Pashinyan plays delicate balancing act with Moscow ahead of EU peace talks

Pashinyan plays delicate balancing act with Moscow ahead of EU peace talks
President Nikol Pashinyan (bottom left) at the Victory Day Parade, with Belarus dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko (bottom right). / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews May 11, 2023

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was the odd man out among the dictators from former Soviet republics who attended the traditional Victory Day Parade in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9.

Armenia, a nation deeply intertwined with Soviet history, always commemorates Victory Day with reverence. Pashinyan praised the invaluable contributions of Armenians in defeating Nazism, highlighting the significant number of Armenian recipients of prestigious awards for their involvement in World War II. 

But at the same time, Pashinya – who led the democratic protests that brought down the previous Armenian regime – has been openly critical of the passivity of the Russian peacekeepers in checking Azerbaijan’s steady ratcheting up of pressure on its ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Recently Azerbaijan established a checkpoint in the Lachin corridor, which was supposed to be controlled by Russia only.

He has also criticised the failure of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) security pact to intervene to protect Armenia from Azerbaijan’s incursions.

Pashinyan again voiced concerns over the CSTO's failure to fulfil its obligations during a recent trip to Prague. "We think that the CSTO has failed to fulfil its obligations with regard to Armenia," Pashinyan told the Center for Transatlantic Relations.

Russia has expressed displeasure about Armenia’s public criticisms, particularly of the CSTO.  Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova recently expressed perplexity at Armenia's desire to discuss organisational issues externally, emphasising the existence of established channels for dialogue within the CSTO framework. She alluded that Yerevan is well aware of Moscow's good intentions but is unwilling to accept them.

"Frankly speaking, the Armenian leadership's desire to discuss issues of the organisation's effectiveness outside the organisation itself is bewildering. Especially since the CSTO has all the necessary formats and established channels of interaction. The most important thing is that the members of this organisation are not only willing to listen to all that but also to work in that direction," said Zakharova. 

To Moscow’s annoyance, Pashinyan has also prioritised Western mediators in Yerevan’s disputes with Baku. These include a meeting of foreign ministers with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week, and a meeting between Pashinyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev with European Council President Charles Michel this coming weekend.   

But by his attendance in Red Square, the Armenian leader appears to be trying to play a delicate balancing act, in which he criticises Russia and dallies with the West, while also making gestures to Moscow to show that his country remains beholden to it. Armenia is still very dependent on the Russian economy, not least in energy.

There are also signals that the Western-mediated peace talks are not going as well as the US has claimed. Afterwards Pashinyan said significant differences still exist in the phrasing of a potential peace agreement. "While the gap between the two sides was one kilometre before, it has now narrowed to 999 metres. It is indeed progress, but there remains a significant divide," Pashinyan explained.

Pashinyan cannot afford to alienate Moscow when Armenia remains so dependent on its big neighbour and at a time when the outcome of the peace talks remains so uncertain and a renewed outbreak of fighting remains highly possible.

The 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended with a Russia-brokered ceasefire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. But border skirmishes continue to erupt intermittently, underscoring the fragility of the situation not only in Nagorno-Karabakh but also on the borders of Azerbaijan and Armenia.