Finlandization of the Post-Soviet Space
No. 2 2014 April/June
Sergey Minasyan

PhD in Political Science and is Deputy Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan.

Will Armenia Set an Example for Other Countries?

The Ukrainian crisis created a new political situation drawing a line under not just post-Soviet history but probably world politics after the Cold War. Armenia, as other former Soviet republics, will have to reconfigure its relations with leading geopolitical actors. As geopolitics returns to the post-Soviet space, we might expect an increased demand for new, or, to be precise, well-forgotten Realpolitik concepts and approaches.


Armenia, like all its neighbors in the post-Soviet space, appeared to be absolutely unprepared for a spate of Ukrainian events, as shown by a long absence of the official position on the issue. Ukraine is home to more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians and Armenian citizens (unofficial statistics put their number at some 300,000) who found themselves on different sides of the conflict. A large Armenian community numbering 12,000 to 15,000 has lived in Crimea for centuries, and Russia’s Armenian diaspora numbers some two million people. Consequently, any false move in public or premature demonstration of Yerevan’s position would have created a danger to ethnic Armenians and Armenian citizens. That is why it was only after a month-long silence that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan supported the Crimean referendum, during a telephone conversation with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on March 19, 2014.

At the March 27 session of the UN General Assembly, Armenia was among 11 countries that voted against the resolution upholding Ukraine’s territorial integrity and declaring the Crimean referendum invalid. The UN voted 100-11, with 58 abstentions. Another 24 countries did not take part in the vote refusing to support the anti-Russian document.

The reaction of Armenian political forces to the UN vote was more positive than negative. A majority of parliamentary opposition parties supported Yerevan’s position. Meanwhile, the consolidation of Armenia’s authorities and the opposition had nothing to do with the feelings toward Ukraine, although Kiev has been a key arms supplier to Baku since the Karabakh war of the first half of the 1990s.

Furthermore, as a GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) member, Ukraine voted for the anti-Armenian resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh at the UN General Assembly in 2008 and 2012. And yet Yerevan’s present-day position is not revenge for the past wrongs: after all, Armenia and Ukraine have always been very close, historically and culturally. “Nothing personal,” as they say.

Pro-Western students and non-governmental organizations criticized Armenia’s UN vote, thinking that Armenia had sided with Russia to come out against Western countries at the UN General Assembly. Explaining their decision, the Armenian authorities and political forces said the provisions in the UN resolution declaring the Crimean referendum invalid and stating that it had not been sanctioned by Ukraine could have a negative impact on Yerevan’s position on the Karabakh issue.

Proceeding from this standpoint, the Armenian authorities made a conscious decision to support Russia, instead of abstaining or refusing to participate in the vote, because in that case their positions in the Karabakh conflict would have become more vulnerable.

The case points to a connection with Nagorno-Karabakh’s referendum on independence held in 1991, as well as with the Madrid principles, the only negotiable peace settlement document on Nagorno-Karabakh. The principles, drawn by the countries co-chairing the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the United States, France, and Russia) view a referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh as the key mechanism for settling the conflict and legalizing the final status of the enclave.

The Crimean events undermined the hallowed idea of the inviolability of post-Soviet borders. This is the result of a deep crisis of international law which was unable to adapt to world politics after the end of the Cold War. In the wake of the Crimean case, the political practice of self-determination – at least in the post-Soviet space – will obviously prevail over the scholastic idea of the inviolability of erstwhile administrative borders which by now have become state borders. Consequently, the new precedent in the post-Soviet space, regardless of the reaction to it from part of the international community, might be added to Armenia’s array of diplomatic and political tools.

Armenia, an outspoken Russian military and strategic partner during the UN vote on the Crimean referendum (and at PACE in April) hopes for more substantial political support from Moscow on the Karabakh and other issues. In this connection, Moscow’s sharp response in late March to the attack by Islamic militants on the Armenian settlement of Kessab in northern Syria was noteworthy. The tragedy caused en masse deportation of the small Armenian community of the descendants of Armenian refugees who had fled Turkey’s genocide during World War I.

In the new conditions, Armenia will find it much more difficult to keep balance in its foreign policy between the West and Russia, without causing fits of jealousy from all sides. In other words, it will be a test for its policy of balanced complementarism, the calling card of Armenia’s diplomacy in the post-Soviet period. Some groups in Armenia and other former Soviet republics fear that further strengthening of Moscow and its tougher rivalry with the West will make problems for the independence of Russia’s neighbors threatening the loss of their sovereignty. Hence, Armenia needs balanced involvement of the European Union and the United States, but not to the extent where it might again face the threat of unsafe geopolitical choice.

