Soft power in Armenia: Neither soft, nor powerful

The absence of Russian soft power in Armenia confirms the perception of many Armenians that Moscow takes their submission for granted

Throughout much of the former Soviet Union, there has been a steady reassertion of Russian power and influence.  For many of the countries of the so-called “near abroad,” this Russian resurgence has utilised a combination of traditional “hard power,” employing force and direct pressure, and tactical “soft power,” aimed at both undermining and overwhelming resistance. 

Most recently, Russia’s reliance on instruments of “soft power” have tended to spark more concern.  But in the case of Armenia, a normally reliable Russian partner, the limits of Russian power are amply demonstrated.  And most significantly, Russian soft power in Armenia is neither soft, nor very powerful.            

From a broader perspective, the efficacy of Russian soft power is inherently limited by three distinct factors.  First, by its very nature, there is little genuine appeal or attraction for the post-Soviet countries.  Many, if not all, of these countries are merely seeking to manage the threat of a resurgent Russia.  Even for the more authoritarian states, appeasing Moscow is about regime survival.  In the battle of ideas and ideals, Russia offers little in terms of values.  Rather, the Russian position is one of threats and coercion, in stark contrast to Western or European ideals of attraction or seduction, based on values of political pluralism and opportunities for economic prosperity.

Against this backdrop, it is also clear that Russia’s position is one of weakness, not strength, and is rapidly exhibiting signs of dangerous over-extension.  These fundamental weaknesses of Russia’s much heralded, but often exaggerated soft power are most evident in Armenia.

For Russia’s approach toward Armenia, there has been a heavy reliance on instruments of hard power, exploiting Armenian military insecurity over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan and manipulating the country’s economic security.  Clearly, the Karabakh conflict remains the simplest instrument for leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Armenia as a willing recipient of Russian security promises and discounted weapons and Moscow now as the number one arms provider for Azerbaijan.

An additional form of Russian leverage over Armenia, which is also more of a diversification of hard power, rather than soft power, has been a focus on economic security.  This has been manifested through a steady acquisition of several essential sectors of the Armenian economy, including securing a dominant position owning or controlling the energy and telecommunications sectors, as well as the railway network and mining industry.

Moreover, as a key security partner, Armenia offers Russia a vital foothold in the South Caucasus, and is the only country in the region to host a Russian military base and to be a member of both the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and its Eurasian Economic Union.  Yet even with this security relationship, which is of course dominated a more one-sided emphasis on “hard” power, there is a new crisis in Armenian-Russian relations.

In what has become a pronounced “crisis of confidence,” Armenian-Russian relations have been challenged, not in terms of the relationship itself, but rather, through new questions over the asymmetry and lack of balance of the relationship.  After years of mounting over-reliance on Russia, coupled with a steady mortgaging of Armenia’s sovereignty and independence, there is a new sense of deep frustration in Armenia with Russian arrogance.  For many Armenians, Moscow takes Armenia “for granted,” and recent Russian arms sales to its rival Azerbaijan have merely exacerbated this perception.

This crisis in Armenian-Russian relations was most evident at the beginning of the year, when a rogue Russian conscript stationed at the Russian base in the country deserted and murdered an entire Armenian family.  Although the tragedy was clearly an isolated incident, and the act of a sole deranged individual, the mishandling of the incident triggered a deeper sense of outrage.  Neither the Armenian nor Russian governments were able to manage the crisis, leading to spontaneous demonstrations and protests that even stormed the Russian base and besieged the Russian consulate. 

Beyond the lack of crisis response, the murder of the Armenian family was even more explosive as it was the third such incident of violence and lack of discipline among Russian troops stationed in Armenia. 

The crisis then escalated, graduating from a temporary problem and becoming a profound trend.  This escalation was evident in a wave of dissent in Armenia, in which a week of mounting protests comprising thousands of empowered youths, at times surpassing 10,000 demonstrators, faced off against an embattled Armenian government, eventually forcing a key concession over the government’s move to impose an increase in electricity prices. 

That planned increase in electricity prices, which would have been the third such rise in two years, was the trigger for the wave of protests.  And more notably, this latest attempt to raise prices came as a demand by the Russian-owned monopoly controlling the country’s electricity distribution network, thereby fueling a public perception of a weak and overly-compliant Armenian leadership completely subordinate to Moscow.

In the aftermath of the public protests, which largely ended after the activists prudently made a tactical retreat, Armenia’s crisis of confidence in Russia remains unresolved, however. 

But what is most interesting in Armenia is not Russia’s reliance on “hard power” and emphasis on security as a guarantee for Armenian subservience.  Rather, it is the lack of any real Russian soft power, more confident in the reliability of a submissive Armenian government that encourages Moscow to see little need for any direct engagement in daily politics or even media control. 

But it is precisely this absence of Russian soft power that exacerbates the crisis in Armenian-Russian relations and tends to confirm the perception that Moscow takes Armenian submission for granted.  And it is this Russian arrogance that is the most dangerously counter-productive factor underlying Russian weakness in Armenia over the longer term. 

Richard Giragosian is Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC) in Armenia.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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