After three decades of independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, tiny Armenia faces a plethora of challenges, not least because of hostile intentions from its neighbours.
With limited natural resources to enhance the country’s image and help rebuild an economy hampered by wars, Yerevan is turning to diplomacy to strengthen relations and build new partnerships, especially with traditional allies Greece and Cyprus.
“There are five challenges, and they are very obvious,” said Tigran Mkrtchyan, the country’s new ambassador in Athens.
“First and foremost is the just and fair solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
“Following the loss of the war [in 2020], the Azeris on the other side are trying to exploit the situation, and the situation in Ukraine, to gain as much as possible in their negotiations.
“This has two dimensions on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border delimitation discussions and, most importantly, the future status of Nagorno Karabakh itself.
“When talking about the return to negotiations, within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs (which includes Russia, USA, and France), there is now understandably friction with respect to the Ukraine conflict – on the one hand, you have France and the United States, on the other you have Russia.
“We hope very much that this internationally mandated format will resume its work in finding a solution to the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh.
“So, returning to negotiations within this framework to find a just solution to the conflict is the biggest challenge,” he told the Financial Mirror in an interview.
“Second, of course, the normalisation of Armenia-Turkey relations is an independent process, and this has been clearly signalled to Ankara.
“The Turkish side has gotten involved in these negotiations on this assumption that we are proceeding to normalise relations along the borders without any preconditions.”
Mkrtchyan said the third biggest challenge is “to keep up building relations with our close partners, with the EU and the West, with the US, allies such as France and Greece, and Cyprus. And deepen those relations.
“Another challenge that is not dependent on us is the war in Ukraine and its negative impact on the region and the world in general.
“We want to come out of this with as little damage as possible, given the fact that we have around 500,000 Armenians in Ukraine, on both sides of the conflict.”
The ambassador, whose previous posting was in the Baltics, said the fifth major challenge for Nikol Pashinyan’s government is to regenerate Armenia economically.
“All this has certain internal political dimensions; we see protests in Armenia against the delimitation talks, Armenia-Turkey normalisation efforts or the state of the economy.
“Some people, the opposition, do not like the way the government is running those processes.
“When the administration achieves some success in all of these dimensions, the internal situation will calm down.”
He said the key to this success is the critical role of the Armenian diaspora.
Representing a small state of 3 mln, Armenia and its diplomatic corps constantly need to balance their relations.
Ambassador Mkrtchyan said three factors help his work.
“First, the excellent support of our image – Armenia is an island of democracy surrounded by mainly, not all, so democratic states.
“The path that Armenia has chosen, one of ongoing democratisation and reforms, is highly valued by our western partners.
“Then, we have the human resources and scientific know-how and development over decades, even from Soviet times, when Armenia was considered the Silicon Valley of the USSR.
“This know-how is still there, and it’s been developed further. We are registering a lot of successes in various sectors, and foremost in IT.”
And third is that Armenians are a ‘global nation’ with a diaspora bigger than in the Republic.
“Over these three decades (of independence), we have been looking for ways to find the key to exemplary cooperation with our diaspora. We still have a long way to go.
“Clearly, I do not want to compare us with the strong and highly institutionalised ties that Israel and Greece enjoy with their respective diasporas, but the resource is there.
“Based on these three factors, I think Armenia has a chance of success, of regeneration from the catastrophic war we witnessed in 2020.”
Surrounded by hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan, and with Iran to its south, landlocked Armenia has had centuries-old ties with its northern Caucasus neighbour, often regarded as brotherly to sometimes rivalry.
“Apart from a common history, Georgia and Armenia share common values and beliefs.
“We also share common approaches to our democratic future. And this is a great resource on which both governments are relying, indicative of the trust between the elites.
“Definitely, the Armenian community in Georgia is playing a major role in any rapprochement between the two Orthodox Christian nations.
“We have also been together as part of the Eastern Partnership Cooperation of the European Union; there’s a lot we share and a lot in common.
