Author: Kakha Gogolashvili, Director of EU Studies Center, Rondeli Foundation
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
When on 3 September 2013 the then President of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan, officially refused to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, the impression was that the country had made a decisive geopolitical choice in favor of Russia. Logically, Armenia’s internal transformation should have been over at that moment together with its perspective to become a European state; however, the following developments revealed that neither Armenia itself, nor the European Union had refused to continue cooperation with one another and strived to even deepen it.
Such a “dual” policy turned out to be fateful for the Armenian government, as the goal of approximation with the European Union is incompatible with the mode of governance that, despite the growing demand on institutions among the population, Armenia was still pursuing and which was hindering the smooth development of democracy, free market and good governance in the country.
The years of EU “interference” in the Post-Soviet space not only facilitated the development and stability of these states, but also boosted civil responsibility among the population, who found a new ambition of participating in the governance of their own country. Without such self-awareness, none of the velvet revolutions in this space, including Armenia, could have taken place.
Expansion of EU Soft Power
Since the 90s of the past century, the use of European Union’s soft and normative power in the Post-Soviet space has aimed to develop democracy and market economy, peacefully resolve conflicts, facilitate stability and integrate these states into the international community.
This approach of the European Union fully covered Russia, as well as the former Soviet Republics, be they in Europe or Asia. The implementation of the policy was being achieved through a common instrument of humanitarian, technical and financial assistance. From 1994, the European Union signed Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCA) with these countries, which were standard documents, establishing the same obligations and regimes of relations with the European Union for every country. The Agreements covered political cooperation, trade relations and reinforced sectoral cooperation. In addition, with the aim of monitoring the fulfillment of the obligations, the European Union and signatory countries were creating cooperation institutions. The most important result of the PCAs was the creation of political and market institutions based on European rules and models in practically all partner countries.
Upon the completion of the fifth wave of the European Union’s enlargement, in 2003, a new European Neighborhood Police (ENP) was designed to accelerate reforms in the whole neighborhood of the Union. Every single Eastern European country (except Russia) became part of the ENP and accepted obligations to continue the state-building process using the Action Plans provided by the European Union.
Velvet Revolutions: From Governance by Elites to Governance by the People
Eastern European countries took their first steps towards building a European-style state, which is usually characterized by transparent governance, accountability, respect to human rights, free market, open and fair competition and social justice. Unfortunately, in most of the cases the reforms remained superficial, the political culture and people’s mentality was changing slowly, civil involvement was scarce and the difficulties of economic development did not allow for the full establishment of European-style states in this area.
Despite the aforementioned difficulties, the European Union was continuing the implementation of consistent, unified regional policy towards these countries, with its influence on the population and elites also growing. At a certain stage, the increased public demand on institutions and quality of democracy became incompatible with the level of supply of these goods by the local elites. Elite governance systems revealed certain resistance to further reforms in all Post-Soviet states. As it would appear, this created the necessity for the so-called velvet revolutions, without which it appeared impossible that the Post-Soviet elites would allow the establishment of open political competition in their respective countries. In the countries where the velvet revolutions did take place, the process of Europeanization moved forward quickly, with the activities and involvement of the population also being boosted. These events can be considered as sort of Copernican Revolutions in the governance of these countries.
In 2009 the new initiative of the European Union – the Eastern Partnership, opened doors to the Association Agreement to six Post-Soviet states, four of which turned out to be ready to begin negotiations. However, only three of these countries signed the Association Agreement in 2014 – Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. These are exactly the countries where the influence of the people on their government grew as a result of the velvet revolutions.
EU’s Offer and Armenia’s Choice
The European Union’s “offer” encompassed assistance in the internal transformation, state-building, economic and social development of the “neighborhood” countries, as well as their gradual approximation with the Union. This offer did not include active involvement in conflict resolution, the reinforcement of defense capabilities or any security guarantees.
In this offer, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova saw a future possibility of EU membership, whilst Armenia only saw short-term practical benefits. Armenia was unable to connect its security goals to this offer, which is why it never put the membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), created and ruled by Russia, under question. The membership of CSTO obligates Armenia to join the decisions which are contrary to the views and interests of the European Union and its partners. In 2008, the CSTO member states unanimously adopted a statement that, in essence, criticized the Government of Georgia for the “attempt of forceful resolution of conflict in South Ossetia”; furthermore, at the CSTO summit the leaders of the member states demanded “strong protection of the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia”, which gave Russia international support of a regional scale for its long-term occupation of Georgian territories. The statements of CSTO often say that NATO’s expansion to the East is unacceptable and that such attempts will “have serious consequences”.
The decision of becoming a member of the Eurasian Economic Union was made by Armenia in the same year, 2013, when it refused the Association Agreement with the European Union, which meant support for Russian attempts to thwart EU’s “economic expansion” in “the area of legitimate Russian interests” (a statement voiced by Putin and Medvedev in 2007). This organization, which was also created by Russia, is, in its essence, a customs union, which constrains its members from having free and independent trade-economic policies with other countries. Presumably it was not in the interests of Armenia to constrain its economic policies in this manner; however, it would appear that the membership of the Eurasian Economic Union was a condition for continued Russian support in the Karabakh conflict.
