Russia has BFFs too

Not many, but some.

One is Armenia. The Armenians are annoyed at the Georgians for their generally shoddy treatment of the Armenian minority in Georgia. More to the point, Armenians generally look down their magnificent noses at Georgians, considering them self-indulgent, emotional, shrill, slovenly, unreliable, and just generally second-rate. Georgians don’t love Armenians either — they consider them sly, stuck-up and grasping. There are no exactly equivalent Western European stereotypes, but if you think “dour Scots versus hand-waving Italians” you’ll get the general idea.

The state of relations between the two peoples is such that, when a rumor arose that the Russians were using Armenian air bases to bomb them, it was immediately and widely believed by the Georgians. (It wasn’t true.)

At the same time, most Armenians have warm feelings towards Russia. Which warm feelings are not entirely requited — Russians don’t view Armenians with a lot of affection and respect — but that’s another story. Imperial Russia rescued them from the Turks, after all, and then the USSR allowed Armenia to industrialize and Armenians to rise almost to the top of the Soviet hierarchy.

There’s a widespread belief in Armenia that Russia tilts their way in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute… probably not true, but there it is. More to the point, there are a couple of thousand Russian soldiers in Armenia; it doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but they’ve been there since the 1990s, quietly watching Armenia’s border with Turkey. Drive south from Yerevan, and you’ll see their bases, Russian flags and all.

And then of course, there’s Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians are grimly determined to hang on to NK. So they have a strong interest in seeing some post-Soviet boundary changes. If Russia claws off South Ossetia and Abkhazia, not just de facto but de jure, that’ll be a powerful precedent in Armenia’s favor.

All that said, Armenia’s position in the recent conflict has been… nuanced. You see, Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed. They have a land border with Iran, but it’s short, and crossed by a single two-lane road that closes every winter. So, pretty much everything that goes in or out of Armenia — including the single rail line, the single highway, the single fiber-optic cable, and the microwave phone link — goes through Georgia. 90% of their imports come in through Georgia, and about 95% of their exports go out that way. The Georgian port of Poti is Armenia’s window on the world. Simply put, Armenia is a man trying to eat, drink and breathe through a fairly narrow hose. If the Georgians were to become sufficiently annoyed, they could devastate Armenia’s economy overnight.

So, while Armenian public opinion is firmly on Russia’s side, the Armenian government is playing it safe. They’re a friendly neutral to Russia, coolly correct to Georgia.

Over in the Balkans, a similar situation prevails in Serbia. Though for somewhat different reasons. The Serbs think of themselves as having a special relationship with Russia. This is partly for historical reasons, but mostly because the last two governments have banged the “Russia will come to our rescue!” drum really hard. Russia has backed Serbia firmly on Kosovo; the Russian veto is not the only thing keeping Kosovo from general international recognition and a seat in the UN, but it’s by far the most important.

So, Serbian public opinion is pretty pro-Russian… but the current Serbian government is a lot more circumspect. That’s because the current Serbian government is (I am simplifying here) pro-Western. In a Serbian context, that means they’re… not anti-Russian, but a lot less pro-Russian than the previous government or the current opposition.

One odd thing: logically, the Serbs should be supporting Georgia, since Abkhaz or Ossetian independence, never mind their annexation by Russia, would be a real threat to their legal and political position in Kosovo. If Russia seriously tries to convince the world that Abkhazia should be independent, it’s going to be noticeably harder to insist that Kosovo shouldn’t be. Looking down the road a few years, it’s not hard to imagine a grand bargain by which Russia sells out Kosovo in return for general recognition of its territorial claims in Georgia. A few thoughtful Serbs have pointed this out, but at the moment their voices are being drowned out by the chorus of “go team Slav”.

Russia has other friends on this issue: Mongolia, Belarus, some of the central Asian states. But that takes us out of Europe, and anyway this post is long enough. Key point: while most of Europe is viewing Russia’s actions askance, not every country is seeing things in the same light as Poland or Estonia.

