Increasingly, one of the defining characteristics of Vladimir Putin’s leadership has been its propensity to push the narrative that the Kremlin has a special relationship with ethnic Russians and Russian speakers abroad, groups that Moscow typically lumps together as “the Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”). Less widely known is that every post-Soviet state has a significant number of co-ethnics living abroad, and many in the governments and societies of these countries believe they, too, should work to develop a special relationship with such groups. Some of the countries in fact have extremely active programs in this regard: Kazakhstan, for example, rivals many of the policies that Moscow has adopted for the Russian World, having passed important laws intended to attract ethnic Kazakhs to come home from abroad (Camonitor.kz, April 26).
Not surprisingly, just as the Russian approach in this area has created problems in Moscow’s relationship with its neighbors, comparable policies and actions of the post-Soviet non-Russian countries have in many cases created diplomatic difficulties as well. Notably, Kazakhstan’s policies have sparked tensions with China (Caravan.kz, September 26, 2014). But perhaps no other regional country’s policies and practices regarding its co-ethnics living abroad is fraught with more serious problems than those of Armenia. Its continuing war with Azerbaijan over Karabakh and the seven other districts of Azerbaijan that Armenian forces have occupied is the most obvious. However, potentially even more explosive for the future is Yerevan’s approach to two other neighboring states: Turkey and Georgia. Indeed, eastern Turkey once had a sizeable Armenian population and is still home to many Kurds who have allied with Armenians in the past (see Prism, May 19, 1995; see Terrorism Monitor, December 20, 2007; see EDM, October 2, 2017). And as for Georgia, its Javakhetia region is populated by a sizeable Armenian minority, in many ways more closely integrated with Yerevan than with Tbilisi (see EDM, May 24, 2005; October 13, 2017; February 7, 2019).
Two developments in the past few days suggest that there is a serious possibility that one or both of these regions may become even more unsettled as a result of Armenian activities. Moreover, developments in one may feed developments in the other in potentially dangerous ways. First, in an article for the Russia-based Realist news agency, Agasi Arabyan, the head of the Javakhetia Diaspora of Russia Organization, focuses on the situation in eastern Turkey and the possibility of a new alliance between Armenians and Kurds (Realist, May 3). And second, in the United States, Armenian-Americans have announced plans to collect money for the Armenian community in Georgia’s Javakhetia region (Aravot-ru.am, May 1).
Arabyan’s piece, provocatively entitled “Western Armenia and Not Only That: Does an Armenian-Kurdish SSR Have a Future?” and even more provocatively subtitled “How to Secure a Bright Future for the Armenian People and Armenian States [sic],” argues that the world and the region in which Armenia resides is in the midst of “a big crisis, as a result of which there could be a major redrawing of borders and territories involving the disappearance of old and the appearance of new nations and national communities.” Armenia is at risk of military attack from its neighbors, of course, but it also has certain “possibilities” to advance its interests and to protect Armenians in the broadest sense, if elites in Yerevan will only focus on these things (Realist, May 3).
Arabyan suggests that one of the outcomes of this massive redrawing of the map could be the establishment of a new “Union State” embracing much of the territory once ruled by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. And this modification of borders could promote a new Armenian-Kurdish entity in what is now eastern Turkey—a variations of what Tsar Nicholas II sought during World War I and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin considered after 1945, until he was blocked by US power. If such regional turmoil comes to pass in the near future, the Armenian commentator writes, Yerevan needs to be ready to ensure that some “variant of an Armenian-Kurdish SSR [Soviet Socialist Republic]” will be dominated by Armenians. After all, Moscow would not hand the Armenians leadership of this theoretical entity on a silver platter; but it is an outcome Yerevan can promote if it begin working now.
Unfortunately, he continues, there is little evidence that the Armenian government is prepared to think in such large terms. Nonetheless, there are smaller steps it can and should take to set the stage for such an outcome, including expanding dialogue with the Kurds, Assyrians and “other peoples” in what is now eastern Turkey but which can again become Western Armenia. He adds that Yerevan needs to actively spread the idea among these peoples that “Armenians are not some ‘echo’ of a past never to return but part of the region now in our days.” Arabyan’s ideas, of course, are both outrageous and extravagant; but the more limited steps he calls for may well reflect the thinking of some in Moscow if not yet in Yerevan. The small steps are not necessarily a problem for anyone, but the larger game of which they are a part could prove explosive.
More immediate and practical but potentially more politically problematic in the short term are plans by the Armenian diaspora in Los Angeles to launch a telethon on June 2 to collect money to send to the Armenian community in Georgia’s Javakhetia region. This became possible, organizers say, when “A Platform for the Unification of the Diaspora” was created. One of the leaders of this project, Garegin Nalbandyan, said that this effort to collect money is not intended to “harm Georgia.” Rather, he suggested, it has as its “goal” the strengthening of Armenian-Georgian relations (Aravot-ru.am, May 1). For better or worse, however, if Javakhetia gains yet another external source of funding, its relations with Tbilisi may suffer—and Georgians may not view this effort as benignly as Nalbandyan urges them to.