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Armenia's vote to join ICC irks Russia

October 3, 2023

Armenia's parliament votes to join the International Criminal Court in a move that Russia had already said would be an unfriendly step. Meanwhile, there are "surreal" scenes in the abandoned enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenien | Sitzung der Nationalversammlung in Eriwan
Deputies voted with 60 deputies and 22 against in favor of ratifying the court's founding treatyImage: Hayk Baghdasaryan/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Armenian parliament on Tuesday voted to sign up to the International Criminal Court (ICC), a development that is expected to further sour relations with the country's old ally Russia.

A chasm has opened up between the two countries, with Yerevan angry with the Kremlin over its perceived inaction in a long-standing confrontation between Armenia and fellow post-Soviet state Azerbaijan.

What does the decision mean?

Countries that sign and ratify the Hague-based court's founding Rome Statute are in theory obliged to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin, indicted for war crimes connected to the deportation of children from Ukraine, if he were to enter their terrritory. 

In the parliamentary session, 60 deputies voted in favor while 22, mainly opposition lawmakers, cast their vote against joining the ICC.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan last week tried to soothe Kremlin fears, saying the initiative was not "directed against" Russia.

Whatever the motive, Moscow has already described the parliament's decision as an affront.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a briefing that, while Moscow regarded Yerevan as an ally, it would have to question the country's current leadership

Russia had previously warned Armenia against voting to ratify the court treaty, saying this would be viewed as "extremely hostile."

French foreign minister in Yerevan, pledging support, on day of vote

Armenia's parliament voted on the issue on the same day that French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna was in Yerevan, pledging future support from France. 

Colonna announced plans for future French military materiel deliveries in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. She also explicitly praised the country for signing up to the ICC. 

"From Yerevan, I salute the decision of the Armenian parliament to ratify the Rome Statute and thus allow Armenia to become a state party to the International Criminal Court. The fight against impunity for crimes is a condition of peace and stability,"Colonna wrote on X, formerly Twitter, Tuesday.

Rumors had existed ever since the 2020 conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians lost ground to Azerbaijan, that Pashinyan was increasingly looking for allies other than the country's most traditional backers in Moscow. These only intensified as the exclave fell to Azeri forces within a matter of hours, despite the presence of a Russian peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

"The world is getting smaller for the autocrat in the Kremlin," wrote European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on X — praising Armenia's vote in favor of joining the ICC and referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin's international arrest warrant.

Why are relations with Russia frosty?

Former Soviet state Armenia has accused Russian "peacekeeping" troops of failing to prevent recent hostilities that it says allowed Baku to take full control of the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The breakaway statelet lies wholly within Azerbaijan's territory, but it had come under the control of ethnic Armenian forces after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The Russian troops were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh as peacekeepers after a 2020 war that saw the region largely surrounded by Azeri forces.

Streets of Nagorno-Karabakh empty

An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) official on Tuesday described the empty streets of Nagorno-Karabakh as "surreal" with most of the ethnic population having fled to Armenia.

Only a few hundred people remain behind in the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Stepanakert by Armenia and Khankendi by Azerbaijan, including the sick, disabled and elderly.

"The city is now completely deserted," said ICRC team lead Marco Succi via videolink.

"The hospitals....are not functioning; the medical personnel left; the water board authorities left; the director of the morgue also left. So this scenario, the scene is quite surreal."

Despair among refugees

Some of the people who fled to Armenia said the situation had been difficult even before the Azeri takeover after Baku blocked road access for several months.

"We were starving, for several months. I could only eat vegetables from my small garden: potatoes, pumpkins, things like that. We ran out of bread at some point. We tried to bake our bread using our own grain," one refugee told DW.

Nagorno-Karabakh mass exodus continues

DW's reporter in Yerevan, Dmitry Ponyavin, said there was a sense of abandonment and hopelessness among the refugees at one reception center.

"This place is being held together largely by efforts of local activists who tell us that they prefer not to send families here especially with small children as staying here can be very traumatizing for them."

js,rc/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)