This entry was posted in Europe and the world and tagged , , , by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

19 thoughts on “Russia has BFFs too

  1. Actually the primary Russian military base is north of Yerevan, near Gumri.

    Tibilisi prior to the First World War was one of two cultural and commercial centres for Armenians (the other being Istanbul). Yerevan at the time being not much more than a village. Armenians controlled much of the commerce in Georgia which caused friction.

    In recent years Georgia is seen by Armenians as taking advantage of Armenia’s isolation by charging excessive transit fees.

    You are right about the Russians not having the same feelings toward Armenians. Many Armenians have been attacked and killed in Russia by skinheads who dont distinguish between Caucasian nationalities.

  2. One odd thing: logically, the Serbs should be supporting Georgia, since Abkhaz or Ossetian independence, never mind their annexation by Russia, would be a real threat to their legal and political position in Kosovo.

    Right, right, and logically Russia should have supported Georgia, given its years of commitment to the idea of the integral sovereignty of established nations in Chechnya. But consistency overriding cynicism ain’t the way to bet here.

  3. “Russia has other friends on this issue: Mongolia, Belarus, some of the central Asian states”

    I can remember that I read somewhere on the internet, that the Belarusian dictator, due to opportunistic reasons, did not sufficient support the Russians during their conflict with Georgia, which naturally upsets the Russians. I cant remember where I read it, but maybe someone is able to tell some more about this subject.

  4. I would submit that a common Russian’s attitude toward Armenians is very positive and respectful, especially among higher-educated folks. Russians regard Armenians as hard-working, cultured and friendly. This is in a sharp contrast with an image a common Russian would have of a Georgian or Azeri man: an untidily dressed, poorly mannered, speaking with a think accent and having criminal-world connections.

  5. “Russians don’t view Armenians with a lot of affection and respect”.

    I wonder what makes you think so, because as a Russian I have to disagree completely. If you ask me, there are 3 really intelligent ethnical groups in Russia: Russians, Jews and Armenians. Not that I’m a racist or something, but just look at who most of our scientists are. Or who most textbooks are written by.

  6. Douglas Muir is absolutely incorrect in saying: Russia has other friends on this issue: Mongolia, Belarus, some of the central Asian states. Perhaps it is because he is not aware of the situation in Central Asian Republics.
    I would like to note that whole crisis is not just crisis in Caucasus but is the crisis of the whole post-Soviet space and for the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States.

    As Georgia declared that it leaves the union and calling upon other members to do so, this might have a negative effect for the whole post-Soviet states. I would like to note Russia DID NOT enjoy any official support from any of the members in CIS, except for a very initial general verbal concern over the situation from Kazakhstan and Belarus.

    Currently I think every single CIS member is trying on this whole crisis for itself and that tries to imagine who might be the next… Ukraine…? Azerbaijan…? Kazakhstan…? Unfortunately, every single CIS member has either a common border / frozen conflict / ethnic minority whose rights might need to be protected in future / oil and gas resources, that might serve as a pretext for various geopolitical strategies for dismemberment… What is clear to me is that one CIS member attacked/forced to appease another CIS member and this is the first incident in the history of the CIS and it showed that right is the one who has the power or more powerful patron otherwise you are dead and will be the object and not the subject of international polics.

    As it is clear that the CIS will be reformatted and reformed now or who knows, maybe even dissoIved, it a high time now for every CIS member State to make its choice whom to side with and from whom to distant itself…?
    The current domestic political discourse in Russia is: we are strong now… And some political analysts even call upon attacking and invading lands of northern Kazakhstan, where russan-speaking minority lives, maybe they also have received already Russian passports…? Russia keeps threatening and bullying Central Asian Republics with China. Their typical rhetoric is: if you don’t stay with us, you will be assimilated by China. But with growing fascizm and racism growing in Russia, where people of Asian and Caucasus ethnic groups get killed and stabbed and sliced from the back by groups of Russian skinheads, just for a different skin color and eye cut, it will not long ago that Russia will fall apart, as there are other 179 ethnic groups that compose so called RF. I am sure that as soon as Russians declare that Russia is for Russians only, that will be the end of it! Because Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnia and all others, who are not Russians will want independence!

