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By Irina Hovannisian
Armenian businessmen and top company executives complained on Wednesday that traveling to the European Union has been far more difficult for them over the past year due to what they see as an unjustified toughening of EU visa rules.

The mostly wealthy individuals affiliated with Armenia’s main business association claimed that the stricter requirements are increasingly hampering their commercial ties and other transactions with EU companies. They were particularly critical of the German consulate in Yerevan, which also issues visas for other, smaller European states making up the Schengen zone.

“We have no problem getting a visa from the American, Indian and other embassies,” said Georgi Avetikian, director of the Yerevan-based aluminum foil plant Armenal. “At the German embassy, you have to wait for hours just to get interviewed by a consulate official.”

“Also, a businessman had to hold seven-day negotiations in an EU country but was granted only a five-day visa recently,” said Avetikian. “I can’t understand that either.”

Gagik Abrahamian, who runs a local jewelry company trading with Belgium, complained that he was recently denied a Schengen visa despite submitting a written invitation from his Belgian partners. “Our partners from a famous Belgian company applied to their foreign ministry but did not get a reply,” he told a roundtable discussion with officials from the Armenian Foreign Ministry.

According to Abrahamian and other participants, until last year Armenian business travelers were easily granted Schengen visas if they presented supporting letters from the Union of Industrialists and Manufacturers of Armenia. Many were even spared the need to be interviewed by relevant consulates in person, they said.

“In the past year this system has not functioned properly,” the union’s chairman, Arsen Ghazarian, told RFE/RL. “In our view, there are too many undue delays and refusals, especially concerning [company] managers who have to often travel abroad to negotiate and sign agreements.”

Tigran Seyranian, head of the Foreign Ministry department on consular affairs, blamed the apparent toughening of visa procedures on the high rate of illegal emigration from Armenia to Europe. He argued that in France alone at least a hundred Armenian citizens apply for asylum every month. Seyranian also suggested that some Armenian business people may have had “problems” with EU immigration authorities in the past.

Ghazarian insisted, however, that no member of his association has ever overstayed an EU visa or lived in an EU country illegally. “The union has existed for ten years and there hasn’t been a single case of a union member staying illegally or breaking the law there,” he said.

(Photolur photo: Ghazarian, left, speaks during the discussion.)
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