In the foreseeable future, the European Union is unlikely to offer Armenia security guarantees comparable to Russian guarantees in the Karabakh issue or in relations with Turkey. But if Yerevan and the EU somehow manage to take the edge off the geopolitical confrontation in their relations, turning to pure technical measures towards intensifying economic and political interaction, Armenia might succeed in combining European integration with military and strategic partnership with Russia.

In any case, Armenia will refuse to become a place of geopolitical confrontation, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and partly Azerbaijan. Unlike these countries – participants in the Eastern Partnership program –

Armenia might face the price of not just secession of several areas but geopolitical and humanitarian catastrophe and even loss of statehood. After Russia brought in Crimea, Armenia has remained the only Eastern Partnership member (except Belarus, an Eastern Partnership participant in name only) in full control of its territory.

During the Five-Day War in August 2008, Armenia managed to keep neutrality between Russia, its key military and political ally, and Georgia, its close neighbor and key transportation links partner. In the Ukrainian crisis however, Moscow, aside from direct pressure, can use other arguments, while Armenia’s room for maneuver is quite limited. In terms of scale and possible consequences for Russia’s relations with the West, the Ukrainian crisis cannot be compared with the Russian-Georgian war. Upcoming events will show if the world is facing the threat of backtracking to a new Cold War, but the process will have far-reaching consequences anyway. Russia and the West will be locked in an increasingly tougher struggle for the spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space, including in the South Caucasus.

If the case turns as a comeback of the Cold War (in the post-Soviet space and adjacent territories at best) – even if in a fuzzy form – the participants in the process will have to react accordingly. For example, they might adopt political approaches and concepts which proved their effectiveness during the classical period of bipolar confrontation. Finlandization of the foreign policy of some former Soviet republics could be one of such approaches, which is particularly obvious in Armenia’s case.


Finlandization of Armenia became obvious in the spring of 2014. This approach, rooted in the period of Armenia’s gaining independence, became to be known as ‘complementarism’ when Vardan Oskanyan was foreign minister (1998-2008). Back at the height of the Karabakh war, Yerevan, using a unique foreign policy situation, received weapons and military equipment from Russia, the funding for economic development from Americans and food and humanitarian assistance from Europeans (even Turkey had been one of the supply routes until March 1993). The fuel for its army that was fighting at the time came from Iran.

Later, Armenia turned complementarism into a refined technique of “sitting on two chairs at the same time.” It would help Yerevan in balancing Moscow’s influence at one time and deterring the U.S. or Europeans at another, for example at certain stages of the Karabakh talks.

Conceptually, Armenia’s foreign policy had much in common with the course pursued by post-war Finland. Helsinki actively followed the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line from the 1950s till the breakup of the Communist bloc and the USSR, balancing between NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, which enabled it to not only preserve its independence and sovereignty but also receive considerable economic dividends.

Finland, which avoided “sovietization” and involvement in the confrontation between the antagonistic blocs, played a special role in European policy largely because of trusting relations it simultaneously had with the USSR/Warsaw Pact and NATO countries. It was Helsinki that hosted the negotiations in 1973-1975 and the signing of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, symbolizing détente between the USSR and the West and codifying the principles of effective international law.

Finlandization does not imply a calculated or perfect balance between foreign policy partners. Depending on political expediency, it is a demonstration of preferences and support for one of the poles of power in this or that period. This is precisely what Armenia did at the height of the Ukrainian crisis. Conceptually, nothing new has happened. Yerevan’s policy line merely swung to one side due to obvious military and political prevalence of one of the key elements (Russia in this particular case) of the system of political balancing.

Curiously, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations adopted a resolution on Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, urging the president to pursue an appropriate policy with respect to Armenia and Turkey on April 10, 2014, the day when the Armenian delegation at PACE voted against the resolution limiting the powers of the Russian delegation. Chairman of a dedicated Senate committee Robert Menendez, a severe critic of Russia, was one of the advocates of the pro-Armenian resolution.

Finlandization is not the ideal or most advantageous foreign policy line, yet it is the safest method at the very least. As Finland refused to participate in the Marshall Plan under pressure from Moscow during the Cold War, so will Armenia have to give more regard to Russia’s opinion now and then, facing a sharper reaction from the United States and the European Union.