  7. I am from Kazakhstan. Also not even Armenia and Belarus, closest allies of Russia, did not voice support to Russia over this crisis!

  8. @Nazira, actually Armenia did voice support to Russia — though very carefully, because they don’t want to annoy Georgia too much.

    @Yuri and Nikolay, it’s true that Armenians aren’t as hated as Georgians or Azeris, but that’s not saying much. In just the last year, five Armenians have been killed in racial attacks in Russia. (N.B., I lived in Yerevan from early 2006 until recently. These incidents didn’t get much play in Russian media, but they were big news in Armenia.)

    The Russian attitude towards Armenians is complex, and not entirely negative. As you say, it includes elements of respect and admiration. However, it also includes a lot of dislike and contempt. On the whole, Russians do not want to live near large numbers of Armenians, nor would most Russians want to marry one.

    Doug M.

  9. Well Doug, if U consider those very careful, close to neutral diplomatic formulations by the Armenian foreigh office, then it’s up to U. I have a different impression on those formulations. As far as I know Armenia pursues complimentarity policy in its foreign policy priorities, so with Russia, but also with EU, Council of Europe etc. And it took up right position in this crisis: to stay neutral. But now Russia literally forcing of out of each and every member of the CIS the position that is either for or against Russia, which is unacceptable in itself!

  10. Doug, have you heard that great ethnological term which has some earnest and much ironic currency in Russia — “persons of the Caususus nationality”? My relatives in Moscow who are from the Jewish rather than Armenian branches of the family have been accosted by cops on the street and had to show their passport many times because their features look vaguely southern. I haven’t been following racial attacks in the news, but I think the folks who indulge in that pastime tend to forgo the formalities.

  11. Thanks for replying Doug. I just want to remind you of one aspect of the problem that you seem to be missing.
    In Russia as well as probably elsewhere a lot depends on the social status of the person. Rich/educated folks have different tastes than poor/uneducated folks.
    A couple of years ago I graduated from one of Russia’s most prestigious universities. We had students of all ethnic backgrounds: Russians, Chinese, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Jews, Tatars, Bolgarians, Georgians, Armenians, Chechens etc. And guess what? We all were good friends. I hadn’t heard a single racist joke…
    I know there are neo-nazis in Russia. But you can’t judge a nation by its low life. None of the people I have known in Russia ever openly expressed their dislike of Armenians. Absolutely none.

  12. Doug, i appreciate your blog postings as they are fresh, informative and fun to read. Yet i don’t think that ‘hatred’ is the right category to describe an average Russian’s view on non-Russians, not even on comparative scale. This is akin to saying that hispanics are not as hated as blacks when describing a mainstream american’s attitutde on minorities. Please take it back.

  13. Imperial Russia rescued them from the Turks, after all,..

    When analyzing the positive attitude of Armenians toward Russians, it is not the most correct statement that Russian rescued Armenians from Turks and from complete extermination, not because Turks did not want it, they were implementing the policy of extermination of the whole Armenian population of Armenian Highland, which they succeeded in most Western Armenian regions, but not Russians saved Armenian, but the Armenians. Why? After the Russian Empire collapse, the Russian army was disbanded, and the newly formed Democratic Republic of Armenia had to quickly organize its own army to stop Turkish invasion more to the East. By the way Armenia had to fight three fronts at the same time – one against Azeroturkish army invaded into Artsakh-Karabakh and Zangezur, second against Georgia, which occupied Lori region and refused to go back, third against the huge Anatolian Turkish army, which after occupying Kars crossed Arax and entered Ararat Valey. And then the Sardarapat, Bash-Aparan and Karakilisa fights took place, where the lesser Armenian army defeated Turks (link), liberating Ararat valey and Kars. That was the result of Armenian military confrontation. Russians came to the region later, already the Red Army, which occupied the whole Eastern Armenia except Zangezur, and Russian gifted the whole Kars region to Ataturk (link) aiming at becoming partners and in future may be sovietize Turkey as well, but Ataturk gained Armenian Kars and turned his view towards the West, living Armenia without the central part of historical Armenia and without the symbol of the nation – mount Ararat.
    Armenia has always viewed Russia as a partner because it turned to be the only Christian state able to support Armenia against muslim Turkish invasion to the Armenian Highland. The ties now are very close, the pro-Russian policy of the country is the best solution for Armenia because of cultural and historical reasons. But if analyzing really deep, not Russia rescued Armenia from Turks, but they did themselves.

