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By Emil Danielyan

The European Union took its first practical step on Monday to promote information technology in the South Caucasus, opening a high-level international conference in Yerevan attended by senior government officials, business executives and representatives of international organizations.

The two-day conference is expected to flesh out the EU's Caucasus Information Technology Initiative (CITI) which envisages financial and technical assistance for the sector's development in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It is also designed to foster broader economic integration among the three regional states and to link them closer to Europe.

"The European Commission strongly supports the conference and I am delighted to introduce it," the commission's External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said in a video message to the participants.

"I congratulate the government of Armenia for its perseverance in pursuing the event despite many frustrations and obstacles along the road," Patten said. The idea to hold the conference under the EU aegis was floated in 2000 by the Armenian government which regards the development of IT as one of its chief economic priorities. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian who chaired the opening session of the forum thanked Brussels for the support.

"It is thanks to them that we can add the CITI to the list of [the EU's] other regional projects such as TRACECA, INOGATE and the Regional Ecological Center," Oskanian said in opening remarks.

"As I look at the list of the speakers today, I don't doubt that we are off to a very good start because with this conference we are beginning the process. And the outcome of this conference will set the stage for what should transpire in this area in the coming months and years."

Armenia, which is seen as the most advanced of the three Caucasian states in the area of IT, will be the first beneficiary of the EU initiative. The European Commission has already allocated 1.8 million Euros ($1.6 million) for the creation of an IT center in Yerevan. The center will provide existing and prospective Armenian specialists with training, relevant information and access to computer facilities.

The project will be financed within the framework of the EU's TACIS assistance program covering 12 former Soviet republics. The head of the EU representation to Georgia and Armenia, Ambassador Torben Holtze, told RFE/RL that it will be formally launched "in the middle of this year."

IT is one of the most rapidly growing sectors of the struggling Armenian economy. Government officials say the aggregate output of an estimated 200 private firms involved in the sector soared by 30 percent last year, with exports of IT products exceeding $20 million. About 60 companies deal with software development. Twenty-six of them operate with foreign, mostly American, capital.

"The European Commission will continue to provide support for Armenia's efforts to develop the IT sector not only inside the country but also in the region," Patten said.

Holtze said the European Commission has yet to come up with similar support projects for neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia. He said the conference will help the EU draw up an IT strategy for the entire region, impoverished after the Soviet collapse.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili also welcomed the EU initiative, saying that it will contribute to the region's "sustainable development." "Our conference is an attempt to place the South Caucasus on the global IT map," she told the participants. "The fact that the EU supports and encourages this initiative is a logical continuation of its overall huge contribution to our region under the TACIS and other assistance programs."

"The development of information technology can play a crucial role in the molibilization of entire regional intellectual potential, which would eventually create a so-called knowledge-based economy in the region," Beruchashvili added.

Azerbaijani officials were conspicuously absent from the conference, underscoring Baku's refusal to cooperate with Yerevan before the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- the main source of regional instability. They argue that such contacts would prolong and legitimize "Armenian aggression" against Azerbaijan.

The EU and Armenia, by contrast, take the view that joint economic projects could facilitate the conflict's settlement. According to Britain's ambassador to Armenia, Timothy Jones, integration is vital for the economic development of the three regional countries.

"Their prospects for growth depend critically on their ability to start a process of integration amongst themselves," Jones told the conference. "As things stand, there is a remarkable absence of integration within the region. There is not even a scheduled flight service connecting its three capitals."
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