Armenia still hopes to finalize an Association Agreement with the European Union this fall despite unexpectedly pledging to join a Russian-led bloc, President Serzh Sarkisian’s administration said on Wednesday.
The chief of the presidential staff, Vigen Sargsian, spoke of a watered-down version of the agreement excluding a key component, the creation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) between Armenia and the EU.
“Armenia’s decision to join the customs union does not mean an end or suspension of our political dialogue with the EU,” Sargsian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in an exclusive interview. He reiterated the Armenian president’s assurances that Yerevan remains committed to carrying out reforms agreed with the EU during three-year association talks.
“Therefore, the initialing of the Association Agreement with the EU within the framework of the summit on the Eastern Partnership to be held in Vilnius in November remains on our political agenda,” stressed the top presidential aide.
“Certainly we are aware of the opinion and approach that membership of the customs union [of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] could contradict some provisions of the agreement relating to the creation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU. Armenia’s position is known. We have always said that we should try to make those provisions compatible.
“If that is impossible, we can take from that cooperation the most important thing that was in the European direction. Namely, our political dialogue and cooperation on common values that allows us to modernize the country.”
Sargsian added that this would mean “separating the economic and political components of our cooperation with the EU.” Political provisions of the draft Association Agreement are strong enough to foster major reforms in Armenia, he said.
EU officials have repeatedly made clear that the DCFTA is “not compatible” with Armenia’s possible accession to the trade bloc which Moscow hopes to turn into a broader Eurasian Economic Union of ex-Soviet states. Armenian leaders did not publicly object to this condition until President Serzh Sarkisian’s latest talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin held on Tuesday. Nor did they publicly and explicitly indicate plans to join the Russian-led unions.
The spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Eduard Sharmazanov, claimed on Wednesday that Sarkisian’s declaration made after the talks with Putin was not a last-minute policy U-turn. He said Yerevan never ruled out its membership of the customs union during the association talks with Brussels.
“To statements by European and other officials that Armenia should choose either this or that, the Armenian authorities have responded at the highest level both in Brussels and Moscow that we will not be going down the path of ‘either or.’ For us these two processes are mutually complementary,” Sharmazanov told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“The Republic of Armenia has not taken a sensational step. The Russian Federation is our strategic partner. We are a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization,” he said.
Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian has repeatedly argued against Armenian entry into the union over the past year, saying that Armenia has no common borders with Russia, Belarus or Kazakhstan. Galust Sahakian, a deputy chairman of the ruling HHK, appeared to rule out such membership when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service just hours before the announcement of President Sarkisian’s surprise decision. Sahakian insisted that the Association Agreement with the EU will be initialed as planned in November.
Sharmazanov, who is also a deputy parliament speaker, downplayed the significance of these statements, saying that Armenian foreign policy is formulated by President Sarkisian. Vigen Sargsian, for his part, claimed that the Armenian government has always been interested in joining the customs union. He said Russian-Armenian “expert groups” recently came up with “solutions that allow us to overcome” the absence of common borders.
Sargsian also denied that the Armenian president’s decision was the result of strong Russian pressure.
Russian diplomats and pundits close to the Kremlin have increasingly warned Armenia against singing the far-reaching accord with the EU in recent months. They have said that Yerevan will deal a severe blow to Russian-Armenian ties if it opts out of Putin’s Eurasian projects.