By Harry Tamrazian in Prague
The recent Russian-Georgian war has had an impact on perceptions in the South Caucasus and has opened new opportunities for Armenia and Azerbaijan to deal with their bilateral problems, the European Union’s special representative to the region said in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
Peter Semneby expressed the EU’s continued support for the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its efforts to broker a negotiated peace to the longstanding Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The diplomat also hailed the latest initiative of Russia, one of the Group’s mediators, to liven up the dialogue between the two rival states as well as the Turkish move to promote regional stability and cooperation.
“The war in Georgia was a tragic event, but if there was a silver lining to this tragic war, this would relate to the impact that it had on the perceptions in the other countries of the region and around it,” Semneby said. “I think the war in Georgia even demonstrated that Armenia and Azerbaijan have a common interest, because during the war in Georgia we had, for example, Azerbaijani and Armenian railway engineers working side by side to repair the railway in Georgia.”
“Both countries realize they are vulnerable and the only way of eliminating that vulnerability is to explore the possibilities of dealing with their own bilateral problems.”
In the context of positive developments in the South Caucasus, Semneby also hailed the recent rapprochement in the Armenian-Turkish relations.
“The European context is an important one in the Turkish-Armenian relationship because both countries are important partners of ours and from the other perspective the EU represents for both countries also a strategic direction,” he said. “In this triangular perspective there is a lot of important input that the EU can give. At the same time, in the end the issues have to be resolved and agreed between Armenia and Turkey.”
Semneby also responded to criticism often heard in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, mainly from representatives of the opposition, who urge the EU to do much more to promote democracy in their respective countries. In particular, Armenia’s opposition has repeatedly accused the West and the EU in particular of “preferring stability to democracy”.
“Instability is, of course, not that we would want. We strongly believe, though, that in order to ensure stability in the long run, it is absolutely necessary to develop and nurture democratic institutions, human rights, rule of law and the democratic culture,” Semneby explained. “And democratic cultures, of course, cover all political actors, both the government and the opposition. This is not something that will be done in one day, or one year or one legislative period. It is a very long-term process, perhaps even a generational process, although I very much hope and believe before the next generation is ready to take over, we will have reached quite far on this way.”
Semneby also spoke of positive developments that he has observed in Armenia towards overcoming the consequences of the country’s worst ever internal political crisis.
In particular, the EU envoy welcomed the establishment of a fact-finding group of experts in Yerevan tasked with conducting an independent inquiry into the circumstances of the March 1 clashes between opposition protesters and security forces.
“The fact that the opposition has agreed to participate is also a sign of progress,” he said. “In these respects, we have come a long way from the positions that I heard in the immediate aftermath of the March 1 events.”
Semneby also stressed that ‘lecturing’ is not always ‘very much appreciated’ and there is very much that one can do more effectively quietly behind the scenes, in particular through providing various kinds of technical advice to government agencies, to the judicial system and other state institutions.
Among one of such efforts, Semneby mentioned the sending of a high-level advisory group of experts to Armenia with the purpose of advising the country’s various state institutions on “what the best European practice would be”.
“These advisers are a resource that will be available, will stand by close to the decision-makers, give information and advice, tell the decision-makers what the European standards would be. But the advisors don’t have the mandate to prescribe anything, they don’t go to Armenia with an agenda,” he said.
“I believe that this will ultimately contribute to bringing Armenia and the EU closer to each other and will ensure that any decisions and procedures are closer to how things are done in the European Union,” the EU representative said. “If the Armenian counterparts are prepared to use the full potential of these advisors, I think this will be very important, indeed.”