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EU Likely To Stay Cautious On Political Reform In Armenia

Czech Republic -- Participants of the EU Eastern Partnership Summit, Prague, 07May2009

Czech Republic -- Participants of the EU Eastern Partnership Summit, Prague, 07May2009

When the European Union formally launched the Eastern Partnership program one year ago it signaled a significant upgrading of its political and economic engagement in six former Soviet republics covered by the scheme. It also fuelled hopes for a more aggressive EU push for democratic change there.

Yet all the indications now are that in at least one of them, Armenia, the bloc will continue to tread carefully in pressing for democratic elections, respect for human rights and other political reforms required by the Eastern Partnership. Accordingly, local civic groups, which believe EU involvement in democracy building in the country has been insufficient, are cautious in their positive expectations from the program.

“It will reflect positively on democratic changes in Armenia only in one case: if the European structures put forward very serious demands before our authorities,” said Amalia Kostanian, chairwoman of the Anti-Corruption Center, the Armenian affiliate of the Berlin-based group Transparency International. “So far, we have seen only declarative demands.”

Boris Navasardian, the chairman of the Yerevan Press Club closely monitoring the effort, is more optimistic. “I believe that any initiative coming from our European partners is an opportunity for the country,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Just how the country and its government structures, political parties and NGOs will use that opportunity is a different matter.”

In Navasardian’s words, a lot will also depend on details of an “association agreement” stemming from the Eastern Partnership which the EU is due to negotiate with Armenia in the coming years. “Only the results of the negotiations will clarify what the program’s priorities are,” he said.

EU member governments gave on May 10 the formal go-ahead to the start of association talks with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. According to Raul de Luzenberger, head of the EU Delegation in Yerevan, the talks between the EU’s executive European Commission and the Armenian government will get underway “in the coming months.”

Armenia - Serzh Sarkisian, President of Armenia, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit, Prague,07May2009
“It depends very much on Armenia how quickly it will be possible to conclude an association agreement,” Luzenberger said in an interview with RFE/RL. “We are working with Armenia to speed this up.”

As part of those talks, the two sides are to work out a “comprehensive institution building” program, or CIB, which will apparently be the main legal instrument of the Eastern Partnership. “It will focus on a few selected institutions that will have a central role in the implementation of the Association Agreement,” the European Commission explained in a recent policy paper on Armenia. The Brussels-based commission said it will spend at least 32 million euros ($40 million) on reforming those institutions in the next four years.

Luzenberger described a free trade regime and a facilitation of visa procedures for Armenians traveling to the EU as “the two main pillars” of the future agreement. Therefore, he said, only those Armenian government agencies that mainly deal with immigration, trade and other economic issues will be chosen for the CIB.

“The Association Agreement does not specifically cover electoral reform or judicial reform,” stressed the EU official. “But the rule of law and respect for democracy and human rights are an important element of the common values that are the fundamental of an association agreement.”

The EU’s new National Indicative Program on Armenia, which sets out the bloc’s reform efforts and objectives there in 2011-2013, likewise makes clear that “sufficient progress” in the country’s democratization is “one of the main preconditions for upgrading contractual relations under the Eastern Partnership.” That means, among other things, an “improved quality of the electoral process and administration in line with international standards.”

It is unclear whether that also means the next Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections must be evaluated by Western monitors more positively than the last ones. Luzenberger said only that the EU is “encouraging Armenia to make progress in improving and better implementing the electoral law.” He said the EU has provided technical assistance for that purpose in other countries. It has primarily take the form of training of election officials, monitors and proxies of election contenders.

Armenian opposition groups and civil society representatives believe that a similar training program in Armenia would not address the root causes of the country’s increasingly entrenched culture of electoral fraud. As Kostanian put it, “Even assuming that members of an election commission know electoral legislation perfectly, if they get an order from above to turn a blind eye to fraud or staff ballots or bully observers, proxies or journalists, they will duly comply.”

What the EU considers a democratic election is another question. The bloc, for example, endorsed OSCE observers’ largely positive verdict on the disputed Armenian presidential ballot of February 2008, which was followed by the worst street violence in the country’s history. By contrast, the U.S. State Department branded the vote as “significantly flawed,” giving more weight to opposition allegations of massive vote rigging. There is similar disparity between the EU and U.S. assessments of the May 2009 municipal polls in Yerevan, which were also denounced as fraudulent by the Armenian opposition.

Armenia -- Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos of Spain, current holder of EU presidency, comments on the Eastern Partnership at a news conference in Yerevan on March 2, 2010.
U.S. officials have also been more vocal (at least in public) in criticizing the Armenian government’s 2008 post-election crackdown on the opposition that involved use of deadly force and mass arrests. European diplomats insist privately that the EU has been no less active in conveying its concerns to President Serzh Sarkisian behind the scenes. They also argue that the 27-nation bloc has lent full support to another pan-European structure, the Council of Europe, which has brought the Sarkisian administration to task over the crackdown.

Even so, the dominant sense among local opposition and civic groups is that EU pressure on the Armenian authorities has so far been too weak to generate any meaningful democratic change. They regard as practically fruitless Armenia’s participation in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), another, less ambitious EU scheme launched five years ago. In a recent assessment report, the European Commission said Yerevan has made “progress in several areas” of an ENP action plan aimed at bringing the country’s political and economic systems into greater conformity with European standards.

Kostanian is “quite disappointed” with this conclusion. Reflecting a common view among local pro-democracy campaigners, she claimed that Armenia has in fact regressed in terms of democracy and human rights in recent years. She argued in particular that more a dozen supporters of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian arrested following the 2008 election on dubious charges still remain in prison.

“One of the most important flaws of the ENP is that it has been too much focused on institutional or formal reforms such as the adoption of laws, [structural] improvements in the activities of various state structures,” said the YPC’s Navasardian. “While that process is certainly very important, it doesn’t solve the problem in full.”

“If citizens see no serious changes in their relationships with state institutions and their lives in general, if they don’t see that corruption, bureaucratic red are declining, that their rights are better protected, then those formal changes become not only meaningless but could also be harmful in the sense that they discredit the very idea of reforms,” he warned.

The EU seems to realize this, having decided to somehow involve civil societies in all six ex-Soviet states in the Eastern Partnership. In each of them, it is now helping to cobble together coalitions of NGOs interested in promoting the program and monitoring their respective governments’ compliance with its requirements.

Navasardian, who coordinates the NGO selection process in Armenia, hopes that this will give EU officials a vital feedback which he thinks has been sorely missing in their reform initiatives. Yet neither the YPC chairman, nor other pro-democracy activists are convinced yet that EU pressure for democratization in Armenia will grow markedly as a result of the Eastern Partnership.

Ambassador Luzenberger also sounded a cautious note. “We are here to support reforms that bring Armenia closer to the values that are the fundamental part of our society, and we do it through a very broad range of instruments,” he said. “Nonetheless, our ability to support is limited, first of all, by our budget possibilities and then by the ability of the beneficiaries to receive our support and implement it.”