The unpredictable decision by Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan that Yerevan will join a customs union with Russia has raised doubts over Armenia’s EU integration path and caused concern in Brussels about Europe’s relations with its eastern neighbours.
Armenia was poised to sign a key political and free-trade deal with the EU at a summit in November but both Russia and the EU have said countries can’t have both.
Armenia’s decision prompted a planned debate and vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week on Russian pressure on ex-Soviet countries to drop EU integration plans. MEPs were expected to criticise growing Russian pressure on the EU’s eastern neighbours, such as Armenia and Ukraine, not to seek to deepen economic and political ties with the EU at this November’s Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius.
“I think it was bad news to see that Armenia was falling into this and we have a growing concern about this,” a high-ranking official told New Europe in Strasbourg on 10 September. “I think that we should rebuild a new strategy in order to regain the Eastern Partnership influence of the European Union and not to lose more possible and potential partners for the future,” the official added, calling for defending the European Union as a protagonist in the Eastern Partnership.
Experts note that Armenia took the easy way out by choosing to join the Customs Union and point out that Yerevan’s political decision shows this country is interested in preserving status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.
On the other hand, Azerbaijan, which has rich energy resources, plans to help the European Union lessen its reliance on Russian gas and is seeking to deepen its ties with Brussels, increasingly becoming a reliable and predictable partner for the European Union.
Brussels indicated its reluctance to accept Armenia’s offer to renegotiate a planned Association Agreement with the EU. “In light of Armenia’s declared choice to join the Customs Union it is difficult to imagine the initialling at Vilnius summit in November of the Association Agreement with Armenia as it had been negotiated,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said after talks with visiting Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian. “Based on the information we presently have, the compatibility of obligations to the Customs Union with those under an Association Agreement/DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area) with the EU looks problematic,” Fuele added in a statement.
Europe is also concerned by Georgia’s statement that Tbilisi may, in due course, also join the Russian Customs Union.
Speaking on national TV on 4 September, Georgia’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said: he is keeping a close eye on the Eurasian Union “and we are studying it. At this stage we have no position at all. If in perspective we see that it is in our country’s strategic interest, then, why not? But at this stage we have no position at all”.