Armenia: The silent voice in Vilnius
Amongst all others, there was one voice at the Vilnius Summit, and in particular during the Civil Society Conference, which remained mostly silent. That was the voice of the representatives of Armenia: a country that, after announcing its decision to start its journey towards the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union, no longer represented a solid partner for the European Union.
In Vilnius, the EU and the Republic of Armenia adopted a joint statement declaring that even having completed negotiations on an Association Agreement, including the talks on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, it will no longer proceed with its initialling due to “Armenia’s new international commitments.” They also agree on the need to update the EU-Armenia Neighbourhood Action Plan. Together with the Ukrainian announcement, Armenia represented an addition thorn in the side of the Eastern Partnership’s success.
When in September the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan announced the decision to join the Russian-led Customs Union, it implied the rejection of any possible signature of the Association Agreement with the EU. The two treaties, in facts, are totally incompatible: in this way, Armenia’s choice doesn’t leave any hope or chance to continue talks with the European Union on this level. According to the former minister of foreign affairs, Vartan Oskanian, who defines Armenian stance as a “northern choice”, geopolitics and security prevailed over economic interests or cultural belonging to one or the other civilisation.
Oskanian stated that this decision, which breaks a long tradition of equal distance between the powers, was mainly due to Armenia’s foreign relations with its neighbours; which are part of the Eastern Partnership. The previous trend in Armenia’s foreign policy was in fact the policy of complementarity, which considered independence the paramount priority for such a small republic. It is reasonably understandable that security and survival are among the main concerns of a country squashed between two almost historical enemies which have already powerful alliances. While Georgia’s rapprochement with the EU is going to be enforced with the treaties, Azerbaijan has in Turkey a mighty ally.
European values of democracy are firmly embedded in Armenia’s citizens, Oskanian affirmed, and was convinced that the agreement with the Customs Union won’t prevent the civil society or the opposition from participating in modernising the country’s infrastructures and fighting corruption.
Representatives of the Armenian civil society expressed fear, however, that the EU has lost its legal framework to push for reforms and it will be much more difficult to modernise the private sector and change the legal system. A hope that Europe will continue in exercising conditionality by encouraging Armenia to undertake necessary reforms is still bright and alive in the minds of many Armenians. However, the country could soon find itself alone and is likely to be left behind.
Armenia’s change in direction raises the possibility of dividing the Eastern Partnership member countries into two different groups: one that has the possibility of achieving stronger integration with the EU; and those less interested. While it is still not clear which group Ukraine will land, Armenia’s position lies farther away from Moldova and Georgia, who do not hide their final ambitions for full membership in the EU.
The diplomatic history of Armenia explains the lack of divisions among the civil society and the political scenario for its decision. Even though there are divisions, the Customs Union is not perceived as a consequence of Russian imperialism in the face of European integration. Although in the civil society there are many against to the Customs Union agreement, there is a strong difference among them between their feelings towards Russia.
Armenia is a country which traditionally entertains good relations with Russia and where subordination to such a regional geopolitical power has always had a pragmatic purpose. In a country which lacks any critics to Russia and whose citizens have a good perception of the Russian Army, the Ukrainian situation is not entirely understood. Even the civil society in Armenia has never been so anti-Russian and it doesn’t perceive it as a threat to its independence.
When it comes to the end of prospects for the Association Agreement, however, many Armenians show their disappointment for not having preserved at least a lighter profile, preventing such a drastic shift towards Russia. In the civil society and the opposition, the prevailing feeling remains a desire to restore the complementarity option, which would ensure a bigger possibility to benefit from EU conditionality for reforms and modernisation while maintaining close ties with Russia.
Giacomo Manca is a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe