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 sovereignty.
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 witnessing.
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 members.