On August 13 an online press conference with Senior Associate at Carnegie Foundation Paul Stronski  (USA) for Armenian media was held on following topics: Security issues in the post-Soviet countries, the integration processes in the Eurasian territory, Iran.

The Internet press-conference was organized within the framework of the project "International press-center "Dialogue": Diversification of the sources of international news for Armenian media". These "first-hand" comments Armenian journalists will publish in their media outlets.

This project of the "Region" Research Center is supported by the OSCE office in Yerevan.

Tatevik Ghazaryan, www.news.am

What prospects do you see for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the context of the Eurasian integration, taking into consideration the continuing military rhetoric by Baku?

Paul Stronski
Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
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Answer – I’m not sure I understand the question.  I do not see resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as part of the Eurasian integration.  I see the two as very different issues.   The conflict is between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Eurasian integration is about broader processes happening throughout the region.    

That said, I do believe that Armenia’s accession to the Eurasian Union was complicated by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  The Azerbaijanis made clear -I believe particularly to the Kazakhs—that they were displeased with Armenia’s membership and the prospects of Nagorno-Karabakh being de facto included in the Eurasian Economic Union.  Questions concerning whether border posts would be put in place between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh clearly delayed and complicated the negotiation and accession process.  

The rhetoric coming out of Baku is clearly worrying, as is the recent violence along the line of contact and particularly along the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia proper.  I do not see the rhetoric or violence as occurring because of the integration processes.  

How will the historic agreement on the Iranian nuclear program impact on the region of South Caucasus and Armenia, especially, from the economic point of view, and what will the reaction of Russia to this be? 

Answer - I think Iran nuclear agreement, if it moves forward and is fully implemented, potentially could be a game changer for the region.  It could open up the full potential of trade and transportation links.  The Armenian-Iranian border is open, but it is not really a reliable outlet to the outside world for Armenia due to the sanctions regime.   But, an open border with an Iran that is integrated into the global economic and trade systems would add to Armenia’s economic and political security in the long-term, connecting Armenia more easily to the economically dynamic Gulf and Europe.   However, this will not be a quick process.  

Economically and politically, I am sure that Azerbaijan is worried, given the large ethnic Azeri population in Iran.  The Iran agreement also weakens the likelihood of a Trans Caspian pipeline ever being developed.  It already is a complicated and costly project.   A land pipeline from Central Asia through Iran towards Europe would much cheaper and easier to build, so Azerbaijan could lose out as a transit state for Central Asian hydrocarbons.  

All that said, we are still in the early stages of the agreement. Its ultimate fate in the US is still not clear as there is vocal opposition in my country to the agreement in Congress, including an influential Senator from President Obama’s own party.  Furthermore, the agreement’s ability to promote economic integration and growth depends largely on implementation.  If Iran is not fully compliant, any rollback of sanctions would be only temporary. 

As far as Russia’s interests, I think Moscow is less concerned about the agreement’s implications for Armenia and the Caucasus than on Russia’s own economic interests in the Iran.  If Iran truly opens up to the outside world, Russian companies in Iran will suddenly have to compete with more dynamic and technically advanced European companies, and I am not sure Russian companies can.  I think this is why Russia agreed to move forward with the S-300 transfer to Iran a few months ago, as a way to shore up its image in Iran and show that it can be a reliable arms supplier.   

David Stepanyan, www.arminfo.am

Recently, the Iranian Ambassador to Armenia Mohammad Reis said in Yerevan that Armenia has all the prospects to become a corridor between the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea. What is your assessment of these prospects?

Answer - I am always reticent to believe anything Iranian officials say. They often make very grand statements about Iran’s influence to make it seem the country less isolated.   Iran certainly could become a trade corridor to the Persian Gulf, but we are still in the early stages of the agreement. Its fate in the US Congress is unclear. Furthermore, the agreement’s ability to promote economic integration and growth depends largely on implementation.  If Iran is not fully compliant, any rollback of sanctions would be only temporary and Iran’s ability to be a corridor for goods between the Gulf and the Black Sea would thus be curtailed—something that would hamper Armenia’s prospects.  I certainly hope that does not happen. 

A regular meeting of the Presidents of Armenia and Russia will be held at the initiative of Russia in September. Do you expect its outcome to be any serious progress in the Karabakh settlement?

Answer - No I do not.  I have been watching these meetings between the Russian and Armenian presidents for over a decade now. I expect the two sides will likely discuss bilateral economic and security issues of which Karabakh will only be a part.   

