Russia does not object to Armenia’s hopes to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union after while being part of a Russian-dominated alliance of ex-Soviet states, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian claimed after a weekend visit to Moscow.
“Our Russian partners have a clear position to the effect that they are interested in seeing Armenia continue to deepen and expand its relations with the European Union, including within the framework of the Association Agreement,” Sarkisian said in videotaped remarks broadcast by Armenian TV stations.
The remarks contradicted what some Russian officials have said on the subject in recent weeks and months. “You cannot be associated to the EU and sign an agreement on the common economic space with Russia. This is legally impossible,” Sergey Glaziev, an economic adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said late last week.
Speaking to Ekho Moskvy radio, Glaziev also claimed that Russian officials helped their Armenian colleagues to look into the draft Association Agreement with the EU and realize that it poses a serious threat to Armenia’s national security. He referred to President Serzh Sarkisian’s unexpected September 3 announcement that Armenia has decided to join the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which will serve as the bedrock of a Russian-led Eurasian Union.
The authorities in Yerevan have since continued to affirm their commitment to the agreement with the EU despite the fact that membership in the customs union runs counter to key terms of that document negotiated for almost four years. They have offered to finalize a much shorter version of the accord, an idea dismissed by the EU so far.
In what was a rare public statement made since September 3, Tigran Sarkisian defended Yerevan’s foreign policy U-turn, saying that joining the customs union is vital for Russian-Armenian relations and would earn Armenia substantial economic benefits. “Staying away from those integration processes could have created serious obstacles to the deepening ad expansion of our economic and cultural relations with our strategic partner,” he said. “It was more expedient for us to join that union.”
The premier did not explain, however, what exactly Armenia would gain in economic terms. Economic analysts critical of the Armenian government say that membership of the Russian-led trade bloc would only push up the cost of key goods imported to Armenia and reduce vital proceeds from customs duties collected by Armenian tax authorities. They also argue that Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan account for less than one-quarter of Armenia’s foreign trade. The EU’s share in the total has exceeded 30 percent ever since the late 1990s.
Tigran Sarkisian himself repeatedly argued against Armenian entry into the customs union before President Sarkisian’s surprise volte-face widely attributed to strong Russian pressure. In particular, the prime minister argued that Armenia has no common border with any of the union’s three member states. He also said Armenia has a more liberal trade regime and, unlike Russia and Kazakhstan, lacks vast natural resources.
“We were never against joining the Customs Union,” Sarkisian claimed as he flew back to Yerevan to Moscow at the weekend. “We only had a general understanding that the absence of common borders is a serious obstacle.” He spoke of “new integration instruments” that will address this hurdle but did not elaborate.
The Armenian premier travelled to Moscow on Friday to discuss preparations for the official start of membership talks between Armenia and the customs union’s governing body, the Eurasian Economic Commission. He met with the commission’s chairman, Viktor Khristenko, and two Russian deputy prime ministers.
The Armenian government released few details of those talks in a statement on Sarkisian’s trip. The press offices of the customs union and the Russian government issued no statements at all.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declined to meet his visiting Armenian counterpart for unknown reasons. Medvedev was in the Russian capital during Sarkisian’s trip. The two men had a phone conversation earlier last week.
Medvedev’s apparent snub was construed by government critics in Yerevan as another Russian humiliation of the Armenian leadership. They claim that having forced Yerevan into the customs union, Moscow no longer regards its South Caucasus ally as a sovereign state worthy of respect. President Sarkisian’s political allies deny this.