Can Europe Make It?

The EU-Armenia entanglement: failed relations and the shadow of a new approach

Armenia is trapped between its traditional ties to the East and a desire to integrate with the West. In the light of an increasingly aggressive Russian foreign policy, what are Armenia's European options?

Eduard Abrahamyan
4 June 2015
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President Serzh Sargsyan receives his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Demotix/ PHOTOLURE News Agency. All rights reserved

The EU-Armenia entanglement: Failed relations and the shadow of a new approach

In the wake of a positive conclusion to negotiations between Armenia and the EU on an association agreement it seemed that Armenia could start to look forward to radical economic and political benefits. Since September 3 2013, however, Armenia has been involved in an economically uncertain, politically untrustworthy and artificially established Eurasian Economic Union (EAU). This politically embarrassing act emerged from Vladimir Putin’s desire to prevent Armenia’s forthcoming integration with the West. He did this by employing a policy of coercion and military-economic intimidation vis-a-vis Yerevan. In turn, this forced Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to join the EAU, which was undeniably a catalyst for the deep economic crisis and political failure that inevitably led Armenia to collapse as a whole.

In light of this, the date “September 3” has gradually acquired the meaning of political fiasco in Armenia. Where the European path of the country and persuasiveness of overwhelming Europeanisation had been at the core of the state’s internal and external policies since gaining independence in 1991, now, given the engagement with the Eurasian Union and its incompatibilities with the Western political-economic framework, Armenia has conspicuously less room for further cooperation with the EU.

Armenia’s trajectory towards political and economic integration into the EU and NATO arose in the 1990s, and it rapidly became clear that the West considered Armenia in the same social-cultural and political-legal bracket as the Eastern European states. Due to this Armenia, along with other Eastern European post-Soviet states, was involved in the Eastern Partnership “Europeanisation” plan, which aimed to accelerate comprehensive integration in the European Union.

Tangible threats from Russia as a result of Armenia’s pivot

 The present political elite in Russia views the South Caucasus as within the traditional sphere of Moscow’s influence. Thus Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia all have geopolitically limited options for economic, security and external orientation. An independent foreign policy of the states in the post-Soviet space, especially since the imposition of Putin’s Eurasian doctrine, is therefore highly unlikely. Moscow’s attitude towards a pro-Western Ukrainian society coupled with the occupation of Crimea, make this doubly true. Furthermore Russia’s presence, via its military base in Gyumri, means any manifestation of sovereignty by Yerevan appears to be impossible

In comparison with Russia’s “soft power” policy in the Balkans, in the South Caucasus Moscow pursues a different policy aimed at “re-colonising” Armenia through impeding the development of the civil society in order to keep corruption and poverty prevalent. A case in point is the well-known policy of monopolisation of the hydrocarbon delivery by Gazprom in Armenia. Due to the lack of alternatives energy sources people were forced to pay almost the highest price for gas in the post-Soviet republics. 

In the wake of Ukrainian events in the summer of 2014, the Russian Ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volinkin, announced Moscow’s disapproval for a vast number of pro-Western political and social activities in Armenia, followed by strong criticism of the proponents of Armenia’s political sovereignty.

Geopolitically, Russia seeks to strategically isolate Armenia from both the West and the East, for example by blocking Iranian energy and trade initiatives that would develop cooperation with Armenia. Armenia’s aim of integrating into the EU in the early 2000s increased its attractiveness for the Iranian leadership as an economic “bridge” to Europe. Tehran did in fact set in motion a gas pipeline project with Armenia and, as a result, faced strong objections from Russian Gazprom, which foresaw a violation of its monopoly in this area.

Subsequently, Russia succeeded in eliminating the tangible opportunities to develop Armenia’s transit potentials. Bearing in mind the current process of convergence between the West and Iran, it was reportedly announced that “Iran has emphasized interest towards geographical and political capacities of Armenia as an energetic transit corridor” across Georgia to Europe, bypassing Turkey, and avoiding the unstable Middle East.

Russia quite often diminished or hindered the communication and geo-economic prospects of the South Caucasus, considering the frozen conflicts as a factor in regional isolation on the sake of Moscow. In recent days, Putin’s administration feels nervous over a recent Chinese initiative regarding Armenia’s enrolment into the “Silk Road Economic Belt” trade and energy-communication project that to some extent would mitigate the political isolation of Armenia. 

Ultimately, as the Armenian Parliament announced amidst the economic and political decline of Armenia, accelerated by joining the Eurasian Union, “Armenia reluctantly favoured the decision against the background of substantive threats neither from blockading Turkey nor from warlike attitude of Azerbaijan but primarily seeing impending aggressive feedback of Russia, in case of denial to accept Moscow’s demand as we witness in Ukraine”.