I do not see Russia as being able to promote serious progress in the settlement in part because a settlement must be between Armenia and Azerbaijan.Russia can either facilitate in a solution or it can meddle, but in the end this is a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and progress in the settlement of the conflict depends largely on the leadership and publics of both of those countries.  

True progress depends on both Armenia and Azerbaijan’s willingness to compromise.   Given the recent rhetoric in the region, as well as the recent violence on the Line of Contact and Armenian-Azerbaijani border, I sadly see little indication that a compromise is forthcoming.

In the last two years Moscow has started to progressively use "soft power" in its policy led in the post-Soviet space, which is most evident in the case of Georgia. How would you evaluate the prospects of this policy?

Answer - Russia is trying to increase its use of soft-power, but I am not sure it is as successful as many people in my country believe.   Russian language skills have atrophied in many parts of the former Soviet Union, particularly in Central Asia.  This slightly erodes Russia’s ability to use “soft power” in the traditional sense (media, education, etc). 

Globally, Russia also spends millions on its propaganda machine, but a recent PEW poll that global attitudes to Russia are tremendously negative with Russia only having favorability ratings above 50% in Vietnam, Ghana, and China.   Russia’s favorability is much worse than the US’ in every region of the world.  I think that Russian aggression in Ukraine explains some of that.   

Russian aggression in Ukraine has also caused concern throughout the region, highlighting that Russia is not always a predictable or reliable partner.  Elites in places like Belarus and Kazakhstan are nervous about Russia and Russian meddling.  I’m sure the same holds true in Armenia. If this is occurring in some of Russia’s closest allies, Russia’s Ukraine policies are not helping its image in the region.  This forces Russia to rely less on traditional “soft power” and more on coercion, threats or outright aggression against its neighbors. 

Some Russian policies are also counterproductive. There has been some evidence that Russia’s image among Georgians has improved over the past few years. But, I also see no problems in any improvement in Russian-Georgian relations, which would help bring greater stability to the region. But Russia’s decision last month to demarcate land beyond the administrative boundary line with South Ossetia - which gave it control over part of a key oil pipeline -was an aggressive act that likely will hurt Russia’s image in Georgia again. This is example of how Russian actions in the region do not always help Russia’s image or advance its agenda.

Do you share the opinions of many colleagues and experts attributing the authorship of aggravating the situation on the Karabakh - Azerbaijani contact line to Russia, taking into account Moscow's interest in maintaining the status quo around Karabakh?

Answer - Russia is trying to play both sides of the Karabakh conflict. It is Armenia’s main security provider, but it also is the largest arms supplier to Azerbaijan. There are reasons why Russia might not want to see any change in the status quo, but I am not sure we can attribute the recent escalation of violence on the line of contact to Russia.  This is ultimately a conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and these two states, along with Karabakh, are ultimately responsible what takes place along the line of contact. 

That said, the Russia-Ukraine war is diverting global attention from other conflicts in the former Soviet space. I fear the fact that the international community is focusing its efforts on resolving conflict elsewhere (Ukraine, Syria) could increase the potential for violence on the line of contact.  

Do you think the current US policy in the Caucasus and in Armenia, in particular, pragmatic? Is it possible to adjust this policy in view of Armenia's accession to the EEU?

Answer - Yes, I do. Armenia is an ally of Russia, but the U.S. continues its efforts to engage Armenia on security and economic issues.  Our two countries recently signed a Trade and Investment Treaty (TIFA) and Contour Global Hydro Cascade just became the largest U.S. investor in Armenia. This is positive – it occurred after Armenia’s accession to the EEU, and shows the U.S. continues to want to have a pragmatic and productive relationship with Armenia. 

I also believe that the European Union wants the same thing. It its policies towards Armenia in the aftermath of Armenia’s decision to join the EEU and the war in Ukraine.  It is now trying to find an alternative to the formal association agreement, which I believe is an admission that it initial policies adjusted of two years ago was not realistic.  

Tatev Harutyunyan, www.aravot.am

Some experts are concerned that Russia is a serious obstacle forthe Iran-Armenia relations. The thing is that for Iran Armenia is the most advantageous way to Europe, because Iran has no problems with Armenia, unlike the problems with Turkey and Azerbaijan, but in this case the impact of the official Moscow on Armenia comes afore as a hindrance. The presence of Russia on the way to Europe is a serious challenge for Iran and Tehran would not like to be held hostage by Moscow. Do you agree to this opinion and are any developments on this matter possible in the near future, any so-called concessions by Russia, or a more arbitrary position in the field of foreign policy?

