YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Armenia’s planned accession to a Russian-led customs union will have no fundamental impact on its relations with the United States and Washington’s security agenda in the region, U.S. Ambassador John Heffern said on Tuesday.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Heffern was cautious about the implications of President Serzh Sarkisian’s surprise foreign policy U-turn, echoing the U.S. State Department’s muted reaction to the development.
“U.S.-Armenian relations are based on our mutual interest in Armenia’s success,” he said. “We also have other interests in the region: a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, [Armenia’s] normalization and reconciliation with Turkey. Iran is another interest. I don’t see how this affects any of those regional issues. The biggest question is the possible impact on the domestic reforms.”
Heffern stressed in that regard that the Armenian government has assured both the U.S. and the European Union that it will carry on with promised economic and political reforms after joining the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
“Leaders of Armenia have publicly and privately assured us and the EU that they intend to continue with the reform process,” he said. “We are going to continue to push and promote and encourage and support that process in any way we can.
“The path that Armenia chooses as a sovereign country is its choice. So we are going to continue to do what we’ve been doing.”
The governments of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have poor human rights records that have been strongly criticized by Washington. Armenian civil society activists believe that membership in their union therefore does not bode well for Armenia’s democratization.
Heffern insisted that the Sarkisian government is implementing “real reforms in some key sectors” such as state procurements. But he said more needs to be done to combat corruption, boost the rule of law and improve the country’s flawed business environment. “There needs to be a level playing field for international and local investors,” he said.
Heffern welcomed Yerevan’s plans to finalize an Association Agreement with the EU as recently as on September 2, the day before Sarkisian effectively thwarted that deal with his unexpected statement on joining the customs union.
“I have felt and I still believe that … the EU track was a good magnet to pull Armenia in the direction of democracy and good governance,” the envoy said on Tuesday. “But Armenia will choose its own path, and there is nothing in the customs union that is going to prevent Armenia from taking the necessary internal steps that the president, the prime minister and everybody have publicly committed to take in terms of reform in all key sectors.”