During the meeting, Armenia expressed interest in joining the Customs Union created by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and in the Eurasian Economic Union that will be created in the future. The main argument that experts raise, relying on a traditional point of view, is that Armenia had remained stuck between the European Union and Eurasian Union but in the end, it surrendered to Russia. However, a review of the current outlook and developments show that such superficial discourses and arguments are not coherent or adequate to explain what is really happening.
In the election campaign on February 2013, Sargsyan defined Armenian-Russian relations as strategic whereas when it came to relations with the US and Europe, he referred to a good neighborhood. Sargsyan clearly stated that the support of Russia should be preserved so that they would be able to keep Nagorno-Karabakh. Right after the elections, international experts and the media expected that cooperation with Russia would be deepened and that in the new era, and that Armenia would be in closer cooperation with Russia particularly in the field of security.
Armenia had to develop strong ties with its big brother Russia as a result of its one-dimensional policy where it failed to diversify its options in the fields of security, military, economy and politics since its independence. This option still offered a good perspective for Armenia considering the economic embargo imposed by Turkey, which had closed their borders, and its deteriorating relations with its other neighbors with the exception of Iran.
Maybe an option for Armenia between the EU and the Eurasian Union never existed. The opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, which has been a heated discussion over the last two decades, was not achieved despite the reestablishment of diplomatic relations without prior conditions, the freezing of progress made through “soccer diplomacy” because of the interests of Turkish foreign policy and Turkey’s insistence on not making any concessions on its position despite the fact that it is member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group seeking to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, the recommendations by the US and the EU’s efforts under Swiss mediation; as a result of this failure, Armenia has been “involuntarily” and desperately marching towards its one and only option for the last two decades.
First place in Armenia’s foreign trade
Russia still holds first place in Armenia’s foreign trade, some national strategic facilities have been transferred to Russia which — perhaps intentionally — does not operate them, Russia has a military base in Armenia, there are nearly 2 million Armenians living in Russia, most of whom have become Russian citizens, Armenia is almost fully dependent on Russia in economic terms (gas, electricity and enriched uranium for its Metsamor nuclear power plant); given all these factors, it is only natural that Armenia wants to deepen its relations with Russia.
On the other hand, the reservations of Yerevan, which has been disturbed by the recent attitude and discourse of Russia on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, the surprise visit to Baku by Putin who expressed support for Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the coming elections, its arms sales to Azerbaijan in large amounts, the Russian announcement that the price of gas sold to Armenia would increase sharply; in short, the indirect threats and warnings by Russia to Armenia were the main reasons and factors for the Armenian government making a swift decision to seek admission in the Customs Union.
Sargsyan’s statements that they are ready to take the necessary steps were also confirmed by Putin’s remarks that they would extend assistance to ensure that the process of Armenia’s admission would be accelerated. In addition, on the occasion of Sargsyan’s visit, the state-run Russian Railways decided to make a $400-million investment in the Armenian railway infrastructure.
This “carrot diplomacy” was further backed by promises made by Russia’s former ambassador to Yerevan, who delivered a speech in a meeting on Nov. 8 called “Armenia and Customs Union: The social measurement of Eurasian integration.” Vyacheslav Kovalenko, who pointed out that Armenia and Russia are two Christian countries, also argued that should Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence be recognized, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh may also be admitted in the Customs Union as full member.
EU acting cautiously
At the same meeting, the EU commissioner for enlargement said the EU is acting cautiously so as not to publicly raise the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as a condition, adding that efforts to achieve a deal with Azerbaijan should also be increased. Eurasia expert Thomas de Waal noted that the Armenian authorities’ decision is all about security and that they would not dare lose their only military ally. Yerevan’s alignment with the Eurasian Union was a development which all parties would have expected.
Even though the Armenian people favor European culture and values, the vast majority have full confidence in the security service Russia provides. But when they recall Turkey’s regional and military power and its support for Azerbaijan, they feel disappointed. To this end, in addition to some of the minor protests in Yerevan and the overall state of disappointment, the majority seem to be supportive of Sargsyan. The reactions by the opposition — “We do not want Russia” — will no longer be heard if they come to power because it is all about Armenia’s security conundrum rather than being a supporter or an opponent of the West or Russia.
Armenia’s relations with the EU, as noted by the EU authorities, will be preserved in the fields of reforms, democracy, human rights and cooperation with civil society. The progress made over time following the talks on the issue of facilitated Schengen visa procedures for selected delegations is raising hopes.
While Turkey is physically Armenia’s closest and oldest neighbor, this role has been replaced by Putin, who said, “Armenia’s first trading partner is Russia and this trend will continue.” If Georgia is taken out of the equation between Armenia and Turkey, in other words, when the Turkish-Armenian border is reopened and bilateral trade resumes, in fact it becomes clear who the unrivaled trading partner of Armenia is.
After his visit to Switzerland, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said, “We are paying attention to normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.” This was really important. As 2015 approaches, everybody knows that the ball is in Turkey’s court. It is expected that the government would take steps in the issue of the Armenian issue, similar to those taken in respect to the Kurdish and the minority issues. If Turkey admits that the protocols between Turkey and Armenia, signed four years ago, were frozen by itself for some lame excuses and restarts an impartial policy in the region, this will not only resolve the issues between the two countries but will also liberate Armenia, which has been pursuing an inward policy due to security concerns.
Alin Ozinian is an independent analyst. This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman.