Debate on withdrawal from EEU strengthens Armenia's positions – Richard Giragosian

10:01 • 24.11.17



In an interview with Tert.am, Director of the Regional Studies Center Richard Giragosian  addressed the parliamentary opposition proposal to initiate a process for Armenia's withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Agreeing that the scenario, proposed by the opposition faction Yelk. has little chances of success, Giragosian said he finds a parliamentary debate on the issue very important in terms of strengthening the country's position in future negotiations with Moscow and the EEU member states.


The parliament is scheduling hearings over the Yelk's bill proposing Armenia withdrawal from Eurasian Economic Union in late November.  As a reason to justify their initiative, they cite the existin economic and political problems. We should bear in mind that the issue has been already under discussion for two years. And the process was launched by the Free Democrats party. Do you think new discussions are likely to change anything with respect to Armenia's membership in the Eurasian Economic Union? Is it possible for the Armenian opposition to succeed in the initiative?


Although it is very unlikely that Armenia will withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union, the issue is significant for two specific reasons.  First, Armenia needs to formulate a new strategy to either re-negotiate the terms of its membership or to at least seek preferential treatment for a very important challenge—the imposition of higher tariffs on Armenia.  More specifically, I am referring to the coming expiration of the exemptions of some 800 Armenian products and good that are not required to be subjected to the higher tariffs of the Eurasian Economic Union.  


And a second significant factor is the related reality that such a debate in the parliament will only strengthen Armenia’s position in such renegotiations with Moscow and other EEU members.  The Armenian government can demand more and argue more effectively for its position by pointing to less than expected support within Armenia.  And Armenia’s strategic importance is greater now than in 2013, when Moscow saw Armenia as the sacrificial pawn and leveraged its successful pressuring of Yerevan as a message of strength aimed to deter other Eastern Partnership countries.  But now the timing and the context are different, and there is no longer any such need to pressure Yerevan, with Moscow also sensing little danger of “losing” Armenia to the EU no matter what new agreement is reached, especially since any new agreement would be less than the broader Association Agreement and DCFTA.  Thus, Russia provided Armenia with a much greater degree of maneuverability, as seen in little real interference and certainly less interference over the negotiations between Armenia and the EU in this second attempt at redefining the relationship.

 

Amid Russia’s demonstration of such a seemingly more permissive stance, Armenia was also able to leverage a third, related trend that was driven by the downturn in fortunes of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and defined by the Russian recognition of the need to garner greater legitimacy and credibility of the EEU. In this context, Armenia’s argument that its eventual agreement with the EU could actually serve Russian interests by serving as a “bridge” between the EU and EEU began to win adherents.  At the same time, Armenia’s geographic position, despite the lack of land borders with the EEU itself, was also reinterpreted as an advantage, offering the EEU alternative avenues to leverage Armenia’s relations with Iran, proximity to the Middle East and even interest in the possible benefits from the possible reopening of its closed border with Turkey.


The discussion about  Armenia withdrawal from the Eurasian Economic Union will start after the EaP summit. Do you think that these two processes have ties with each other?

 

The new EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) that is being prepared for signing at the 24 November EU summit in Brussels, is not directly related to this process, but there are some indirect observations.  And while there is still some concern that the CEPA will possibly be delayed, attention has shifted away from the Agreement and to the summit declaration.

 

First of all it is important to note that no matter what happens at the 24 November Brussels summit any delay in signing does not impact the Agreement itself.  Armenia was able to regain European confidence and, in a rare “second chance,” was able to “initial” the new EU-Armenia Agreement in March 2017.   And this new EU-Armenia CEPA presents a fresh start for the deepening of relations between the two parties in the wake of Armenia’s abortive Association Agreement and related Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Despite a difficult and complicated context, both the EU and Armenia have demonstrated the necessary political will to negotiate a new compromise agreement that takes into account Armenia’s commitments and limitations as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union.

 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was recently in our region. In a statement in Baku, he said Russia will be happy to see Azerbaijan in the member of Eurasian Economic Union.  We knew about Russia’s desire of having Azerbaijan as a member of Eurasian Economic Union. But is such a process realistic that now?  Do you that Lavrov is trying to demonstrate Russia’s attitude to the Armenia’s choice of signing agreement with EU? Do you think Armenia should react to this kind of announcements by Russia?

 

In terms of overall national security, Armenia is seeking to garner greater strategic alternatives.  This is seen first in the country’s move to overcome the setback from its forced sacrifice of its Association Agreement with the European Union (EU), after Russian pressure on Armenia in 2013.   As a result of that move, Armenia not only surrendered its chance to secure a significantly closer position with the EU and within the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, it also was compelled to commit to joining the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).  Yet Azerbaijan is unlikely to join the EEU.