“Economically, the routes running from the south to the north, from the south to Europe, take into account that Armenia can be an alternative trade route, and this route runs through Georgia.
“Therefore, Georgia has a crucial role in the development of Armenia’s economy, as well.
“We have to understand this geo-economic role.
“Relations with Georgia have been deepening over the last few years; I hope there won’t be any hurdles towards the furtherance of our brotherhood, as we prefer to refer to our relations as ‘brotherly’.”
Ambassador Mkrtchyan said Tbilisi was the intellectual centre of the Caucuses at the beginning of the 20th century. It was where the first Republic of Armenia was declared in 1918, while the first government of Armenia was established and was functioning for some time from Tbilisi.
“Tbilisi, for us, after Yerevan, is the second most important city.”
But the 44-day war over Nagorno Karabakh has left an open wound throughout the Armenian nation, particularly with the high number of casualties and the prisoners that Azerbaijan captured and refused to hand over some of them.
“According to Azerbaijan, these people are not prisoners of war.
“This interpretation is not accepted by the West. It is not accepted by anybody, and they should be returned as soon as possible,” Mkrtchyan said.
“While we speak, the US State Department made a statement, where Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, during a phone call with President Aliev, reminded about the necessity of returning the detainees.
“The statement referred to ‘recent positive developments and future concrete steps towards the path of peace in the south Caucuses, including the border demarcation, opening transport and communication links and the release of the remaining Armenian detainees’.”
“This is one of the most important issues on our agenda.
“Perhaps, the Armenian government is not talking openly about this every day because sometimes publicising our intentions may not necessarily have the same result or effect.
“Diplomacy doesn’t necessarily mean secrecy.
“Because the means of public communications are sometimes used to achieve a certain result, so too, diplomacy has both these elements of work, the aspect of secrecy and sometimes also working publicly.”
Mkrtchyan said that being an Armenian ambassador is challenging, and it requires triple or quadruple efforts than other usual ambassadorial work.
“The work needs to be strategised into short term, medium- and long-term results. And taking into consideration the resources and potential of the Armenian diaspora.
Healthy diaspora relations
“I’ve been lucky in my previous capacity in the Baltics and now in Greece and Cyprus, where we have a healthy relationship with the diaspora groups.
“I am not taking it for granted and will continue to exert a lot of effort to maintain healthy and fruitful cooperation with our diaspora representatives.”
To assist, the ambassador said that Armenia has resorted to establishing Honorary Consulates, one in Thessaloniki and one in Limassol.
“We also did this in my previous posting.
“We opened an Honorary Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, and I started the process of appointing an Honorary Consul in Riga, Latvia, as well.
“It’s extremely helpful because it’s like having an office in a major city.
“But the main aim is supporting the embassy in promoting economic diplomacy.
“We don’t have that many economic attachés yet, just in a handful of capitals. We need a bigger economic presence in all capitals.”
Regarding the warm relations with Athens, Mkrtchyan said the opening of the natural gas Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) from Azerbaijan has not been to the detriment of Greece’s ties with Yerevan.
“TAP cannot replace the amount of gas Russia provides to Europe. It doesn’t have that physical capacity; it’s one of the alternatives.
“Firstly, there is over-exaggeration about TAP’s capacity and Azeri gas resources capacity.
“Secondly, it’s a multinational project; it’s owned by several companies and is going to run through several countries, including Turkey.
“Greece is not becoming and cannot become dependent on Azerbaijani natural gas.
“And third, the fact that you’re buying a certain amount and not the biggest amount of energy resources from any country does not decapacitate you to talk about abuse of human rights, democracy conditions, in that country, or to continue to support one of your historically closest friends – Armenia.
“We need to understand these things.
“When we see the Azeri propaganda game, that ‘we are giving you TAP, therefore we are your friends, and you should not criticise us’, this logic is extremely simplistic, and it’s not going to work.
“I don’t think that such cooperation in terms of TAP will be at the cost of Greece-Armenia cooperation and friendship.
“Moreover, we are upgrading the relations between Greece and Armenia, and hopefully, we will have results in the near future.”