Former President Robert Kocharian on Monday voiced serious misgivings about Armenia’s “hasty” accession to the Russian-led Customs Union, saying that it could raise the cost of living in the country, harm local businesses and trigger trade sanctions by other nations.
Still, Kocharian stopped short of opposing Armenian membership of the union in principle. Furthermore, he said that President Serzh Sarkisian was wrong to actively seek an Association Agreement with the European Union until last September.
“It is desirable that membership of the Customs Union proceed calmly, be as little politicized as possible, and take into utmost consideration the long-term interests of the country’s economy. Any wrong calculation would have negative consequences for all residents of Armenia,” he said in fresh remarks to his unofficial website, 2rd.am.
Kocharian was widely regarded as a more pro-Russian politician than Sarkisian, his successor and longtime former ally, until the latter unexpectedly opted last August for joining the Russian-led bloc at the expense of the far-reaching deal with the EU. The ex-president is thought to have spent much of his time in Moscow since handing over power to Sarkisian in 2008. He has made a point of acknowledging his occasional meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has avoided passing judgment on Sarkisian’s foreign policy U-turn until now.
Kocharian made clear on Monday that he believes Armenia should not have joined pro-Western ex-Soviet states like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in negotiating Association Agreements with the EU. “That gave the process a redundant geopolitical overtone. Russia’s reaction was absolutely predictable,” he said, referring to strong pressure which Moscow is believed to have exerted on Yerevan last summer.
Kocharian was equally critical of the Sarkisian administration’s current efforts to make Armenia part of the union comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as soon as possible, saying that “the haste could lead to undesirable consequences.” He specifically warned against the adoption of the union’s protectionist trade policy tailored to oil-rich Russia’s economic realities.
“On this issue I don’t share our officials’ optimism because the economy tends to be driven by inertia and drastic U-turns can only hurt it,” he said. “People spend years building up their businesses in accordance with existing rules and time is needed for reorienting them. It is obvious that some types of business will improve their positions, some will suffer, while others will simply die.”
Kocharian echoed critics’ warnings that the higher customs duties enforced by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan would push up the cost of many essential goods imported to Armenia. They might also put Yerevan at odds with the World Trade Organization and lead the EU to scrap its decade-long preferential trade regime with Armenia, he said.
The Armenian government insists that price hikes resulting Armenian entry into the Customs Union will be minimal. The government wants the union’s executive body and member states to allow it to continue levying existing low duties from as many as 850 imported items. Negotiations on the matter are due to start next month.
Kocharian’s interview with 2rd.am was the latest in a series of written statements made by him in the last two months. They have fuelled renewed speculation about the ex-president’s plans to return to active politics with the help of Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK). Addressing a BHK congress on February 15, Tsarukian signaled his readiness to challenge President Sarkisian more forcefully.