Democracy, Sovereignty and Armenia’s Eurasian Path

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.


Houry Mayissian

Houry Mayissian is a communications professional with journalism and public relations experiences in Dubai, Beirut, and Sydney. She has studied European politics and society at the University of Oxford, specializing on the democratic reform process in Armenia as part of its European integration. She is currently based in Yerevan.


  1. Probably the right choice, this way Armenia protects itself from territory grabs like Georgia has suffered. Armenia needs to make it clear that Russia must back 100% Armenian control of Nagorno-Krabakh.

  2. this is one of the reasons RoA Gov wisely chose the only rational path at this time:

    [Armenian NPP operation term extended despite EU objections]

    Instead of objecting, EU should give $5 Billion to RoA so a new, modern NPP can be constructed. Maybe then they can get some traction with the average citizen of Armenia.

    Can you warm yourself in cold winters of Armenia with European style democracy ?
    How will European democracy compensate for the loss of about 40% of Armenia’s electric energy needs if the current NPP is shut down ?.
    Can you light the City of Yerevan with democracy ?

  3. At the cost of repeating what I wrote before on another thread here…
    Pres.Serge Sargsyan -hopefully-bargained hard for better gas prices, re-opening of Soviet time factories in RA with heavy Russian investments(we gave 200 thousand martyrs to the hairenagan Baderazm(Fatherland WAR II)exceptions Customs duties wise-but I clearly remember ,i wrote about this on Armenian products shipped to Russian FED. etc.,
    Otherwise,yes a better decision,especially because so far we have not seen EU or USA giving Armenia AID over a Billion one time.Georgia got exactly one B ,when pres. Bush visited Tbilisi not too lon g ago.Armenia gets 60 -80 million bucks when ARF,plus AAA go down on their knees in D.c. for Aid to Ra and Artsakh.Time to be a bit smart in bargaining…
    If ,however Putin did not give anything in return and S.Sargsyan returned home empty handed…that was a BAD DECISION.

  4. Bravo President Sargsyan! And congratulations Armenia! Membership in the EU was never a real option for Armenia.What Armenia did not need was a haphazard entry into a sinking ship like the EU. The multicultural/multiracial theme park known as the EU is imploding under its artificially induced weight. As beleaguered nations such as Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Italy and Romania have shown, Armenia’s membership into the EU only promised to financially enslave the country to Western banksters, increase the numbers of homosexuals, invite third world migrants into the country and replace Armenia’s homegrown “oligarchs” with bigger and nastier oligarchs based in New York, London, Brussels, Istanbul and Tel Aviv. Armenia’s existence in the south Caucasus is made possible by Russia. Armenia and Russia will remain in a strategic embrace. Geographically, politically, culturally and genetically Armenia is an Eurasian nation. Therefore, Armenia’s natural place is within the Russia-led Eurasian Union. Better days lie ahead.

  5. Greetings,
    I agree with the comments expressed by Levon, NordskeDiv, Avery, Pal Gaytsag and harutik.
    As a banker for the past 54 years in international banking and economist the choice is natural.
    I have worked as a consultant in the Rof A in 1992 and 1993, in the early days of the new independent Armenia, commissioned by TACIS in Brussels as well as invited by first president Levon Der Bedrossian and actual PM Dikran Sarkssian for financial and economic consultations in 1991.

    Democracy is a complicated term that has many faces and interpreted very circumstancially by various nations. Real democracy starts at home, in the family of each unit of the society where adults decide within family. Do we have that in the Armenian society? (This applies to all nations by the way). Democracy starts in each organizational unit of business and economic unit…
    What Armenians need is to work hard, hard, hard and produce, innovate and depend on themselves. Our fatherland is a landlocked country. We can survive if we have good relations with nations that are friendly and cooperative in all senses of the word.
    All economically advanced nations had their oligarchies in the beginning. The Japanese Zaibatsus- Mitsui, Mitsubishi Marubeni…to name the few; in the USA, the Rockfellers, Carnegies…
    A few of the European nations have deceived and upset us 100 years ago. Their market size is smaller than the EEU of few CIS countries. If we become economically and financially powerful, then we look for parallel alternatives.

    Cheerios to all

  6. Russia sold weapons to Baku Sultanate but told them they can’t be used against Armenians. The proceeds of the sale covered Russian weapons shipments to Armenia. This is brilliant!!

  7. I liked one commenter admitted above: “Armenia’s existence in Caucasus is made possible by Russia”. Never have truer words been spoken. I wonder why you guys have such hard time relying on your bravery and superior fighting skills that won you the first stage of Karabak War. Or are you afraid that you cannot continue antagonizing Azb and Turkey without Uncle Ivan’s protection?

    Overall, yes, it was a good decision to join the Eurasian Union. But mainly because you had no choice. So it is misleading to say you CHOSE to do this. Just the way the decision was presented by Putin proves this (he called Sarkissian into his office to tell him what to do). I am surprised you express no regret over having lost your independence like this. Also, you did get nothing, and WILL get nothing, from Putin in exchange. If he makes you surrender Karabak tomorrow (thanks to a direct deal with Baku), what are you going to do? You are stuck with Russia no matter what. What I am hearing from you is that Armenia as an independent nation is not a feasible project. What if Russia changes its mind tomorrow? What if they start having their own problems? It is a horrible thing to depend for your existence on someone to whom you are only moderately important. What if the next Russian leader after Putin does not share the colonial mindset in terms of “keeping outposts in Caucasus”?

    • Kerim,

      A nation is free to choose or change its national security prerogatives. I don’t fully agree that Armenia’s existence in Caucasus is made possible by Russia, because Armenia’s existence as a counterbalance to Turkic influence and expansionism is of importance that extends beyond Russia. But if at this point in history Armenia’s existence is made possible by Russia, then be it. As an Azeri, you will never understand the deep feelings of insecurity by a genocide-stricken nation. So please don’t brim over Armenia’s dependence on Russia. Think, instead, how dependent AzerBEYjan is on oil companies and what you are going to do when oil drains out. You may say you get your petrodollars out of your marriage with these companies. Well, and we get our security guarantees in an environment where one Turkic neighbor is an unrepentant genocide perpetrator and thief of ancestral lands and another Turkic neighbor is its like-minded extension as attributed in savagery in Sumgait, Kirovabad, Maragha, and Baku.

      “Antagonizing Azb and Turkey” shows the level of Azeri cynicism. Turks barbarously slaughter and forcibly deport 2 mln innocent people, while Azeris receive as a gift Armenian Nakhichevan and Artsakh and then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, repeat the barbarity of their ethnic kin, but it is us, Armenians, who antagonize you?! God damn…

  8. It was understood that Armenia would be forced to make preference for the EEU over the EU due to a host of obvious reasons. My only concern is that the EEU may become Stage 2 after the EU in the globalist plan to divide the world into several sectors in order to suppress national exclusivity and impose control over the functionality of national governments.

    Stage 3 is the American Union. Asian-Pacific and African Unions will follow.

  9. Karim, I wonder why EU and Russia`s Putin never fight over your beloved oil Sheikhdom!!They know that your oil man has unfinished businesses with Iran!!

  10. Neither Russia and nor EU has common border with Armenia!! Armenia surrounded with sea of hostile Islamic (Turkic) nations, where any time their dictatorial respective regimes can be exploded, and indirectly may affect Armenia’s national security!! Armenia should maintain good relationship with EU and Russia and develop European style parliamentary democracy system.

    In the future when Armenia’s population matured up with democracy, then peace, happiness, prosperity, and respect, will be replaced with today’s politically motivated “unions”, who are interested only, for certain selfish political destructive wills!

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