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Perspectives: Armenia’s Choice — A Different Path from Ukraine     Print Email
By Armen Sahakyan

armensahakyanphotoAs the Ukrainian crisis threatens to bring simmering tensions to a boil, another former Soviet state, Armenia, recently faced with similar choices, is quiet.   The core issue in both countries was having to choose between Europe and Russia.  Both countries have strong ties to both the West and to Russia. Like Ukraine, Armenia was engaged in the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” initiative, and also like Ukraine, it had initialed, after long negotiations, an Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union.   However, several months before last year’s Vilnius Summit, during which signatures were expected on these agreements, Serzh Sargsyan, President of Armenia, traveled to Moscow and issued a joint statement with Russia announcing Armenia’s desire to join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union.

In making its choice between the “East” and “West,” the Armenian leadership found itself in a difficult squeeze.   And, neither the EU nor Russia allowed Armenia much room for maneuver.  While Armenia ended up opting for Russia, it was unfortunate that the choice was “either/or.” And that is the question that should be posed to both the EU and Russia. Why has there been such unwillingness to develop a framework that would allow for the dual integration of states in the shared neighborhood, especially when both the EU and the Russian Federation claim that their policies are not targeted against the other.

But forced by the “either/or” choice and considering the close collaboration and dependence in Armenia in the military, economic and political spheres, the Armenian choice should not be entirely surprising. Russia maintains a military base in Armenia (effectively serving as the security guarantor of the state). Russia owns most of the country’s critical infrastructure, is the leading foreign investor, and is home to the largest Armenian Diaspora in the world.

Armenia President Sargsyan paid a visit to France in October 2013 and delivered a statement during the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). During the Q&A session President Sargsyan addressed the conundrum of reaching an AA/DCFTA agreement with the EU, particularly noting that, “We [Armenia] are still ready to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union… [but] after our announcement that we will join the Customs Union, our partners in the European Commission said that there is a direct contradiction between the Customs Union and Free Trade Agreement; the rules are different.”

Nonetheless, even after opting for the Customs Union, Armenia took part in the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius 28-29 November, 2013. A joint declaration between Armenia and the European Union stated that “based on common values, both sides are committed to further cooperation aimed at the continuous improvement of democratic institutions and judiciary, the promotion of human rights and rule of law, good governance, the fight against corruption, the strengthening of civil society, the further improvement of the framework for enhanced trade and investments, the continued implementation of the mobility partnership and increased sectorial cooperation.”

Unlike in Ukraine, the streets of Armenia’s capital Yerevan and elsewhere in the country remained quiet after the rejection of the EU agreements.

WHY?

Three reasons:   First, Armenian society is much more consolidated and homogeneous than Ukraine’s. There are no linguistic or cultural divisions that could ignite domestic tensions, as they have in Ukraine.

Second, despite its European cultural identity as well as century-old ties with other European states, the Republic of Armenia does not share borders with any EU-member state (nor with Russia), which is not the case with Ukraine, which borders Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, (all EU members) and of course, Russia. Geographical proximity has important effects and sharpens perceptions of the choices to be made.

Third, and some would say most importantly, Armenian state security depends heavily on Russia. Armenia is currently in armed hostile relations with Azerbaijan over the de-facto independent Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian), with actual fighting likely to resume at any moment. Nagorno –Karabakh is ethnically Armenian but was made a part of Azerbaijan by Stalin in the 1930’s.   Additionally, the Republic of Turkey is currently exercising a unilateral economic blockade against Armenia, in league with Azerbaijan, that further exacerbates the security fragility in the region. Armenia simply cannot afford to do anything that would cause Russia to tilt toward Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Accordingly since September Armenia’s “Complementarity” policy in foreign affairs has ended. “Complementarity” refers to the policy, attempted by both Armenia and Ukraine prior to Vilnius to maintain cordial and positive relations with both the EU and Russia. By the summer of 2014, the Republic of Armenia will likely be a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security and Treaty Organization (CSTO), and of CU/CES, which means that it will be fully aligned with Russia in the political, military, and economic realms respectively.

On December 2, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a state visit to Armenia. As a part of his trip, he visited the 102nd Russian military base stationed in Gyumri, participated in the Russian-Armenian Interregional Forum, and together with his Armenian counterpart witnessed the signing of a set of bilateral agreements. President Putin was accompanied by a 500-member delegation, including six cabinet ministers, eleven provincial governors, and heads of large Russian companies, which signifies the great importance that Russia places on Armenia as a strategic partner.

The Eurasian Supreme Economic Council (the highest decision-making body of CU/CES) convened its meeting on October 24, 2013. Besides the presidents of Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus, the leaders of Ukraine, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan were also present at the assembly. It was agreed to create working groups whose goal would be the development of roadmaps in order to expedite the process of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan’s accession to CU/CES. As early as December 23, 2013 the Government of Armenia adopted the road map, which entails 262 measures, 150 of which should be realized prior to the accession. The following day, on December 24th, the Eurasian Supreme Economic Council also approved Armenia’s roadmap.

As is evident from the timeline of events, the Armenian side is moving very quickly towards final accession to the Customs Union.  It is anticipated that Armenia will become a full-fledged member by May 2014, even before the existing three members initial the draft agreement on the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) planned to commence its full-scale work on January 1, 2015. It is unclear whether Kyrgyzstan or any other state would also join by May or not.

As surprising as it might be to some, the recent developments in Ukraine have had little tangible effects on Armenia. The domestic environment in the country has been stable since the September 3rd Customs Union announcement and there is currently no reason to forecast a change in the situation. There was a small protest of 500 people (compared with 200,000 in Kyiv) in Yerevan during President Putin’s visit to Armenia, voicing disapproval of Armenia’s decision to join CU/CES. Another indirect connection between Armenia and Ukraine was the death of an Armenian-Ukrainian Euromaidan activist Sergey Nigoyan due to the clashes with the police, which generated discussion in the Armenian social media circles.

And Armenia is not closing its doors to future cooperation with the European Union. At this month’s European People’s Party (EPP) Summit, President Sargsyan stated that, “We [Armenia] are committed to continue our efforts at seeking effective cooperation mechanisms with the EU, which will both reflect the essence of the preceding discussions we had with the EU and are compatible with the other cooperation formats.”

Yerevan may also attempt to further deepen its ties with India and China, thus enabling Armenia to create more alternatives for itself and loosen its dependence on both Russia and the EU. How the leadership comes up with a “Complementarity 2.0” will be one of the Republic’s major challenges in the months to come.

 

Armen Sahakyan serves as the Executive Director of the Eurasian Research and Analysis (ERA) Institute (Washington, D.C. branch), and as an Analyst of Eurasian affairs at the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC) based in Yerevan, Armenia. He is a Master of Arts candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and has previously served as an Adviser to the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Armenia to the UN in New York.