Several dozen opposition and civic activists rallied in Yerevan on Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of the official announcement of President Serzh Sarkisian’s unexpected decision to make Armenia part of a Russian-led union of ex-Soviet states.
Sarkisian announced the foreign policy U-turn after talks held with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin near Moscow on September 3, 2013. The move, widely attributed to Russian pressure, came less than two months after his government completed negotiations with the European Union on a far-reaching Association Agreement.
The EU responded by cancelling the planned signing of the agreement, saying that its dominant free-trade component is “not compatible” with Armenia’s membership in Russia’s Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. It rejected Yerevan’s proposal to sign a significantly watered-down version of the accord.
Sarkisian and his political allies have since repeatedly defended the volte face, saying that it will benefit the Armenian economy. They have also implied that joining the bloc, currently transformed into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is essential for preserving Armenia’s military alliance with Russia.
Critics, notably pro-Western youth activists, civil rights campaigners and some opposition parties, dismiss these arguments, saying that Armenia risks losing its independence because Putin is bent on restoring the Soviet Union.
Several dozen of them gathered in Yerevan’s Liberty Square and marched towards the presidential administration building to reiterate their strong objections. In a written appeal to Sarkisian, they claimed that membership in the EEU will make Armenia “a tool in the hands of the Russian evil empire.” “Russia will use our country for satisfying its imperial ambitions,” added the statement read out by Davit Sanasarian, a senior member of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party.
Some protesters said they are also worried that the Sarkisian will now emulate authoritarian practices of his Russian, Kazakh and Belarusian counterparts frequently criticized by Western human rights groups. “They may well export their methods of dealing with dissent to Armenia,” said Levon Barseghian of the Gyumri-based Asparez Journalists’ Club.
These concerns were echoed by some well-known opposition figures. Alexander Arzumanian, a parliament deputy and former foreign minister, argued that Sarkisian’s U-turn dealt a severe blow to Armenia’s deeper integration with the EU which many hoped will spur economic and political reforms in the country. He also cited negative consequences of Russia’s deepening standoff with the West over the crisis in Ukraine. It is still not too late for Armenia to steer clear of the Russian-led union, Arzumanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“In a sense, we have ourselves to blame for this situation,” said another opposition lawmaker, Hrant Bagratian. “We should not have moved in either direction in these turbulent times.”
Zharangutyun is the only major opposition party to have officially spoken out against joining the EEU, a fact that might explain why street protests against Sarkisian’s decision have not attracted large crowds. The three other parliamentary forces challenging Sarkisian have treaded far more carefully, anxious not to antagonize Moscow.