An interesting combination of events are swirling around Armenia these days. Since Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s announcement last month that Armenia would join the Russian-led customs union over the EU’s deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, speculation about what the future holds for Armenia, and the south Caucasus in general, has skyrocketed. It was announced that the EU will still go ahead with a modified agreement with Armenia at the Vilnius summit, in the form of a non-binding join declaration. Meanwhile, the seeming lack of clarity in what happens next is being made worse by finger-pointing, fear-mongering and ethnic-tension…
Sergey Glazev, an advisor to the Russian president, explained in an interview with Armenian newspaper Aravot, that Armenia’s decision to join the Eurasian Customs Union was not because of pressure from Russia, but was actually a step forced by the EU.
“Russia never forces anything; Russia cooperates with Armenia,” Glazev stated, continuing, “So, we haven’t pushed Armenian to decide on acceding to the Customs Union; it was the EU, which sought persistently to deprive Armenia of its sovereignty. To maintain independence and the balanced relations with the Russian Federation the Armenian president had to make a corresponding political decision under pressure”.
Aravot: EU forced Armenia to choose Customs Union, says Russian official http://t.co/s5w9HYRu85
— Armenian News (@HyeMedia) October 11, 2013
Glazev’s statements, however, do not line up with reports that Armenia still hopes to deepen cooperation with the EU, and is accepting this ‘joint declaration’ after the EU rejected its proposal to significantly water down a draft Association Agreement that was due to be initialed in November. Naira Zohrabian, the chairwoman of an Armenian parliament committee on European integration, gave her opinion on this issue, saying:
“I think that some document, even a political declaration, will be signed in Vilnius. “Even if that document only says ‘Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,’ Armenia needs to sign something to justify its policy.”
Head of the Armenian Delegation to NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Koryun Nahapetyan, also expressed confidence that Armenia and the EU will sign a document at the EaP summit, one which reflect the progress the EU and Armenia had made:
“I mean a new document which will confirm the results of the talks we had carried out over past 4 years. It will be a very good basis for further deepening of relations with European countries in the context of already new realities,” Nahapetyan explained.
However, Petr Mares, a special envoy of the Czech Foreign Ministry, countered this opinion, saying that he was doubtful that such a document would be signed:
“Will there be some document [on Armenia?] I’m not sure. We need to work on it. We need time. I expect that some document is more likely to be put on the table after the Vilnius summit. As you can understand, the situation is quite complicated. It is the first time that we are trying to figure out what to do when a country decides to join the customs union while being ready to sign the Association Agreement.”
Nevertheless, Mares lauded Armenian President Sargsyan on his continued desire to integrate, in some form, with the EU. Some Armenian civic groups who will be attending the Vilnius summit remain nonplussed by Sargsyan’s choice, saying that the decision to join the Russian-dominated bloc dealt a huge, and possibly irrevocable blow to Armenia’s European integration.
— PL in Armenia (@PLinArmenia) October 11, 2013
Beyond Armenian borders…
As if the Armenia-EU-Russia triangle were not complicated enough, the on-going Nagorno-Karabakh conflict might be reaching a boiling point. Often, for better or worse, referred to as a “frozen conflict”, the tension is the region may be showing signs of “unfreezing and has the potential to unleash a much larger scale of warfare, including geo-political tectonic shifts and human suffering”. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO monitoring conflict warnings worldwide, has published a new report on the South Caucasus region. The report, explains that Armenia’s decision to join the Eurasian Union may lead to civil unrest, while Azerbaijan’s “staged election” last week could likewise inspire uprising. Such internal disturbance, the ICG explains, may likely inspire both countries to start fanning the flames of conflict in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, to distract from their problems.
With that in mind, the ICG is calling upon the international community to work with both Armenian and Azerbaijani sides to maintain a “quiet period during which both sides dial down rhetoric”, in order to avoid an accidental war.
However, Michael Kambeck in an article in New Eastern Europe, critiquing the ICG report, explains that Armenia’s choice to join Russia may have prevented war, rather than caused it. Armenia was neither pleased nor reassured when Russia began delivering tanks, artillery cannons and rocket launchers worth $1 billion to Azerbaijan in June. Analysts have attempted to douse fears over Azerbaijan‘s increased militarisation, saying that the nation had no appetite for war, though Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev has boosted arms spending and threatened to take back the disputed territory of Nagorno- Karabakh by force from neighboring Armenia.
In light of such contextual issues, many are asking: Is it any wonder Armenia felt compelled to ally itself with Russia? When explaining his decision to align with the Russian customs union, President Sargsyan said:
“When you are part of one system of military security [the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation] it is impossible and ineffective to isolate yourself from a corresponding economic space. This decision does not constitute a refusal to continue our dialogue with European structures.”
In an article by the Caspian Research Institute, titled “Armenia’s Dependency on Russia Continues to Deepen”, some of these issues are analysed:
“Of course, we are unlikely to ever know exactly what pressure Putin used on Sargsyan but there is a long list of possibilities: interfering with gas supplies, pressuring Armenian migrants in Russia, cutting military aid or reducing Russian support in Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh are the most likely. Sargsyan’s reference to a ‘system of military security’ suggests that Russia was threatening to withdraw some of its security protection.”
Speaking more specifically about Nagorno-Karabakh, the Caspian Research Institute opines:
“…The chief reason for Armenia’s dependence on Russia is the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite international pressure, Yerevan has shown no inclination to agree to withdrawing from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan as the first step of an OSCE-devised peace blueprint. Consequently, both Azerbaijan and Turkey have kept their borders with Armenia sealed. Both economically and politically, this situation is unsustainable without extensive Russian support.”
But, for every opinion, there is a counter-argument, as Nicu Popescu, Senior Analyst at the EUISS, explains:
“European policy circles also reacted with outpourings of pity for Armenia. The prevailing view was that a small state had been bullied by a former imperial master into acting against its will and interests. However, whilst these feelings of sympathy are partly justified, they should not be exaggerated.
“Armenia is not simply a victim of Azerbaijani or Russian policies, but a player in its own right.”