The frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is being flavored with some Cold-War spice, namely a space race.
The estimated cost of Armenia’s space ambitions – $250 million – should raise some eyebrows given that the country’s GDP (based on purchasing power parity) is roughly $19 billion, and it already has $4.37 billion in sovereign debt. But the economic practicality of the venture probably isn’t the most important consideration for Yerevan. With the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict still stalemated, Armenian leaders don’t want to give their Azerbaijani counterparts any idea that they can’t keep up in any type of arms race.
Azerbaijan used its oil and gas wealth to underwrite its satellite project. Armenian telecommunications officials are saying they will scrape together funds from private investors for their satellite. To succeed, the country may put to use its key natural resource, the Armenian diaspora. Remittances from Armenians abroad make up a significant share of Armenia’s national income. Meanwhile, Russia, Armenia’s main regional ally and a space-exploration heavyweight, may lend money for the venture and help manufacture the satellite.
Armenian officials are now setting up a space agency, dubbed ArmCosmos, and are negotiating with the International Telecommunications Union, a UN body, to clear the path for its prospective launch.
The competition reminds the Tamada of an old joke about the Caucasus, in which an Armenian boy asks his grandfather why the Armenians haven’t sent a man into space. The old man replies, “If the Armenians sent a cosmonaut into space, the Georgians would die of envy. If the Georgians die of envy, the Armenians will die of pleasure. And if the Georgians and Armenians die, the Azeris will be left with all the land.”