Near the close of the last century, as the Soviet Union imploded upon its own weight, dysfunction, and corruption, independent states began to emerge out of the ashes. Each with its own chance for true independence, economic achievement and a place on the world stage and in the World Order, some fared well and others very differently; even neighbors found themselves with a demonstrably different lot.
One of those nations, Azerbaijan, in possession of newfound independence, fared well. In late May, in just the latest example of successful mega-projects, Azerbaijan inaugurated the Sangachal terminal — the first phase of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), an ambitious U.S. and EU-backed venture that promises to transform the landscape of natural gas exploration and delivery to a gas-starved Europe. The SGC is notably absent the seemingly innumerable political/diplomatic and even military strings attached by Russia in exchange for gas deliveries, thus meaningfully decreasing the West’s dependence on the Kremlin.
“With this project we are creating a new energy map of Europe,” declared Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during the high-level opening ceremony.
The $41.5 billion SGC initiative will span nearly 2,200 miles across seven countries and involve more than a dozen major energy companies. SGC’s pipeline projects include the South Caucasus Pipeline in Azerbaijan and Georgia; the Trans Anatolian Pipeline in Turkey; and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline in Greece, Albania, and Italy. The linked pipelines will deliver gas from Azerbaijan’s massive Shah Deniz 2 field, positioning Baku as the key player in gas exportation from the Caspian Sea basin to Europe. Shah Deniz 2 is scheduled to send its first gas to Turkey this year, and to Europe proper next year.
Aside from the vast economic benefits for Azerbaijan, the SGC represents a major blow to Russia’s sought-after dominance over gas exports to Europe. In fact, Moscow’s chokehold on that market is already declining. Earlier this year, the former Soviet republic of Georgia announced that it would no longer purchase natural gas from Moscow, and that it would instead receive 2.680 billion cubic meters of gas from Azerbaijan while mining the rest of its supply domestically.
As Azerbaijan ascends as an energy powerhouse and simultaneously challenges Russia, the opposite scenario is playing out for Baku’s adversarial and problem-riddled neighbor, Armenia, which also inexplicably occupies the internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK).
Armenia has been in the headlines lately for its so-called “velvet revolution” — a process that started with 11 days of popular protests and led to the resignation of former President Serzh Sargsyan, who in a Putin/Medvedev-like exchange, assumed the post of prime minister, complete with additional and wide-ranging powers. The popular outcry coupled with the consent of the Kremlin ultimately produced the rise of new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
Sargsyan, an ex-warlord complicit in the murders and ethnic cleansing of thousands of Azeris from NK, initially rose to power in a highly disputed election. He proceeded to continue his nations march down the road of becoming arguably the least sovereign post-Soviet state — sending his country into complete chaos. Armenia is filled with Russian weapons and military bases, while Sargsyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have repeatedly expressed that they coordinate their foreign policies. Armenia’s consul general in Los Angeles is a notorious Russian oligarch.
Coinciding with Yerevan’s intensifying entanglement with Moscow, Armenia’s GDP plummeted more than 14 percent in 2009 and the nation has never recovered. Armenia remains heavily dependent on largess from Moscow, and is plagued by skyrocketing inflation as well as a severe brain drain. Russians own most of Armenia’s economy and businesses in most sectors. Despite mainstream media coverage hailing the new hope emanating from the “change” in the Armenian governance, there has been no change regarding Yerevan’s disturbingly close ties with Russia, and there is no evidence or indication that a turnaround is on the horizon for Armenian economics nor politics or diplomacy.
“We have things to discuss, but there are also things that do not need any discussion. That is the strategic relationship of allies between Armenia and Russia,” Pashinyan told Putin on May 14 during their first meeting.
Yet for the Armenians, this “strategic relationship” has long been a failed strategy. Armenia is, in the words of one of its own politicians, “bypassed by all regional and international routes — transport, railway, oil, gas, any others… we simply do not exist in the Caucasus, and this situation has not changed in last 20 years.” Notably, the Azerbaijan-led SGC, the most promising new regional trade route for oil and gas, bypasses Russia and Armenia alike. That particular list is replete with Armenian lost opportunities.
Armenia’s continued stubborn allegiance to Russia and its near-pathological desire to continue the occupation of NK means that Yerevan’s domestic wellbeing and foreign power will continue to spiral downward. As a regional and global bully, Russia has co-opted Armenia and deployed its vassal for the purpose of securing a sphere of influence in its “near abroad.”
If Armenia actually wants a more prosperous economic and political future as well as warmer ties with the EU, the U.S., and the rest of the West, it cannot engage in a lockstep foreign policy relationship with Russia. While the U.S. and Russia wage a 19thcentury-style battle for spheres of influence and Americans remain concerned about potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the nature of Armenian-Russian ties will not help Yerevan’s cause in Washington. And participating in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, which represents Moscow’s effort to siphon influence from the EU, will not help Armenia’s relationship with the Europeans — nor has it produced any benefits for the Armenian economy.
Next door, meanwhile, Azerbaijan is standing up to Russia — the antithesis of Armenia’s policy — and growing its economic power, especially in the natural gas sector. The future trajectories of these Eurasian rivals could not be more different.
Jacob Kamarasis a contributor at the Haym Salomon Center. His writing on the Middle East, American politics, and Eurasia has appeared in the Washington Times, Independent Journal Review, The American Spectator, the Daily Caller, and CNS News.