The pro-Russian leader of Crimea blacklisted by the West has received no official invitations to visit Armenia, an Armenian government source said on Wednesday, commenting on his plans to attend a Russian-Armenian forum in Yerevan.
The upcoming forum will bring together the heads of various regions in Russia and Armenia planning to boost mutual economic and cultural ties. A senior Crimean official, Georgy Muradov, announced earlier this week that Sergey Aksyonov, the head of the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia last year will also be among them.
“We have agreed that you will take part in the forum to be held in Armenia,” the RIA Novosti quoted Muradov as telling Aksyonov at a meeting of the regional administration installed by Moscow.
A spokeswoman for Aksyonov confirmed the information on Wednesday. Yekaterina Polonchuk told RFEs/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that Aksyonov’s visit is “definitely being prepared” by Muradov, Crimea’s Moscow-based representative to the Kremlin.
An Armenian Foreign Ministry source insisted, however, that the Armenian government has not invited Aksyonov to take part in the Yerevan forum. The source, who did not want to be identified, said the forum will be organized for representatives of Russian and Armenian regions that have signed cooperation agreements with each other. “There is no such format of cooperation with Crimea,” the source told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Aksyonov’s participation in the planned gathering would almost certainly irk Ukraine and the West. The controversial Crimean leader, who played a major part in the Black Sea region’s annexation by Russia, is among Russian and pro-Moscow Ukrainian officials sanctioned by the United States and the European Union in response to what the Western powers see as Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Official Yerevan already found itself in hot water last year after President Serzh Sarkisian welcomed a disputed referendum in Crimea that preceded the annexation. Armenia went on to vote against a pro-Ukrainian resolution that was overwhelmingly adopted by the UN General Assembly.
The Ukrainian government condemned those moves, recalling its ambassador in Yerevan in protest. Sarkisian’s stance was also criticized by Western officials.
The Armenian government took a more neutral position on the conflict in Ukraine later in 2014. In November, it apparently blocked the launch of direct flights between Yerevan and the Crimean capital Simferopol, which were planned by a Russian airline. In January this year, Armenian pro-government members of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) pointedly declined to vote against a PACE resolution accusing Russia of military aggression against Ukraine.
Aksyonov’s reported plans to visit Armenia have prompted serious concern from pro-Western Armenian pundits. They suggested on Wednesday that Yerevan is now facing strong Russian pressure to receive the 42-year-old leader.
Boris Navasardian, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, said the Kremlin is thereby trying to not only legitimize Crimea’s annexation but also “draw Armenia into its confrontation with the West and Ukraine.”
“Official Yerevan’s silence suggests that Yerevan does not yet know what to do with Aksyonov,” said Ruben Mehrabian, a political analyst. “I very much hope that its decision will stem from Armenia’s national interests.”
The U.S. State Department expressed serious concern after it emerged that Aksyonov visited India last November as a member of a Russian delegation headed by President Vladimir Putin. That trip reportedly enjoyed Moscow’s full diplomatic backing, with Aksyonov meeting Indian businessmen in the presence of the Russian consul general to Mumbai.
In line with the sanctions, Aksyonov is not allowed to visit the U.S. or EU member states.