Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian backed on Wednesday Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s calls for the creation of a “Eurasian Union” of former Soviet republics one month after pledging to speed up Armenia’s European integration.
Putin floated the idea in a newspaper article published earlier this month and widely linked with his plans to regain the Russian presidency next year. He said the new union would build on Russia’s existing Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which plans to remove all barriers to trade, capital, and labor movement next year.
“We are not going to stop there and are setting an ambitious goal -- to achieve an even higher integration level in the Eurasian Union,” the Russian prime minister wrote.
The proposal led commentators to recall Putin’s famous past remark that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” The powerful premier insisted, however, that “the idea is not to recreate the Soviet Union in some form.”
Sarkisian said Armenia “positively views” Putin’s proposal as he spoke at the Saint Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance on a visit to Russia’s second largest city. “It is promising and modern,” the Armenian government’s press office quoted him as telling university students.
Sarkisian, who has limited say on Armenian foreign policy, did not specify if Yerevan is ready to join the Eurasian Union. Neither President Serzh Sarkisian (no relation) nor the Armenian Foreign Ministry has commented on the issue yet.
While maintaining close political, security and economic ties with Russia, the Armenian government has declared deeper integration into the European Union a top foreign policy priority. Yerevan is increasingly involved in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program that offers six ex-Soviet states the prospect of privileged partnership with the bloc.
As recently as on September 19 Tigran Sarkisian presented the EU’s executive European Commission with a new plan of economic and political reforms promised by his government. He expressed hope that they will allow Armenia to deepen ties with the EU “at a faster pace.”
Sarkisian likewise pledged to carry out reforms that would put his country firmly on “the European path of development” during his previous visit to Brussels last March.
The Armenian premier visited the Russian university, where he studied in the 1980s, the day after signing in Saint Petersburg a free-trade agreement with Putin and the prime ministers of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Tajikistan.
News reports said that the agreement, subject to parliamentary ratification, would exempt only some goods from import duties. Putin and his ex-Soviet counterparts did not identify those goods at a news conference held after the signing ceremony. Putin said only that the deal will boost commerce and “make our economies more competitive.”
“This document signed by us will give new impetus to integration processes and further economic growth in our countries,” Sarkisian said for his part.
Unlike most of the signatories to the free trade deal, including Armenia, Russia is not a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This might potentially put them at odds with WTO rules.
It also remains to be seen if the deal will complicate negotiations between the EU and Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia on a “deep and comprehensive free trade area,” or DCFTA, which is envisaged by the Eastern Partnership. Some EU officials say DCFTA is not compatible with membership in the Russian-led Customs Union.
Putin said in his October 6 article the Customs Union will soon expand to take in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Successive Armenian governments have declined to join the union on the grounds that Armenia has no common border with any of those countries.
This is also the official reason why Yerevan has only an observer status in the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), a more loose grouping of Russia and the four other former Soviet republics. Incidentally, Sarkisian attended on Wednesday a separate Eurasec summit also held in Saint Petersburg.
Sarkisian held separate talks with Putin on Tuesday. They reportedly focused on Russian-Armenian economic ties. An Armenian government statement quoted Putin as expressing his satisfaction with their current state and emphasizing the fact that Russia has been Armenia’s leading foreign investor.