BY ARA KHACHATOURIAN
I will treat this as Asbarez’s news recording of a visit to Armenia by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday, since most of the official statements and reporting reflect an exchange of niceties and praise for the two countries’ centuries-old friendship and expressions of hope for advancement of trade and other cooperation agreements.
Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian was quoted on the Foreign Ministry website as saying: “During the negotiations a separate set of issues was devoted to the integration processes on Eurasian space, we thoroughly discussed the questions related to Armenia’s joining the Eurasian Union.”
The one-sentence summation by the foreign minister of the discussion over the Eurasian Economic Union is troubling in that it adds to a series of what can be deemed as public snubs against Armenia as it prepares for membership in the EEU.
Our readers will recall the surprise announcement by President Serzh Sarkisian last September, when, after visiting Moscow, he declared Armenia’s intention to join the Customs Union and surprised the international community for what was called a U-turn from its three-year negotiation with the European Union for an association agreement.
Since then Armenian officials have publicly assured that the government was working diligently to finalize all necessary agreements to join the Customs Union, which will be replaced by the EEU, which was made official last month in the Kazakh capital of Asatana with signatures of the Russian, Belarus and Kazakhstan leaders. That’s when the U-turn seemed like the wrong turn.
Aside from the signing of the document, which was presented with much fanfare in the media, official Baku, which until then was never part of the negotiations entered the picture via Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev expressing concerns outlined by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev on Armenia’s membership in the Union, specifically pointing out that Armenia must join the Union based on the borders that were recognized by the United Nations. While President Sarkisian was in the audience in Astana, he opted to shrug off the statement four days later while meeting with a group of youth from his ruling Republican Party of Armenia.
Nazarbayev continued to pursue this bit days later when he visited Turkey and invited that country to join the EEU. Furthermore, not only did Moscow remain silent on the announcement in Astana, Lavrov, who visited Baku last week, assured Azerbaijan’s leadership that Karabakh would not be part of the Eurasian Union.
WTO vs. EEU
While Lavrov was in Armenia on Monday, leaders of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan were meeting in the Russian port city of Sochi, the site of this year’s Winter Olympics, to discuss details of the EEU.
It emerged on Monday that if Armenia successfully joins the EEU it will have to renegotiate its terms and understanding with the World Trade Organization,
Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said on Monday in Sochi that Armenia will have to adopt the EEU’s uniform import duties that are considerably higher than its existing trade tariffs that have not changed since Armenia joined the WTO in 2003, reported RFE/RL.
“If Armenia successfully joins our format, signs an [accession] treaty and it is ratified, Armenia will have to open negotiations with the WTO on compensations,” Shuvalov was quoted by the Interfax news agency.
“That [the new trade regime] will differ from the obligations which it had assumed within the WTO framework,” Shuvalov told reporters in Sochi. “Since the situation will change for Armenia’s trading partners, Armenia will need to start negotiating with them under a WTO procedure,” reported RFE/RL.
This new revelation could pose significant problems–both foreign and domestic–for Armenia, since the potential increase in import duties might complicate matters for foreign supplies coming into Armenia, as well as for products being exported by Armenia to other nations, which would have to pay higher duties.
Shuvalov was confident that all necessary documents would be finalized by July 1 and be ready for Armenia to ratify.
The Karabakh Factor
Azerbaijan reared its ugly head in the EEU process by infringing on the parties’ ability to freely negotiate an economic deal. Through their actions, the main players–Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan–seem to have sanctioned such an intrusion, despite unofficial reports that Nazarbayev’s announcement in Astana infuriated official Moscow, not because of Karabakh, but because the international perception that Moscow annexed Crimea and the discussion of the UN-predicated borders would certainly complicate Moscow’s plans for the EEU.
Ever since the Astana incident, reports of arms supplies to Baku by Moscow have increased, with Moscow admitting that it has sent more military hardware to Azerbaijan than to Armenia from 2007 to 2013. Last week a group of arms exporters from Russia met with government officials in Baku to discuss a fresh round of arms sales.
Meanwhile, the West is ramping up its pressure on Armenia, following what is being deemed as a pro-Russian stance by Yerevan in the UN regarding the Crimea issue, which is being used by Europe and the US to punish Armenia for its rejection of the EU Association Agreement.
On the eve of the EEU agreement, the US’s OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairman, James Warlick, unveiled his country’s position on the Karabakh conflict, which among other things urges Armenia to return the so-called “occupied territories” to Azerbaijan and ensures only a pathway linking Armenia to Karabakh through Lachin.
Since the process to join the Customs Union has not been transparent and no details are being revealed about the agreements and changes imposed upon Armenia on its road to conforming to EEU membership regulations, it is unclear whether Armenia was aware of the obstacles that are now coming to light when it unequivocally threw its hat into the EEU process.