George Vlad Niculescu,
Head of Research, The European Geopolitical Forum
The announcement at the beginning of September 2013, in Moscow, by President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia's decision to join the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) apparently took many by surprise. Firstly, because in July 2013 Armenia concluded a lengthy four years negotiation on essential agreements, meant to upgrade its ties with the European Union (EU), which would be incompatible with joining the ECU. Secondly, because until recently (i.e. the run-up to the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit to be held this fall) enlargement didn't seem a top priority for the ECU, the focus being more on making the customs union mechanisms effectively work for the existing membership. Thirdly, because the Armenian government didn't make heard any noises announcing the intention to join the ECU prior to the statement by President Sargsyan, as the diplomatic practice would have required. The unexpected character of the Armenian President's announcement was widely reflected in the headlines of the international media. For example, the Wall Street Journal commented on 4 September that: "European diplomats were stunned this week by word that Armenia, which had been heading toward strengthening ties with the European Union, will instead join a customs union led by Russia—handing the Kremlin a victory in its tug of war with Brussels for influence in the region".
After the dispelling of the initial surprise, high level officials, political analysts, and members of the civil society have started to look at the causes, meaning, and implications of this strategic shift in Armenian foreign policy. The skeptics qualified the move as the "end of complementarity in Armenia's foreign policy" and warned that "This pressure [to join the ECU] concerns all four countries (including Armenia) on the road to association. It's part of the wider picture, and the fear that it might provoke a domino effect". Armenia-friendly civil society claimed that "reforms and achievements in the fields of democracy, trade regulations and modernizing the administration have clearly been noticed by the EU and above all represent a great benefit for the country." Furthermore, solving some of the socio-economic problems facing Armenia today would actually be "a vital interest shared by Armenia, Russia and the EU which cannot be ignored".
However, experts with a thorough knowledge of the South Caucasus, and in particular of Armenia’s foreign and security policies goals and constraints, weren't astonished as much by the content of the announcement of the President, as by the unexpected and hasty way for making it public. For many years, it had been known that Armenia almost irremediably linked its security and economy, in particular its energy sector, to Russia. Yerevan chose to partially sacrifice its independence and sovereignty for the sake of keeping a convenient status quo in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict against a shifting strategic balance in favor of an increasingly self confident and internationally influent Azerbaijan.
To balance its overreliance on Russia, as well as Azerbaijani strides to get Western support for its cause in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia has cultivated its Western ties while pursuing the European integration path. In this vein, Elmar Brok, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, commented on the Armenian President's decision: “We know that Armenia is under incredible pressure from Russia because of the difficult situation towards Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. It is very important that Nagorno-Karabakh should be solved in a way that such a small country can find a solution with Azerbaijan on that question in order to overcome the problems in the region. The European Union, which has not done it till now, should take much more interest in the solution of such a frozen conflict”. Consequently, a lesson learned from the Armenian decision to join the ECU might suggest that the EU should get more involved into finding solutions to the protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus and Transnistria.
Conspicuously, European integration has had a positive impact on the political, administrative and socio-economic reforms within Armenia itself. Therefore, it looks wise that the EU doesn't put a political end to Armenia's European integration path in revenge for its choice of the Eurasian Union. This way, the EU could:
- maintain significant leverage on Armenia, which might prove useful in bringing up a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict;
- avoid playing the dangerous game of drawing new dividing lines in Europe's Eastern neighborhood with all its potential security implications;
- promote the mutually tolerant co-existence of both the European and Eurasian integration processes in the strategically important, but politically sensitive South Caucasus; regional cooperation could also play a significant role in symbiotically welding the two integrationist processes together.
However, while Armenia’s sovereign choice to subdue its national security and economy to Russia needs to be respected, it shouldn't be either ignored or sanctioned by the EU. Adapting the Eastern Partnership policy to the new realities regarding the status of the country should be high on the agenda of EU's bilateral relations with Armenia. The EU should therefore find a realistic way to continue to nurture Armenia’s European aspirations, while accommodating them with the requirements of its prospective Eurasian integration. This might include a revision of Armenia’s Association Agreement to reflect the new reality, and an assessment of the potential for making the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement ( DCFTA) compatible with Armenia’s obligations as future member of the ECU. At the end of the day, inclusion is one of the central features of the Eastern Partnership.
Regarding the potential implications of Armenia's decision at the wider regional level, experts have already warned for a couple of years that the ECU might evolve in the future in a way that might be challenging the European Union as a "normative power" in its "shared neighborhood" with Russia. Consequently, “the dilemma of the post-Soviet states: European vs. Eurasian integration” emerged, placing “third parties, such as Ukraine [and Armenia, indeed], in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between joining the Eurasian Customs Union and setting up free trade with the EU, while focusing both Russia and the West on competition rather than on cooperation. 
” Furthermore, “the evolving challenges in Eurasia”, including also the growing ideological gap between Russia and the West, and the protracted conflicts have pulled Russia and the West into a new geopolitical competition, potentially resembling a regional Cold War.
Within this broader strategic context, the Armenian decision to join the ECU might be just another episode further entangling Eurasia into that geopolitical competition. It might be seen as a residual outcome of EU's and Russia's shortsighted regional integration policies undertaking parallel, non-harmonized processes in the same geographical area. From this perspective, Armenia might have been the first victim of competitive European and Eurasian integration processes. Unless the emerging challenges in Eurasia are effectively addressed by Russia, the United States and the European powers, including Turkey, within a comprehensive political, economic and strategic dialogue potentially leading to common approaches and cooperation, sooner or later, other EU Eastern partners, most notably Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, might follow in Armenia’s footsteps while being pushed into a hasty, though fundamental decision on whether their future lies with Europe or with Moscow. At that time, the prospects for redrawing new dividing lines in Europe's Eastern neighborhood might have become overwhelming!
V. Socor- "The end of "complementarity" in Armenia's foreign policy" in the Eurasian Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, Volume 10, Issue 165- 18 September 2013
Statement by Michael Kambeck, Secretary General, the European Friends of Armenia (EuFOA).
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