Armenia has signed an essentially non-binding memorandum of understanding with the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus that does not call for its membership of the Russian-led trade bloc which Moscow hopes to extend to other ex-Soviet states.
The memorandum signed by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and Viktor Khristenko, the Russian head of the union’s executive body, in Yerevan late on Wednesday comes as a further indication that the Armenian government has no plans to join the bloc.
The document publicized by the government on Thursday says only that Armenia and the Customs Union will seek to “develop interaction” in areas such as “simplification of trading procedures,” food safety, sanitary standards and product certification.
This is supposed to be done through the holding of conferences, seminars and other economic forums. The signatories also plan to find other mechanisms for an “exchange of information of mutual interest.” In addition, Sarkisian and Khristenko will meet on trade-related issues at least once a year.
“This Memorandum is not an international treaty and does not entail rights and obligations regulated by international law,” reads the document. Nor does the memorandum place any “financial obligations on the signatories, it says.
President Serzh Sarkisian announced the impending signing of the memorandum at a news conference last month. He insisted Russia is not pressuring Armenia to join the Customs Union despite continuing media speculation to the contrary.
“Members of the Customs Union do not yet have a desire to admit anyone. At least, I haven’t seen such a desire with regard to us,” said Sarkisian.
Moscow makes no secret of its hopes to eventually turn the bloc into a tightly-knit Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics. The speakers of both houses of Russia’s parliament promoted the idea during separate visits to Yerevan in July last year.
Armenian officials and Tigran Sarkisian in particular have repeatedly argued that the absence of common borders with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan makes Armenia’s accession to the Customs Union highly problematic. Khristenko questioned this argument in December, citing the example of Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.
Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to acknowledge that the absence of common borders complicates Armenian membership after holding talks with Serzh Sarkisian in the Kremlin in August. He said they agreed to set up a joint intergovernmental task force that will explore alternative ways of Armenia’s integration with the Customs Union. The two leaders discussed the matter during further talks held later in 2012 and in March 2013.
Analysts agreed on Thursday that the memorandum signed by the Armenian premier and Khristenko does not commit Yerevan to joining the union. “There are some issues that objectively hamper our accession to the Customs Union,” said Alexander Markarov, head of the Armenian branch of the Moscow-based CIS Institute. “Having said that, it is possible and necessary to find formats that will allow for cooperation with the Customs Union and if necessary, develop bilateral [Russian-Armenian] formats.”
Another pundit, Richard Giragosian, downplayed the significance of the document. “This is more of a message for Russian pressure over other former Soviet states and much less about Armenia,” Giragosian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). He claimed that the Russian pressure is primarily directed at Ukraine.
Both Ukraine and Armenia have shown a stronger interest in signing Association Agreements with the European Union that would lead to the creation of a “deep and comprehensive free trade area,” or DCFTA, with the world’s largest and most affluent single market. EU officials have made clear that membership of the Customs Union is “not compatible” with the DCFTA.
Armenian and EU officials announced late last month that Armenia’s Association Agreement with the EU is due to be finalized by November.