Officials in Armenia as well as some members of the country’s opposition still see an opportunity for signing the political component of the Association Agreement with the European Union after Brussels inked a similar document with Ukraine last week.
This optimism, however, does not appear to be shared by most EU diplomats who consider Armenia to be no longer eligible for such an accord after its surprise decision to join the Russian-led customs union last September.
The policy U-turn came after nearly four years of negotiations between the South Caucasus nation’s government and the EU on the Association Agreement/DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area). Armenia has sought to sign only the Association Agreement without the DCFTA with the EU since then, but officials in Brussels have indicated that the two documents cannot be separated, while the free trade agreement with the EU would come into clash with Armenia’s future commitments to the trade bloc with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ukraine, which also ditched the agreement with the EU shortly before the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in late November, later saw a regime change brought on largely due to pro-EU protests in the country. Eventually, it was allowed to sign only the political part of the agreement on March 21 before it signs the DCFTA later this year.
Visiting Brussels last week Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian reiterated that signing only the political part of the Association Agreement with the EU remains “the best path” for Armenia.
A senior EU diplomat told RFE/RL’s correspondent in Brussels, however, that the political part of the Association Agreement alone could not be signed with Armenia on the example of Ukraine also for other reasons.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, one of the architects of the Eastern Partnership program, said: “I think they [Armenians] are in a different league. The Association Agreement also signals sort of political affinity that is there on a number of areas. We saw, for example, the Armenians now coming out in support of the Russian policies versus Ukraine. So, I don’t think they would qualify to be in the same league in terms of political affinity anymore.”
Artak Zarkarian, a member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia who heads the Foreign Relations Committee in the Armenian parliament, disagreed with the assumption by the top Swedish diplomat that because of Armenia’s support for Russian policies on Ukraine the country is not ready to be in the same league with Europe.
“We do not divide the world into regions, so one should not class us in one league or another. Above all, we represent the league of our interests,” Zakarian said.
The senior lawmaker described Yerevan’s foreign policies as justified in conditions of the current challenges, including the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the continuing blockade by Turkey and others. He said he still considered possible the signing of only the political part of the Association Agreement with the EU.
“There can never be something that is irreversible. In conditions of the developments in the Eastern Partnership territory today we, naturally, also see this opportunity,” Zakarian added.
Armenia’s former foreign minister, currently opposition member Alexander Arzumanian also sees an opportunity for signing a document with the EU, perhaps even the political component of the Association Agreement. He believes the EU is also interested in maintaining its influence in the region “despite the fact that Armenia has lost its resistibility and is doing whatever Moscow tells it to do”.
“As one of the advocates of European integration [Prime Minister] Tigran Sarkisian is also looking for a lifeline and this is another lifeline that Ukraine has provided to the entire post-Soviet space. In the case with Ukraine the European Union separates the accords, something that it has never done before, and this gives us a face-saving opportunity to restart negotiations on signing the political part of the agreement,” Arzumanian said, stressing that it would help Armenia become “a little less exposed to Russian influence.”
Other oppositionists in Armenia, however, are skeptical about the opportunity.
Levon Zurabian, a parliamentary leader of the Armenian National Congress (HAK), cited EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton “who very clearly explained that Armenia cannot sign the political part separately from the economic one.” “So, to be honest, I don’t understand the position of our government officials who try to maintain some balance on the level of declarations and regulate their relations with the West,” the HAK representative commented.
Another oppositionist David Shahnazarian, who served as national security minister in 1994-1995, said it would be naïve to expect the EU to sign such a document with Armenia. According to him, after Yerevan’s pro-Russian position on the situation around Crimea Brussels will not even consider that option.
“In Brussels they well understand that even the discussion of the issue of signing the political component with Armenia will diminish what Brussels has done for Ukraine. I think there is no prospect. It is obvious that Armenia today is de-facto part of Russia and its foreign policy and security affairs are fully given to Moscow,” said Shahnazarian.
The oppositionist reminded that at the Council of Europe together with Russia Armenia voted against the resolution on Ukraine. According to him, Armenia is also likely to follow Russia’s lead during the vote on the same resolution at the United Nations later this week. “To speak about the possible signing of an agreement between the EU and Armenia is at least naïve,” Shahnazarian concluded.