Armenia Debates Leaving the Eurasian Union
A pro-Western group in Armenia's parliament has submitted a proposal for the country to leave the Eurasian Union, spurring public debate about the Union's merits even as leaving the Russia-dominated bloc remains unlikely.
The Yelk Coalition formally unveiled the proposal on September 8, just before parliament reconvened for the fall. The declaration notes that since Armenia joined the Eurasian Union about three years ago, its economy has suffered and Russia has continued to sell weapons to its foe, Azerbaijan. Membership also prevents Armenia from pursuing its own trade deals with neighbors Georgia and Iran, the declaration added.
Taking that into account, "The Republic of Armenia should begin to take a political course toward secession from the Eurasian Economic Union," Yelk declared, using the formal name for the group.
Doing so would allow Armenia to resume negotiations with the European Union over a trade deal, known as the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, the declaration continued. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan abruptly dropped out of the EU talks four years ago and announced that the country would instead pursue Eurasian Union membership. Since then Yerevan and Brussels have worked out a less substantial agreement, which is scheduled to be signed in November.
Yelk holds nine seats in Armenia's 105-member parliament, and none of the other parties represented have signed on to the proposal.
"The foreign policy priorities of Armenia -- the Armenian-Russian alliance, membership in the European Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- not only do not need to be revised, but are expanding," said Eduard Sharmazanov, the deputy speaker and member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia.
Gagik Tsarukyan, the head of an eponymous bloc in the parliament, said if Armenia were to leave the EEU it should get something in return. "We need to act wisely in this matter," he told reporters. The ARF/Dashnaktsutyun also said they contunued to support EEU membership.
Russia's ambassador to Armenia also chimed in on the proposal to drop out: “If they see such perspectives, then, of course, no one will interfere, another question is if Armenia needs it. I think that the majority of the Armenia’s population does not agree with the perspective, because they see advantages of being part of the EEU.”
Armenia's population is in fact not strongly against the EEU, but neither is it strongly for. Armenians are by far the least enthusiastic of all the member states of the EEU (which also includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia), according to survey data from the Eurasian Development Bank. In the most recent poll, 46 percent of Armenians viewed EEU membership positively and 15 percent negatively. Thirty-three percent were indifferent. The number of Armenians who view the union positively is down more than 20 points over the last three years.
Economists, meanwhile, have determined that there are neither significant advantages nor disadvantages to Armenia's being part of the EEU. Membership has, in practical terms, changed little of Armenia's already close economic relationship with Russia.
Some analysts have seen the secession proposal as a canny Yelk move to weaken Sargsyan's position ahead of next year's shift to a parliamentary system. It remains unclear whether Sargsyan will attempt to maintain his hold on power by seeking to be named prime minister, but the Eurasian Union issue could possibly be used as a lever against him.
It could also, however, give Sargsyan more bargaining power with Moscow; if the Kremlin sees that there is genuine dissatisfaction with EEU membership it may be inclined to grant Armenia more concessions, economic or otherwise.
Armenia's secession from the EEU, however, would be a massive blow to the organization (if only in PR terms) and would undoubtedly evoke a punishing response from Russia. Surely even Yelk knows that, and so Armenia is going to stay in the EEU for the foreseeable future.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.