For Armenia, the guiding principle of defense, development and foreign policy is driven by a “small state” strategy designed to seek “balance” between the competing interests of much greater regional powers, such as Turkey, Russia and Iran.  For Armenia, this quest for balance also involves efforts to maximize strategic options, as evident in the country’s inherent contradiction of maintaining a close relationship with Russia while deepening ties to the West.

 

Obviously, the danger for Armenia stems from the now apparent over-dependence on Russia, whereby after several years of a steady mortgaging of Armenian national interest, involving the Russian acquisition of sectors of the economy, a reliance on Russian gas imports, and more structurally, Armenia’s position as Russia’s foothold in the South Caucasus.  This latter factor stems from Armenia’s sole position in the region as the host of the only Russian base, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and, most recently, of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).   

 

Although Armenia has sought to avoid being caught in the broader confrontation between Russia and the West, the impact from the Russian annexation of Crimea and its aggressive actions to support a war in Ukraine have been fairly significant.  But the most dynamic factor for Armenia has not been Ukraine, but rather, from Russia’s policy to arm Azerbaijan.  Moreover, there is a deepening crisis in Armenian-Russian relations, driven by a set of factors, but most notably due to Armenian resentment over Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan and frustration over the inadequacy of faith in Russian security promises after the April 2016 “four-day war” over Nagorno-Karabakh.  In addition, this crisis in relations with Russia is also deepened by the degree of arrogance and asymmetry with which Russia “takes Armenia for granted,” and from a dramatic decline in remittances from Russia and a related loss of jobs in Russia.  Yet the real test for Armenia is whether this crisis in relations with Russia and the challenge to Moscow over the terms of the relationship may be too little, too late.

 

Unlike many of the former Soviet states, where Russia’s reliance on instruments of “soft power” have triggered serious concern, in the case of Armenia, which is still seen by Moscow as an occasional annoyance yet normally reliable Russian partner, the limits of Russian power are readily apparent.  And most significantly, Russian soft power in Armenia is neither soft, nor very powerful.           

 

From a broader perspective, the effective application of Russian soft power is inherently limited by three distinct factors.  First, by its very nature, there is little genuine appeal or attraction for the post-Soviet countries.  Many, if not all, of these countries are merely seeking to manage the threat of a resurgent Russia.  Even for the more authoritarian states, appeasing Moscow is about regime survival.  In the battle of ideas and ideals, Russia offers little in terms of values.  Rather, the Russian position is one of threats and coercion, in stark contrast to Western or European ideals of attraction or seduction, based on values of political pluralism and opportunities for economic prosperity.  Against this backdrop, it is also clear that Russia’s position is one of weakness, not strength, and is rapidly exhibiting signs of dangerous over-extension.  These fundamental weaknesses of Russia’s much heralded, but often exaggerated soft power are most evident in Armenia.

 

For Russia’s approach toward Armenia, there has been a heavy reliance on instruments of hard power, exploiting Armenian military insecurity over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan and manipulating the country’s economic security.  Clearly, the Karabakh conflict remains the simplest instrument for leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Armenia as a willing recipient of Russian security promises and discounted weapons and Moscow now as the number one arms provider for Azerbaijan.

 

Beyond the success in regaining and restoring Armenian relations with the European Union (EU), Armenia has also significantly deepened ties to China.  But the most important element of Armenia’s strategic “pivot to China” is not limited to trade.  The emergence of a more robust military and security relationship with China stood out as an equally significant achievement for Armenia.  More specifically, despite its security partnership with Russia, Armenia is seeking an alternative to an over-reliance on Russia.

 

Moreover, against a backdrop of regional isolation, the South Caucasus now faces a new opportunity to garner greater strategic significance and gain a more pivotal, and less peripheral position.  This inherently profound opportunity stems from an unlikely source- distant China, whose new Belt Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to recapture the dynamism and repeat the display of the globalized benefits from an Asia-centered trade network.  Such a revitalized “Silk Road” also offers a chance of “connectivity” for formerly remote and isolated regions, and an opportunity for connectivity over conflict and trade integration over destruction, essential for regions like the South Caucasus. 

 

For the three countries of the South Caucasus, the sheer scale and scope of this initiative reinforces a broader strategic vision that has been demonstrably lacking.  And for each of the three states, there are unique opportunities, which only foster a convergence of mutual interests over the more traditional conflict that has impeded all efforts at restoring regional trade reinvigorating economic cooperation.  For Armenia, as the smallest country in the region, the strategic opening of the Belt Road Initiative offers an important reversal of decades of exclusion and reaffirmed the imperative for overcoming the country’s pronounced geopolitical and geo-economic landlocked status. 

 

And in the case of Armenia, membership in the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) may offer an advantage.  More specifically, as an EEU member state, Armenia can offer a degree of dual access, for the BRI to attract interest from other EEU members using Armenia as a platform, and also as a mechanism for the BRO to widen its reach by utilizing Armenia as a bridge into much larger markets and to link to the more vast Russian transport networks.

Hripsime Hovhannisyan





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