Answer – This is a very complicated question, and I am not an expert on Iran.  My sense is that Russia is the dominant foreign player in Armenia’s economy and has ambitions to invest heavily in Iran after sanctions are lifted.   I do not think Moscow will not object to any Armenian-Iranian deals, so long as they do not directly clash with Russian interests.  Given Russia’s dominant role in most strategic sectors of the Armenian economy, any deals between Iranian and Armenian companies could very well be beneficial to Russia or Russian investors.  So I don’t think that Russia will automatically view these deals negatively. 

They have started to speak about the isolation of Russia and the deadlock the Eurasian Union “project” has found itself in more frequently and in wider circles. Why is that? 

Answer – I think that Russia’s policies in Ukraine have ended the prospects for the Eurasian Union.   Russian aggression in Ukraine has caused problems -both economic and political - for the leaderships of both Kazakhstan and Belarus -both of whom have tried to play a mediating role in resolving that conflict in Ukraine.  Other EEU members have not joined Russia in sanctioning Western food products. There also have been trade disputes within the Eurasian Union- something that should not be happening in such a trade block.  For Armenia, I also have seen little economic benefits from EEU membership.  In fact, instead I see Russia’s economic crisis bubbling into Armenia. The same will likely happen in Kyrgyzstan, the EEU’s newest member.  

Given Russia policies on Ukraine, Kazakhstani President Nazarbayev has said his country will leave the EEU if Russia tries to use it to undermine Kazakhstani sovereignty. So there is a lot of tension within the EEU. 

My sense is that the organization will still exist on paper and on leadership summits.  But, its fate ultimately will be similar to the CIS and CSTO - symbolic regional integration organizations that do not always accomplish much.  I think the EEU is destined to follow a similar path. 

Anahit Danielyan, www.karabakh-open.info

How do you think the irresolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may affect integration processes in the Eurasian space? 

Answer – I believe the conflict likely impedes integration.  Armenia’s accession to the Eurasian Union was complicated by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Azerbaijanis made clear that they were displeased with Armenia’s membership and the prospects of Nagorno-Karabakh being de facto included in the Eurasian Economic Union. They apparently pressured the Kazakhstanis on this issue to complicate Armenia’s accession.  This is why questions concerning whether border posts would be put in place between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh clearly delayed and complicated the negotiation and accession process.  

The rhetoric coming out of Baku is clearly worrying, as is the recent violence along the line of contact and particularly along the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia proper.  

Recently the ambition of Russia to locate its troops in the territory of Nagorno Karabakh has been much spoken about. To what extent do you think it is possible within the framework of the relations between Russia and its relations with the South Caucasus countries, including strategic relations, and under what circumstances could it be possible?

Answer – US-Azerbaijani relations are at a low-point, and Russia hopes to take advantage of that by pulling Azerbaijan closer to its orbit.  It is doing so both by selling arms to Azerbaijan, but also actively promoting narratives that Washington is seeking a regime change in Azerbaijan – all in the hopes of trying to pull Azerbaijan out of the West’s orbit.  I think this approach is working.   US-Azerbaijani relations have deteriorated over the past 18 months. But, locating Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh - unless they are part of a formal peace-keeping operation - would anger Baku and undo some of the success Moscow has had in pulling Azerbaijan closer to its orbit.  Putting Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh would certainly complicated Russia’s efforts to play Armenia and Azerbaijan off each other.

Armen Minasyan, www.panorama.am

Recently it has become known that a senior representative of the Tajikistani security forces has joined the ranks of ISIS. How likely is the creation of hotbeds of instability in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan and so on by the "Islamic state"? Is it possible to repeat the Middle Eastern developments in the region?

Answer – The case of Gulmurod Halimov, the Tajikistani police official who defected to ISIS, is certainly worrying, but I think it is more a sign of state failure in Tajikistan than it is of a general trend of support for the Islamic State in the region.  We do not know much about the extent to which the Islamic State has penetrated the former Soviet Union.   There is not much evidence of support for ISIS in Central Asia and I think the ISIS threat could be greater to Russia than it is to Central Asia.  Most of the Central Asians who have joined ISIS seemed to have been radicalized in Russia after they went there to work for migrant labor. 

We also know very little about Halimov’s motivations. But, we know that Tajikistan’s government is weak and corrupt, and that Halimov’s superiors, who kept sending him for more foreign training, apparently were unaware anything was wrong.  This to me suggests more of a crisis of governance in Tajikistan.  

The bigger threats to Central Asia include succession crises, slowing economic trends, pervasive corruption, gross violations of human rights and ethnic clashes, like we saw in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and the ones we have seen this summer along the Kyrgyz/Tajik border.  

