Eurasian Union Starts off on the Wrong Foot

By Edmond Y. Azadian

Once again, Armenia is trapped in the web of world political intrigues, primarily as a result of its isolation and dangerous depopulation. This trend does not augur well for the country.

After years of negotiations with the European Union, last September Yerevan made a U-turn, to join the Russian-led Customs Union, which today has grown to become the Eurasian Union.

Time and again, Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that his intention is to recreate the former Soviet Union, but all the developments indicate otherwise.

In the face of an intensifying new cold war, major powers are repositioning themselves in the so-called new world order. The west always denies that NATO is a threat to Russia, all the while encircling Russia to contain its growing power.

Moscow is trying to break the stranglehold in its own way. Ukraine was the last link in that encirclement process, which Russia lost but not without drawing blood, thus not enabling the west to claim victory in that tug-of-war, yet.

The annexation of Crimea by Moscow and its “misbehavior” in Eastern Ukraine has in turn created excuses for the west to strike Russia with economic sanctions.

As a reaction to those threats, Russia was able to achieve two major projects of global significance. One was the $400-billion energy deal with China and the other was the creation of the Eurasian Union, which, according to President Putin, is “a treaty of epoch-making historic importance.”

Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev similarly crowed, “A new geopolitical reality of the 21st century is born.”

The west certainly does not perceive these developments in that perspective, in view of the member states’ divergent interests. For example, in 1995, 47 percent of Kazakhstan’s trade activity was with Russia, but by 2011, 40 percent of its exports went to Europe and only 9 percent to Russia.

An article in the New York Times on May 30 presents all these activities in their political context: “Like the huge gas agreement Russia signed with China this month, the Eurasian Economic Union is a way for Moscow to show that it is pivoting to Asia and that it can withstand western sanctions and other pressures as it pursues its national interests, as in its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.”

While Russia is well within its rights to pursue its national interests, Armenia has to struggle for its survival. And it seems that Armenia’s plight is one of the lower prerogatives of the Russian regional politics.

While Moscow continually arms Azerbaijan, its claims that it intends to solve the Karabagh impasse peacefully sounds very disingenuous. The action makes clear that it is not in Moscow’s interest to resolve the issue in order to be able to keep both Baku and Yerevan on a short leash.

To undermine those Russian intentions, the US made an extraordinary proposal about Karabagh through its ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group, James Warlick. The ambassador ordinarily would act in unison with the other co-chairs of the Minsk Group, but at a speech at the Carnegie Foundation, he took the extraordinary step of enunciating the US position on the Karabagh problem.

All the above developments constitute the background of what happened in Astana as the leaders of the Eurasian Union gathered to sign the charter of that organization.

While President George Bush was putting together “A coalition of the willing” during the first Gulf War, the Eurasian Union seems to present a coalition of the unwilling. In fact, Russia had to bribe Belarus with a $2-billion loan to bring it to submission. Armenia’s share was $300 million to repair the Metsamor nuclear power plant. Incidentally, after the initial fanfare to build a new nuclear power plant in Armenia, Russia has opted for the same to be built in Turkey.

Another aspect of the Eurasian Union is political discord among its participants. While Belarusian President Lukashenko was predicting that the union would eventually lead to a political union, Kazakhstan’s government begged to differ, limiting the agreement only to economic activities among the partners. If the Eurasian Union is to imitate the European Union, its political dimension will be missing, since all the new members of the EU are gradually being integrated within the NATO structure.

It looks like Nazarbayev calls the shots in this new union, under President Putin’s tolerant gaze. Indeed, as he hosted the summit in Astana last week, Nazarbayev threw a bombshell while Armenia and Kyrgyzstan were waiting at the door for the founding members of the union, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, to sign the charter of the union. That bombshell was a letter by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who demanded that Armenia be admitted to the Eurasian Union only within its borders recognized by the United Nations, meaning without Nagorno Karabagh.

That was a clear message to Yerevan that no open border is possible between Armenia and Karabagh after Armenia joins the Eurasian Union.

Armenia’s reaction was confused and confusing; before the agreement was signed, Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan had stated that Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh Republic are a single economic zone and that there can be no customs or other borders between them.

After Nazarbayev’s unpleasant letter, President Serge Sargisian of Armenia contradicted his prime minister’s earlier statement: “As for what was voiced by Nazarbayev, first, from the outset, it is wrong to talk about borders. What borders are we talking about? Karabagh problem is not being solved in the Customs Union.” He added, “And who said that we are joinging the Customs Union together with Nagorno Karabagh? There has been no such thing and could not be, because at least, under our laws, and in accordance with our ideas, Karabagh today is not part of Armenia. And the fact that the membership in the Customs Union will contribute to the solution of the Nagorno Karabagh problem is unequivocal. Of course, what Nazarbayev said was unpleasant, but it cannot harm us.”

Nazarbayev’s intervention was not only “unpleasant,” but it was even disgusting as he also commented that “we should not hurt the feelings of our friend, Aliyev.”

In addition to doing a favor for his friend, Mr. Nazarbayev entertains the idea of inviting Turkey to join the Eurasian Union, down the road, in total disregard of the thorny issues still extent between Armenia and Turkey.

Russia has remained silent on the incident. Mr. Putin’s silence seems ominous. Adding insult to injury, one of the Russian commentators blamed Armenia for that “unpleasant” letter. Indeed, a senior advisor to the Russian Federation and the editor of the news agency, Rex, Modest Kolerov, commented that Aliyev’s letter was a response to the comments made by the Armenian prime minister.

Azerbaijan is not even a member of the Eurasian Union, nor does it intend to join that entity, but it is still blackmailing Armenia by flexing its petro muscles.

Nazarbayev, through his insensitivity toward one of the members of the union, on behalf of an outsider, demonstrates that he is fulfilling the wishes of his pan-Turanist friends. Many in Armenia blame him to be the pillar of Pan-Turanist dreams of Azerbaijan and Turkey in Central Asia. Although pan-Turanism and Ottomanism have been Russia’s perennial enemies, at this time, Mr. Putin does not consider them as posing existential threats to Russia, as he has other fish to fry, potentially threatening to singe Armenia.

With all the grandiose rhetoric, the Eurasian Union seems to have started off on the wrong foot, at least, from Armenia’s perspective.