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Armenian Leader Accused of Caving in to Moscow
Customs Union summit in Minsk, October 24, 2013. The three central figures are (left to right) the heads of current members Kazakstan, Belarus and Russia. They are flanked by the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Ukraine and Tajikistan (left to right). (Photo: Armenian president's website)
As President Serzh Sargsyan insists Armenia’s entry into the Customs Union will strengthen the country, his opponents are accusing him of surrendering the nation’s independence.
On October 24, Sargsyan signed an agreement paving the way for accession to the Customs Union, whose current members are Russia, Belarus and Kazakstan. The terms include setting up a commission to draw up a road map for the accession process, and banning any “statements or actions that run contrary to the interests of the Customs Union”.
Sargsyan announced plans to join the trade bloc after talks in Moscow in early September, stunning both Armenians and European diplomats who were awaiting the signing of an association agreement and trade deal with the European Union. The two are seen as mutually exclusive. (See Armenia's Receding European Ambitions)
Moscow, which has been trying to prevent its former Soviet satellites from moving closer to the EU scheme, had been putting pressure on Yerevan to change course.
Sargsyan’s decision takes Armenia out of a group of four republics – the others being Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova – which will sign similar agreements with the EU in November.
The president said Armenia, which is already part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-led defence pact, had to take national security into account given its tense relations with neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan.
“Our colleagues in the CSTO are creating a new platform for economic cooperation,” he said, in televised comments. “I have often said that when you are part of a system that provides you with defence security, it is impossible and ineffective to isolate yourself from that geopolitical area.”
Russia guards much of Armenia’s border with Turkey, maintains a troop presence in the country and supplies it with weapons on preferential terms. Economically, Russia is a major trading partner and also hosts hundreds of thousands of Armenian migrant workers.
These factors give it significant leverage, as Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan admitted in an interview with western journalists in mid-October.
“If we don’t join the Customs Union, that will create new barriers between businesses in Armenia and Russia. A political decision was therefore taken that our country’s economic development must be within the framework of the Customs Union,” Tigran Sargsyan said, according to an account published on the government website.
Gagik Minasyan, head of the Armenian parliament’s finance committee and a member of Sargsyan’s Republican Party, confirmed that the decision had not been taken because of the potential economic benefits.
“Only when the documents are finally drawn up for Armenia to join the Customs Union will it be possible to predict whether the impact on the economy will be positive or negative,” he told IWPR.
Opposition politicians were in no doubt that the decision was catastrophic.
Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia’s first post-Soviet president and now head of the opposition Armenian National Congress, said Sargsyan had effectively surrendered control of foreign policy to Moscow.
Raffi Hovhannisian, a former foreign minister who heads the Heritage Party, called in the president to step down, saying that the decision showed he had no judgement.
“Sargsyan has turned himself into a [Russian] provincial governor, and he must go,” the opposition politician said. “Following the notorious anti-state protocols [failed attempt to improve ties with Turkey], elections that are staged illegally and then stolen, his continuously harmful policies, and now this unilateral decision announced in the Kremlin… there is no other possible option.”
Ruben Mehrabyan, a political analyst with the Armenian Centre for Political and International Studies, said that Sargsyan’s decision looked unconstitutional. He even compared it to the Soviet Union’s forcible annexation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1940.
“It resembles what happened to the Baltic states, only without the army being involved. The process that began in September 3 and continued on October 24 looks like an occupation,” Mehrabyan told IWPR. “The constitution explicitly prohibits Armenia from undertaking any obligations that, in whole or in part, transfer national sovereignty to any supranational structure. There are no mechanisms in the constitution that allow us to change this. And if it happens, it is nothing other than occupation.”
David Shahnazaryan, former head of Armenia’s National Security Service, said he was certain Moscow was seeking to exert the control it once had over Armenia.
“It’s clear that what we’re talking about is restoring the Soviet Union, and that this is a deadly threat to the Republic of Armenia,” he told IWPR.
The Armenian government is still insisting it will sign a document of some kind in at the EU meeting Vilnius.
“I think we will sign a document with the European Union in Vilnius,” Levon Sargsyan, the president’s brother who serves as a special envoy, said at a press conference in mid-October. “It will become clear at the summit what kind of document that will be.”
Vahe Harutyunyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.
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