As Armenia turns 22 this month, our country finds itself at a crossroads—perhaps the most defining one in its independent existence. After four years of negotiations with the European Union (EU) on the terms of an Association Agreement as part of the Eastern Partnership program, President Serge Sarkisian last week announced Armenia would join the Russian-led Customs Union.
The Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and now Armenia
will be the foundation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with its own
executive body and a single currency. To be launched in January 2015,
the EEU is largely seen as Russia’s alternative to the EU.
Surprised by Sarkisian’s political U-Turn, the EU has said that
Armenia’s obligations under the Customs Union will be incompatible with
those under an Association Agreement that was due to be initiated at a
summit in Vilnius in November.
That Sarkisian was subjected to significant pressure to join the
Customs Union during his visit to Moscow is unquestionable. No other
logical explanation can be provided for his sudden change of heart.
Signs of mounting pressure were also apparent in recent months with the
dramatic increase of Russian gas prices in Armenia and the sale of
Russian weapons to Azerbaijan.
From economic and energy dependence to military reliance, Russia has
many pressure points on Armenia. While partly the result of the
hostility we have faced from Azerbaijan and Turkey, it is also in large
part a consequence of the inability of successive Armenian governments
to negotiate a position of mutual benefit in this strategic alliance. In
a region where other countries are either outright hostile to Russia or
have more subtly yet decisively expressed their inclinations towards
Europe, Armenia remains one of Russia’s few allies. In the last two
decades, Armenian leaders—both in government and in opposition—have
failed to communicate to Russia that this ongoing alliance comes at a
cost; and that cost is not the mere survival of Armenia and
Nagorno-Karabagh, but rather their growth and prosperity.
Not much is known yet about the EEU and only time will tell what
Armenia’s membership in the union will mean for the country’s economy.
However, the selection of one union over the other was never only about
making an economic choice. The agreement with the EU would have required
that Armenia gradually adopt EU regulations and standards. Implemented
correctly, these regulations would have contributed to Armenia’s
democratization. Moving forward, Sarkisian faces important choices. How
he handles Armenia’s membership in the EEU will have significant
long-term implications for our country’s democratization and
In the Customs Union, Sarkisian is joined by Nursultan Nazarbayev,
the only president Kazakhstan has had since the collapse of the Soviet
Union in 1991; Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus—Europe’s
last dictatorship—since 1994; and Vladimir Putin, in power either as
president or prime minister since 1999. The length of time these leaders
have served should not set an example and a precedent for Armenia too.
Unfortunately, another decision by the Armenian president last week
gives rise to serious concern in this regard. One day after his
announcement to join the Customs Union, Sarkisian formed a Commission on
Constitutional Reform. He justified this decision by the need to
“ensure a complete balance of power and increase the efficiency of
public administration,” among other things.
Talk of impending constitutional reforms first emerged in late
August. The chairman of the National Assembly’s legal affairs committee,
Davit Harutiunian, said in an interview with RFE/RL at the time that
the leadership is considering adopting a parliamentary system of
government. Switching to a parliamentary system has been a demand of
several opposition forces in Armenia. With more power vested in the
legislature as opposed to the president, a parliamentary system would
provide for a more accountable government. There is a catch, however. In
the same interview, Harutiunian did not rule out that Sarkisian might
lead the Republican Party in the next parliamentary elections and return
as prime minister. While the authorities have since tried to water down
Harutiunian’s comments, coming from a senior lawmaker in the ruling
party they should not be dismissed entirely.
Whether this scenario plays out or not, the government’s track record
in democracy already provides reason to fear that partnering with
repressive governments will deal a further blow to democracy in Armenia.
The authorities’ ongoing crackdown on civil society activists is a case
in point. Emboldened by their successful campaign to reverse the 50
percent price hike in public transport, activists have been staging
protests against controversial construction projects and most recently
against the decision to join the Customs Union. Many protestors have
been detained by the police, some on more than one occasion. Several
have also been subject to late-night attacks by “unknown assailants.”
The most recent such incident occurred on the evening of Sept. 5,
when Suren Saghatelian and Haykak Arshamian were attacked by a group of
individuals in downtown Yerevan. They both suffered injuries and were
hospitalized as a result. No one has been charged in relation to these
attacks, which activists say the government was behind. Activist and
lawyer Argishti Kiviryan insisted this was the case during a press
conference last week. Himself arrested three times in the past month,
Kiviryan accused the authorities of employing the police and criminal
elements to try and break the active civic wave the country has been
It is against this background that Armenia takes its first steps to
join the EEU. How membership in that organization is going to impact
Armenia’s democratic process will ultimately be decided by the country’s
leadership. If it was the safeguarding of vital national interests in
the face of significant Russian pressure that pushed Yerevan towards the
Eurasian option, that choice must not dictate the fate of democracy in
Armenia. The authorities must marry membership in the Customs Union with
a commitment to democracy.
At the same time, the authorities must muster the political
astuteness necessary to uphold Armenia’s sovereignty within the union.
As Russia struggles to get other key countries such as Ukraine on board,
Armenia should use its status as one of the few members in this club to
remind Russia that this is a relationship of mutual need. After all,
beyond the concept, Russia’s union will only be viable if it has