Another chance for Pashinyan: will Armenia seize the moment?

Politics Materials 17 April 2024 16:50 (UTC +04:00)
Another chance for Pashinyan: will Armenia seize the moment?
Maryana Ahmadova
Maryana Ahmadova
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BAKU, Azerbaijan, April 17. President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made his inaugural official visit to Armenia on April 15. Despite Astana and Yerevan being partners in various regional organizations, both economically and militarily, this visit marks the first of President Tokayev's five-year tenure.

Relations between the two countries have been tense for many years. In 2016, Armenia launched a vigorous campaign against Kazakhstan after Astana voiced support for Azerbaijan's position in the Karabakh conflict. Despite both nations being members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Kazakhstan consistently aligned with Baku, sparking protests in Armenia against former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In that same year, Nazarbayev scrapped his planned visit to Armenia. Now, with the region's realities fundamentally changed, current leaders are essentially starting from scratch.

The current Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan is showing, or at least attempting to show, his commitment to boosting trade and economic ties with regional partners. During Tokayev's visit to Yerevan, the two countries inked ten bilateral agreements, memorandums, and protocols of intent covering areas such as migration, aviation, education, economy, and trade. Both leaders have set a course for ramping up bilateral trade, with the possibility of Kazakhstan's exports to Armenia reaching $350 million. However, at present, the overall trade turnover between the nations barely exceeds $50 million. The big question now facing Nikol Pashinyan is how to unlock this potential.

Today, even four years after the Second Karabakh War ended, Armenia is still unable to engage in significant regional economic initiatives. After three decades of conflict with Azerbaijan, the country has cornered itself into a situation with severely limited economic capacities. Yerevan continues to lean heavily on its primary economic ally, Russia, while striving to tap into the European market. The main stumbling block now is the Armenian Prime Minister's hesitation regarding a key aspect of the peace deal with Azerbaijan: the unlocking of regional communications.

The South Caucasus has seen a notable rise in importance within the Eurasian transport network in recent years, as underscored by President Tokayev during talks with the Armenian Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is actively positioning itself as a vital transit hub between China and Europe, especially as traditional routes through Russia are not relevant anymore.

The Middle Corridor, a collaborative effort between Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and other regional players, has emerged as a pivotal undertaking. Notably, the EU has pledged a hefty sum of 10 billion euros towards bolstering Middle Corridor infrastructure. Already, as of January this year, 2.97 billion euros have been earmarked through credit lines from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

Of course, it's only natural that Prime Minister Pashinyan is eager to get Armenia involved in promising transportation and logistics projects in the region. So, the visit of the President of Kazakhstan to Yerevan is a win-win: Pashinyan is pushing for the development of his country's trade routes, getting it closer to Europe and its allies. Meanwhile, for Tokayev, the South Caucasus is like a gateway to Europe. That's why it's crucial for him to see stability and security in the area.

But, even though logistical issues between Baku and Astana are sorted out, Yerevan is still left out. That's why negotiations with the Kazakh leader were more important than ever for Pashinyan, and both leaders were happy with how they turned out. Now, there's just one big question left: how does Nikol Pashinyan plan to boost trade ties with Central Asia and keep shipping goods to Europe, especially with the main roadblocks - closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey - still in place? Without opening up the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia or getting the Zangezur corridor going, neither Yerevan nor Astana can expect to see any real progress in trade.

Kazakhstan has a track record of successfully mediating in several international initiatives. Against this backdrop, during a joint press conference with the Armenian Prime Minister, President Tokayev suggested considering Astana as a venue for negotiations between Baku and Yerevan. While Nikol Pashinyan refrained from directly addressing this proposal, he reiterated his willingness to sign a peace agreement with Azerbaijan based on mutually agreed principles.

Today, it's undeniable that Azerbaijan and Armenia are closer to signing a peace agreement than ever before. However, despite Yerevan increasingly signaling its openness to dialogue, it's not sufficient. Concrete steps are necessary - such as signing a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, delimitating borders, and consequently reopening transportation routes.

The fact that President Tokayev visited Yerevan just a month after his trip to Baku should already be a major signal to the Armenian Prime Minister: without Azerbaijan, regional issues remain unresolved. President Tokayev's message to Pashinyan is crystal clear: there's a wide array of economic opportunities that interest both Astana and Yerevan, and their pursuit promises substantial benefits for both nations. This visit might become a wake-up call for the Armenian Prime Minister - without addressing relations with Baku, hopes for further economic development are in vain.