By Armen Zakarian
The European Union’s newly appointed special representative to the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, began on Monday his first regional tour with talks in Yerevan with government officials and opposition leaders that addressed Armenia’s ties with the EU and domestic political problems.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Talvitie said his main objective is “try to formulate EU interest in the region.” He said he expects to submit his first report to the EU leadership later this year after a series of trips to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The Finnish diplomat’s appointment last month to the new post underlined the EU’s growing interest in the region which will move geographically closer to the EU as a result of its imminent enlargement eastwards.
Armenia, like its two ex-Soviet neighbors, says integration into various European structures is one of its main foreign policy priorities. “We remain committed to that and are seeking to build a country based on European standards,” Kocharian was quoted as telling the visiting EU official by his press service.
However, the Armenian government’s European credentials have taken a serious battering from this year’s controversial presidential and parliamentary elections that sparked a barrage of Western criticism.
The EU has endorsed international observers’ conclusion that both voters were not democratic. In a recent statement on the May 25 parliamentary polls, the EU’s previous, Greek presidency expressed concern at the “reoccurrence of falsification of vote counts…the intimidation of proxies and the lack of transparency in the publishing of the elections results.”
The election issue was high on the agenda of Talvitie’s meetings with President Robert Kocharian, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as well as leaders of the main pro-presidential and opposition parties. Leaders of the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) bloc accused the Kocharian administration of thwarting Armenia’s integration into Europe by failing to hold free and fair elections.
“We stand for Armenia’s integration into the European structures,” Artarutyun leader Stepan Demirchian told RFE/RL after the meeting. “But we believe that it should start from the formation of a legitimate government.”
Talvitie likewise stressed the importance of the democratization of Armenia’s political system, noting that the authorities in Yerevan “did not get very high marks” for their handling of the 2003 elections.
Also discussed was the Karabakh conflict, with Talvitie saying that the EU will “assist” the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in removing the main source of regional instability. “The fact that we are here now and [the group’s French, Russian and U.S. co-chairs] are not shows that we have some functions to fulfill,” he said.
The EU envoy was already directly involved in the Karabakh peace talks in the mid-1990s when it was co-chaired by Finland and Russia.