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Armenia, Azerbaijan, Caucasus, Europe, International Relations, Karabakh, NATO, Russia

Armenia’s Doubts on Russia Ties Prompt Pro-EU Maneuvering

Serzh-Sargsyan-785x487.jpgOn February 28, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan speaking at Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based think-tank dubbed Armenian people ‘European‘ due their spiritual-cultural heritage and way of life, and stressed the importance of ‘shared values’ in the new EU-Armenia agreement. The speech came a day after the European Union and Armenia agreed on the “Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement” (CEPA), which will substitute the obsolete Partnership and Cooperation agreement (1999). Armenia thus far has been cooperating with the EU within the European Neighbourhood Policy and its eastern dimension – the Eastern Partnership, as well as in the framework of other thematic programmes. Since Armenia’s independence, the EU remains one of the key donors for the development of the country in the areas of justice, education, rural and regional development, agriculture etc.

The new agreement envisages to broaden the scope of the bilateral relations between the EU and Armenia by taking into account the new global, political, and economic interests of both sides and the common challenges faced. The agreement was initialled on March 21 and is expected to be signed by the parties possibly in November 2017 during the upcoming “Eastern Partnership Summit” in Brussels. The negotiations on a new agreement with the EU was reopened in December 2015, twelve months after Armenia officially joined the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in January 2015. No doubt, the main philosophy of the new agreement lies in Armenia’s ambitions to tighten political ties and to restore the normative trust between Brussels and Yerevan, damaged due to latter’s EEU-related choices. Therefore, Sargsyan’s Brussels visit was more about branding Armenia as a ‘predictable neighbour’ for the EU in order to rebuild its lost credibility in the eyes of the EU officials, and to mask Yerevan’s past fiasco following the abandonment of signing the “Association Agreement” (in favour of joining the EEU) under harsh coercion from Moscow prior to the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in 2013.

The current agreement will be less ambitious, covering the main political and some economic provisions of the cancelled Association Agreement, including energy, transport, environment, trade, investments, mobility, as well as democracy, human rights, and rule of law-related issues. However, it will specifically be lacking the free trade-related component due to Armenia’s membership in the EEU. President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan in his interview with Euronews said that this agreement is not so different from the previous one, there is almost no difference in the political part. For the economic part we have to make sure that there is no contradiction with our commitments vis-a-vis the EEU, which Armenia is a member of, stressed Sargsyan. He had also positively assessed the cooperation with NATO, and that this is no contradiction with the country’s military ties with Russia.

The relations between the EU and Armenia warmed up with the visit of the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini to Armenia in March 2016, which endorsed the new ties between Brussels and Yerevan despite the strained relations between the EU and Russia. The influential Armenian diaspora in Europe pinning the interests of Armenia in the EU’s agenda with efforts to mitigate Armenia’s dependence on Russia, has a substantial role in the rapprochement of Brussels with Yerevan. However, Armenia is nonetheless cautious while approaching the EU, with one eye looking to Russia in order not to anger its ‘staunch ally’, and to put in doubt its commitments to the EEU. The relations with the EU are of utmost importance for Armenia with the country’s declining economic performance doubled with Russia’s weak economic situation following Western sanctions and the negligible economic benefits of the EEU’s Customs Union for Armenia.

Moreover, Armenia’s economic dependence (notably in the key sectors of energy and transportation infrastructure) on Russia, which is a result of the presidencies of Robert Kocharian (1998–2008) and the incumbent Serzh Sargsyan (since 2008), both transferred Armenia’s main economic assets to Russia, and previously discouraged large Western investments in Armenia. Thus, the new agreement could push the Armenian government towards embarking on more structural and substantive economic reforms in the crucial sectors that lag behind conformity to higher European standards. The closer ties with the EU would help Armenia to salvage the country from entrenched corruption and to ease Russia’s excessive political weight over the incumbent Armenian government and its economy.

Armenia’s decision to embrace closer ties with Brussels and to balance relations with Kremlin is stemming from Russia’s decreasing reputation as an ostensible ‘security guarantor’ in Armenia, mostly due to: (1) Russia’s arms export to Azerbaijan, which Armenia is in conflict with and (2) Russia’s neutrality during the military escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in April 2016. Moreover, the impartiality of Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) on the protection of Armenia in case of potential military escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Favourable gestures with preferential relations of Kazakhstan and Belarus towards Azerbaijan over Armenia within the EEU have also had broader repercussions for Armenia’s foreign policy in the context of relations with the EU. This is why, Armenia also tries to foster its military ties by virtue of cooperation with NATO, while being a member of the CSTO. After the April escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the CSTO indeed proved to be a cosmetic image of Russia-Armenia defence and security relations.

Moreover, in the light of Russia’s procrastination efforts on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia is also eager to gain political dividends from the West on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Furthermore, Yerevan officials are willing to achieve some sympathy prior to parliamentary elections in Armenia, notably after the popular dissent rallies in Yerevan.

It is of no wonder that, a few days after Sargsyan’s Brussels visit, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Security Council of Russia and Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the Russian State Duma, paid a visit to Armenia, while Sargsyan himself recently paid an official visit to Russia. This is because Yerevan’s pro-European gestures would not gladden the Kremlin amidst the EU/NATO-Russia standoff. Notably, Russia has hitherto made a bulk of favours for Armenia in order to keep its dominant grip over its tiny ally, by decreasing the gas prices and granting $200 million credit to bolster Armenia’s military arsenal with offensive military hardware and defensive equipment, including ‘Iskander’ tactical missiles. However, in order to relieve Russia’s possible reaction towards its new agreement, Sargsyan portrayed Armenia’s warming ties with the EU as an encouragement for the development of relations between the EU and the EEU via its so-called ‘complementary foreign policy’. Whereas, the entire structure of the new agreement and the discussed issues therein were not accessible to the public nor to civil society. Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU Delegation in Armenia, said that some of the issues within the new framework will require a “political decision” to be agreed on with the Armenian government. This means that the Armenian government is reluctant to raise additional noise around the sensitive issues discussed within the new framework.

To sum up, albeit Yerevan officials seek, through cooperation with the EU, to equilibrate its economic and political dependence on Moscow and to get rid of its traditional status of “the Kremlin’s outpost in the Caucasus”, it is yet unlikely that Armenia will be able to eschew its extreme subordination to Russia in terms of foreign policy, and defence and security issues.

Ilgar Gurbanov

The article was originally published by the Russian Council on International Affairs: Armenia’s Doubts on Russia Ties Prompt Pro-EU Maneuvering



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