The Russian and Armenian governments will jointly look into ways of Armenia’s possible involvement in the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, President Vladimir Putin announced after talks with his visiting Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian in the Kremlin on Wednesday.
The matter reflecting Moscow’s push for a closely-knit bloc of friendly ex-Soviet states appeared to be high on the agenda of the talks. The two leaders also touched upon a range of other issues, including Russian-Armenian economic relations and the Gazprom monopoly’s reported plans to raise the price of its natural gas delivered to Armenia.
Putin said they discussed “integration processes in the post-Soviet area” and the customs union in particular. “We agreed to set up a joint commission that will look at how the latest cooperation agreements between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus within the framework of the customs union, the common economic area could be used with regard to Armenia with all specificities involved,” he told a joint news conference with Sarkisian.
“What I mean is that we have no common borders [with Armenia] but we could think about using some instruments that have already been agreed upon by the three states,” he said.
The absence of common borders has been the main declared reason for Armenia’s refusal so far to join the customs arrangement which Putin hopes would form the backbone of a future Russian-led “Eurasian Union” of former Soviet republics. Top Russian officials have actively promoted the would-be union during recent visits to Yerevan, fuelling speculation that the Sarkisian government is under growing pressure to embrace the idea.
The Armenian president made no explicit references to the customs union in his remarks to the press. “We are interested in continuing effective cooperation based on mutual interests within the framework of international and regional organizations,” he said.
In that context, Sarkisian named only the Collective Security Treaty Organization, reaffirming Yerevan’s strong commitment to the Russian-led military alliance and praising Russia’s “key” security role in the South Caucasus. He said he and Putin discussed “new possibilities of expanding” Russian-Armenian military cooperation.
Sarkisian also announced that they reached a “mutual understanding” on the new price of Russian gas for Armenia, which is currently being negotiated by Armenian officials and Gazprom executives. He said it should mirror “the real market price of gas” and at the same time help to “preserve the effectiveness of Armenia’s economy.” He did not elaborate further.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] confirmed that Russia is interested in having a strong, competitive and developed Armenia. This is a truly allied approach,” Sarkisian added.
Gazprom’s reported plans to sharply raise its gas tariff for Armenia next year have only added to Armenian media speculation about the Russian pressure on Yerevan over the Eurasian Union.
Both Putin and Sarkisian stressed the importance of strengthening economic ties between their nations. The Russian leader hailed a 32 percent rise in bilateral trade in the first half of this year. “This, I agree with Serzh Azatovich, is not enough for Russia and Armenia,” he said. “Of course, we can and must do more.”
In his opening remarks at the meeting with Sarkisian, Putin emphasized Russian companies’ strong presence in Armenia and the fact that Russia is home to hundreds of thousands of Armenian migrant workers. “The money that Armenian citizens living in Russia send home is a considerable support for the country and its people as a whole and, at around $1 billion, accounts for a sizeable part of the country’s GDP,” he said.
“Russia’s economic presence in Armenia corresponds to strategic interests of both Armenia and Russia,” Sarkisian said after the talks.
The unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was also on the agenda, with Putin saying that Moscow will continue its “active mediation efforts” as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group.