By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan
Armenia welcomed on Tuesday the European Union’s decision the previous night paving the way for the inclusion of the three South Caucasus states into a club of nations that will enjoy preferential treatment by the EU.
The foreign ministers of the EU member countries instructed the bloc’s executive Commission to look into the possibility of expanding the “Wider Europe” scheme and submit a judgment by next June. Officials in Brussels say that a positive decision on the matter is very likely.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian described the move as “the first important step towards the South Caucasus countries’ deeper integration into the EU.” “The minister believes that it imparts a new quality to the Armenia-EU relations and hopes that a final decision in this direction will be taken during the Irish presidency [of the EU], until next June,” Oskanian’s office said.
Leaders of the main factions in Armenia’s parliament echoed the statement. “It will be a very positive fact if these three republics are allowed to join that group,” said Vazgen Manukian of the opposition Artarutyun alliance.
The issue was discussed during Oskanian’s meeting with Heikki Talvitie, the EU’s top Caucasus envoy who began on Tuesday a four-day visit to Yerevan as part of a regular regional tour. The Armenian Foreign Ministry said the two men discussed the new “favorable situation” and “upcoming concrete steps by the three Caucasian states.”
“I’m very positive,” Talvitie told RFE/RL after a separate meeting with parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian.
The “Wider Europe” initiative was launched last year to step up the EU’s ties with those countries, including Russia and Ukraine, that will become the bloc’s immediate neighbors after its impending eastward expansion. They will be gradually entitled to some benefits of EU membership such as the full freedom of movement for people, services, goods and capital if they bring their legislation into conformity with European standards.
EU diplomats have told RFE/RL that despite their good chances of inclusion in “Wider Europe,” Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are unlikely to enjoy the EU’s so-called “four freedoms” in the near future. They say the three impoverished nations must first carry out sweeping economic and political reforms.
All of them faced strong international criticism last year for presidential and parliamentary elections that were riddled with serious irregularities. The electoral fraud sparked anti-government protests in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and a led to the November bloodless overthrow of Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze. The Georgian “revolution of roses” reportedly served as a catalyst for the EU to extend its cooperation framework to the region.
Brussels’s refusal to do so earlier is criticized in a draft resolution on the Caucasus to be debated by the European Parliament next month. The document finalized on Tuesday by the EU legislature’s committee on foreign affairs and security policy describes the political and socioeconomic situation in the volatile region as “extremely dangerous” and calls for deeper EU involvement it its affairs.
“The correct strategy would be to use the desire in the region for closer relations with the EU to promote democracy and human rights,” it says. “The three countries, all members of the Council of Europe, must be included in the Wider Europe framework and be granted the right to future membership of the EU if they so wish and if they fulfill the criteria.”