Constructions from the South Caucasus: Pipelines and Khachkars

By Andreas Pacher | 3 October 2016

To quote this document: Andreas Pacher, “Constructions from the South Caucasus: Pipelines and Khachkars”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 3 October 2016, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1954, displayed on 13 December 2017

Dormant Caspian gas is now waiting near Baku to flow westwards – not via the shortest route possible, which would be through Armenia, but rather via Georgia and Turkey. Thence a system of pipelines is set to penetrate into the EU with dozens of vermiform appendices, some of which are promoted heavily by the Visegrad Group (or V4, a club of states comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), for they are planned to nurture the V4 states and others with Azeri gas.

Pipelines are not the only architectural features from the South Caucasus to invade the EU. As a traditional antagonist of Azerbaijan, Armenia too has started to dot the continent with particular constructions: the traditional Armenian cross-stones, or khachkars. They do not channel gas into Europe, but rather something more spirited; for khachkars are the most sacred exports from the “land of stones”, as Armenia is known, blessed by priests so as to invisibly resurge memories of unreconciled phantoms from the past, including reminiscences that evoke uncomfortable political signals towards Turkey and Azerbaijan.

This is the reason why the pipeline system (dubbed the “Southern Gas Corridor”) is not only set to circumvent Russia, but also Armenia. Both Azerbaijan (the main supplier) and Turkey (the main transit country) closed their borders with Armenia in 1993 due to conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and the persistent memory of the Ottoman massacres against Armenians in 1915-18.

The Armenian Diaspora in the Visegrad states

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev regularly points out that “our main enemies are Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians under their control”. By this he refers to the Armenian diaspora, renowned as one of the most powerful transnational communities in the world (alongside Jews). It is more than twice as large as Armenia’s population, and active in more than 80 countries with constant transboundary flows of information, social and financial capital. The diasporic lobbying’s success is exemplified in the fact that Armenia was the largest per-capita-recipient of U.S. foreign aid for many years, and in their key role behind the ouster of the Armenian President Ter-Petrosyan in 1998; the diaspora’s remittances annually rescue the tiny Caucasian republic’s economy.

The roughly 25.000 Armenians inhabiting the Visegrad countries have likewise accomplished remarkable achievements in their diasporic agenda of promoting their narratives of victimhood. Poland has officially recognized what they call the genocide against Armenians in 2005; Slovakia went further and became the first country to even criminalize its denial in 2011. Czech President Miloš Zeman has repeatedly used the word “genocide” (a term of endearment to Armenians), laid a wreath in the Tsitsernakaberd memorial in June 2016, and Prague’s Archbishop Cardinal Duka, “one of the Armenian people’s best friends” according to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, has attended an Armenian mass in Prague on the day of remembrance, April 24th in 2015. Only Hungary has blatantly bad ties with Armenia – diplomatic relations were cut in 2003 after a scandal involving the extradition of Ramiil Safarov, an Azeri who had murdered an Armenian soldier in Budapest. Back in Azerbaijan, he was greeted as a national hero.

The V4 matters due to its key role in the relations between the South Caucaus and the EU. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are part of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy’s (ENP) Eastern Partnership (EaP). It is the V4 which has never ceased to stress the importance of the EaP; in fact, the EaP itself can be traced back to proactive initiatives mostly by Czechia and Poland (and Sweden). Joint V4-EaP projects such as students exchanges are numerous, and the V4 is conspicuously active in initiatives outside the ENP that aim to help the EaP countries, for example in the E5P (“Eastern Europe Energy Efficiency and Environment Partnership”) which granted three huge loans to Armenia for specific energy modernization projects so far. Major Western countries such as France, more pre-occupied with the Mediterranean dimension of the ENP, have rather been reluctant to engage too much in the Eastern spheres where they fear to be perceived as geopolitical rivals to Russia.

Blinding Armenia Out of the EU’s Energy Policy

Azerbaijan’s savvy energy strategy made itself indispensable to Western visionaries. Suffering under a one-sided dependency, the V4 is certainly eager to endorse the fledgling EU-wide agenda of importing Azeri gas. This strategy of diversification was reinforced by the consecutive Russian-Ukrainian gas disputes which led to a state of emergency in Slovakia in 2009. After the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, the EU responded with an Energy Union which gave birth to the relentless courting of the Caspian Sea states Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to the detriment of Russia. Azerbaijan’s presence can now be felt with the construction of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and other natural gas interconnectors which tacitly bypass Armenia and which are promoted by the EU as “Projects of Common Interest”.

Yet this does not mean that one can blind Armenia completely out, even though it is only the EU’s 117th most important trade partner. The pipelines’ proximity to the conflict region of Nagorno-Karabakh makes Armenia an important player in energy security. The conflicting parties could easily hit a damaging blow against the pipelines. Such fears were vivid when Russian bombs dropped near the pipeline during the war in Georgia in 2008. Pipelines did undergo multiple disruptions in 2015 near South Ossetia and in Turkey. One should not overlook that Azeri gas reserves are set to deplete in around 65 years; after depletion, it is likely that Iran and Turkmenistan will replace Azerbaijan as a main supplier for the EU’s energy needs – both their reserves will live on for more than 100 years each (as a comparison, Russia’s gas reserves will deplete in around 54 years). This is where Armenia can enter the scene, for the tiny Republic has the potential to serve as a gateway for Iran where, again, members of the Armenian diaspora are numerous.

