the “March 1” events.
On top of that, the CSTO famously declined to come to Armenia’s aid in 2021 as Azerbaijan carried out incursions into Armenian territory, which Armenians argued should have triggered the CSTO’s mutual defense provision.
And many Armenians perceive Kazakhstan, which shares Turkic roots with Azerbaijan, to be more sympathetic to their enemy.
“The people of any country must choose their own government; no other country has the right to interfere in its internal affairs. Today, the Armenian armed forces have a mission to protect the borders of our country,” a coalition of pro-Western NGOs said in a statement. “We condemn the short-sighted and irresponsible actions of the Armenian government.”
Armenian officials have tried to push back against the criticism.
“The public has raised concern about why Armenia appealed for help [to the CSTO] and didn’t receive it, and is now providing it,” Armen Grigoryan, the secretary of Armenia’s Security Council, told public television. “First of all, it’s a matter of responsibility, if Armenia has an interest in the CSTO mechanisms functioning, and the answer is a clear yes,” he said.
He also disputed the notion that what was happening in Kazakhstan was a legitimate protest. “It is not a revolutionary process but a terrorist one, you have seen the videos of armed men,” he said.
While officials in Kazakhstan (and Russia, which dominates the CSTO) have claimed that the unrest there is the result of external terrorist forces, that should not be taken seriously, said human rights advocate Artur Sakunts.
“In 2008, during the March 1 protests, people were robbing stores and they never found out who was doing it,” he told RFE/RL, suggesting that provocateurs could have been operating then as now in Kazakhstan. “Here we are dealing with a similar thing. There is a component of sabotage, and we can’t just call everything ‘terrorism.’”
"Pashinyan should have just voiced concern over a situation, but he tried to be more Catholic than the Kremlin and fulfilled the Kremlin's command," said Sakunts, referring to Pashinyan’s claim that the protests in Kazakhstan were the result of “external interference.” As for Grigoryan’s argument about the functioning of the CSTO, Sakunts responded: “Who are you to make it function, did you look at our resources? If you could make it function, you should have made it function for us.”
Some also wondered if Pashinyan could try to invoke the CSTO in case of protests against his government. Grigoryan, in his explanation, “openly confessed why Nikol was sending troops to Kazakhstan,” said military analyst Karen Vrtanesyan in a Facebook post. “If something threatens Nikol's government tomorrow or the next day, Kazakhstan will send its troops to Armenia."
But Armenia, as a member of the CSTO and reliant on Russian help, has few choices, argued Maria Karapetyan, a member of parliament from the ruling Civil Contract party. She argued that critics want Armenia to leave the CSTO and "make a different geopolitical choice."
"If we leave the CSTO, what [other bloc] should we join? They should propose the next step," Karapetyan told RFE/RL's Armenian Service.
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.