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There is life after Vilnius

There is life after Vilnius

Armenia sandwiched between two Unions

Announcing the successful conclusion of negotiations on free trade and bunch of side effect agreements (such as visa liberalisation) after a three-and-a-half year marathon of negotiations with the European Union, and in fact becoming the champion among all six Eastern Partnership nations with the pace of its reforms, Armenia surprised many by performing a U-turn back to the Kremlin embrace, just in the eve of its independence 22nd anniversary. Many in the expert community (plus the diplomats off the record) doubted it was blind pressure from Russia that eventually bore fruits.

PanARMENIAN.Net - Two months ago, on September the 3rd, Armenia fell victim of Russia-EU rivalry in the post-Soviet Eastern Europe. This jealous competition between two major international actors can be blamed on the widely known broken pledge of NATO non-enlargement after the end of Cold War and reunification of Germany in 1990s, whereas the current situation in the international oil and gas markets has brought giant cash flows to finance Russian assertive return to both international scene and its ‘backdoor neighborhood’ post-Soviet space.

Announcing the start of Association Agreement negotiations with the European Union in May 2009, Armenia has never made a secret of her vision: strategic and closely-tied political relations (and many other ties) with Russia and institutional development cooperation with the EU, whereas trade regimes would develop parallel to political dialogue with any partner, without closing the door before the rest. That would be natural if a landlocked country like Armenia, surrounded by internationally isolated Iran, unfriendly Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as Georgia, would seek to seal free trade deals with each and any international partner to boost trade turnover. To serve this ends, Armenia has long adopted the philosophy of «both, and» approach in diplomacy as key national security paradigm for Yerevan in the middle of the flammable region, shaking any extended hand of friendship it was offered.

The «both, and» philosophy was visibly employed in August 2010, when along the progress in Eastern Partnership frameworks, Armenia has also extended the lease of Russian military base in Gyumri for unprecedented timeframe – till 2044. And everyone seemed happy then, although the XIX century-style Reinsurance Treaties (Azerbaijan concluded similar military deal with Turkey same month) were long-forgotten tools of international affairs to the rest in the international community.

However, independent from Eastern Partnership visions, the growing crisis in EU-Russia relations, fueled by Russian persuasive ‘Gasprom diplomacy’ each Christmas eve, brought their relations to the embrace of geopolitics. In the new realities, neither side appreciated partners' attempts of sitting in two chairs simultaneously. Armenia was the first to face «either, or» choice, a week before Vilnius – Ukraine followed.

Armenian diplomats are keen saying that they actually try «to synthesize, rather than oppose» the interests of great powers, given the geopolitics of South Caucasus.

Same message was conveyed by Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia in Moldovan capital Chisinau, last July, where he elaborated at large what Armenia had been seeking through the Eastern Partnership and EU free trade deal. Most important of them – open border with Turkey and trade through Turkish ports.

And here is the key focal point.

Now stalled (and largely forgotten) historic breakthrough between Armenia and Turkey through Zurich Protocols in 2009 shattered hopes that Yerevan alone could convince Turkey to unseal the border, closed since 1993, which could bring new breath and more dynamics to Armenian largely oligarchic economic system. In search of multilateral dimensions to achieve the goal, Armenia has employed the Eastern Partnership and eventual Association Agreement with the EU to put Armenia-Turkey issue on the EU-28 agenda and thus increase pressure on Ankara. However, President Sargsyan’s strong statement in Chisinau flagged that EU did not commit to handle the issue either, thus decreasing the incentives for Yerevan to attract more Russian anger over any further rapprochement with the EU.

And the ‘sovereign choice’ was made in favor of launching integration with Kremlin-inspired Customs Union, which would effectively ban any further trade deals with Brussels or anyone else.

“Russia didn't particularly press, but let's say it showed the alternative which was rationally a strategic endgame for us, and while the Europeans didn't offer anything but reform package and pledges of fraternity, security issues overwhelmed our agenda." -- told me a diplomat involved in both tracks, who wished to remain unnamed.

Coupled with huge, multibillion dollar arms deal with Azerbaijan, as well as 30 per cent increase in gas prices, Russia has made it clear that the price for Armenia in furthering 'love affair' with Brussels can bring more insecurity to Nagorno Karabakh. Since the Europeans did not own any significant leverage over Azerbaijan, apart from making toothless statements over human rights record, Armenia was doomed to return to Kremlin's embrace in search of more security and stability.

So, it seems safe to say that on September 3 Armenia preferred security under Russian hard power guarantees over EU-led institutional reforms and development. Looking on the map – one would most certainly be emphatic towards this choice.

Even now having a formal track of bringing Armenia into the Customs Union, the Kremlin should be puzzled why Armenia (as well as Ukraine) – a long-standing ally – had been much ready to seal a deal with the Europeans, than associate the future with Russia. The short answer, of course, would refer to the development philosophy vs. security dilemma. Interestingly, both Armenia and Ukraine cited cheap gas, possible trade difficulties with Russian market (Ukraine even experienced this in a visible way) and strategic considerations as primary reasons for the eventual U-turn towards Russia.

Now it is official that President Sargsyan will head the Armenian delegation to Vilnius, where 'some sort of paper' will be sealed, honoring Armenia's progress in the Eastern Partnership and aspirations for the future. The fact that the Association Agreement has been let through shredder is a bad news, but much greater is the challenge for the EU itself to settle unspoken controversies with the Kremlin so as third countries would not fall victim to that rivalry. After all, the Cold War is over.

It remains to be hoped that the high level summit in Vilnius, apart from family picture opportunities, will serve as brainstorming forum for the future of EU relations with two less lucky (than Georgia and Moldova) aspirant countries – Armenia and Ukraine, who literally became, in the words of a latest Reuters article, 'stolen brides at the altar'.

Hovhannes Nikoghosyan is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) University in Yerevan.

Hovhannes Nikoghosyan
Eastern Partnership

The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the first comprehensive initiative introduced into the system of the European Union’s external relations, addressed to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The Eastern Partnership is designed to help the countries of Eastern Europe and South Caucasus with their approximation to and integration with the European Union. The EaP has injected a new quality into relations between the EU and the countries covered by the initiative through their gradual integration with the European Union.

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