If Armenians want to feel safe, they have got to speak Russian, Moscow’s propagandist-in-chief, Russian media-personality Dmitry Kiselyov, has instructed Russia’s somewhat reluctant Caucasus ally, Armenia.
“I sat in a cab today and the 20-year-old guy could not even count in Russian,” complained the head of the Russian state news service, Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), at a June 11 parliamentary gathering in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. A tense exchange with Armenian politicians ensued.
While the line may sound like an ignorant tourist's throwaway complaint, the comments, in the context of Russian-Armenian relations, chafed a sensitive nerve. Many Armenians think that their country already has compromised much of its sovereignty by becoming increasingly dependent on Russian money, energy and defense. Criticism delivered in the style of a colonial master does nothing to correct that view.
By July 1 (after a few delays), Armenia is expected to enter the Eurasian Union, essentially Moscow’s response to the European Union. It already is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Moscow-led counterweight to NATO. The country has effectively surrendered much of its energy supply system to Russian energy monolith Gazprom and much of its income generation depends on what migrants send home from Russia.
But Kisilyov, who shot to international notoriety for his nationalist, neo-Soviet coverage of the Crimea crisis, thinks Armenia has not done enough.
“Russian culture is becoming of secondary importance,” lectured Kiselyov, who also hosts a prime time show on Russian state TV . “Russia, in the CSTO framework, took upon itself providing security for Armenia. And what is happening to the Russian language in Armenia? It is simply disappearing…. The question is what is Armenia doing not to let this happen.”
In a country that spent centuries going through fire and water to preserve its national identity and language, not all would agree that that is the question.
Armenia already lifted a ban on foreign-language schools, adopted 25 years ago in a fit of resurgent nationalism. Russian is a mandatory subject in schools and Moscow has come up with a slew of initiatives to promote Russian language and culture in Armenia – all to the backdrop of grumblings by Armenian culture figures.
Diplomatic sensitivity may not be the strongest suit of Kiselyov, who famously said that Russia could “reduce the United States to radioactive dust.” But the diplomat in the house, former Russian ambassador to Armenia Vyacheslav Kovalenko, a 68-year-old, Soviet-era functionary who represented Moscow in Tbilisi during Russia's 2008 war with Georgia, only pushed the line further.
“You can’t choose one union for security-related integration and another one for cultural purposes,” Kovalenko was quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian service as saying.
Moscow will hardly make friends with such neo-colonial finger-wagging, but then it may be content with having an ally who is a hostage to geopolitical circumstance, rather than a friend.