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By Anna Saghabalian
The European Union signaled its intention to press harder for political reform in Armenia on Friday, with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner raising the issue during an official visit to Yerevan.

“Our main emphasis today was on the issues of democracy, human rights, rule of law, poverty reduction as well as Armenia’s energy policy,” Foreign Minister Oskanian told reporters after talks with Ferrero-Waldner.

Oskanian said they also discussed concrete actions stemming from Armenia’s inclusion the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) framework that entitles it to privileged to ties with the bloc. Armenian and EU officials opened discussions on the ENP action plan in Yerevan last November. The second round of the negotiations is scheduled to take place in Brussels next month.

The plan is expected to reflect a report that was released by the EU’s executive European Commission in March last year. The 30-page report called for democratic elections, the rule of law, respect for human rights, anti-corruption measures as well as further economic reforms in Armenia.

The EU criticized the Armenian authorities’ handling of last November’s constitutional referendum, casting doubt on their “commitment to democracy.” However, its involvement in democracy-building in Armenia has so far been minimal. Human Rights Watch, a respected international watchdog, urged the bloc last December to do much more to promote political reform in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The fact that the issue featured large during Ferrero-Waldner’s talks with Oskanian, President Robert Kocharian and parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian suggests a shift in EU policy. “For us, the rule of law, democracy and human rights are very important,” said the former Austrian foreign minister.

“Armenia is prepared for serious reforms and regards the [ENP] action as a quite serious means of deepening reforms,” Kocharian was quoted by his press service as assuring the visiting official.

Ferrero-Waldner, who arrived in Yerevan on the second leg of a tour of the South Caucasus, stressed that the EU is equally concerned with the impoverished region’s economic development and diversification of its sources of energy that are now largely confined to Russia. She said in that regard that the EU supports Armenia’s decision to build a gas pipeline from neighboring Iran.

Also on the agenda of the talks was facilitation of Armenian exporters’ access to the EU’s big and affluent market, something which is envisaged by ENP. The EU solidified last year its status as Armenia’s number one trading partner. Official Armenian figures for the first ten months of 2005 showed the volume of Armenia-EU trade jumping by 55 percent to $756.5 million.

Ferrero-Waldner further made a case for economic integration in the South Caucasus, saying that it is a necessary condition for regional stability. She confirmed the EU’s opposition to plans by Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to build a regional railway bypassing Armenia. “A railway project that is not including Armenia will not get our financial support,” she said.

Ferrero-Waldner went on to reiterate EU support for the long-running efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But she did not comment on the failure of last week’s crucial Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks in France.

(Photolur photo)
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