Armenia’s 2013 decision to join a Russian-led bloc and failure to sign a far-reaching agreement with the European Union was not an abrupt foreign policy U-turn, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian claimed on Wednesday.
Nalbandian said that the EU itself unexpectedly changed course and forced Armenia to choose between deeper integration with Europe and Russia. He blamed the 28-nation union for the collapse of an Association Agreement which was all but finalized by Brussels and Yerevan in the summer of 2013.
The EU cancelled the agreement after President Serzh Sarkisian announced in September 2013 his decision to seek Armenia’s accession to Russia’s trade alliance with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which was subsequently transformed into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
EU officials stressed both before and after Sarkisian’s move, widely attributed to strong Russian pressure, that membership in the EEU is “not compatible” with key terms of the Association Agreement. Those envisaged the creation of a “deep and comprehensive free trade area,” or DCFTA, between the EU and Armenia.
Speaking at a NATO seminar in Yerevan, Nalbandian said that when the Armenian government began association talks with Brussels in 2010 it made clear that it wants to combine European integration with Armenia’s involvement in “Eurasian integration processes” championed by Russia. He said the EU initially accepted this complementary policy but “suddenly” changed its stance during “the final stage” of the negotiating process.
In Nalbandian’s words, EU leaders told Armenia and five other ex-Soviet states involved in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program: “You must make a choice: either the EU or Russia.”
“At meetings of the foreign ministers of EU member and partner states … I said I don’t think it’s a good approach to demand that we make an ‘either-or’ choice and that that approach could lead to new escalations,” continued the minister.
“But that policy continued and they even went further, saying that ‘this is a civilizational choice.’ I replied that we had made our civilizational choice several thousand years ago,” he said.
Accordingly, Nalbandian rejected the notion that it was the Armenian side that killed the Association Agreement. He argued that the EU rejected in September-October 2013 an Armenian proposal to sign only the political chapters of the agreement on the grounds that the two sides had negotiated over a single text. He pointed out that by contrast the political and economic parts of the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine were signed separately in 2014.
Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovich put that agreement on hold in late 2013 amid strong pressure from Russia, which has always viewed the Eastern Partnership as a threat to its geopolitical interests.Yanukovich was ousted in early 2014 in a popular revolt strongly condemned by Moscow.
Armenian and EU began last year exploring the possibility of hammering out a less far-reaching accord that would not run counter to Armenia’s membership commitments to the EEU. Earlier this year they identified concrete areas of closer cooperation to be covered by the new deal. It is expected to contain not only political but also some economic provisions of the scrapped Association Agreement.
Nalbandian sounded optimistic on that score. He said he expects the European Commission to receive “in the coming days” the green light from EU member states for the start of official negotiations with Yerevan.