Sarkisian described his country as “an integral part of Europe” during talks with the EU’s top policy-makers last week. He reaffirmed Yerevan’s commitment to building a privileged relationship with the bloc under its Eastern Partnership program for six former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan and Georgia.
It was also announced during the trip that the EU’s executive European Commission and the Armenian government will likely start in July negotiations on a wide-ranging “association agreement” envisaged by the program.
According to Koryun Nahapetian, a parliament deputy from Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK), the Armenian leader will instruct relevant government bodies to “work more actively” in carrying out political and economic reforms stemming from the European Neighborhood Policy, another, less ambitious EU scheme launched over five years ago.
“After the president’s visit to Brussels, Armenia’s steps towards European integration will gain new momentum,” Nahapetian told a seminar on the Eastern Partnership held in Gyumri over the weekend. “European integration stems from the interests of our people and state.”
Belgium - European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (R) welcomes Serzh Sarkisian, the President of Armenia (L) prior to a meeting at the EC headquaters in Brussels, 26May2010
Sarkisian similarly assured EU leaders that forging closer political and economic ties with the EU remains a top Armenian foreign policy priority. He said his administration is actively preparing for the start of the association agreement talks.
“I have told President Sarkisian that the Commission is prepared to launch the Association Agreement negotiations as soon as next July,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told journalists on Wednesday.
“An important part of this Agreement will be the negotiation on a bilateral Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA),” he said. “But this could kick off only once Armenia will have fully addressed key trade-related recommendations made by the Commission last June. I am confident that Armenia will intensify its efforts in this regard.”
The free trade regime requires harmonization of Armenia’s trade legislation and regulations with EU standards. Sarkisian, according to his press office, told Barroso that Yerevan expects “intensive EU assistance” in that process.
He was also reported to press Brussels to speed up talks on the facilitation of visa procedures for Armenians traveling to the EU, another key element of the planned association agreement. The Armenian side is ready to meet relevant EU requirements on immigration policy, Sarkisian said.
“I fully understand the importance of these mobility issues for Armenia,” Barroso said. “And the Commission is willing to negotiate agreements on these issues. However, further technical negotiations with both Armenia and our own Member States are still needed.”
The forthcoming association talks are expected to run parallel to a reform of Armenian state agencies dealing with external trade and immigration as well as changes in Armenian laws regulating the two spheres. The European Commission has already earmarked at least 32 million euros ($40 million) for financing those reforms.
Democratization, human rights protection and a stronger rule of law are another stated precondition for Armenia’s participation in the Eastern Partnership. Yet just how far the bloc is ready to go in pressing for political reforms in the country is still an open question.
Herman van Pompuy, the president of the EU’s top decision-making body, the European Council, stressed their importance when he met Sarkisian on Thursday. “I emphasized our hope that our strengthening of relations with Armenia is going to be a stimulus to Armenia to deliver more on democratic reforms,” he said in a statement.
“Upcoming negotiations for the future Association Agreement will create additional leverage for internal reform and make available EU financial and technical support. We encourage Armenia to make full use of this opportunity to advance its reform agenda,” added van Pompuy.
An EU policy paper on Armenia released earlier this year underlined the need for an “improved quality of the electoral process and administration in line with international standards.” A senior European Commission official dealing with the Eastern Partnership told RFE/RL’s Armenian service last week that this means Armenia’s next presidential and parliamentary elections should “definitely” be more democratic than the previous ones.
In Nahapetian’s words, the Armenian authorities are committed to putting in place “a qualitatively new electoral system” that would preclude serious fraud that has marred just about every election held in Armenia since the mid-1990s. The lawmaker, who is a member of an Armenia-EU commission on inter-parliamentary cooperation, said EU experts will be involved in the elaboration of sweeping changes in the country’s Electoral Code. The authorities plan to enact them by May 2011, he said.
Local civic groups believe, however, that legislative changes alone would not address chronic vote rigging. They argue that the Electoral Code has been frequently amended in the past.
Poland -- Photo at the informal meeting of foreign ministers devoted to Eastern Partnership in Sopot, Poland, 24May2010.
“We doubt that the electoral reforms will serve their declared purpose,” said Levon Barseghian, chairman of the Gyumri-based Asparez Journalists’ Club. “What we need is democratic elections, not improved legislation.”
Sarkisian’s trip to Brussels began two days after an informal meeting in Sopot, Poland of top diplomats from the 27 EU member states and their counterparts from the six partner countries. Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos of Spain, the current holder of the EU presidency, insisted after the meeting that the program is moving forward and remains “one of the EU’s main priorities.”
The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain were conspicuously absent from the one-day gathering, raising more questions about the EU heavyweights’ enthusiasm for the partnership scheme initiated and championed by Poland. While denying any political reasons for the no-show, Polish officials implied that the Eastern Partnership will be reinvigorated next year, when Hungary and Poland alternately take over the six-month EU presidency.
“We will certainly have important initiatives, at least at the ministerial level,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told reporters in Sopot. “Politically speaking, the Eastern Partnership is actually very busy. It’s the implementation that we are not satisfied with yet.”