What impact will the lifting of sanctions from Iran have on Tehran's policy in the South Caucasus? What is Russia losing and what are the benefits for Moscow in case of anoticeable change in the attitude of the West to the Islamic Republic?

Answer – I am not an expert in Iran, so I don’t know what impact the lifting of sanctions will have on its policies to the South Caucasus.  Iran seems to be more focused on the Persian Gulf and Middle East than the South Caucasus. But, Tehran will probably try to engage more economically with the states of the South Caucasus to promote trade and transportation routes.   

As far as Russia’s interests, I think Moscow is less concerned that better relations between Iran and the West could hurt Russian interests.  If Iran truly opens up to the outside world, Russian companies in Iran will suddenly have to compete with more dynamic and technically advanced European companies, and I am not sure Russian companies can.  I think this is why Russia agreed to move forward with the S-300 transfer to Iran a few months ago, as a way to shore up its image in Iran and show that it can be a reliable arms supplier.   

What, in your opinion, are the prospects for Azerbaijan's accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and is such an option probable without a final resolution of the Karabakh conflict?

Answer - I doubt Azerbaijan would accede to the Eurasian Economic Union without a final resolution to the Karabakh conflict.  Russia certainly would like Azerbaijan to join the Union and Russia is trying to entice Azerbaijan back into its orbit. But, I don’t see Baku’s accession the EEU as likely in the near term. I also think the EEU is struggling as an organization.  Armenia’s accession was not quick and Kyrgyzstan’s had lengthy delays. I do not see further expansion of the EEU anytime in the immediate future. 

The international economic bodies (the IMF, the World Bank) forecast stagnation and decline in the coming yearsfor the South Caucasus countries, as well as Russia and Ukraine. What impact will the worsening economic situation have on the stability in the region, bearing in mind the Greek scenario, which Armenia and Ukraine, in particular, are not guaranteed against?

Answer - Economic uncertainty is certainly a reality for the region.  Low oil prices are hitting Azerbaijan particularly hard, which might explain why Azerbaijan has whipped up anti-Armenian rhetoric as way to divert popular attention away from growing socio-economic problems. 

Low-oil prices are also hurting Armenia, mainly because they - along with sanctions - are the main causes of Russia’s economic crisis. That crisis is bubbling into Armenia because of heavy Russian investment in Armenia and the fact that many Armenians work as migrants in Russia. I think the economic crisis in Russia played a role in the recent electricity protests in Armenia. 

Georgia is a bit more protected from Russia’s economic crisis because of the various economic blockades Moscow imposed on Georgia to punish it for closer its aspirations for closer ties with the West. Those blockades forced Georgia to make its economy less dependent on Russia - so it has some protections from the economic crisis there. But, any decline in the socioeconomic conditions in Georgia could cause people to question Georgia’s decision to align itself more closely with the EU. That should worry Western policymakers.  

Ukraine is on the verge of default and its efforts to promote reform are hampered by the war. 

Socio-economic problems could undermine security throughout the region and cause political problems for governments. I think we saw a glimpse of this in Yerevan with the electricity protests. I also believe the Kremlin is particularly concerned about growing discontent, which helps explain why Russia is becoming increasingly authoritarian despite Putin’s reported high poll numbers.   

At the last summit of the SCO Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nepal and Cambodia received the status of dialogue-partners. What is the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization conditioned by, and how do the countries with the new status benefit from it?

Answer – I see no tangible benefit of these countries joining the SCO.   Nepal and Cambodia are very far outside of the region – so their new status is largely symbolic.   Given that the SCO is focused primarily on Central Asia and its immediate borderlands, I also see limited benefits to Armenia or Azerbaijan. 

I do see benefits to Russia and to a lesser extent China.  For Russia, expanding the SCO with these dialogue partners it shows the West that Moscow is not fully isolated and has alternative geopolitical partners.  In reality, however, these partners are symbolic too.  EU countries are more important to the Russian economy than Nepal or Cambodia.  

Gagik Bagdasaryan, www.newsarmenia.am

Mr. Stronski how likely do you think the Iranian-American rapprochement is in the foreseeable future? How would thehistorical US allies in the region - Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia – react to such a rapprochement?

Answer – There is considerable objection in the United States Congress to the agreement, in part because those objecting feel it undermines our traditional allies. A powerful senator from President Obama’s party opposes the agreement.  It is still unclear whether there will be a full rapprochement.  

Israel in particular has made clear it is unhappy with the rapprochement.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also not pleased.  However, all three U.S. allies are also concerned about the Islamic State and the instability coming out of Syria and Iraq. So, I don’t think the rapprochement will lead to a major schism in relations with these countries. 

