Former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian has criticized President Serzh Sarkisian’s decision to make Armenia part of the Russian-led Customs Union, saying that it will seriously limit prospects for the country’s economic development.
“Armenia is a small country. Its only possibility of development is [greater] exports and foreign investment. By joining the Customs Union we have closed the door to that,” Oskanian said late on Thursday during a public discussion at the Civilitas Foundation , a Yerevan-based think-tank founded by him.
Oskanian dismissed government arguments that membership of the union will facilitate Armenian exporters’ access to the vast Russian market. “We already had a free-trade regime with Russia within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent states,” he said.
“We also wanted to have a free trade deal with the European Union. The two things do not contradict each other as long as you remain in merely free trade arrangements … But they do contradict each other when you become part of a customs union,” continued Oskanian. Armenia will now also not be allowed to cut a free trade with neighboring Iran, he said.
Sarkisian announced his controversial decision last September after years of successful negotiations with the European Union over a wide-ranging Association Agreement. It was due to be finalized in November. Sarkisian’s U-turn, widely blamed on strong Russian pressure, effectively killed the accord, however.
Oskanian, who served as foreign minister under Sarkisian’s predecessor Robert Kocharian from 1998-2008, insisted that Yerevan could have stayed away from the Russian-dominated bloc despite Armenia’s economic and military dependence on Russia. “We could have simply avoided signing [the Association Agreement] with the European Union, just like Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Central Asian states have done … Nobody forced us into [the union.] We have ended up there as a result of our mistakes,” he said.
The opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the second largest parliamentary force of which Oskanian is a senior member, made clear on Friday that the remarks reflect only Oskanian’s personal opinion. The BHK spokesman, Tigran Urikhanian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that the party has still not formulated an official position on the issue because of lingering unanswered questions about key terms of the Armenian membership of the Customs Union.
The BHK is led by businessman Gagik Tsarukian and widely regarded as a pro-Russian party. Urikhanian famously welcomed in 2012 Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calls for the creation of a Eurasian Union of ex-Soviet republics. The BHK subsequently distanced itself from that statement, adopting a more ambiguous stance.