Armenia surrenders to Russia on the issue of the Customs Union

 Armenia surrenders to Russia on the issue of the Customs Union

Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu

10 September, 2013

Armenia, no longer able to withstand the pressures applied by Russia, has finally agreed to enter the Customs Union. Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan, during a Sept. 2 visit to discuss Russian-Armenian relations in Moscow, made a surprise announcement that Armenia would be entering into the Customs Union formed by a Russian initiative.

The fact that the announcement came at an important stage of ongoing EU-Armenian dialogue caused a shockwave in Europe.

Sarksyan, who had given no information to the public prior to his statement and who managed to show first and foremost that Armenia would not be straying from the Moscow axis, stressed in his speech how Russia was an important guarantor of the safety for Armenia. In the meantime, opposition parties in Armenia have now begun to assert that the country's foreign policy has collapsed, and that the national sovereignty of the leadership mechanism has been inextricably tied to that of Russia.

A statement from the Armenian socialist Dashnak Party asserted that while there was some level of reason in this move, not to have shared this information with the public was a great mistake. At the same time, the Dashnak Party noted that the decision would have a direct effect on the security of both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and that dialogue with the EU during the coming period must absolutely not be cut off. The liberal opposition Heritage Party in the meantime made a statement asserting that Armenian relations with the EU had been forced to an end, and that a stance against European values was pulling the country as a whole to the edge of a chasm.

One party supporting Sarksyan's newly announced decision is the Prosperous Armenia Party, which made a statement noting that Armenia needed Russia for security, and adding that Armenia was Russia's biggest trading partner. As for the Free Democrats Movement, it announced that in making his decision, Sarksyan had in fact violated the first article of the Armenian constitution, and was thus discounting national sovereignty. Raffi Hovhannisyan, the founder of the Heritage Party and someone who clashed with the leading party all through 2013, has now called on the Armenian people, including those in the diaspora, to come up with an urgent solution, insisting that Sarksyan resign immediately.

'Armenia should not expect to be able to balance policies between both Europe and Russia at the same time'

In an attempt to quell negative reactions, Sarksyan did announce that in becoming a member of the Customs Union, Armenia would not be breaking off relations with the EU. The current situation does appear to put the Partnership Agreement -- expected after much effort on both sides to finally be signed in November in Vilnius -- at risk. And in the meantime, statements coming out of Europe have underscored that Armenia should not expect to be able to balance policies between both Europe and Russia at the same time. Similar warnings have been issued in the past. One such example is when officials from the European Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee warned Armenia in relation to the Russian-backed Customs Union, noting that the European Parliament would not be able to make partnership decisions with members of this union.

While this has all been unfolding, various media groups based in Yerevan have backed the idea that ongoing talks with the EU are in fact not essential for Armenia, and that instead, the Customs Union, with its promises of security and economic gain, is a wiser decision for Armenia. As for factions insisting that Armenia has now missed its opportunity to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, they are busy debating just what sort of advantages the Customs Union will bring to Armenia, which has no shared border with Russia. As Armenia does not have strong relations with other Customs Union members Belarus or Kazakhstan, many have already queried what sort of gain Armenia will make from joining the union. Some have also pointed out that any offer of security for the Nagorno-Karabakh region is a topic which has nothing to do with the Customs Union anyway. In the end though, the most essential problem herein is the undependable and unclear foreign policies being followed by a Yerevan which has just betrayed Europe.

Some are now opining that Armenia's seemingly sudden desire to enter into the Russian-backed Customs Union is in fact one path Yerevan sees for escaping from long-standing pressures placed on it by Russia. The crises and large protests experienced in recent months over energy appear to have forced the Yerevan leadership towards a rapid decision. Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan, who announced in May that the real reason for the energy crisis was the question of the Customs Union, noted at the time that as long as Armenia was not a member, the crises would only get more serious. Government officials are also insisting that the people of Armenia ought not have worries on the topic of membership in the Customs Union, noting that under current laws, it isn't possible for Armenia to join yet anyway.

And so the seemingly sudden decision to join the Customs Union is being linked to the question of the country's security, with frightening scenarios being drawn out in front of the people of the country. Depending on Russia for security matters, as with so many other issues, the military-rooted leaders of Armenia's Nagorno-Karabakh region have in fact caused the collapse of the country's foreign policies. In the coming period, the leadership of Armenia may well confront serious resistance from opposition to its path, with the struggles of the Karabakh and Armenian peoples

causing great turbulence. The Armenian people, weary of the push and pull between Europe and Russia, may well propel opposition leaders to the front when it comes to the topic of the hindrance of national independence, and of Yerevan being pulled into a Russian sand trap.

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*Mehmet Fatih ÖZTARSU is an analyst with the Strategic Outlook Institution.

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