A Gateway to the Middle East and the Eurasian Customs Union

Iran is home to a large Armenian diaspora reaching back for decades. The venerable city of Isfahan was built by Armenians. The diaspora in Iran has kept ties to their fellow merchants in the Middle East, most notably Jerusalem, Lebanon and – until recently – Syria. This may be a major asset for the Armenians in the EU, including the V4: to make use of the constant flows among the diasporas and build relationships with the Middle East whose networks of pipelines are still in a virtual stage so that they may be shaped to lead into the EU one day. After the nuclear deal in 2015, energy-abundant Iran has become a prioritized partner of the EU’s foreign policy.

Armenia shocked the EU in 2013 when it turned its back to the bilateral Association Agreement that had long been negotiated under the EaP-framework. Presumably under pressure from Russian threats to abandon Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the republic joined the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union instead. Nevertheless, Armenia has relentlessly shown progresses in transposing the EaP’s value-based demands. By simultaneously upholding its commitments vis-à-vis the EU and the Eurasian Customs Union, Armenia could exploit this balance to serve as a bridge between the EU and the Customs Union’s member states Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

Leaving strategic thoughts aside, the EaP institutions guarantee that the small South Caucasian republic will be constantly heard in the EU’s foreign policy. The tested and trusted EaP’s socialization potential will heighten Armenian leverage. Moreover, the EaP emphasizes the concerns of civil society; among them are diasporic actors who can gain access to power via the EaP Civil Society Forum, the Poland-led European Endowment for Democracy and other institutions.

As officially recognized minorities in Hungary and Poland, local Armenian organizations are eligible for state funding, which opens up a wide array of opportunities; the same is true for the Armenian Apostolic Church in Czechia, a privilege most other migrant communities from the EaP (including the Azeri) do not enjoy in the V4. Institutional advancements in the friendships between the diaspora and the hostlands are often followed by the solemn erection of a khachkar to commemorate benevolent gestures towards Armenians. The increasing number of those cross-stones can be seen as a good indicator of the excellent lobbying efforts of the local diasporas.

‘Khachkar Diplomacy’ in the Visegrad

Eight khachkars have been built in various Polish places since 2003. Slovakia’s most visible one decorates Bratislava’s littoral promenade at the Danube river (which portentously flows into the Black Sea guarded by the narrows of Istanbul). Hungary too allowed an Armenian cross-stone in Budapest at the Danube river to be erected in 2000, a second one is currently awaiting official approval. The Czech Republic harbours two khachkars, one from 2006 in Jihlava, the other from 2014 in Prague.

Often pursued by diasporic philanthropists, this khachkar diplomacy silently penetrates the Visegrad public sphere with the symbolic presence of Armenian victimhood. The Turkish government has repeatedly protested against the cross-stones in Budapest and Bratislava which commemorate the Armenian sufferings during the Ottoman past. The other side of the khackar diplomacy is that host countries can easily accommodate to minor demands from their Armenian inhabitants, thus polishing their image of being minority-friendly and respecting human rights. Since khackars do not pose major diplomatic expressions, states do not have to fear severing their relationships with Turkey or Azerbaijan too much. Yet, khackars may unobtrusively unleash public awareness and shape discourses, and their mere presence raises Armenian diasporic consciousness to which symbols of belonging are of utmost importance.

Thus, even if mere hard power and energy diversification strategies would center around Azerbaijan for now, EaP institutions do not allow the V4 to clearly pledge sole allegiance to Armenia’s foes. The diaspora can nurture continuing awareness of Armenian interests, but in turn accommodate to EaP demands by calling their homeland for more value-based democratization, for it is in the EU where Armenian migrants tend to emulate democratic mechanisms. Incentives exist in the form of EaP’s “more-for-more” approach which conditions EU funding on the Eastern partners’ progress.

Conclusion

Armenia’s engagement is important to the EU, for the West knows that the Armenian transnation is a friendly gateway into the energy-abundant Middle East. Low tariffs between the EU and Armenia, to be negotiated within the EaP framework, may be essential for Armenia to attract trade from the Middle East. After Armenia’s unexpected turn away from a deeper integration into the EaP in 2013, it should now exploit the potential to become a regional trading hub between the EU and the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. Armenian presence, as guaranteed by the institutions of the EaP, may serve to counter a perceived Western unconditional embrace of Turkey and Azerbaijan whose human rights records have been repeatedly criticized. The diasporic activities in the V4, as symbolized in the increasing numbers of khachkars since 2000, also serve to inculcate sensibility among the local population. This is all the more important since the V4 can be regarded as a main vehicle behind the EaP.

Azerbaijan’s almost unrivalled strategic advances are currently implemented into reality – the TANAP and TAP are being built, and the EU’s Energy Union has officially endorsed the ‘Southern Gas Corridor’ with numerous gas interconnectors on the continent. One will soon be able to hear Azeri gas flowing towards the EU. In contrast, the khachkars seem to speak the very silence, as Pope Francis said on June 25th in Yerevan, where he admired the Armenian cross-stones’ recounts of perpetual memories. The Pope recalled the biblical origin of the khachkar’s shape of a cross on which painful wounds were suffered – yes, the khachkar should serve as “a perennial warning lest the world fall back into the maelstrom of similar horrors”, but the cross, “of which Armenians are heralds”, also contains a message of peace and universal solidarity of humanity. It was thus consistent that it was near a khachkar that Pope Francis uttered the hope “that the people of Armenia and Turkey take up again the path of reconciliation, and may peace also spring forth in Nagorno Karabakh”.

 

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