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By Emil Danielyan

President Robert Kocharian, on a first-ever official tour of the three ex-Soviet Baltic states, has said that Armenia is eager to learn from Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s successful integration into European structures.

Kocharian told the leaders of Latvia on Wednesday and Lithuania on Monday that his country is closely watching their efforts to join the European Union because it is interested in forging closer links with the EU.

"We are interested in Lithuania's way of integration into the EU and the implementation of reforms," a regional news agency, BNS, quoted him as declaring in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Kocharian said membership of the EU is particularly important for small post-Communist countries. He added that Armenia also “understands” the Baltic countries’ drive to join NATO despite strong objections from Russia, its closest ally.

A perceived security threat emanating from Russia is the main reason for their strong desire to become part of the U.S.-led alliance. Armenia, by contrast, views military ties with Russia as a key element of its national security doctrine.

Kocharian also said that Yerevan would also like to study the three countries’ experience with economic reform which has placed EU membership within their reach. Of all former Soviet republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been the most successful in the decade-long transition to democracy and the free market. Unlike Armenia where elections have been tainted with fraud and problems with the rule of law are serious, they are already considered established liberal democracies with dynamic economies that have attracted substantial foreign investments.

Kocharian’s political opponents often question his commitment to Armenia’s democratization and the rule of law, accusing him of planning a massive vote rigging in next year’s presidential elections. The accusations have intensified since the de facto closure last April of Armenia’s main independent television station.

While in Vilnius, Kocharian and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus signed agreements on the avoidance of double taxation and the promotion of bilateral trade which has been reduced to a trickle since the Soviet collapse. In the Latvian capital Riga, Kocharian and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga signed agreements on the extradition of criminal suspects and mutual travel of citizens.

The Armenian leader is due to proceed to Estonia later this week.
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