Belarus, Kazakhstan express apprehension about Armenia’s accession to Customs Union
MINSK, Belarus (RFE/RL)—The presidents of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan shed no light on possible dates for Armenia’s accession to their customs union, while welcoming Yerevan’s decision to join it after talks held in Minsk on Thursday.
The Kremlin reported that they signed two documents on Armenia’s membership in the Russian-led union at the summit that was also attended by President Serzh Sarkisian and the leaders of three other ex-Soviet states.
According to Sarkisian’s press office, Presidents Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev also approved a separate memorandum on “deepening cooperation” between the Armenian government and the union’s executive body, the Eurasian Economic Commission. None of the three documents was immediately made public.
“We backed Armenia’s and Kyrgyzstan’s intention to join our integration project,” Putin told a joint news conference in the Belarusian capital. “We agreed to set up a working group that will be tasked with preparing a corresponding ‘roadmap’ within a very short period of time.”
Nazarbayev sounded less enthusiastic about the union’s enlargement. “We are very cautious about admitting new members,” he said. “The working group should first look into the level of the economy of that country, the extent of reforms and whether our economies fit each other for integration.”
Lukashenko cautioned earlier this week that the accession process will take months, if not years, because Armenian laws and regulations need to be brought into conformity with those existing in the customs union. “Armenia cannot join the customs union tomorrow or the day after or this year or maybe even next year,” he said.
Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, however, said on Friday that Armenia is not seeking preferential terms for its membership of the Russian-led customs union and wants to complete the accession process within several months.
“The president of Armenia asked the presidents of the Customs Union’s member states to enable [Armenia] to ratify all agreements as early as possible,” the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Shuvalov as saying. Yerevan is ready to make all necessary changes in Armenian laws and regulations in the next few months, he said.
Shuvalov made clear in that regard that Russia will not significantly speed up planned membership talks “so that there is no sense that somebody is artificially drawing Armenia into the Customs Union.”
The Russian official spoke in Minsk the day after the presidents of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan met there for a regular summit of their union. President Serzh Sarkisian also attended it.
The three leaders formally approved Armenia’s membership bid with three unpublicized documents. Russia’s Vladimir Putin said they agreed to set up a task force that will come up with a “roadmap” to that membership.
According to Shuvalov, the roadmap will be ready by the union’s next summit slated for December. The Russian vice-premier further stressed that the Armenian government is ready to sign up to the joint trade tariffs and regulations of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan “without any waivers or restrictions.”
The three nations have traditionally pursued more protectionist trade policies than Armenia. Some Armenian economic analysts say membership of the Russian-dominated trade bloc would therefore push up the cost of key goods imported to Armenia and reduce vital proceeds from customs duties collected by Armenian tax authorities. Government officials in Yerevan have still not publicly commented on these concerns.
Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan presently account for less than one-quarter of Armenia’s foreign trade.