The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Armenia turned to Russia instead of the West

Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan speaks during a news conference in Yerevan, April 22, 2015. (REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Not long before Ukraine signed the agreement with the European Union that precipitated a crisis with Russia that continues to unfold, Armenia, Ukraine’s small neighbor to the south, made a different decision.

Following a discussion with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan announced that his country would affiliate for trade purposes with the Eurasian Economic Union — Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan — rather than the European Union.

Sargsyan, who is in Washington this week for events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, offered a practical explanation when I asked him about the alignment during his visit to The Post on Thursday.

“Armenian cognac can’t really be sold in Paris,” Sargsyan, speaking through a translator, said. “But it does well in the Russian Federation.”

In other words, he said, he took a “pragmatic decision.” One-third of Armenia’s exports go to Russia and its partners, including agricultural products on which thousands of jobs depend. In addition, Russia sells natural gas to landlocked, energy-poor Armenia “at quite a good price.”

The president stressed that Armenia still pursues good relations with the European Union. But a free-trade agreement with Europe would not have delivered much, he said, especially as long as Armenia’s border with Turkey remains blocked. Armenia’s economy would have to evolve over ten to fifteen years to take advantage of a free-trade regime with Europe. “But in the meantime there is a need to survive,” he said, “and people are not ready to suffer during this long term.”

Armenians are suffering now from the rift between Russia and the West, he said, in three ways: Armenian exports to Russia, Russian investment in Armenia and remittances from Armenians working in Russia — which account for one-fifth of Armenia’s GDP — all are down. This hurts in a country of 3 million people that in 2013 ranked 152nd in the world in income per person.

But, he added, “had we not acceded to the Eurasian Union, we would have faced more painful problems.”

Sargsyan said he will not be seeing President Obama on this trip, but he was diplomatic on the president’s refusal once again, in deference to Turkish objections, to use the word “genocide” to describe the crimes against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago.

“I think had he said it, it could have been useful,” Sargsyan said. “The United States should have put values over interests.”