By Atom Markarian and Gevorg Stamboltsian
The European Union will provide 20 million euros ($25 million) worth of additional technical assistance to Armenia in the next three years in an effort to foster further legislative reforms, good governance and better public services, officials said on Monday.
A relevant agreement was signed in Yerevan by Finance and Economy Minister Vartan Khachatrian and Torben Holtze, the top representative of the EU’s executive Commission to Armenia and Georgia.
The aid is part of a three-year “national indicative” project to be implemented by the EU’s TACIS program for former Soviet states jointly with the Armenian authorities. A large part of it will be spent on bringing Armenian legislation closer to European standards and increasing the efficiency of the country’s cash-strapped local governments. European experts will assist the latter in drawing up development plans, collecting local taxes and training personnel.
The EU money will also be used for a reform of Armenia’s system of higher education. This will involve supplies of computers and other equipment state-run Armenian colleges and universities.
Speaking at the signing ceremony, Khachatrian emphasized the fact that the Armenian energy sector is another major beneficiary of the three-year scheme. He said it will finance work on the country’s long-term strategy for energy security that will include a list of measures necessary for the eventual closure of the Metsamor nuclear power plant.
The EU has long been pressing for Metsamor’s decommissioning, saying that its Soviet-era reactor does not meet European safety standards. Holtze reiterated its offer of a 100 million-euro compensation for the shutdown.
However, Yerevan maintains that the plant, which meets nearly 40 percent of Armenia’s energy needs, is safe enough to continue to operate and will not be closed until it finds an alternative source of cheap power. Khachatrian claimed that a rapid Metsamor replacement will require as much as $1 billion. He said one of the ways of substituting for the vital nuclear facility is to build a natural gas pipeline connecting Armenia to neighboring Iran.
“We hope to start the construction of the Armenia-Iran pipeline this year and finish it in a couple of years,” the minister told reporters.
The Armenian government has sought EU funding for the implementation of the $100 million project. However, EU member countries and the European Commission remain cool towards the idea, a stance reaffirmed by Holtze.
The overall amount of EU assistance to Armenia since independence has surpassed 330 million euros. The figure does not include about 170 million euros worth of aid directly provided by EU member states.
The European Commission in particular has subsidized the Armenian state budget under its Food Security Program (FSP) launched in 1996. The annual subsidies have since totaled 67 million euros. Yerevan expects to receive 9.5 million euros in additional FSP funds this year.
Armenia’s growing ties with the EU were discussed on Monday at the start of a regular meeting in Yerevan of a permanent commission made up of Armenian lawmakers and members of the European Parliament. The tense political situation in the country will be high on the agenda of the three-day session. The European co-chair of the body, Ursula Schleicher of Germany, said free and fair elections must be a top priority for the Armenian authorities.
“We have discussed the very important problem of free elections because that is the basis for a free parliament,” Schleicher told RFE/RL.
The European parliamentarians held separate meetings with leaders of the opposition minority in the National Assembly that have been boycotting parliament sessions over the authorities’ refusal to hold a national vote of confidence in President Robert Kocharian. According to Shavarsh Kocharian of the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc, the oppositionists told them that political stability will not take hold in Armenia without a “restoration of constitutional order,” an opposition euphemism for regime change.
Schleicher’s Italian deputy, Demetrio Volcic, said the European Parliament delegation will raise the issue of press freedom in the country, notably the continuing ban on the independent television channel A1+. He said they will also discuss the current state of international efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Schleicher’s delegation will meet on Tuesday with Oleg Yesayan, speaker of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s parliament.
(Photolur photo: Schleicher sitting next to parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and the chairman of the parliament committee on foreign affairs, Armen Rustamian.)