BACKGROUND: The treaty on Armenia’s accession into the Eurasian Union was signed during the summit of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council on October 10. Just before the summit, the treaty on the union’s establishment entered its ratification phase; on October 3, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin endorsed the ratification adopted earlier by the State Duma, Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenka gave his endorsement on October 9, and on the same day the upper house of Kazakhstan’s parliament ratified the treaty, which now awaits President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s endorsement. The treaty should enter into force on January 1, 2015.
Armenia’s previous attempt to sign the treaty on establishing the union as a founding member was unsuccessful. In May 2014, the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia required that customs control posts be established on the border between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh (internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan) before Armenia joins the union, and the setting where that requirement was voiced was rather embarrassing for Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan. Just before the October 10 summit, some vague statements about a “compromise” on the customs control issue were made but no substantial information concerning the nature of a possible arrangement is yet available.
Meanwhile, on October 10, Armenia’s parliamentary opposition organized a rally in Yerevan; different sources put the number of participants at between 12,000 and 20,000. The Heritage Party’s leader, Raffi Hovannisian, noted in his short speech that President Sargsyan ignored the people’s will by signing the treaty (some Russian media later quoted Hovannisian’s statement and misinterpreted the rally as if it had been against joining the Eurasian Union). However, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, head of the Armenian National Congress (ANC), repeated in his programmatic address the notion he voiced a few months earlier that Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Union was “irreversible,” and also denigrated the opponents of membership calling them “twenty or thirty individuals having convulsions.” In general, the prolonged sarcastic exchange between Ter-Petrosian’s current supporters in the ANC and his former supporters who are opposed to closer ties with Russia has in the recent months become evidently ill-mannered.
In turn, Gagik Tsarukyan, leader of Prosperous Armenia – the largest party joining the protests – avoided addressing the demonstrators. However, at a press conference a day earlier he said he could consider the possibility of running for president.
IMPLICATIONS: Even in the last few days before the October 10 summit, Belarus’s and Kazakhstan’s skepticism towards Armenia’s membership induced some hopes among the government’s critics that a veto would be applied. Both Lukashenka and Nazarbayev take their countries’ sovereignty seriously and made several strong statements about the unacceptability of introducing a political component in the making of the union, including Nazarbayev’s statement that Kazakhstan would depart from it should its independence be threatened. However, Putin’s view of the union as a geopolitical project is rather obvious. Considering Armenia’s unequivocal loyalty to Russia, its admission into the union essentially means that Moscow gets a second vote and may eventually attempt to amend the union’s statutes.
Taking into account the existing controversies, as well as the uselessness of Armenia’s membership from an economic point of view, Lukashenka’s and Nazarbayev’s agreement to admit Armenia was likely reached by a combination of pressure and incentives from Russia. While Belarus will receive a new financial assistance package, Kazakhstan may have opted not to displease Putin at this moment, keeping in mind recent Russian military exercises in the border regions. At the same time, Minsk and Astana started seeking new opportunities in relations with the U.S. and EU, looking for possible new alliances in order to counterbalance Moscow’s ambitions. They clearly understand that the Eurasian Union’s perspective is dim in the longer run as there is hardly any prospect of including Ukraine.
Concerning Armenia’s membership, hardly any chance remains for preventing ratification of the Eurasian Union treaty despite its inappropriateness in relation to several constitutional provisions. The Constitutional Court is decidedly supportive of the current president, so its approval should be expected. The National Assembly, in turn, will ratify the treaty, probably with most of the opposition’s votes in favor. The parliamentary opposition (with the possible exception of about 10 MPs) is not willing to displease Moscow in any way, while civil society structures outside parliament lack financial capacities, access to the media, and other resources for gathering mass protests.
It remains to be seen to what extent Armenia will relinquish its sovereignty to Russia, and how far it can go in fulfilling Moscow’s demands. Examples of possible demands on the international level include changing the framework of conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh with a perspective of advancing Russia’s policies; adopting an overtly pro-Russian position concerning Ukraine (in fact, during the summit on October 10 Putin demanded that union members develop a common approach); and a change of policies vis-à-vis Georgia. The latter’s ongoing cooperation with the EU and NATO seriously irritates Russia’s leaders, and while direct aggression has become less likely, a reactivation of subversive operations can be expected, including the incitement of tensions in Javakheti and other regions with large minority populations.
On the domestic level, Russia could demand that the Russian language be awarded official status. Another demand already expressed on several occasions, even by diplomatic staff, is to limit the freedom of expression for opponents of Eurasian Union membership and Russian policies in general, as well as the activities of Western foundations, in line with Russian practices.
CONCLUSIONS: A somewhat optimistic estimation suggests that Putin needed Armenia in the Eurasian Union in order to remain a dominant player within it, and to be able to report a success – the union’s enlargement – to the Russian public in order to alleviate popular discontent over increasing economic and social problems. In this perspective, the decline of the Russian economy due to international sanctions and decreasing oil prices should induce Russian decision-makers to concentrate their efforts on restoring relations with the West and on reviving Russia’s economy. However, there is reason to believe that Putin takes the task of reestablishing the Soviet Union in a new form seriously. Such a disposition suggests that Armenia will be used as a tool of Russian domination in the region.
At the same time, the potential for protests in Armenia may grow in the next few months, due to an expected reduction in remittances transferred to Armenia and growing consumer prices. Additional information on the nature of the “compromise” on the customs control issue on the border with Nagorno-Karabakh may also lead to an increase in protest activity. However, bearing in mind the attitude of the most vocal parliamentary opposition and the general population’s susceptibility to Russian propaganda, there is little room for developing awareness about Armenia’s dependence on Russia as the main source of the country’s problems, especially if the opponents of Russian policies are effectively silenced as suggested by Russian emissaries.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Armen Grigoryan is an Armenian political scientist. His research interests include post-communist transition, EU relations with Eastern Partnership countries, transatlantic relations, energy security, and conflict transformation.
(Image Attribution: the Presidential Press and Information Office)