Do you think the United States and Russia will continue cooperation in the process of Karabakh conflict settlement despite the dramatic disagreements on other issues?

Answer – I do. The U.S. and Russia worked together on the Iran deal. That was a complicated negotiation. If the U.S. and Russia can still work on that during this nadir in US-Russian relations, I think they can continue to work on the Karabakh settlement process. I don’t they will have success in brokering a settlement anytime soon, but they will continue to cooperation on the issue. The bigger problem is that the conflict in Ukraine is taking up a lot of bandwidth from both Russian and U.S. policymakers.  So, policy makers have less time to deal with the Karabakh situation than they did a few years ago.   

Does Armenia have an opportunity to maintain normal relations with the West considering its membership to the EEU?

Answer - Yes.  The EU and Armenia are now negotiating an alternative to the formal Association Agreement and President Sargsyan participated in the Riga Summit.  This to me implies that both sides want good relations and are working to do that. 

With the U.S., Yerevan and Washington just signed a Trade and Investment Treaty (TIFA) and a U.S. company just made the largest-ever U.S. investment in the Armenia.  US-Armenian security cooperation continues.  This is another example that the U.S. and Armenia are both eager to maintain good relations.  

Emil Babayan, www.eadaily.com 

What is your forecast for the future of the Eurasian Union? Will Russia manage to build a full, long-term integration association as a counterbalancethe European integration project? Does it have potential for further development, or not? What does it depend on?

Answer - I think that Russia’s policies in Ukraine have ended the prospects for the Eurasian Union.   Russian aggression in Ukraine has caused problems -both economic and political -for the leaderships of both Kazakhstan and Belarus -both of whom have tried to play a mediating role in resolving that conflict in Ukraine. This to me implies that the leaderships of Belarus and Kazakhstan do not want to be seen in the West as aligned only with Russia.

The other EEU members have not joined Russia in sanctioning Western food products.  There also have been trade disputes within the Eurasian Union - something that should not be happening in such a trade block.  For Armenia, I have seen little economic benefits from EEU membership.  In fact, instead I see Russia’s economic crisis bubbling into Armenia.  

Kazakhstani President Nazarbayev has said his country will leave the organization if Russia tries to use it to undermine Kazakhstani sovereignty. So there is a lot of tension within the EEU. 

My sense is that the organization will still exist on paper and on leadership summits.  But, its fate ultimately will be similar to the CIS and CSTO – symbolic regional integration organizations that accomplish very little. I think the EEU is following a similar path. 

How strong do you think Armenia's attachment (degree of involvement) to (in the) integration projects in the Eurasian space? Does the country have an opportunity to further develop its external relations with third countries, associations, blocks et cetera?

Answer - Yes, Armenia can and should develop a multi-vector foreign policy.  The West is eager to have good relations with Armenia.  An example of this is the fact that the EU and Armenia are now negotiating an alternative to the formal Association Agreement and President Sargsyan participated in the Riga Summit.  This to me implies that both sides want good relations and are working to do that. With the U.S., Yerevan and Washington just signed a Trade and Investment Treaty (TIFA) and a U.S. company just made the largest-ever U.S. investment in the Armenia.  US-Armenian security cooperation continues.  This is another example that the U.S. and Armenia are both eager to maintain good relations.  

In Russia, it is now fashionable to talk about turning to the east, creating a Sino-Russian axis of influence, and so on, I assume you are well aware of all that. The overall picture is presented as follows: the West is represented by the United States and the EU, the West is the hegemon of a unipolar world, and that China and Russia are going to create a bipolar world, to balance the whole thing. Question: to what extentdoes this ideological constructgenerally reflect current geopolitical realities?

Answer - I think this view is generally a Russian view.  It underestimates the fact that China and the United States have economies that are closely intertwined, so neither Beijing nor Washington are eager for a deep rift in relations. 

Furthermore, it looks like Russia is becoming the junior partner to China.  Russia’s isolation from the West gives China a lot of power over Russia to conclude trade and other deals that are greatly advantageous to China.  I also think China has been wary of antagonizing the West. For example, after the West levied sanctions on Russia, Russian companies quickly turned to Chinese banks for credit.  A Russian colleague told me, however, that the credit has not come as quickly as many Russian executives had hoped.  

Given its isolation from the West, Russia has no choice but to depend more on China economically and politically.  However, China’s recent stock market decline and other economic problems will likely have ripple effects.   

This interview was originally published by the Region Research Center.