YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Former President Robert Kocharian has again criticized the Armenian government, saying that President Serzh Sarkisian’s unexpected decision in 2013 to abandon a planned Association Agreement with the European Union seriously damaged Armenia’s international reputation.
In an interview with Germany’s Deutsche Welle broadcaster published on Wednesday, Kocharian stressed that Sarkisian should not have pursued such a far-reaching accord with the EU in the first place in view of Armenia’s close relations with Russia. He seemed to imply that the Russian backlash against that European integration drive is what forced Yerevan to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
“I did not support the signing of the kind of an Association Agreement with the EU that was on the table,” he said. “Not because it was good or bad, but because some of its provisions were geopolitically sensitive, so to speak, for our other partners. I understood that we have to reckon with that.”
Kocharian argued that Armenia had embarked on association talks with the EU along with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine—more pro-Western former Soviet states that have long had uneasy relations with Moscow. “Therefore, it was certainly wrong to get involved in that process so deeply only to end up in a totally different place,” he said, referring to Armenia’s subsequent accession to the Russian-led EEU.
Sarkisian announced his decision to seek membership in the EEU in September 2013, less than two months after his government worked out the key terms of the Association Agreement with the European Commission. The abrupt change is widely believed to have resulted from strong Russian pressure.
Armenia and the EU are expected to start official negotiations next month on a less ambitious deal that would contain some political and economic provisions of their scrapped agreement. The talks will underscore the Armenian government’s hopes to deepen ties with Europe even after its entry into the EEU.
Kocharian seemed skeptical about this delicate balancing act, saying that the scope of those ties will now be “scaled-down and incomplete.”
“We will continue to feel for a long time the damage to Armenia’s international reputation caused as a result of that one-day U-turn, which was absolutely unexpected for both the Europeans and Armenian society,” he said.
Kocharian, who was president of Armenia from 1998-2008, also asserted that contrary to upbeat statements made by Sarkisian and other Armenian officials, EEU membership has yet to benefit the struggling domestic economy. He cited official statistics showing that Armenia’s trade with Russia has actually plummeted over the past year due to a sharp depreciation of the Russian ruble.
Kocharian, who sits on the board of a large Russian corporation and reportedly spends a large part of his time in Moscow, was at the same time careful not to call for Armenia’s exit from the Russian-led economic bloc. He said more time is needed to gauge the EEU’s economic impact on Armenia.
Once a close ally of Sarkisian, Kocharian has grown increasingly critical of his handpicked successor in recent years, fueling speculation about his desire to return to active politics. His possible comeback became seriously complicated, however, after Gagik Tsarukian, a Kocharian-linked tycoon leading Armenia’s second largest parliamentary party, capitulated in February in a bitter standoff with Sarkisian.
Observers believe that Kocharian will find it even harder to return to power if Sarkisian succeeds in transforming Armenia into a parliamentary republic through constitutional amendments that have been put on a December 6 referendum.
Speaking to Deutsche Welle, Kocharian reaffirmed his strong opposition to the proposed amendments. He again claimed that they are meant to indefinitely keep Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) in power.