The explanation by Armenia’s leadership on why they swiftly changed the political course of the country as being due to security issues and threats, as claimed by Serzh Sargsyan in response to critics to Armenia’s shift, seems reasonable in light of Russia’s threatening political behaviour All in all, the integration with Russia at this juncture poses a basic threat to Armenia by violating its sovereignty through preventing it from conducting an independent foreign policy.  

Thus, to summarise it would be justified to argue that Moscow’s calculations to keep Armenia crushed has proven successful. Lacking the necessary credibility amongst the vast majority of the Armenian population, Serzh Sargsyan’s political elite feels even more susceptible to Moscow’s pressure. Russia’s elaborate informational propaganda, a set of numerous financing organisations officially supporting Putin’s policy and deliberate dissemination of unrealistic narratives, aiming to strengthen the image of a protective and formidable Russia, appear as actionable leverage for easily managing the amenable country.

The essence of Armenia-EU relations: A European pragmatic approach

The EU as a constitutive part of Western civilisation is based on three acknowledged pillars. The first pillar is based on values ​​such as human rights compliance,  social freedoms, promoting individual intellectual development alongside with pan-European normatives. The next pillar defining the EU is based on the developed liberal economy and inclusive political institutions for providing pluralism. A firm sense of defending the values ​​and allowing the development of social, political, and economic life, shapes the final pillar of the EU; the core of defence and development of the West is a provision of stability and reliability for the world order.

Seeking to strengthen, develop and protect these key principles defining the EU gives a broad scope for integration and enlargement towards the East. The idea of developing the common European home sparked the enthusiasm of post-Soviet Eastern European countries, attributing themselves with the Western world and mutually sharing the promotion and assertiveness of the same values and liberal economy by assuming the role of defenders along with the traditional EU member states.

The attractiveness of the economy, sustainable development and stability offered by membership in the EU and NATO, was a driving force in Eastern Europe’s aspiration to be a part of these organisations. It would be erroneous, therefore, to say that the EU and NATO are moving eastward in any way—it is the post-Soviet Eastern European states that seek to join NATO and the European Union.

Armenia, a society based on individualism and Christian humanity, considers itself, along with Georgia, as a native European country.. This definitely means that Armenia is not only a part of the West, but also, as a state situated in the periphery of the EU, is equally responsible for the security and defence of western civilisation. During the past two decades of rule by Levon Ter-Petrosyan, followed by Robert Kocharyan, Armenia’s political elite has repeatedly professed its determination to head west, seeing no alternatives to the EU. Even the programme and pledges of the current president during the rally in 2013 were based on the European policy dimension.

Given the overriding goal of Armenia to achieve a high degree of integration into both the EU and NATO, Yerevan has been consistently building close ties with the individual members of both organisations, and has concurrently maintained active participation in peacekeeping and NATO operations over the world.

As a result of intensive consultations with western partners and cooperation with NATO at large, Armenia’s efforts in the field of mutual defence and stability maintenance have been highly appreciated by NATO’s command. In particular, in virtue of intensifying integration of Armenia with NATO, it was enthusiastically claimed that Armenia’s investment in maintaining peace and security in Afghanistan (ISAF) was greater than the efforts of some other members of NATO.

Even afterwards, against the background of severe trouble in Russia’s financial sector stimulated by economic sanctions, the EU’s various financial institutions gave assistance to the Armenian economy in order to diminish the detrimental effect coming from Russia. It is worth noting that international financial institutions (most notably the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) continue to provide critical life support for Armenia, but the biggest beneficiary, in fact, is President Serzh Sargsyan’s team and narrow political elite.

Armenia’s non-European political and economic institutions: heading back

Armenia is on its way to become a classic pattern of a failing state, suffering from an extractive economy, designed to enrich the political elite. The term I have used of “extractive economy” comes from “extractive institutions” which was coined by distinguished economist Daron Acemoglu (2012) who put forward a theory defining why nations fail. The author shortly and clearly defines the extractivism of institutions, where the state’s national resources, economy, and social life are centralised in the hands of a narrow political elite and totally subordinated to its interests. The label “extractive” in terms of the economy implies the lack of competitiveness and the existence of monopolies. Armenia’s economy has an extractive nature that is constantly used by Russia’s various state-owned enterprises to maintain a major influence in Armenia’s political decisions.

The enrolment into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) also calls into a question the further institutional democratisation and Europeanisation of Armenia at large. Furthermore, Armenia in the Eurasian Economic Union with its unpleasant legislative system and somewhat deplorable economy merely closed the doors on foreign direct investment.

There are real grounds for thinking that the Eurasian Union is a Russian-led club of dictators where the Armenian political elite realise their compatibility with this side, rather than with the European dimension. The answer seems to be clear: the deepening political, economic and institutional integration with the EU will inevitably disrupt the positions of the current regime, heralding the final decline and overthrow of corrupt, oligarchic and extractive political-economic institutions. In fact, one tends to believe, the sudden pivot on 3 September paved the way for consistent efforts to reach some degree of authoritarianism, as this is preferable for the current regime in Armenia.

