By Emil Danielyan
Western criticism of the recent presidential election in Armenia will not hamper its government’s drive to forge closer ties with the European Union and other pan-European structures, according to Italy’s outgoing ambassador to Armenia, Paolo Andrea Trabalza.
In an interview with RFE/RL this week, Trabalza endorsed international observers’ negative assessment of Yerevan’s handling of the poll, but urged the Armenian opposition to stop disputing the legitimacy of President Robert Kocharian’s reelection. He also said that Kocharian’s five-year track record has been largely positive.
The Italian envoy’s remarks were by far the most positive of messages addressed to the Armenian authorities by European and U.S. officials since the February 19 and March 5 rounds of voting marred by allegations of vote rigging. Some Western leaders, notably U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have pointedly refrained from congratulating Kocharian on his reelection, underscoring their criticism of the vote.
“The elections do not affect at all Armenia’s movement towards the European Union, closer relations with the Council of Europe and a new dialogue with NATO,” Trabalza said. “Europe has no intention to slow down this process. We have already expressed our opinion on the elections and now we have to open a new chapter [in relations with Armenia].”
Other European diplomats in Yerevan have sounded less optimistic on that score. One of them, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL earlier that Europe will now take “a more skeptical look” at Armenia’s efforts to integrate into its political and economic structures.
But Trabalza, whose country is a leading member of the EU, strongly downplayed the negative international fallout from the Armenian presidential race. Furthermore, he indicated that the Armenian opposition should stop contesting the official results of the election whish showed Kocharian roaring to a landslide victory over his main challenger, Stepan Demirchian.
He said: “There were some illegalities during the elections. But there is an elected president and he is the president of Armenia and of the Armenians. This is something that the population should always remember.”
“People have to understand that elections have taken place and they now have to influence their president on what their majority wants,” Trabalza continued. “Democracy doesn’t end with elections. It is a day-to-day process. The majority of the people can influence the president’s thoughts every day. But not with a confrontation, screaming or crying.”
Trabalza, who has served as Italy’s first ambassador in Yerevan since September 2000, went on to credit Kocharian with improving the difficult economic situation and reinforcing political stability in Armenia. “My evaluation is that President Kocharian has been able to manage this period of time with success and development,” he said. "If the current trends continue, they should lead the country out of the swamp.”
Trabalza, a mild-mannered bespectacled diplomat, will return to Rome next week to take up the post of diplomatic adviser to Italy’s minister for regional affairs. His successor designate, Marco Clemente, is due to arrive in Yerevan in June. Clemente has until now worked as Italy’s consul-general to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Trabalza’s diplomatic term in Armenia began with the opening of the Italian embassy in Armenia. It moved to a new two-story building in downtown Yerevan last year constructed by an Italian company on a new street named after Italy. Trabalza says the embassy has played a major role in a steady increase in Italian-Armenian trade over the past few years.
Armenian government figures show the volume of bilateral commercial exchange totaling $47.6 million last year, up from $28.4 million registered in 2000.
The main challenge facing Armenia, according to the outgoing ambassador, is to strengthen its fledgling democratic institutions and normalize relations with the neighboring states. Armenia, he stressed, should do “everything possible” to have open borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey, its historical foes.
“Armenians are too much tied to their past,” Trabalza complained. “You should forgive, not forget [the past] if you really want to be Christian.”
Trabalza said he therefore attaches great importance to Turkey’s participation in the upcoming NATO-led military exercises in Armenia. “It is very important to explain to the Armenian people that the Turks are not a bear who is waiting to eat them,” he said.