President Serzh Sarkisian humiliated Armenia and deceived the European Union with his last-minute decision to join a Russian-led customs union instead of concluding a historic agreement with the EU, opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian said over the weekend.
Ter-Petrosian reserved judgment on the wisdom of Armenian membership of the union comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, saying that it requires in-depth research by experts. But he lambasted as “humiliating and shameful” Sarkisian’s handling of the process that ended in a further pro-Russian tilt in Armenian foreign policy. He said this outcome demonstrated that the EU committed a serious mistake by supporting the current authorities in Yerevan throughout Sarkisian’s five-year rule.
Addressing senior members of his Armenian National Congress (HAK) party, Ter-Petrosian, said, “Right after receiving the association offer [Sarkisian] should have met [Russian President Vladimir] Putin … and said, ‘Here is what Europe is offering us; what can you offer us? … And even if the end result would have still been membership in the customs union, that would have been a dignified and much more beneficial partnership, and Armenia would have gotten much more from Russia than it will get in such a humiliating state.”
Ter-Petrosian brushed aside suggestions that Sarkisian bowed to the Russian pressure because Putin threatened to end Russia’s military alliance with Armenia and thus jeopardize continued Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh. “As far as European integration is concerned, Serzh Sarkisian should have long been conscious of the threat to Nagorno-Karabakh,” said the former Armenian president. “And even if he considered friendship with Russia an evil … he should have chosen a lesser evil right at the beginning, and not after being battered, smashed and humiliated.”
“[Sarkisian] is joining the customs union not as an equal partner but as a humiliated and battered beggar … Even if membership of the customs union was inevitable, that could have been done in a way that would give Armenia maximum benefits,” Ter-Petrosian claimed in videotaped remarks posted on the Internet.
Official Russian sources said after Sarkisian’s decisive September 3 talks with Putin that Armenia’s accession to the customs union, which the Kremlin plans to expand into a Eurasian Economic Union of ex-Soviet states, bodes well for continued bilateral military cooperation. But Moscow gave few indications that Yerevan’s unexpected U-turn will be rewarded with large-scale Russian economic assistance. A joint statement issued by Putin and Sarkisian said only that Russia will help the Armenian side extend operations of the aging Metsamor nuclear plant and make more investments in Armenia’s rail network.
Membership of the customs union will also eliminate the threat of the kind of controversial trade sanctions which Russia imposed on Ukraine last month over its European integration drive. But this it will by no means boost Armenian exports to Russia, which totaled $280 million last year (compared with $560 million worth of goods exported to the EU). Armenia, Russia and several other ex-Soviet states already signed a multilateral free-trade agreement in 2011.
Armenia’s draft Association Agreement with EU has a more far-reaching free-trade component. It would not only give Armenian exporters permanent tariff-free access to the world’s largest single market but obligate the Yerevan government to harmonize Armenian economic laws with EU norms and regulations. Analysts believe that this would make the landlocked South Caucasus state more attractive to foreign investors.
The association accord was also expected to be followed by the holding of an EU-sponsored conference of Armenia’s international donors. The Armenian government reportedly hoped to secure at least $1 billion in economic aid at that forum.
Ter-Petrosian claimed that the EU, which planned to finalize the agreement this fall, has thus been “duped” by Sarkisian. “We told them many times, ‘Who are you negotiating with? Don’t you know who you are dealing with? How can you trust someone who has done such things in Armenia? You won’t get what you want,’” he said, smiling.
“They probably thought that we are naïve. As if that wasn’t enough, they even started treating us with hostility. I think that they should be decent enough to show remorse and apologize to us,” added the charismatic oppositionist.
Ter-Petrosian specifically pointed the finger at Stefan Fuele, the EU’s enlargement commissioner who has overseen the association talks with Yerevan. He said Fuele was visibly annoyed when he warned the Czech official last year that Sarkisian will leave the EU empty-handed. “He sharply said that we are wrong,” claimed the HAK leader.
Ter-Petrosian has been highly critical of the EU as well as the United States ever since attempting to return to power in a disputed 2008 presidential election that was followed by a deadly government crackdown on his opposition movement. He has repeatedly accused the West of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Armenia for “geopolitical considerations.”