Proof of the abovementioned regress in democratisation is found in the most recent European Neighbourhood Policy Country Progress Report, annually implemented by the European Commission which states that “Armenia made limited progress on deep and sustainable democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms. . . . No broad consensus within the society and with the political opposition parties exists on this reform” (p. 2). The report also underlined that “there were no tangible developments in the implementation and enforcement of legislation on human rights and fundamental freedoms” (p. 2).

Going forward, Sargsyan’s political elite launched a campaign to emasculate prevailing and potential oppositional political organisations, explicitly abusing privileged political positions of the ruling elite. Having an imperative to lay a solid ground for political reproduction the ruling elite, along with seeking an economic monopoly, aims to pre-empt even evolving minor political opponents, thereby monopolising the political sphere. In response, the EU, after a year-long silence, intensified consultations with Armenia in order to achieve at least a political part of an associated agreement. Such consultations exposed the EU’s overdue initiatives as groundless because they could not be based on the economy due to Armenia’s enrolment in the Eurasian Union, not to mention the security and normative dimensions.

Interestingly, the core subject of the newly-initiated negotiations is an undeniable request to reconsider and re-estimate the strategy of the EU’s Neighbour Policy and particularly, the Eastern partnership. Armenia obviously moved to the second level of partners along with Belarus and Azerbaijan, but uncertainty in the relationship still persists. Regardless of the sensitive regional situation orchestrated by Moscow, the EU and Armenia simply have nothing substantive to say or offer to each other. The EU representatives at different levels repeatedly claim that in this new situation Armenia needs to clearly put forth what Yerevan expects from the renewal of relations with the EU.

The decline of the Eastern Partnership policy and, primarily, the EU’s Armenian vector was due to the reduction of the USA’s attention to south-eastern European affairs. This afforded Russia the opportunity to vigorously restore strong military and political positions and directly threaten former Soviet states. The weak and unsystematic reaction of the US and the EU to evolving events in recent years within Armenia has led to a false democracy

Indeed, some parliamentarians and officials in Armenia believe that a new start and agreements with the EU are achievable, and the matter is to avoid contradictions with the commitments that Armenia assumed by initialing Eurasian Union membership. This kind of argument seems unrealistic, however, as Russia is still interested in blocking all initiatives of Armenia-EU integration. Besides, any real agreement with the West must rely on one of the three above-mentioned pillars that Armenia cannot commit to. Armenia can now only “exchange ideas” with the EU, which means no progress during and in the aftermath of the Riga summit, planned for May 2015.

Therefore, the situation surrounding Armenia raises two simple questions: does the episode of September 3 create a point of no return for Armenia? And is Armenia perceived as a rival’s ally by the West?


The occasional assistance of financial loans does not hide the obvious geopolitical indifference of the EU and the United States towards Armenia. Yet it is hard to believe that the comprehensive and elaborate information system of the West did not anticipate Russia’s insistence on forcing Armenia to deviate from the European path.. Furthermore, the geopolitical passivity of the EU and the its underestimation of the further effects of 3 September have opened the avenue for regional uncertainty. The destructive hesitation and indecision of the EU and the US, accompanied by some sort of political “softness”, merely “hands over” Armenia to Russia.

It is becoming clear that the EU, in its relationship with Armenia, did not have a solid, normative approach to promote at least pluralism in the state. In fact, for many years the EU developed a primarily circumscribed cooperation with the Armenian ruling elite, frequently muting the political and economic abuses of the regime. This sort of policy basically lends support to the system of authoritarianism, leaving a desperate society stuck in a vicious cycle of the past.

In the meantime, choosing the authoritarian path as an alternative to European development, the Armenian political elite is gradually assuming the typical behaviours of the ruling elites of Central-Asian regimes by politically, socially and institutionally re-establishing Armenia  as a Central Asian state rather than one on the trajectory to Europe.

As long as Russia does not back down from its aggressive manifestations in the shape of the Eurasian doctrine, Eastern Europe will feel a strong threat from the east. Therefore, a clear strategy on how to deal with Armenia amid Russia’s increasing influence in the Black Sea region is urgently needed.

Regarding the Armenian dimension: it is time for the makers of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy to admit to the ineffectiveness of the EU’s approach in this area. It would be more productive and successful to devise a new EU programme of integration based on security issues, as this is the prevalent issue for South Caucasian partners. Finally, the EU’s upgraded policy towards Armenia should be based on a normative approach, targeting a change in the political and economic institutions. If this is not possible, however, it would be better that the EU concretely express its lack of interest towards Armenia, making it clear that September 3 was a point of no-return and that Armenia is now considered and associated mostly with the Central-Asian states and is outside of the European geopolitical field.  

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