French President Francois Hollande pointedly declined to criticize Armenia for backing Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and voiced support for an Association Agreement with the European Union sought by the Armenian government during a visit to Yerevan that ended on Tuesday.
Hollande, whose country has imposed economic sanctions on Moscow together with other Western powers, said he understands the motives behind Armenia’s de facto recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea. President Serzh Sarkisian opted for it “in a certain political and geographic context” reflecting the traditionally close Russian-Armenian relations, he said.
“I don’t want to judge. I want to understand, which is what I have done during this visit,” Hollande told a joint news conference with Sarkisian held at the end of his two-day trip.
Sarkisian commented vaguely on the reasons why Armenia was one of the few nations that recognized a disputed referendum in Crimea that was followed by the region’s absorption into Russia strongly condemned by the West. “We have been friends with Russia for almost 250 years,” he said.
Answering the same question, Sarkisian went on to defend his unexpected decision last year to join the Russian-led Customs Union. He cited Armenia’s close economic ties with Russia and the fact that the two ex-Soviet states are “in the same security system.”
“On top of that, the Customs Union gives member states some privileges,” he added. “For example, it enables Armenia to import energy resources at competitive prices, which allows us … to manufacture competitive goods.”
Sarkisian reiterated that his government at the same time hopes to deepen relations with the EU through the Association Agreement. “We spoke with Mr. Hollande about that; it would be very desirable to have a special association offer to the Republic of Armenia,” he said.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Monday night, Hollande confirmed that France supports a “special model” of political association between the EU and Armenia. “Europe must accept an agreement on association with Armenia, and Armenia can go [ahead] with a trade and commercial union with Russia,” he said in English. “That’s not a problem for me.”
Armenia spent three years negotiating the Association Agreement with the EU and was on track to sign it until Sarkisian’s Customs Union U-turn announced last September. The EU abandoned the planned agreement afterwards, saying that its most important provisions relating to free trade are “not compatible” with membership in the Russian-led bloc. The EU’s executive body has since repeatedly rejected an Armenian proposal to conclude a watered-down version of the accord that would not contain those provisions.