Russian President Vladimir Putin with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (Source: Rbc.ru)
On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it had issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.
On March 24, the Armenian Constitutional Court ruled that the Rome Statute, on which the ICC is predicated, complies with the Armenian Constitution, paving the way for the country's ratification of the founding treaty of the ICC. This decision caused indignation in Moscow as Yerevan appeared to be endorsing an organization that Moscow had denounced as a vestige of Western attempts to impose a self-serving rules-based order on everyone else. It did not impress Moscow that Armenia's possible ratification of the ICC treaty was not aimed at Russia and its leader but rather at Azerbaijan – a country Armenia had accused of war crimes perpetrated in the Nagorno Karabakh war.
An anonymous Russian foreign ministry source told both major Russian news agencies, TASS and RIA Novosti, that "Moscow considers completely unacceptable the plans by official Yerevan to join the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court given the background of the recent illegal and legally void ICC 'warrants' against the Russian leadership."
The source warned the Armenian side of "the extremely negative" consequences of its actions for bilateral relations.
At her March 30 weekly briefing, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, commented on the relations between Armenia and the ICC. She was less menacing than the anonymous source. "The topic is a subject of discussion during high-level contacts both in Moscow and in Yerevan. We do not consider it necessary to disclose details. We assume that the issue will be settled in a collegial and mutually acceptable manner."
An article in the online conservative business daily Vzglyad accused the Armenian government of political myopia and claimed that Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan had taken this step as a deliberate affront to Moscow.
The article cited the criticism of the decision by the opposition Republican Party of Armenia (RPA). That party's executive committee blasted the decision to join the ICC since, according to RPA, the court in The Hague "is a highly politicized body, and it is no accident that even such powerful nations such as the U.S., China, and Russia, which are permanent member-states of the UN Security Council, have not signed or ratified the statute and do not intend to do so in the future."
"To believe that accession to this court's [statute] could be ever used in order to protect interests of Armenia is a sign of an obvious political myopia," declared the article in Vzglyad. It also noted that the Republican party's leadership had traditionally maintained good relations with Russia.
Russia asserted that the Armenian Constitutional court was staffed with Pashinyan supporters. Konstantin Zatulin, the first deputy chairman of the State Duma committee on CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Affairs, Eurasian Integration, and Relations with Compatriots, claimed that Pashinyan and his supporters had forced the court's previous chairman, Grair Tovmasyan, to step down. Therefore, Zatulin was convinced that Pashinyan himself was behind the "scandalous" Constitutional Court decision that provoked Moscow's anger.
According to Zatulin, since Pashinyan had secured the complete obedience of the Constitutional court by packing the court with his supporters, "It's hard to argue Armenian Constitutional court's independence. It became known that in summer 2020, its previous chairman was ostracized. Personal pressure focused on him and his family was orchestrated. It was all done to secure his stepping down from the court chairman's office. As a result, the Constitutional Court was transformed into the government's appendage."
Political analyst Marat Bashirov claimed that Yerevan had played one game too many with the Kremlin and scoffed at Yerevan's reassurances to Russia that were belied by statements by members of Pashinyan's own party: "Government's deputies do not hesitate to say in interviews that Putin should be arrested if he comes to Armenia."
The article did cite some Armenian reassurances that the decision still had to pass parliament and this vote would be deferred indefinitely and that ratification did not mean that Putin faced arrest in Armenia. However, the article did not find these clarifications convincing.
The decision reflected a clear anti-Russian trend in Armenia, according to Vadim Trukhachev, Associate Professor at the Department of Foreign Regional Studies and Foreign Policy of the Russian State University for the Humanities. He stated that "In Yerevan, Russia is perceived as a foreign state, with which one should communicate only on the basis of pragmatic interests. And in this regard the 'divorce' of the countries becomes unavoidable."
Trukhachev claimed that Moscow had ways of punishing Armenia. "Naturally, Moscow won't turn a blind eye to such a decision. Russia could revise its migration policy towards the Caucasian republic, since quite a few citizens of that country still come to us for work. Another direction for our response could be the reduction of investment flows to Armenia," suggested Trukhachev.
For his part, Zatulin claimed that Pashinyan despite any protestations on his part was hostile to Russia. "I never believed in Pashinyan's pro-Russian stance. Before he came to power in 2018, he built his career on [verbal] attacks on Moscow, talking about how a Russian military base in Armenia was not necessary and that it was imprudent for the country [Armenia] to be a CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization] member... Now things that Pashinyan's entourage has been dreaming about for a long time and gradually tried to implement have been revealed," said Zatulin.
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"Pashinyan's supporters have taken a clearly anti-Russian measure. By passing this Constitutional court decision, they hint that they may declare the Russian head of state 'persona non grata.'" The text asserted that Pashinyan was exploiting Russia's preoccupation with Ukraine to switch sides to the West for the sole purpose of retaining power.
Konstantin Zatulin (Source: Ria.ru)
A further indication of Pashinyan's unfaithfulness was his acceptance of U.S. President Joe Biden's invitation to attend the online "Summit for Democracy."
Political scientist and columnist Georgy Bovt viewed the ICC issue as a red herring: "In this case the decision was prepared for a long time and was not taken at all in order to arrest Vladimir Putin. The other day, the Chairman of the National Assembly of Armenia Alen Simonyan said that he could not imagine a situation in which the President of Russia could be arrested if he visits any country, noting that the decision of the ICC is more of a political or historical nature. However, as far as we know, there have been no such statements at the level of the executive branch.
