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While Russia remains Armenia’s guarantor of security and most important trading partner, resentment over the hugely unequal relationship is growing. From JAMnews.by Naira Hayrumyan 17 August 2017
Armenia’s withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and parallel intensification of ties with the EU and NATO, has stopped being a marginal issue in Armenia and is actively discussed in the current discourse. Until recently, the EAEU was considered a “sacred” issue in Armenia.
Edmon Marukyan, a leader of the Yelk (“Way Out”) parliamentary faction, got the ball rolling when he argued that Armenia should initiate withdrawal from the EAEU and launch new talks on associating with the EU.
Mane Tandilyan, a deputy from the same faction, indicated several reasons why Armenia should withdraw from the EAEU: the union hasn’t been beneficial to the Armenian economy; Russia, which is Armenia’s strategic partner, hasn’t stopped selling weapons to Azerbaijan; accession to the EAEU destroyed the perception of Armenia as a free and independent state.
The opposition Armenian Heritage party also issued a statement calling for revision of the Armenia-Russia gas agreement. There have also been direct calls for joining NATO and seeking new security guarantees.
Although the ruling Republican Party (RPA) claims Armenia has no alternative to the EAEU and the CSTO (the Collective Security Treaty Organization), they are now at least engaged in debate on this issue.
According to Armenian analysts, the RPA would like to demonstrate to Russia that unanimity no longer rules with regard to the indispensability of the pro-Russian vector in Armenia. However, the scantiness of arguments is also a kind of reprimand to Moscow for not “giving” enough to the RPA in exchange for its loyalty.
Some Armenian analysts say the facts rebut the claimed economic benefits of membership in the 200-million-strong EAEU market
Voluntary or Compulsory Union?
So, what keeps Armenia in the EAEU and CSTO, given that even the authorities struggle to find clear-cut arguments in favor of its membership in those unions? Two factors are important here. The first is the Armenian political elite’s dependence on the Kremlin, which has proved on a number of occasions that it can easily “change the power” in Armenia. The second factor is growing pressure on the part of Moscow, which has now resorted to blackmailing and threats.
Almazbek Atambaev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, recently claimed that before the United States vacated its Manas airbase in 2014, “Some countries warned us that there would be missile strikes on the U.S. military facilities and that the Kyrgyz people would be affected.”
Eduard Sharmazanov, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, also alluded to pressure from Russia’s direction. Speaking about tourism development in Georgia and Armenia, he said that Georgia would have probably preferred to have fewer tourists but maintain its territories (Russia-backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia). People in Armenia perceived this as an admission that Russia threatened Armenia with the loss of its territories in case the latter refused to join the EAEU.
Did Russia really threaten Armenia? And what could Moscow have done if Armenia had refused to join the EAEU? “Russia couldn’t have seized territory from Armenia, it couldn’t have given Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) to Azerbaijan,” said Hakob Badalyan, an analyst at Lragir.am. He believes the Armenian authorities agreed to join the EAEU solely for their own benefit.
There are indications that Russia has started losing supporters in Armenia. To cite one example, not a single application has been submitted for the 40 vacant seats offered this year by the Russian language department at Yerevan State University.
Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan also meet with both public and official displeasure, as did a Russian politician’s proposal to grant the Russian language official status in Armenia. As President Serzh Sargsyan pointed out, Russia’s sale of weapons to Azerbaijan hasn’t led to any serious consequences so far. But if something serious happens …
The West at the Door
At the same time, the United States and EU have also intensified their activity. In May U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills said there were prospects for U.S. companies to invest up to $8 billion in Armenia’s renewable energy industry, which is a tremendous amount for Armenia, with its state budget hardly amounting to $4 billion. France and Germany have also expressed readiness to invest in Armenia’s energy sector, and Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU Delegation to Armenia, called on the Armenian authorities to promote the use of solar energy in the country.
The Armenian authorities didn’t respond concretely to this proposal. Instead, President Sargsyan issued a statement saying that Armenia would greatly welcome cooperation with the United States in the technological sphere.
Meanwhile, NATO is actively seeking cooperation with Armenia. The Armenian military has participated in two large-scale NATO drills in recent months. During NATO-led exercises in Romania, the participants underwent training in countermeasure operations against potential Russian threats. An Armenian army platoon also joined the alliance’s recent exercises in Georgia.
What Are the Alternatives?
Sharmazanov argues that Armenia’s economy is tightly linked to the EAEU and that its goods can compete on the EAEU market. “There is no alternative either to the CSTO or the EAEU. The reason we joined those unions is to serve our national interests, rather than to please anyone,” he says.
However, as the opposition Heritage party pointed out in its statement, Armenia has energy alternatives, whether imports from Iran or renewable energy sources.
On the other hand, Sargsyan tried to shoot down political analyst Gagik Ambaryan’s suggestion that Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base, should also provide a small airbase for NATO use.
“Is it possible to have closer ties with the West, and will NATO welcome us with open arms?” Sargsyan asked during a TV discussion.
Ambaryan describes Armenian-Russian relations as “farcical.” “A strategic ally can’t sell weapons to our adversary. Also, the Russian monopolists’ presence on the Armenian market has taken on the appearance of looting. … All our strategic facilities, be they transport, energy or communication, belong to Russia,” he insists.
Another political analyst, Levon Shirinyan, notes that Russian pressure has proved to be counterproductive: “I think they are very much afraid of transformations in the Armenians’ collective consciousness, which is actually the result of their own policy. After the April war [serious clashes with Azerbaijani forces in April 2016], when even the fifth column didn’t work, they saw that the young generation was ready to give themselves over to the ideas of statehood and sovereignty. It’s an extremely important psychological act. Psychological ‘sovereignization’ is a real nightmare for them.”
For now, the Armenian political elites are unlikely to initiate a withdrawal from the EAEU, although the union treaty provides for this eventuality.
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