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After Eurasian Deal, Free Expression Fears in Armenia

Membership of Russian-led bloc could mean restrictions on free speech.
By Arpi Harutyunyan

Supporters of free speech in Armenia fear that the country’s accession to the new Eurasian Economic Union could restrict the free flow of information.

Armenia joined the union when it came into being at the beginning of January. The other members are Russia, Belarus and Kazakstan, with Kyrgyzstan expected to join shortly.

According to a copy of Armenia’s accession agreement posted on the economy ministry’s website, member states cannot import, export or distribute material prohibited in other bloc states. Furthermore, the agreement bans the “distribution of printed, audio and visual materials liable to harm the political and economic interests of member states, their national security, or the health and morals of their citizens."

This wording is part of the terms of trade and customs regulations that bind the new economic grouping.

Before Armenia joined, its own customs rules determined what could or could not be brought into the country.

Under the Eurasian Economic Union agreement, restrictions include the loose concept of member states’ "political interests".

Suren Deheryan, head of Journalists for the Future, an Armenian press freedom organisation, is concerned that the restriction will be used to silence critics.

“This implies that imports of Western press and literature to the Eurasian Economic Union should be prohibited, since such material often contains criticism of the [bloc states’] political elite," Deheryan said.

Even before Armenia joined the union, critics said accession could undermine the country’s sovereignty. President Serzh Sargsyan insisted there was “no danger” to Armenia’s independent status. (See Armenia's Eurasian Deal: Sell-Out or Fair Trade? )

For some, those fears have now been realised.

In December, Armen Martirosyan, head of the Antares printing company, attended a conference on the Eurasian Economic Union in St Petersburg, where he raised questions about what membership would mean for the publishing industry.

"I was told that the Eurasian Economic Union was a purely economic union and that cultural matters were unrelated,” Martirosyan said. “But in reality they are connected. It turns out that the Eurasian Economic Union is not purely an economic union; it is gradually expanding into other areas."

The editor of the Yerevan Press Club, Heriknaz Harutyunyan, believes that the Eurasian treaty violates basic human rights and may have significant consequences not only for dissemination of information but also on the freedom of movement across borders.

"The ban on the distribution of such prohibited information may prevent any one of us from leaving the country, for example to travel Yerevan-Moscow-London,” Harutyunyan told IWPR. “Any absurd pretext may be cited as a breach of the ban, for example, carrying an ordinary music CD."

Not everyone thinks the restrictions will go that far. Deheryan believes it unlikely that things will reach a point where people travelling in and out of Armenia need authorisation to carry a book or a magazine in a suitcase. But he thinks the agreement could still have far-reaching consequences, particularly as it might pave the way for moves to muzzle voices critical of the government.

"If we talk about dissent, Russia has already started blocking websites and blogs that offer alternative opinions, and it has done so unashamedly, using dozens of amendments to existing legislation as well as new laws adopted in 2014,” Deheryan said. “Since Russia has taken control of the content of Runet [Russian domain names] and feels at liberty to shut down any content that for some reason is inconsistent with or contrary to law, then why not do the same at customs controls?"

An annex to the Eurasian agreement also bans other kinds of content, including Nazi propaganda and symbols, justifications of terrorism, pornography and even election campaign materials deemed illegal in any of the four states.

Martirosyan said the ban was unconstitutional and would have major ramifications for his company and the material it publishes. He gave the example of a book about the 2008 Russian-Georgian war by former US State Department staffer Ronald Asmus, called A Little War that Shook the World.

"We have published Asmus’s book and it is now on sale, but according to the new restrictions we cannot export it to another country because this runs contrary to the interests of Russia,” he said. “That’s absurd.”

Martirosyan also questioned the ban on Nazi symbols, particularly as the ancient swastika remains a common symbol of eternity or God in Armenia, and appears in several churches such as the 13th-century Noravank Monastery.

"If someone in Italy publishes a book about Noravank, will it be impossible to import it to Armenia?" Martirosyan asked.

Ara Shirinyan, director of the Yerevan-based television company Shoghakat, said the restrictions were comparable to those of the Soviet era, although in the modern internet age they were by and large meaningless and could not be enforced. However, he is concerned that the new law has implications for wider political freedoms in Armenia.

"It may give the authorities an additional lever to persecute political opponents and individuals," Shirinyan said.

Arpi Harutyunyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.