Some Armenian officials would have you believe that Yerevan's surprise decision to join the Russia-led Customs Union all came down to economic moxie. And, in a way, perhaps it did. But in gaseous form.
Armenian Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian told parliament on September 11 that the question of how to grapple with the higher prices Russia's state-owned Gazprom is now charging for natural gas would be decided within the framework of the Customs Union.
"The decision already has been found, and soon [everything] will be resolved," Movsisian said, expressing his support for the trade deal, Lragir.am reported.
Announced this summer, the 18-percent price hike by Gazprom, Armenia's chief provider of natural gas, had fueled not only further worries for the country's hard-pressed economy, but, also, predictions of widespread opposition to the government.
President Serzh Sargsyan had made no mention of gas when announcing on September 3 the plan to form a trade pact with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus -- an unexpected decision that has ruined (at least for now) Armenia's chances of an Association Agreement with the European Union.
Officials since have scrambled to make it seem that the Customs Union was the only choice going.
“The decision is exclusively in our best interests," National Security Council Secretary Artur Baghdasarian asserted at a recent press conference. "We took a long time to research and finally concluded that Armenia’s economy is not compatible with that of the EU countries. The major part of our exports are to the CU member-countries [Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia -- ed] and we couldn’t have shut a 300-million-person market."
But the official data tells a different story. In 2012, Armenian exports to the European Union ($560.3 million) were nearly double the value of exports to Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus ($290.7 million). Trade in the first six months of 2013 shows a similar pattern, according to the National Statistical Service -- $250.6 million worth of goods went to the EU versus $149.6 million to the Customs Union troika.
Russia, whose companies hold critical stakes in Armenia's telecommunications, transportation, mining and energy sectors, edged out the European Union for direct investment in 2012, but just barely -- $393.8 million versus $334.9 million.
Economist Bagrat Asatrian, a former president of the Central Bank of Armenia, predicted that the state budget will suffer a 15-20 percent loss in revenue from the customs duties on imports from CU member-countries that Armenia now will forgo. At the same time, goods from the EU, which outnumber the in-take from Russia, will have higher duties imposed, leading to price increases.
To many Armenians, the speed with which the decision was made had suggested strong pressure from Moscow.“The biggest levers were national security and the Karabakh issues," believed political analyst Sergei Minasian, deputy director of the Caucasus Institute, a Yerevan think-tank.
“We couldn’t have expected anything else under the circumstances," he said. "Here it was about political concerns, rather than economic benefits."
Politics and gas, though, are intrinsically linked for Armenia. Having tangoed with protesters already this year over transportation fares and the presidential election, the government has no desire for the protest momentum to keep on going.
The decision to join the CU was unexpected, though, even for some high-ranking officials and powerful politicians.
Hours before President Serzh Sargsyan's September 3 announcement, Galust Sahakian, head of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia's parliamentary faction, excluded any decision on the Customs Union, telling RFE/RL in an interview that "discussions are not at a stage to allow us stating our position, especially that Armenia has no common customs border with Russia."
Thirteen days earlier, in an interview with ArmNews TV, Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharian had gone still further, stating that joining the CU would mean “losing [Armenian] sovereignty."
At latest count, 4,000 supporters had signed on to the Facebook group “Against the Customs Union with Russia," which has been staging protests outside of the presidential residence, the RPA headquarters, and the European Union's mission office.
“By a decision made in four days, Armenia has lost four years of achievements" in establishing closer ties with the European Union, and a reputation with its largest trading partner for reliability, commented Richard Giragosian, head of Yerevan's Regional Studies Center. "This is a loss that Armenia has to try to restore."