"Armenia, by the way, is far from being the only country 'friendly' to Russia that has ratified the Rome Statute. Of the CIS countries, it was joined by Moldova, with whom relations are already difficult, and also by Tajikistan. It has also been ratified by Venezuela, Serbia, and South Africa. The latter will host the next BRICS summit, to which Putin has already been officially invited. None of these countries were quick to issue an unequivocal statement that they would never execute a warrant for the arrest of the Russian leader, which would openly violate their obligations to the International Criminal Court. Although there were precedents. It's just that such things are usually discussed through closed diplomatic channels, through which appropriate guarantees are also given. Or not given."
According to Bovt, the problems in relations between Yerevan and Moscow lay elsewhere. "In the case of Armenia, the point is also that bilateral political relations are already beset by a number of problems. The main one is Yerevan's open dissatisfaction with the way Russian peacekeepers fulfill, or rather, do not fulfill, as they believe in Yerevan, their obligations in Nagorno-Karabakh. And earlier, according to the Armenian leadership, Moscow did not do enough to protect Armenia from Azerbaijan in the war in the fall of 2020, neglecting its obligations under the CSTO. Now Yerevan is openly dissatisfied with the fact that Russian peacekeepers are not taking any measures to unblock the Lachin corridor, which is the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with the outside world. For almost four months this road has been blocked by Azerbaijani environmental activists, who are clearly acting in concert with official Baku. As a result, there was a shortage of medicine in Nagorno-Karabakh, a rationing system was introduced, filling stations were closed, electricity and gas were periodically cut off.
"In turn, Yerevan has taken a number of steps in recent months that are designed to demonstrate dissatisfaction with how the CSTO mechanism works in general, in terms of protecting its member from Azerbaijan's actions. So, in November of last year, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan refused to sign the draft declaration of the CSTO Collective Security Council. Earlier, in September, the Armenian authorities refused to participate in the CSTO exercises in Kazakhstan. At the beginning of this year, the Armenian Defense Ministry informed the CSTO about the inexpediency of holding the organization's exercises in the country. Moreover, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported that a joint exercise of the CSTO peacekeeping contingents "Indestructible Brotherhood – 2023" is planned to be held on Armenian territory.
"And now it turns out that the 'brotherhood' no longer looks so indestructible. This gives rise to rumors about a possible withdrawal of Armenia from the CSTO, which does not look so unbelievable now. Especially if Yerevan receives guaranty of its security not from Russia, but from the E.U. and the U.S."
Russia hinted at retaliatory measures that could hurt Armenia. On March 31, 2023, the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Supervision (Rosselkhoznadzor) reported on its website on negotiations between the veterinary services of the Russian Federation and Armenia, "during which the results of the inspection of milk processing enterprises in Armenia conducted from March 20 to 24, 2023, were discussed."
"During the meeting, the question was raised about the impossibility of the Armenian veterinary service to guarantee the safety of dairy products for Russian recipients. Considering the results of the negotiations and the unsatisfactory results of the inspection (the department announced them on March 28), Rosselkhoznadzor requested the Armenian veterinary service to suspend certification of dairy products to Russia from all enterprises in the country starting on April 5, 2023. The possibility of resuming supplies will be discussed further, based on the results of the work carried out by the Armenian side to eliminate the identified violations."
Moscow has used the issue of sanitary and product safety authorities before when it wanted to apply pressure. For example, during the low point in relations with Turkey, import of Turkish tomatoes were banned.
The Armenian opposition deputy and the former minister of agriculture Artur Khachatryan took the hint: "The decision to publicize the problem rather than solve it in a work-like fashion already attests to the existence of contradictions that are unrelated to the Russian and Armenian supervisory authorities. Most likely, we are talking about contradictions at a higher political level."
Armenia was vulnerable to such pressures. Armenian economist Armen Ktoyan told the Russian daily Kommersant: "Armenian producers will be dealt a double blow. Firstly, the ban on the import of dairy products weakens the positions of Armenian producers in the Russian market. It will be difficult to come back and occupy a [market] niche again. Secondly, it is impossible to immediately reorient exports to other markets. The potential market is the EU, but there are a lot of regulations that need to be met, and no work has been done in this direction."
Ktoyan expressed concern that if political contradictions continue to increase, Russia could extend the ban to other products: "We understand and know that the Rosselkhoznadzor makes certain decisions that are also based on the political situation."
Armenia scrambled to contain the situation. The Armenian Parliament's Deputy Speaker Hakob Arshakyan proposed to the Russian Federation to sign an agreement that would serve as a firewall against ICC decisions. Arshakyan said that Yerevan had heard Moscow's concerns about the impact of Armenia's ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court would have on bilateral relations. Armenia's action did not center on Russia but were related solely with the actions of Azerbaijan.
"As recently as today, we signed an agreement with another country, according to which the Rome Statute will not affect our bilateral relations. Such a settlement can be concluded with Russia as well. But this is just one of the options. There are other options. One thing is clear: we have heard the concerns expressed by the Russian Federation, and I think that we will be able to ensure that [ratifying the Rome Statute] does not damage the strategic relations between Armenia and Russia."
Commenting on the topic of Vladimir Putin's possible arrest if he visits Armenia after the ratification of the Rome Statute, Mr. Arshakyan replied: "Naturally, the ruling party and team have no such intention or desire."
Hakob Arshakyan (Source: Aysor.am)
The Director of the Caucasus Institute Alexander Iskandaryan believes that options exist that could allow Yerevan and Moscow to clear the issue of the ICC. In any case, the arrest of the president of a nuclear power was an impossibility. "In political reality, it is impossible to imagine this. Therefore, Yerevan can either simply postpone the ratification of the Rome Statute, or the parties can find some legal loophole and use it." Iskandaryan also warned Moscow that the longer the issue festered, the more it could be exploited by others. "Another thing is that any such tempest in a teacup leaves its sediment in Armenian-Russian relations, and third parties are trying to take advantage of it."
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