In this op-ed for commonspace.eu, Benyamin Poghosyan says that the visit of Nancy Pelosi to Armenia created quite a lot of hype, since some saw in it the prospects for national salvation. But the visit's "democracy vs authoritarianism agenda" is risky for Armenia he argues. Armenia should send clear signals to Russia and Iran that it has no intention to join the “democracy vs. authoritarianism fight” and will never allow anyone to use its territory for anti-Iranian or anti-Russian activities.
On September 17, 2022, Nancy Pelosi, the US House of Representatives speaker, arrived in Armenia for a three–day visit. She was the highest-ranking US official to visit Armenia since the country got its independence in 1991. The visit was agreed upon weeks, if not months in advance, but it took place only a few days after Azerbaijan had launched a new aggression against Armenia on September 13, 2022. The ceasefire was reached in late September 14 through the active mediation efforts of Russia, the US, and other external players. However, these hostilities overshadowed the visit.
Pelosi met with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Speaker of the National Assembly Alen Simonyan, the Defense Minister Suren Papikyan. She visited the memorial and the museum of the Armenian Genocide and held a press conference at Cafesjian Center in downtown Yerevan. Pelosi accused Azerbaijan of launching illegal and deadly attacks on the Armenian territory. She stated that her delegation on behalf of the US Congress strongly condemned those attacks, which threatened prospects for a much-needed peace agreement. Pelosi also criticized Turkey’s role and policy, claiming that for decades, in Congress, they had tried to hold Turkey and Azerbaijan responsible for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In its turn, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry sharply criticized her comments, stating that Pelosi’s baseless and unfair accusations against Azerbaijan were unacceptable.
Pelosi’s visit created a pretty strong hype in Armenia. The staggering defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war, Azerbaijani incursions into Armenia proper in May and November 2021, as well as the new large-scale attack on September 13, 2022, triggered a sense of insecurity in Armenia and hectic moves to find a savior. The controversial stance of Russia during the 2020 war and the limited reaction of Russia and CSTO during Azerbaijani attacks has contributed to the significant rise of anti-Russia sentiments in Armenia. As Azerbaijan puts pressure on Armenia to sign a peace treaty with no mention of Nagorno Karabakh, and to provide the so-called “Zangezur corridor," many in Armenia turned their gaze to the US, hoping that Washington may "save Armenia."
There was a growing movement in Armenia calling for withdrawal from CSTO as a useless organization or, at least, to freeze Armenian membership there. Many in Armenia are convinced that the US and other NATO member countries are willing to provide modern weapons to Armenia to protect itself from Azerbaijan. However, they argue that CSTO membership is a hurdle, as there is a fear that modern Western technologies will be transferred to Russia. On September 17 and 18, pro-Western political parties organized rallies in Yerevan with the US and Ukraine flags, welcoming Pelosi and calling for the withdrawal from the CSTO. Some even hoped that the US would provide billions of USD assistance to Armenia to buy back from the Russian companies the critical energy infrastructure, which would decrease Armenia’s energy dependence on Russia. Others argue that if Armenia leaves CSTO, HIMARS and other sophisticated US weapons will soon arrive in Armenia to fight against Azerbaijan.
Putting aside these fairy tales, it is necessary to understand the bilateral and regional aspects of the visit. On the bilateral track, the visit was a significant move to foster US – Armenia relations. The two countries established a strategic dialogue in May 2019, but few tangible results were achieved. Pelosi’s visit may trigger some positive movement in such spheres as economic cooperation, which currently lacks a political context. It also signals that the democratic administration values Armenia and is ready to provide support to secure a stable and prosperous future for Armenia.
Meanwhile, the visit's regional or rather geopolitical aspects may create complications for Armenia. Immediately after landing in Yerevan, Pelosi stated on her Twitter feed that from the US to Ukraine to Taiwan to Armenia, the world faced a choice between democracy and autocracy. Since coming to power in January 2021, the Biden administration framed the geopolitics of the 21 century as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, and Pelosi’s statement was entirely in line with this approach. However, the US perceives Russia, China, and Iran as the main pillars of the authoritarian world. Given Armenia’s geographical position and geopolitical complications, the last thing Armenia needs now is to enter the US – vs. Russia, the US – vs. China, or the US – vs. Iran fight as a member of the US camp.
Armenia has hostile relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. If Armenia portrays itself or is perceived as a fighter against authoritarianism in the South Caucasus, it will almost immediately become a hostile country for Iran. Tehran is very cautious about the US, and Israel plans to use the region as a launchpad for anti-Iranian activities, and simultaneously staunchly opposes Azerbaijan and Turkey's possible takeover of the Syunik region of Armenia bordering Iran. However, if Iran perceives that Armenia has opted to become another US bastion in the American fight against authoritarian Tehran, and to spread democracy in Iran, this will have catastrophic implications for Armenia. The same is for Russia. Armenia cannot afford to join the West's fight against Russia and Iran under any slogan. The only hope for Armenia to survive while implementing anti-Iranian and anti-Russian policies is to align with Turkey, which will create enormous security risks for Yerevan.
Thus, Armenia should send clear signals to Russia and Iran that it has no intention to join the “democracy vs. authoritarianism fight” and will never allow anyone to use its territory for anti-Iranian or anti-Russian activities. The policy of Azerbaijan is an excellent example for Armenia. Being portrayed as an authoritarian state by international human rights organizations, Azerbaijan fosters strategic partnership with the EU. It simultaneously deepens its strategic partnership with Russia, avoiding the “democracy vs. authoritarianism” schism.