With less than two weeks to go before the signing of an accession treaty with the Customs Union, Armenia has not yet secured vital trade preferences for its membership in the Russian-led bloc, Economy Minister Vahram Avanesian admitted on Thursday.
Avanesian told journalists that the treaty will definitely be signed in Minsk on April 29 during a summit of the union’s three member states: Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. President Serzh Sarkisian is also due to attend the summit.
Asked whether all key terms of Armenia’s membership have already been worked out, Avanesian said, “We are now negotiating on the subject. The signing date has been determined: April 29. The final result of the negotiations will be announced on April 28.”
“As things stand now, we cannot say whether or not the negotiations will be fully completed. We hope they will be,” he said at the same time.
The minister insisted that there is nothing wrong with the fact that the Armenian government has decided to formalize accession to the Customs Union before knowing which commercial concessions it will clinch. “It’s a normal practice. It’s not surprising,” he said.
The concessions sought by Yerevan relate to common duties applied to some 11,500 types of goods imported to Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. More than 60 percent of them exceed corresponding tariffs set by Armenia, reflecting the latter’s traditionally liberal trade regime. With the Customs Union nations accounting for less than a quarter of Armenian foreign trade, there are widespread fears that the cost of living in the country will rise significantly after it joins the bloc.
The government announced in January that it has presented the union’s member states with a list of about 900 items which it wants to be exempted from their higher import duties. According to Avanesian, the negotiating parties have since agreed on some of the trade preferences for Armenia. “I can’t publicize them. Only two or three issues remain [to be worked out,]” he said.
The minister, who tendered his resignation along with the other government members earlier this month, did not deny or confirm reports that Yerevan has whittled down the list to 400 items. “Let me not answer this question today,” he said after a meeting of the outgoing cabinet chaired by the newly appointed Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian.
Armenia’s leading business associations have added their voice to concerns about the economic cost of joining a trade alliance which Russia plans to transform into a Eurasian Union next year. President Serzh Sarkisian insisted in February that membership of the union will be good for the Armenian economy, dismissing as “disinformation” critics’ claims that it will lead to severe price hikes.
Sarkisian unexpectedly decided to make Armenia part of the Russian-led union last August less than two months after his government essentially completed three-year negotiations with the European Union on a far-reaching Association Agreement. Opposition politicians, pundits and civil society members favoring European integration believe that Sarkisian opted for the dramatic volte-face for purely political reasons.