  14. So they have a strong interest in seeing some post-Soviet boundary changes. If Russia claws off South Ossetia and Abkhazia, not just de facto but de jure, that’ll be a powerful precedent in Armenia’s favor.

    Soviet boundaries were drawn ignoring any historical and cultural peculiarities of regions. Stalin drew them just as he wished, and in that way the 95% percent Artsakh-Karabakh was granted to newly formed Azerbaijan, Nakhichevan with no Turkish population was granted to Azerbaijan, which brought to complete de-armenization of the region in a couple of years and recent tragic event of destroying all Armenian churches and Old Jugha cemetry). The 100% Armenian populated Zangezur was aimed at granting to Azerbaijan, but the Armenian population fought for many months and defeated Red Army many times, not letting them inside, and only after the official decision of recognizing Zangezur (Syunik) to Armenia they let Russian Army enter. So talking about preserving of Soviet boundaries is not the best way to solve historical mistakes made by Stalin and people of his company.

    And what about the precedents, Kosovo is the best precedent for Artsakh-Karabakh Republic, so there is no need actually to base on South Osetia and Abkhazia, because despite the presence of the latter in the structure of Georgia in some time, Kosovo has always been Serbian land, the center of their civilization and it has now been torn away from Serbia because some powers in the West were interested in that. And in contrast to all these problematic areas, Artsakh-Karabakh has always been center of Armenian civilization with about half a thousand Armenian churches and Khachkars, complete Christian state, which only about half a century was populated by Muslim after defeating Armenian and until Russian-Persian war. The tearing Artsakh away to newly formed Azerbaijani state with Turkish population was the historical mistake, which actually does not require any precedent to correct. The correction of that mistake took place after the actual capitulation of Azerbaijan in 1994, entitled ceasefire, after defeat in the war started by Azerbaijan itself not letting to let Artsakh constitutionally join Armenia. I think there is no need to search for precedent in the correction of Stalin’s mistake.

  15. When I lived in Russia (in a fairly large but nonetheless provincial city) I was friends with a fair number of Armenians, some of them quite well. Nearly all of them said that they fairly regularly suffered from discrimination from Russians- obviously not all Russians, but that they were called “chornies”, bothered on the streets by cops shaking them down for their papers, hoping for a bribe, etc. Mostly it was low-level stuff, but real and common. On the other hand, though, some of the women said that they liked Russia more because they found the men less obsessed with purity and the like.

    I’m somewhat surprised that Armenians didn’t get a more negative feeling towards Russia due to the damage that Russia caused the Armenian economy with its blockade of Georgia since that made it very hard for Armenia to sell stuff in Russia. Maybe there was a “blame the victim” mentality towards Georgia though I don’t know.

  16. Pingback: Armenia & the South Caucasus | The Caucasian Knot » Blog Archive » Georgia: Armenia’s Predicament

  17. Kosovo has always been Serbian land, the center of their civilization and it has now been torn away from Serbia because some powers in the West were interested in that.

    Ummm, no. Bulgaria and the Byzantines ruled it for much longer than Serbs and so did the Turks. Last time ‘It was Serbia’ it was in the early 1400’s and they got there in 1180 (long after they created their church and state.) Hardly forever and hardly a cradle. I hope you have better connection to NK.

    “It was 19th century Serbian ideology that created a cult of the mediaeval battle of Kosovo as a nationally defining historical and spiritual event. It was the political role played by protector powers such as Russia, with their consuls in Prishtina or Mitrovica, that helped to create a new atmosphere of suspicion and hostility on the part of the local Albanians”

    If they really want their Jerusalem, they are looking in the wrong place; Serbia’s Jerusalem is somewhere in Russia, their motherland.

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