On the 28th and 29th of November, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, will host the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Summit. It has been announced that the signing of an Association Agreement with Ukraine and the initialization of similar agreements with Armenia, Moldova and Georgia are going to take place during this milestone event. However, over the course of the year, it has become evident that Russia will not give up its sphere of interest without a fight. Putin seems ready to strong-arm Russia’s neighbors into joining its own Customs Union, founded in 2010, as a move to bring the former Soviet Republics back into the fold.
Armenia was the first country to buckle under Russia’s pressure. On September 3rd, President Sargsyan announced that his country will not be moving closer to the EU and that it will be joining the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan instead. The decision was taken after Moscow threatened to increase the price of gas – one of the Kremlin’s favorite foreign policy tools. At present, Armenia imports all of its gas from Russia despite the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline which could have provided a much needed alternative. However, under pressure the Armenian government lost the opportunity to diversify its energy needs by selling a crucial section of the pipeline to Gazprom. As a result, the company, which is under the control of the Russian government, controls any potential supply of Iranian gas. Armenian politicians chose short term cuts in gas prices over Armenia’s future gas independence, and the Armenian people are now paying the price.
Gas was not the only reason Armenia changed direction towards Russia. In June it became evident that Russia was delivering up to $1 billion worth of military equipment to Azerbaijan including tanks, artillery systems and infantry fighting vehicles. This certainly unnerved the Armenians. It is well known that the two countries are still technically at war and the Azerbaijani government regularly threatens to retake the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The tensions are high and the conflict between the two often tops the rankings of the most likely wars in Europe. At the same time the EU has been criticised for showing more interest in the gas rich Azerbaijan, leaving Armenia searching for protection from Russia. Therefore, joining the Customs Union is a way for Armenia to please the ‘big brother’ and hope for support in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. However, taking into account that Russia has been profiting from this conflict by supplying both of the countries with weapons, it is unlikely that the country will take sides any time soon.
Armenia was not the first, nor will it be the last country to be targeted by Russia’s ‘real politik’. Russia employed a somewhat different strategy in Ukraine which, until recently, has been seen as the most likely candidate to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. However, in July, Russia started introducing trade restrictions and banning various Ukrainian products from entering the Russian market. Moscow wanted to send a clear message to the Ukrainian government that they have to choose between rejecting the EU and joining Russia’s Customs Union or being excluded from its largest export market. One of the companies targeted, Roshen, belongs to the former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko has always been a strong supporter of European integration despite the fact that more than 60% of the company’s production goes to former Soviet Republics, Russia being the largest of them. Roshen’s sweets were banned because of the alleged presence of carcinogen, yet neither Kyrgyzstan nor Tajikistan found any traces of this substance in the sweets.
Europe has strongly condemned Russian pressure. It seems to be too late to persuade Armenia so European leaders have focused their attention on Ukraine. The former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and the former President of the European Parliament Pat Cox have traveled to Kiev 23 times in the last year to negotiate the agreement. Angela Merkel even promised to defend Ukraine and offer export markets for the products that Ukraine will not be able to sell in Russia. This will only happen however, if Ukraine fulfills all of the requirements of the Association Agreement. At present the only thing the Ukrainian Parliament has to do is to pass a law allowing former Prime Minister and main opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko to leave prison for medical treatment in Germany.
Considering the fact that the majority in the Parliament belongs to the President Yanukovych’s “Party of Regions”, the decision lies in his hands. So far, voting has been postponed and a last minute decision seems to be less and less likely. In the meantime, more than 100,000 protesters have taken to the streets in Kiev and elsewhere demanding that the Parliament passes all the necessary legislation.