The Eastern Partnership: the view from Armenia

Commentary



Armenian indecision and a possible reassertion of Russian pressure leaves fewer options for Armenia

Food-for-thought paper: Armenia

Summary

  • Since its abrupt U-turn in policy in 2013, Armenia has sacrificed its Association Agreement with the European Union in favour of joining the Russian-led Customs Union, thereby deepening the country’s already pronounced over-dependence on Russia.
  • That surprise move also had several negative repercussions, ranging from a new perception of the Armenian government as insincere and incompetent, to a weakening of the course of reform and the political marginalisation of pro-European reformers within the Armenian government.
  • Even so, despite Armenian membership of the Eurasian Economic Union, there is a pronounced degree of sincerity and political will in both Brussels and Yerevan to salvage relations between the EU and Armenia.
  • Thus, the outlook for Armenia’s position within the Eastern Partnership (EaP) and the future of the Armenian relationship with the EU has two main impediments: (1) a combination of Armenian indecision and an absence of strategic priorities, and (2) hesitation in the face of a possible reassertion of Russian pressure on Armenia, resulting in even less room for manoeuvre and fewer options for Armenia.

1.      Introduction

Clearly, Ukraine remains the primary theatre of operations for Russia’s strategy of retrenchment within its “near abroad” or former Soviet space. As Russia seeks to define and defend its own sphere of influence among the former Soviet states, European engagement is now seen as an unacceptable challenge, equivalent to the perception of NATO expansion as a direct threat to Russian interests. Within this context, Russian policy consists of three primary objectives:

  • To undermine the implementation of the EU’s Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine;
  • To divide and destabilise the EaP by weakening the top-tier states (Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine) and restraining the remaining states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus);
  • To consolidate Russian power and influence throughout its “near abroad” by leveraging a combination of hard power, or “hybrid war” in Ukraine, and soft power targeting the internal vulnerability of the other EaP member states. 

2.     Lessons Learned

Looking back, there were three significant “lessons learned” from the case of Armenia:

  • First, there was an unwarranted degree of confidence and complacency over Association Agreement negotiations with the EaP states, failing to foresee a strong Russian reaction and floundering in building a deeper and stronger pro-European constituency in EaP states.
  • There was also a pronounced lack of a proper communications strategy to more effectively define and defend European values in general, and the benefits of the Association Agreements in particular, for the ordinary citizen and consumer within the EaP states, thereby increasing the efficacy of a Russian “soft power” assault.
  • Third, there was an incomplete investment in civil society as an anchor to internal reform and as an empowered policy partner between the EU and EaP member governments, thereby failing to focus on internal weakness and vulnerability to externally driven pressure.

3.     Opportunities for Armenia

In the face of marginal economic gains and mounting costs, Armenia is increasingly aware of the “opportunity costs” of both joining the Eurasian Economic Union and being dangerously over-dependent on Russia. The new trend, therefore, is one of worry and wariness, seeing the limits of its alignment with Russia and seizing a second chance to forge a relationship with the EU. This is bolstered by two factors: a new challenge to the asymmetry of the Armenian-Russian relationship, whereby Armenia may still be largely pro-Russian, yet much less pro-Putin, and a need for greater external legitimacy, driven by the weakness of the Armenian government’s domestic position as a political transition begins.

4.     The Outlook for Armenia

Clearly, in light of the current reality, the EU needs to now explore alternative measures to engage and empower embattled Armenia, but based on a more realistic recognition of the limits and liabilities of Armenia as a partner. And the challenge for Yerevan will centre on the country’s capacity and its leaders’ determination to withstand a fresh onslaught of Russian pressure and coercion. Thus, for both Armenia and the EU, there is a daunting combination of the fragility and vulnerability of EaP countries with a resurgent Russia intent on pursuing confrontation over cooperation. Yet for Armenia the Riga Summit is the starting point, not the “end state”, for salvaging a relationship and regaining a degree of trust and confidence.

Richard Giragosian is the Founding Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), and independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia. He previously served as a Professional Staff Member in the US Congress and was a guest lecturer for the US Army's Special Forces.

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