The absence of a common border with Russia is not an “insurmountable obstacle” to Armenia’s accession to a Russian-led customs union, a senior official in Moscow said ahead of fresh talks between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Serzh Sarkisian due late on Wednesday.
Putin and Sarkisian were scheduled to meet in the Kremlin after attending a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of Russia and five other ex-Soviet states.
All of those states except Armenia are also members of a Russian-dominated economic grouping, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc). Their presidents met separately in Moscow immediately after the CSTO summit.
That meeting in turn was followed by trilateral talks between Putin and Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus. Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus make up the more tightly-knit Customs Union, which Putin hopes will eventually develop into a larger Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics.
Armenia appears to be facing growing pressure from Moscow to join the Customs Union. It has avoided committing itself until now, citing the lack of common borders with any of the three member states.
Viktor Khristenko, the Russian head of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Customs Union’s governing body, questioned the official Armenian rationale in an interview with the Moscow daily “Vedomosti” published on Wednesday.
“Many thought [the absence of common borders] is an insurmountable obstacle. But in my view, it’s not,” Khristenko said, pointing to the existence of Russia’s Kalinigrad exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.
“Given the developed level of communications existing today, the Customs Union can definitely have an exclave,” he stressed.
“Of course, Armenia has very sensitive infrastructure constraints: it has a sole transport corridor to the Customs Union passing through Georgia. But Armenia’s strategic interest has been articulated and it boils down to its being a Eurasian country,” added the former Russian deputy prime minister.
Khristenko discussed the matter with Armenian leader when he visited Yerevan on December 5-6. He met Sarkisian the day after the latter’s most recent talks with Putin held on the sidelines of an informal ex-Soviet summit in Turkmenistan.
Putin and Sarkisian had earlier agreed to set up a joint task force that will explore possible ways of Armenia’s integration with the Customs Union.
In that context, Khristenko spoke of unspecified “new models of interaction that have not existed before.” He also told “Vedomosti” that the Russian and Armenian governments are now working on trade memorandums aimed at facilitating bilateral trade.
Russia has already signed similar memorandums with Ukraine, another ex-Soviet state which Moscow hopes will join the Customs Union. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was scheduled to visit Moscow on Tuesday for talks on trade and energy ties. Yanukovich cancelled the trip at the last minute.
“I think that our movement forward with Armenia may be even more intensive than with Ukraine,” declared Khristenko.