Armenia’s Strategy and EU Policy
Despite its foreign-policy vector towards Russia, Armenia did not abandon attempts to remain a partner of the European Union and continue approximating with it. What were the aims of the Armenian government when it started CEPA negotiations with the European Union (2015)? In the given situation, when due to insurmountable obstacles, the issue of Armenia’s continued integration in the European Union was put under question, the EU made no significant changes to the Eastern Partnership. The 2014-2015 ENP reform merely strengthened the ability of “differentiating” between the partner countries, which enabled the countries with European aspirations to actively use the “more-for-more” instrument. The offer of the Association Agreement to Armenia was not abolished by anyone; however, its actual realization remains just a theoretical possibility.
Having made its decision, why did Armenia remain a part of the Eastern Partnership? Probably for using the European Union’s financial assistance, its investment bank and investment fund, which reaches up to a minimum of EUR 100 million a year, helping the country develop infrastructural projects, small businesses and support state institutions. This is also means to attracting Western, more specifically European private investments and to develop human capital. In addition to that, fully terminating cooperation projects with the European Union and distancing from it risked provoking possible discontent in the population. Through its assistance and intensive work the European Union earned a positive image among the people of Armenia. The 2017 study showed that only 20% of the Armenian population perceives the EU negatively, whilst for others the Union is a source of democracy, human rights and social-economic development. Hence, taking the rather high level of support towards the European Union into account (and also due to the lessons learned from Ukraine), the Government of Armenia could not have dared distancing itself from Brussels. The Government tried to justify the view that it was possible to have active cooperation and mutual openness in both directions (towards Russia and the European Union). The fact that the Government of Armenia was taking the EU into account also became clear when on the second day after a rather harsh statement from the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini (Russia made no such statement), the public leader arrested during revolutionary events was released together with his supporters.
Presumably, the Government of Armenia managed to convince the Government of the Russian Federation, that relations with the European Union would not harm Armenia’s pro-Russian foreign policy and would, at the same time, avoid complications from the population, also positively influencing the image of Russia in Armenia, depicting it as a country which does not intervene in sovereign domestic affairs of Armenia and its choice of democratic development.
The European Union showed understanding towards Armenia’s choice in this regard. It pursues a policy based upon long-term calculations and Armenia’s refusal to association was only considered a minor incident in terms of the Eastern Partnership policy. It still remains an objective of the European Union to facilitate the modernization of the Eastern European countries, maintaining high level of interest and sympathy towards the Union among their populations.
This was the view that led to the accelerated signing of CEPA with Armenia during December 2017 Eastern Partnership summit. The agreement does not provide for the creation of a free trade area with Armenia; however, in terms of other issues, it practically is no less than the Association Agreement signed by the European Union with Georgia.
Post-Revolutionary Development in Armenia
The stated goal of the velvet revolution that took place in Armenia has not been the alteration of the foreign policy vector. The views of the new leaders fully coincide with the feelings of most of the population, who, according to the 2017 poll, believe that Russia is no less important partner for Armenia than the European Union.
The revolution was caused by the necessities of domestic politics – the need to eradicate corruption, establish rule of law and respect for human rights, as well as to overcome social problems and the lack of future prospects. The newly elected Prime Minister and his Cabinet should get busy with resolving these problems, in order to justify the people’s trust and support towards them. In order to achieve these goals, Armenia will need to first of all strengthen democratic institutions and fully reform the courts and law enforcement structures (especially the police). More public oversight should be instituted over security structures; economic institutions must become transparent and fair competition rules must be established on the market. The budget must also become more transparent and monitoring be instituted on the spending of public funds, with the policy of cadres also changed. To resolve these issues, Armenia will need help not from Russia, but once again from the European Union, for which it will use CEPA. CEPA allows the European Union to monitor Armenia’s domestic development processes, indicating to correct the reforms, the implementation of which is being hindered.
The higher the quality of democracy in Armenia, the lower the influence of Russia on its domestic and foreign policy will be. The more established the open and transparent rules of market economy will be in Armenia, the weaker the monopoly positions of Russian state companies there will become. The better the social background, the less the amount of people looking for work in Russia will be.
Armenia’s internal transformation will definitely increase the sympathies and support of the population towards the European Union. Given the severe geopolitical competition between Russia and the West, the growth of support towards the European Union in Armenia cannot avoid negatively influencing the support towards Russia there. Despite the fact that Russia was practically not involved in the revolutionary processes in Armenia, Russian leaders will have serious attempts to control the processes unfolding there, hindering the development of Armenia in the direction, which would weaken Russian influence on it. Hence, it is very important that the European Union and its partners provide active support to the new Armenian government, strengthen the civil society and not allow Russia to put the country under its full control.