By Atom Markarian and Emil Danielyan
Armenia will not challenge its long-running economic blockade imposed by neighboring Turkey now that it has become a member of the World Trade Organization, Industry and Economic Development Minister Karen Chshmaritian said on Friday.
The announcement fueled fresh speculation that Armenia’s membership of the WTO, formalized earlier this week, was made possible by a Turkish-Armenian deal cut behind the scenes.
Earlier this year, WTO member Turkey opposed Armenia’s accession to the body setting the rules of global trade, demanding among other things guarantees that it will not veto Azerbaijan’s membership in the future. But Turkish officials did not voice any objections during Tuesday’s meeting in Geneva of the WTO's ruling General Council which effectively admitted Armenia into the organization.
The Armenian parliament now has to ratify a protocol laying out the terms and conditions for Armenia's entry. Thirty days after the WTO is officially notified of the ratification, the country will bolster the currently 144-strong membership.
Chshmaritian, who personally signed the protocol in Geneva, claimed that WTO rules do not bar Turkey from closing its border with Armenia and banning all Armenian imports as has been the case for the past decade. He also said the Armenian government will not impose similar penalties on cheap Turkish goods imported to the country in large numbers.
“We import a certain amount of [Turkish] goods each year and do not intend to limit the volume of those imports because they are very important for our economy,” the minister told a news conference.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said before leaving for Geneva on Monday that Armenia has agreed not to thwart its arch-rival Azerbaijan’s WTO membership bid because the Turks “have not created serious problems for us.” Chshmaritian likewise ruled out any moves against Azerbaijan “beyond the WTO framework.”
One unofficial American source familiar with U.S. contacts with Ankara and Yerevan claimed recently that Armenia would not have secured WTO membership without addressing Turkish concerns. “Some moves were made in recognition of Turkey's positions and that cleared the way for Armenia's entry this year,” he told RFE/RL.
However, Armenian officials have not explicitly confirmed the existence of any specific deals, and it is not clear whether their decision not to raise the blockade issue with the WTO was part of it.
WTO champions free trade across the globe, and some of its experts have argued in the past that the Turkish blockade resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict runs counter to the body’s rules.
Chshmaritian on Friday described his country’s accession to the WTO as a “victory for the Armenian people” achieved by the administration of President Robert Kocharian. He said it will make Armenia more attractive to foreign investment and facilitate Armenian exports abroad.
The United States has played a major role in the final stage of the six-year accession process. U.S. government officials and trade experts have helped their Armenian counterparts draft final amendments to Armenia’s economic legislation and complete other necessary paperwork over the past several months.