Putin Plans On Hold?: Magnitsky Bill fallout said to interfere with Russian president’s Armenia visit plans

Putin Plans On Hold?: Magnitsky Bill fallout said to interfere with Russian president’s Armenia visit plans

Photo: www.kremlin.ru

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who first was expected to pay a visit to Armenia last September, was again said to contemplate his trip to the allied South Caucasus countries in mid-January. But judging by the panic that has started in the Russian elite because of the frozen accounts at Swiss banks, his visit is likely to be postponed again.

Unofficial sources had said Putin could visit Armenia on January 13-14, but so far no official confirmation of those plans has been made either in Moscow or in Yerevan. According to several news agencies in Russia, the main concern of Putin during these days is the huge sums of money frozen on Swiss bank accounts in the aftermath of the Magnitsky Bill in the United States and the ban on adoption in Russia for U.S. citizens introduced by Moscow in retaliation to this new American legislation.

On January 9, the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office “froze” bank accounts of Russian citizens included in the so-called Magnitsky list. The matter concerns millions of U.S. dollars.

In 2009, lawyer and auditor Sergei Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison after exposing massive fraud involving Russian tax officials. In 2012, the United States adopted the Magnitsky Bill with the main intention to punish Russian officials who were thought to be responsible for the lawyer’s death by prohibiting their entrance to the United States and use of their banking system. The signing of the law by President Barrack Obama in December drew an angry reaction in Russia that initiated its own legislation – a so-called Dima Yakovlev Act to ban adoption of Russian children by American citizens.

Putin’s visit is put on hold, but efforts on integration as part of the nascent Eurasian Union and the Customs Union seem to be continuing among ruling political forces of several former Soviet states, including Armenia.

A protocol regarding such cooperation was signed in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 3 during an international forum called “Eurasian Integration in the 21st Century” also attended by representatives of the ruling parties of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

After the signing of this protocol reports spread in Armenia that “the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) is leading the country to the Eurasian Union.” But the Republicans denied that, saying that it is “not a serious document”, at the same time confirming, however, that they were ready to sign a memorandum on Eurasian integration at the beginning of 2013.

RPA lawmaker, chairman of the National Assembly’s Standing Foreign Relations Committee Artak Zakaryan explains that this memorandum simply confirms that “the parties are willing to continue to work around issues of Eurasian integration.”

“These are inter-party consultations regarding general Eurasian integration in different areas, and not on the Eurasian Union, and we can never be against general integration as it would only be useful for our country both economically and politically. Besides, these are only meetings at an inter-party level,” Zakaryan told ArmeniaNow.

While the RPA presents these inter-party meetings as “mere consultations”, Russian State Duma Deputy Speaker Sergei Zheleznyak, in an interview with the website of Russia’s ruling Yedinaya Rossiya party stressed that “the ruling parties bear responsibility for the integration processes leading to the establishment of the Eurasian Union.”

Despite the tense situation in Russia in view of its relations with the United States, the Damoclean sword in the form of the European Union still appears to be very much hanging over Armenia, which also imperils the country’s further integration with the European Union.

Armenia is a facing a major watershed - Europe or Russia. Ahead of next month’s presidential election Armenia’s incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan has to leave both sides satisfied to count on another five-year term as head of state. While the European direction opens the prospect of economic prosperity, in case of correct use of European funds, then there are only few economic expectations from the Russian direction that basically come down to the price of natural gas.

Last autumn was marked by the abundance of all sorts of statements deemed as humiliating for Armenia made at different levels in Russia.

In October, pro-Kremlin pundit Mikhail Leontyev suggested in an article that Armenia is what it is today only due to Russia. He directly cast doubts over Armenia’s sovereignty, saying that “if it were not for Russia, Armenia would probably not exist on the map today. Armenia continues to exist only due to Russia,” stressed Leontyev, who is widely known for his program on a leading Russian TV channel in which he comments on different political events and world affairs.

In December, the Eurasian Economic Commission Board Chairman Victor Khristenko compared Armenia to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, arguing that having no border with Russia or other members of the Customs Union (now also including Belarus and Kazakhstan) would not be a problem for integration. It brought to mind the infamous comment made several years ago by the then speaker of the Russian State Duma, Boris Gryzlov, who called Armenia “Russia’s outpost”, drawing strong reaction from mainly opposition circles of Armenia then.

While Armenia’s officials repeatedly state that Eurasian integration does not hinder European integration, late last year several EU officials voiced concerns in this regard.

In particular, EU Ambassador Traian Hristea stated last year Armenia must make a choice between the EU and EurAsEC, as it can run counter to the policy of rapprochement with the European Union.

EU Advisory Group (EUAG) to the Republic of Armenia Team Leader Willem van der Geest expressed the same opinion.

More clear explanations in this regard were finally made by spokesman for the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Maja Kocijancic. In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service the spokesperson, representing the official views of the European Union, said that Armenia’s conclusion of free trade agreements with third countries did not contradict the negotiations around the creation of a deep and comprehensive free trade area (DCFTA) with the EU. However, according to her, the issue here concerns mainly customs unions: “If Armenia decides to join any customs union, it would become incompatible with the bilateral agreement concluded between the EU and Armenia on the establishment of a deep and comprehensive free trade area. The thing is that a customs union has a common trade policy, and individual countries belonging to the union are no longer sovereign in their foreign trade policy.”

These messages took a more serious tone when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a related statement in early December.

Clinton made the statement about this attempt to “re-sovietize” the former USSR space at a meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Dublin, Ireland.

“It’s not going to be called that [USSR]. It’s going to be called customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that,” she said, referring to Russian-led efforts for greater regional integration. “But let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

This, however, had little effect on the Armenian leadership. Shortly after that statement President Serzh Sargsyan attended the presentation of a book authored by staunchly pro-Russian politician Artashes Geghamyan entitled “The Eurasian Union is a Future Path for Independent Armenia.” (Geghamyan is a member of the RPA faction in parliament).

These latest developments calling for clear decisions have led some political observers in Armenia to believe that the so-called “complementary” foreign policy conducted since the mid-1990s policy has exhausted itself and now it is time to get the clear orientation. Meanwhile, for a small country like Armenia, which has lots of problems and authorities whose legitimacy is in question this appears an almost unsolvable problem.