On September 3rd 2013 Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan surprised many observers, including some in his own government, when he announced that Armenia would sign an agreement with Russia to join the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) and spurn a long-negotiated Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union. The move has been dubbed a “U-Turn” as well as a “sudden shift in policy,” although it was predated by landmark Armenian-Russian agreements in 1997 and 2006. Following Sargsyan’s announcement Armenia has continued to pursue simultaneous mutually-beneficial bilateral relationships with both Russia and the EU, a foreign policy orientation commonly called “complementarity.” This balancing act has popular backing, although recent survey data shows that public attitudes have become less favorable toward the EU, especially since 2011. This blog post analyzes data concerning trends in public attitudes toward the EU and Russia as well as academic scholarship on the association and customs agreements, presenting preoccupation with national security on the part of political leadership as well as public opposition to so-called “European values” as possible explanations.
CRRC Caucasus Barometer (CB) data has shown that the Armenian public expresses overlapping support for closer ties with both Russia and the EU. The 2013 CB found that while 55% of people “rather support” or “fully support” Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (EurasEC), 40% also “rather support” or “fully support” membership in the European Union. And among those who “fully support” membership in the EurasEC, 60% also “fully support” membership in the EU.
While support for complementarity remains high, the CB indicates that positive attitudes toward the EU have declined, especially during the two years prior to announcement of the customs agreement. Whereas in 2011 62% of Armenians indicated “Support” for the country’s membership in the EU, in 2013 only 41% did so (for the data presented in this blog post, the values have been re-coded from a five-point scale used in the questionnaire to a three-point scale. Values “Rather support” and “Fully support” have been combined to “Support,” values “Rather don’t support” and “Don’t support at all” have been combined to “Don’t support”). Over the same span the proportion choosing “Don’t Support” nearly tripled from 8% to 23%. In addition, each year respondents are asked to “assess their level of trust toward the European Union” (values measuring trust were also re-coded from a five-point scale used in the questionnaire to a three-point scale, so that “Fully Trust” and “Somewhat Trust” have been combined to “Trust” and “Fully Distrust” and “Somewhat Distrust” have been combined to “Distrust"). In 2011 37% indicated that they “Trust” the EU, while that figure fell to 27% by 2013. The share of those answering that they “Distrust” the EU increased from 17% to 28% over the same period.
These findings beg the question: why has public support for the EU among Armenians shown a tendency to decrease in recent years? One explanation is that public officials have prioritized the country’s deepening relationship with Russia while refraining from extensive public discourse concerning the EU. According to Delcour (2014) “Russia is widely seen as the security guarantor by the general Armenian public, whereas there is little knowledge of the European Union…Negotiations with the EU were conducted with small groups of experts, with hardly any explanations of their consequences and benefits to the population.”
The security component of the strategic partnership with Russia means that it tends to receive more attention, with Kempe (2013) expressing the view that “while the EU can be seen as an important partner for modernization and soft security, Russia still matters much more for Armenia as far as hard security is concerned.” While official foreign policy and public opinion are not always congruent, scholars such as Gabel and Scheve (2007) assert that government plays an important role in shaping popular attitudes. In Armenia the state has the potential to affect public opinion through influence over the media; in 2013 Freedom House declared that “most of the dominant media are controlled by government or government-friendly individuals.” This suggests that public support for the EU has declined not because of negative treatment in the public discourse but because of a lack of discussion in general.
A second possible explanation for eroding support is the indication that a growing segment of the population is uncomfortable with the purported spread of “European values” in Armenia. Historically close ties with Russia have emboldened pro-Russian voices in the country who oppose the AA primarily for cultural reasons. When the Civilitas poll asked Armenians to pinpoint the “greatest disadvantage of Armenia’s deeper integration with the European Union,” 18% indicated “loss of national identity.” While that number is not high in absolute terms, it appears more significant when contrasted with the fact that only 2% responded “loss of national identity” when asked the same question concerning deeper integration with the ECU. Armenian cultural conservatives tend to prefer closer ties with Russia and the ECU, not seeing danger in Russian cultural influence.
Despite the pro-Russian stance of most cultural conservatives, public opinion surveys confirm the preference for complementarity among a large segment of the Armenian public, even after the announcement of the customs agreement with Russia. However, trust and support for Armenia’s integration with the EU have slightly declined in recent years. This may be due to a relative lack of information about the EU on the part of citizens, as the government tends to prioritize the country’s strategic partnership with Russia while failing to adequately inform the public about the EU. Moreover, a growing segment of Armenians distrust the EU most likely out of the perception that deeper integration with it poses a threat to “national identity,” which in contrast is seen as a non-issue in Armenian-Russian relations.
To gain more information on public opinion in Armenia, take a look at the CRRC’s online data analysis tool. For deeper insights on the Eurasian Customs Union useful analysis is provided by the Eurasian Economic Commission as well as the European Union Institute for Security Studies.