Less than a year ago, Armenia appeared well on its way to taking its first substantial step in years toward European integration. Negotiations with the European Union had been finalized, and all but minor details had been overcome for Yerevan’s initialing of an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the European Union at the November 2013 Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. For the briefest of moments, Armenia looked ready to venture outside of the pro-Russia system within which it had long been firmly ensconced.
But in early September, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan announced during a Moscow visit that Armenia
was suspending plans
to sign its EU association agreement and would instead be joining the Russian-led Customs Union and Eurasian Union projects. Yerevan’s volte-face had less to do with a sudden change of heart than with Russia’s overwhelming influence
over the country. Armenia is flanked to the east and west by historical rival Turkey and arch-nemesis Azerbaijan, respectively; pro-West Georgia separates Armenia from Russia to the north, and the largely friendly but mercurial Iran, itself internationally isolated, sits on Armenia’s southern border. Landlocked and geopolitically isolated in the region, Armenia is almost wholly dependent
on Russia for trade and energy, as well as security; Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) means that any attack on Armenia would oblige Russia to intervene
on its behalf.
However, according to at least one senior State Department official, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s message to Sargsyan in Moscow was more direct. Yerevan was told to discontinue its Western drift or Russia would revisit its long-standing support for Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani territories. With its outsized dependence on Moscow, the Armenian government had little choice but to comply. Russia’s fading attractiveness in the region
as a partner has led Moscow to enforce its imperial writ through economic and security blackmail and coercion, belying Moscow’s fervent efforts to invent a “Eurasianist” ideology.
Yerevan has maintained that joining the Russia-led Eurasianist bloc does not disqualify it from also building more-robust ties with Europe. Though the Customs Union and DCFTA are operationally incompatible—Armenia cannot simultaneously harmonize its tariffs to Russian Customs Union levels while joining the DCFTA—the political component of the EU association agreement is still a technical possibility. But there appears to be little appetite in Brussels to grant Yerevan what would essentially serve as little more than a propaganda victory for the regime while doing little to functionally integrate Armenia into the European family.
Despite the surprise it generated, Armenia’s full-scale defection to the Moscow-led bloc has not appreciably upset regional alignments. Even before Yerevan’s last-minute change of heart over the EU association agreement, most analysts and planners saw Armenia as firmly in the Russian camp, albeit with mild allowances for Western cooperation here and there. In the region, however, the effects of Yerevan’s geopolitical all-in with Russia have been more pronounced. In Azerbaijan, Armenia’s integration with Moscow-led transnational structures has effectively walled off
those organizations from serious consideration by Baku.
In neighboring Georgia, the Armenian turnaround has bolstered fears that despite friendly relations, the two countries are on irreconcilably divergent paths. In a private conversation, one senior Georgian official noted that Armenia could no longer be considered an “independent country.” Tbilisi appears cognizant that it cannot count on Armenia to appreciably influence Russian designs on the region, but nonetheless pursues engagement with Yerevan out of a sense of historical affinity and economic relations, particularly with the realization that Armenia at least retains the ability to play either a constructive or destructive role in Georgia’s own ethnic Armenian-majority region of Javakheti.
But more broadly, Armenia’s likely irrevocable capture into Russia’s Eurasianist orbit appears set to consign the country to middling economic prosperity, entrenched corruption, political autocracy and geopolitical isolation. The Customs Union’s high external tariffs are sure to contribute to increasing prices for goods ranging from foodstuffs to cars, while also restricting the supply of non-Russian products, which will mean no more cheap secondhand cars from Europe. Only energy will probably be spared from the likely price spikes, due to vague Russian promises of increased subsidies, though there is the possibility that overall costs will increase if Iranian gas, which could be taxed at the high protective rates, is squeezed out of the market. By contrast, a DCFTA would have allowed Armenia to continue trade with Russia while also opening up the vast European market. An EU-commissioned analysis of an EU-Armenia DCFTA estimated 2.3 percent GDP increase and a 15.2 percent boost in exports for Armenia if the DCFTA were enacted
Moreover, the dynamic has now become self-reinforcing: Armenia’s decision to eschew the EU deal will further reinforce and expand the Russian leverage that torpedoed its hopes for European integration. By most reasonable measures, Yerevan cannot be counted on to behave as a sovereign actor. While Moscow is likely content to delegate most of Armenia’s domestic and even minor foreign policy decision-making to the regime in Yerevan, Russia’s economic, political and security monopoly gives it something approaching a final say in Armenia’s affairs. Under this arrangement, Armenia’s relationship to Russia resembles less that of an ally or client state than that of a feudal vassal. This is not exceedingly dissimilar from Moscow’s arrangements with today’s Chechnya and the pro-Russia breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia.
Yerevan may yet find a means of escaping Russia’s grip through inspired domestic leadership or an as-yet-unforeseen opposition breakout, but the likelihood of this possibility in the near-to-medium term is remote. This is particularly true as long as the Nagorno-Karabakh issue remains unresolved, given the calcifying effect
it has had on domestic politics in Armenia as well as Azerbaijan. Restoring liberalization—and, interestingly, Yerevan’s sovereignty—may now rest squarely on achieving a final, durable solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which hangs like a millstone on Armenian independence.
Michael Hikari Cecire is a Black Sea and Eurasia regional analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also a member of the Georgian Institute of Politics.