Can other former Soviet republics view Armenia’s Finlandization as an example or a foreign policy model, or is it some kind of special exception? As was already mentioned, a single-line foreign policy was pursued in different periods of post-Soviet history by the Baltic States, Azerbaijan (in the first half of 1990s), Georgia, Ukraine (under Yushchenko and after Yanukovich), and Moldova. Pro-Russian sentiment was noticeable until the beginning of the 2000s in Central Asia countries and Belarus. At present, pro-Russian feelings in their pure form only exist in three of the four de-facto states in the post-Soviet space (Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia), except Nagorno-Karabakh, and also in Belarus, because the West rejects Lukashenko’s regime. Multivectorism is another type of foreign policy, quite similar to Armenia’s complementarism with elements of Finlandization. Ukraine has largely stuck to this policy since the late 1990s (except for the period of Yushchenko’s presidency and after the Euromaidan), as has Azerbaijan and some Central Asia countries.

Azerbaijan (especially under Abulfaz Elchibey and in the early period of Heydar Aliyev’s rule until the mid-1990s) was absolutely pro-Western, emphasizing relations with Turkey. The brief membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (1994-1999) coinciding with the beginning of implementation of oil projects together with Western companies made Baku balance the trend.

In Central Asia, the West did not have much influence, the resources of Turkey and Iran trying to be active in the region were insufficient while China caused too much apprehension and fear to be considered a reliable foreign policy partner. It was only because of indistinct Russian foreign policy in the 1990s that Central Asia did not become irrevocably pro-Russian.

The term ‘multivectorism’ (especially in Kazakhstan’s case) was coined as a euphemism, meant to disguise alienation from Russia. More likely, foreign policy diversification occurred under the influence of the September 11, 2001 events and the beginning of the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan, than as a result of a conscious foreign policy choice. That is why the multivectorism parameters might change in Central Asia after the United States completes the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, with countries in the region finding it more difficult to maintain this approach. Hence, elements of Finlandization in case of Azerbaijan and Central Asia can be implemented while accounting for their special eastern specifics.

Until the 2014 crisis, the Ukrainian policy had been conceptually very close to Armenia’s (despite the difference in the size of territory and geographic location).

A considerable advantage of Armenia’s complementarism is the presence of numerous Armenian communities in Russia, America and Europe, as well as quite influential diasporas in Iran and some Middle East countries. This factor enables Yerevan to adjust from within the policy of the above states towards Armenia and the region. In turn, these countries can influence Yerevan’s approaches through the Armenian diaspora.

Ukrainian communities in Eastern Europe, the United States and Canada on the one hand, and the profound sub-ethnic and “family” integration of the populations of Russia and Ukraine on the other helped balance the Ukrainian foreign policy for a long time. Ukraine’s division into the west, the center and the southeast seemed to fix multivectorism as a model without alternative. Lastly, the historical roots of such policy (since approximately the 17th century in Ukraine and at least since the 19th century in Armenia) were to have produced the practicalities of foreign policy and firmed a stable tradition of its acknowledgement in the society and political elites.

However, in the autumn of 2013 through the spring of 2014, Yerevan and Kiev, facing similar prospects of signing association agreements with the European Union, chose different options. In September 2013, Armenia refused to initial the economic part of the document and expressed readiness to join the Customs Union which Russia was creating. Yerevan said it agreed to sign the political part, but Brussels rejected the proposal. Victor Yanukovich’s government also refused to sign the association agreement in late November 2013, which prompted an acute political crisis in the country. The officials who replaced the deposed Yanukovich, made haste to accept the political part of the agreement and allegedly are preparing to sign the economic part.

Like Armenia, Ukraine tried not to make the final choice throughout most of the post-Soviet period. When a considerable segment of the political class and public – through the efforts of the new elites that seized power in late February 2014 – could not avoid the temptation to choose, it turned the country into an arena of global political confrontation.

The bitter irony is that the opinion of such hardline practitioners and theorists of political realism as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and John Mearsheimer were not heard. For decades, they had been trying to win Finland over to the West, but now called for restraint and projecting Finlandization onto Ukraine. The warnings by the “knights of the Cold War” were not wanted precisely at the moment when the very logic and practice of that time seemed to have returned to Europe and Eurasia.

Armenia, opting for self-restraint of its own accord, minimized its risks and losses. As to whether the Armenian-style Finlandization can be an example for other former Soviet republics would depend not only on their own choice. Almost everything now depends on the results of the Ukrainian crisis and on how adequately national elites can evaluate the new geopolitical reality.