YEREVAN -- Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian's administration says it still hopes to initiate a key political and free trade agreement with the European Union this year.
Sarkisian announced on September 3 that Armenia would join the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan following talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
The announcement triggered warnings by EU officials that the decision may thwart the country’s chances of signing an Association Agreement with the bloc in November.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service on September 4, Sarkisian's chief of staff, Vigen Sarkisian, said Armenia would try to make the provisions relating to the creation of a free-trade zone with the EU compatible with its membership of the customs union.
"Of course, we are very well aware of the opinions that membership with the customs union can be an obstacle for the commitments prescribed by the negotiated text of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement [DCFTA] as it has been prepared by the Republic of Armenia and the European Union," he said. " The position of the Republic of Armenia is very well known and we have been always trying to find ways [for] making these commitments meet and work with both partners in that regard."
Sarkisian said that, if this were to prove impossible, Armenia was ready to continue "political dialogue and cooperation on common values" with the EU.
He suggested "separating the economic and political components of our cooperation with the EU."
That would lead to a watered-down version of the Association Agreement that doesn’t include the creation of a DCFTA between Armenia and the European bloc.
Sarkisian insisted that political provisions in the draft Association Agreement are strong enough to foster major reforms in Armenia.
"Therefore, we do intend to continue our work towards the Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership that will take place this November with the aim of initialing the Association Agreement which has been negotiated between the Republic of Armenia and the European Union," he said.
Sarkisian also reiterated that there was no pressure from Russia regarding Armenia's decision to join the Moscow-led trade union.
EU officials have repeatedly made clear that the DCFTA is "not compatible" with possible Armenian membership in the Eurasian Customs Union.
Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius of Lithuania, the current EU president, said the EU respected Yerevan's decision to join the customs union, but said Armenia "cannot enter both organizations at the same time."
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, on his Twitter account, spoke of a "U-turn" and also said, "Now President [Serzh Sarkisian] prefers Kremlin to Brussels."
The spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Eduard Sharmazanov, denied that. He said membership of the customs union and European integration were "mutually complementary" processes.
EU Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Stefan Fuele's spokesman Peter Stano told RFE/RL on September 4 that the commission looked forward to "understanding better from Armenia what their intentions are and once this consultation has been completed we will draw our conclusions on the way forward."
Stano said the issue will be discussed when Fuele takes part in an Eastern Partnership ministerial meeting next week in Yerevan.
A State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL that an EU Association Agreement "would have promoted Armenia's modernization and reform." The spokesperson said Washington "encourages Armenia to maintain a range of options in the political, economic, and security spheres, and most importantly to maintain its commitment to further democratization, political and economic reform, and European integration."
Caucasus analyst Thomas de Waal of Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told RFE/RL: "It really doesn't make much difference economically for the Armenians to join the customs union. They have no common border with the other members. It is, in that sense, more of a political project. But it also makes life more difficult for them in negotiating agreements with Brussels. In fact, it basically dooms projects for greater economic integration with the European Union, and Putin will also have known that. It's a kind of reaffirmation of the Russian-Armenian alliance at the expense of Armenia's European ambitions."
Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan founded the customs union in 2010 as a counterweight to the EU’s economic sphere. They launched the so-called Common Economic Space last year and said the goal was to set up a Eurasian economic union modeled after the EU by 2015.
Moscow has been pushing several former Soviet republics to join this process.
With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels and Richard Solash in Washington