Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian stopped short of ruling out Armenia’s accession to a new Russian-led bloc of former Soviet republics over the weekend, raising more questions about its integration with the European Union.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Sarkisian denied any contradiction between Yerevan’s involvement in “Eurasian integration processes” and desire to sign a far-reaching Association Agreement with the EU.
EU officials have made clear that membership in the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan is “not compatible” with such an agreement. The Armenian government has resisted, at least until recently, apparent Russian pressure to join the union, with Prime Minister Sarkisian repeatedly arguing against such entry.
However, Sarkisian called this policy into question during talks with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev held late last month. He said that Yerevan and the union’s executive body have agreed to draw up soon a fresh memorandum on Armenia’s “integration” into what Moscow hopes will form the backbone of a future Eurasian Union of ex-Soviet states. The Russian ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volynkin, said afterwards that Armenian membership in the Customs Union is one of the options discussed by the two sides.
This prompted a warning from the EU. A spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said on June 5 that Yerevan “should make sure that any arrangements with any other trade partners are fully compatible” with key terms of the Association Agreement.
Asked by RFE/RL, whether Armenia plans to join the Russian-led bloc, Sarkisian said, “We do not want counter programs implemented with the EU with Eurasian integration processes, and we have always pursued that policy. We are glad that our Russian partners have a similar position. They too are saying that these are complementary, rather than contradictory programs.”
“We are engaged in a dialogue with both sides and are moving forward step by step,” added the premier. “If thorny issues arise we start talks to rectify those thorny issues. This is our strategy. We are trying to ensure that compatibility.”
The Armenian government began showing greater ambiguity on the matter following a 50 percent rise in the price of Russian natural gas for Armenia, which was officially announced last month. The government has since been holding negotiations with the Russian side on financial assistance that would enable it to subsidize the price by 30 percent.
In Sarkisian’s words, although the talks are still going on the Russians are ready, in principle, to provide such assistance. He would not say, however, what concrete forms a Russian gas “grant” sought by Yerevan could take.
“We have a positive reaction from our Russian partners,” he said. “Discussions are now underway over mechanisms because this is an issue that also needs to be discussed within the Russian Federation.”