Despite its long-standing close ties with and strong dependence on Russia, Armenia looks set to avoid joining a new Russian-led union of former Soviet republics.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who won a second term in a disputed election in February, has successfully navigated apparent Russian pressures and moved his country closer to the West – the European Union, in particular – while maintaining, and even deepening, Armenia’s military alliance with Russia. After a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on March 12, Sargsyan gave no indication that his administration’s multi-vector policy will change.
The press services of the two leaders announced in early March that the talks at Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo residence near Moscow would touch upon “integration processes” in the former Soviet Union. It was a clear reference to Armenia’s possible accession to the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. But the talks themselves did not appear to produce a breakthrough on the issue.
Putin makes no secret of his hopes to turn this trade bloc eventually into a closely-knit Eurasian Union of loyal ex-Soviet states, a grouping that Kremlin critics regard as an attempt to partially recreate the USSR. The Kremlin-linked speakers of both houses of Russia’s parliament promoted the idea during separate visits to Yerevan in July last year.
Putin and Sargsyan reportedly discussed the possibility of Armenian membership in the Customs Union during their three meetings in 2012. Armenian leaders gave no such promises in their public statements made after those talks. Armenian media commentators speculate that Putin wants a final answer from Yerevan soon.
Official Russian and Armenian sources did not report or hint at any agreements on the matter after the Novo-Ogaryovo meeting. Putin and Sargsyan similarly did not mention it in their televised opening remarks. Putin merely praised Russia’s “special relations” with Armenia,saying they are “successfully developing” in both economic and political areas. “We have big, promising, good joint investment plans,” he said.
“If there were even tentative agreements on the Customs Union, they would have probably been reflected in the official press releases on the meeting,” commented Alexander Markarov, a political scientist heading the Armenian branch of the Moscow-based Commonwealth of Independent States Institute.
“In all likelihood, there were no major changes in the two sides’ positions on this issue and Serzh Sargsyan again succeeded in at least winning time,” the Yerevan-based news service 1in.am agreed in a commentary.
Over the past year, Armenian leaders have publicly objected to joining the Customs Union, arguing that their landlocked country has no common borders with Russia, Kazakhstan or Belarus. Citing Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, Viktor Khristenko, the Russian head of the Customs Union’s executive body, has questioned this line of reasoning.
In a February interview with the Russian daily Moskovskie Novosti, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan came up with another argument against Customs Union membership – that Armenia has a more liberal trade regime than any of the union’s three member states and lacks vast natural resources.
Yerevan is reluctant to acknowledge publicly another, arguably more important reason: joining the Russian-led union would essentially preclude the signing of a comprehensive Association Agreement between Armenia and the European Union. A key element of that agreement is the creation of a “deep and comprehensive free trade area,” which envisages not only the lifting of all trade barriers, but also harmonization of Armenian and EU economic laws and regulations. A spokesperson for Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief, told RFE/RL in December 2012 that Armenian entry into the Moscow-led Customs Union “would not be compatible” with the Association Agreement.
The Armenian government has since continued to express strong interest in concluding its association talks with the EU in time for a planned November 2013 summit in Vilnius on the EU’s Eastern Partnership program for six ex-Soviet states. Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian discussed preparations for the summit at a March 7 meeting with Philippe Lefort, the EU’s special envoy for the South Caucasus.
The Armenian push for integration with the EU reflects President Sargsyan’s broader strategy of complementing the alliance with Russia with closer partnership with the West.
During his first term, Sargsyan earned plaudits in Western capitals for stepping up cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and embarking on a US-backed rapprochement with Turkey. Analysts believe this is one reason why US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders congratulated him on his disputed reelection.
Remarkably, there have been few indications of Russian discontent with this policy. Russian policy-makers might be safe in the knowledge that, with no solution to the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in sight, Armenia will remain heavily reliant on military ties with Russia in the foreseeable future.
Sargsyan was instrumental in securing a 2010 deal that extended the presence of Russian troops in Armenia until 2044, and Putin has responded accordingly.
In January, he authorized his government to sign a new Russian-Armenian defense accord that calls for joint arms manufacturing. Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Valery Gerasimov, discussed the planned deal during subsequent trips to Armenia. Sargsyan thanked Putin on March 12 for “good progress” in defense cooperation.
But appearances can be deceiving, cautioned analyst Markarov.
“Armenia has been trying to circumvent the Customs Union, while favoring other, bilateral formats of cooperation with Russia,” he said. “It has to listen to Russia more than any other foreign power. But listening doesn’t mean always obeying.”
Emil Danielyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.