The statue of Lenin that used to gaze over Yerevan’s imposing Republic Square (then of course Lenin Square) was pulled down in 1990. But to the chagrin of those that hoped an independent Republic of Armenia would gravitate towards Europe, Russian influence is stronger today than at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Armenia’s two longest borders, with Azerbaijan and Turkey, remain closed due to the dispute over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, strangling trade and economic opportunities. With few jobs and GDP per capita of little more than $5,000, the emigration rate is alarming. The World Bank estimates that over 850,000 Armenians, 28% of the population, have left since independence in 1991. The trickle of ethnic Armenian refugees from Syria has done little to dent that statistic – witness the increasing number of Arabic restaurants springing up all over the city.
Armenians I met in Yerevan told me that while the educated middle class may secure visas to the EU or North America, ordinary Armenians overwhelmingly go to Russia: entry visas aren’t needed, Russian is still universally taught and the huge Armenian diaspora can ease one’s way to a job. No wonder three quarters of the flights arriving or departing Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport are to Moscow, Novosibirsk, Rostov or Sochi.
Remittances from Armenians working in Russia and Russian foreign investment (Russia accounted for $3 billion in investments in a country whose GDP amounted to $9.9 billion in 2012 according to the World Bank) are welcome. But not everyone is comfortable with the extent of Russian economic dominance. In September Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan announced that Armenia would join the Eurasian Economic Community (known EurAsEC), the Russian-led customs unions, of which Belarus and Kazakhstan are members. While the official stance of Armenia remains that joining EurAsEC and entering an EU association agreement are not mutually exclusive, those I spoke to rubbished this claim, saying that the agreement with Russia had abruptly halted three years of discussions with the EU and that EU diplomats were “shaken”.
Such is the cynicism about the political class that a rumour was doing the rounds that President Sargsyan had signed the EurAsEC agreement in exchange for President Putin taking care of the former’s gambling debts (allegedly accrued in various European casinos and reckoned in the tens of millions of euros). Over cardamom-flavoured Armenian coffee, a local journalist gave me a less sensationalist view. With energy rich Azerbaijan increasingly powerful, it was only Russia – with its 102nd military air base stationed in Armenia – that guarantees the country’s security. “Security here trumps any other concern”, he said. “What choice do we have but to give Russia carte blanche? It’s the only country that can defend us and the only one that gives jobs to our people.