The agreements, which Yerevan hopes to seal in the next few years, stem from the country’s inclusion in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program. It offers six former Soviet republics, including all three South Caucasus states, much closer integration with the 27-nation bloc in return for political and economic reforms.
Senior officials from the EU’s executive European Commission presented more details of the scheme, formally launched in May, at the start of a two-day workshop in Yerevan attended by Armenian government officials and civil society representatives. John Kjaer, head of a Commission unit overseeing the Eastern Partnership, told participants that Armenia will receive the assistance in 2011-2013 to engage in “comprehensive institution building” which he said is necessary for the success of the planned free talks.
“It is exactly designed to help you to prepare for negotiations and negotiate association agreements and implement [free trade agreements,]” Kjaer said. “We want it to be focused on core institutions.
“On the other hand, we want it to be comprehensive. That means addressing all the obstacles that these institutions are facing in their endeavors.”
“Before the end of the year, we will, in close contact with government counterparts, define the target institutions in what we call a framework document,” continued Kjaer. “We will basically identify the institutions which will benefit from the assistance.” A team of EU experts will then help the Armenian government determine by next June just how the European Commission should help them, he said.
Armenian and EU officials already discussed in February preparations for the launch of official negotiations on a free trade deal. The European Commission’s Directorate General for Trade said ahead of those consultations that Armenia should not only bring its laws into greater conformity with EU standards but also ensure their “proper implementation and enforcement.”
Economy Minister Nerses Yeritsian, who was also present at the workshop, said the Armenian government is committed to accomplishing that “as soon as possible” and therefore thinks that the free trade talks could be completed within three years. But he noted that EU officials are less optimistic on that score.
“Experts tell us that the process could take five years or longer,” Yeritsian told journalists. “But we’ll see. It all depends on the formulation of our objectives.”
Armenia is already enjoying a preferential trading regime with EU countries, having been included last December in the bloc’s new Generalized System of Preferences (GSP+). Developing countries covered by the scheme, effective from January 2009 through the end of 2011, are entitled to selling about 6,400 items in EU markets with significant import duty discounts.
Despite that, Armenian exports to the EU, tumbled by 59 percent to $123.4 million in the first half of this year amid a deepening fallout from the global financial crisis. The sharp fall was a key reason why Russia and other CIS countries overtook the EU as Armenia’s number one trading partner during that period.
Kjaer insisted that Armenia’s democratization is also essential for the signing of the far-reaching agreements with the EU. “What is important to know is that we do require, in order to start negotiations on an association agreement, that there is what we call sufficient level of progress in terms of values which exactly are underpinning our relationship with the countries,” he said. “Namely, democracy, the rule of law and human rights.”
But the Brussels-based official did not specify whether conduct of elections deemed free and fair by the international community is a necessary condition for the country’s successful participation in the Eastern Partnership. Unlike the United States, the EU did not criticize the Armenian authorities’ handling of the disputed presidential election of February 2008. Nor did it condemn the post-election crackdown on the Armenian opposition that involved use of lethal force and mass arrests.