Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Armenia Faces Tough Decision over Association Agreement

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by Haroutiun Khachatrian (the 08/21/13 issue of the CACI Analyst)

A peculiar situation has occurred in Armenia as the opposition and many non-politicians speak about external threats that the country may face in the near future. The issue under discussion is the EU’s Eastern Partnership program. Armenia is a participant in that program and talks with EU representatives on an Association Agreement were successfully concluded on July 24. This means that Armenia can initial its Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership Vilnius summit in November. Along with Armenia, Georgia and Moldova can also initial their agreements, while Ukraine expects to sign its agreement at Vilnius. Belarus and Azerbaijan were not involved in talks at this stage.

In parallel, a customs agreement drafted by Russia was presented to Armenia. Previous signatories to this agreement include Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, who are set to establish the Eurasian Union by 2015. According to former Russian Ambassador to Armenia Vyacheslav Kovalenko, Armenia’s membership in the Customs Union excludes any Association Agreement with the EU. Armenia has rejected its membership in the Customs Union saying that it has no common borders with its current members.

Simultaneously, a public movement has gained momentum in Armenia, claiming that an agreement with the EU would provoke Russia, Armenia’s most important ally. Many Russian media outlets publish articles claiming that Armenia must not initiate an agreement with the EU (even a largely economic one), but there is not a single Russian official among the authors of these publications. Even Kovalenko was no longer Ambassador and occupied the post of deputy director of the Institute of Caspian Cooperation at the time of the interview. To fill this gap, discussion participants in Armenia, both politicians and analysts, present other facts that they believe to be indirect indications of worsening Armenian-Russian relations.

Firstly, Armenia’s strategic ally Russia has recently sold weapons to Azerbaijan worth over US$ 1 billion. Explanations that the trade was strictly business, or that the weapons will not shift the current regional balance which is in Armenia’s favor, are mostly ignored. Secondly, some Russian officials, including President Putin, state that Russia will introduce stricter migration rules the end of 2015. This will greatly affect Armenia, whose population gets over one third of its income from Russia. The fact that Armenians constitute a minor part of migrant workers in Russia, and that this move should hence not be considered as anti-Armenian is, again, largely ignored. Thirdly, President Putin recently visited Baku, while it is yet unknown whether he will visit Yerevan.

Fourthly, Russian TV correspondents frequently repeat that Hrachya Harutyunyan is a citizen of Armenia. Harutyunyan is suspected of causing a serious car accident in Russia on July 13 in which 18 people were killed. Armenian speakers were especially upset by the fact that Harutyunyan was brought to the courtroom dressed in slippers and a woman’s robe. Some see worsening Armenian-Russian relations also in this fact. Fifthly, the exact content of the Association Agreement is still unknown, and it is frequently demanded that it is published, although experts maintain that a document cannot be publicized before it is initialized. Sixthly, according to the critics, the adoption in June of the Armenian law “On the equal rights and equal opportunities of men and women” is a precondition of the Association Agreement. According to them, the EU thus opens the door to alien practices that will lead to a breakdown of the traditional family, such as gay-parades and same-sex marriages.

Such a position may also harm the Armenian military service, the critics say, and call on the government not to initial the document in Vilnius in order to maintain a distance to the EU.

Due to the scarcity of news scoops during summer, this sort of criticism is being disseminated by almost every newspaper and has a certain influence on public opinion, making it more anti-European. The governing Republican Party itself seems to have few concerns about the agreement. Apart from the party’s leader, President Serzh Sargsyan, who presented his position as early as in March, the Republican parliament deputy Samvel Nikoyan also spoke about this matter on July 25. The position of the authorities in favor of the Association Agreement is shared by a number of their opponents, including the Heritage party, former foreign minister and current parliament deputy Alexander Arzumanian, and former Deputy Defense Minister Vahan Ishkhanian. The arguments of the Agreement’s supporters can be summarized as follows: it is an economic document that will allow Armenia to improve its production in accordance with European standards and hence open European markets for Armenia and vice versa. Armenia will have the chance to achieve an additional growth of 2.3 percentage points of its GDP. This will not affect its cooperation with Russia and the CIS in the political, military and economic spheres. According to the latest statements, Armenia also hopes that the Agreement will create new incentives for opening of the Turkish-Armenian border and for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

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