Armenia began on Monday the first round of negotiations with the European Union over an “association agreement” that would significantly upgrade its political and economic ties with the bloc.
The agreement stemming from the EU’s Eastern Partnership program for six former Soviet republics, including neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia, would entitle the country to a permanent free trade regime with the EU and facilitate visa procedures for its citizens traveling to Europe. It also envisages a harmonization of Armenian laws, regulations and government policies with the EU standards.
“This is an ambitious, far-reaching agreement,” Gunnar Wiegand, the head of an EU negotiating team for Armenia, told journalists in Yerevan. “This will have a lasting effect on the way this country organizes its economy and the way we drive forward the reform process together in order to get Armenia ever closer to the European Union.”
The chief Armenian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Karine Kazinian, confirmed that the negotiating process will take years. “We have already identified the areas from which we will start, and it is difficult to stay how long the process will take: three years, four years or five years,” Kazinian told a joint news conference with Wiegand.
“But the important thing is that negotiations have started and we are prepared for that path,” she said. “We are also ready to make every effort to follow the guidelines that we have with the EU and bring the process to a successful end.”
Wiegand also declined to speculate about time frames for signing the agreement. “This is ambitious, and ambition needs time in order to get things right,” he said. “We would certainly be wrong now to fix an artificial deadline. We want to get a good agreement with lasting effects for all citizens.”
Separate teams of EU negotiators launched similar talks with the Georgian and Azerbaijani governments late last week. In a statement issued ahead of the talks, Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief expressed confidence that the association agreements “will be a catalyst to the domestic reforms” in all three South Caucasus states.
In Armenia, the association talks are expected to run parallel to a reform of state agencies, most of them dealing with external trade and immigration, as well as changes in various Armenian laws. The EU’s executive 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 condition for Armenia’s participation in the Eastern Partnership. Yet just how aggressively the bloc plans to press for political reforms in the country is still an open question.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Wiegand insisted that the EU will closely monitor political developments in the country and the Armenian authorities’ respect for human rights. He dismissed claims by local opposition politicians that the EU has been lenient towards President Serzh Sarkisian’s government because of his Western-backed policies on Turkey and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“We look at the democratic standards and human rights separately from the manifold regional and foreign policy challenges which Armenia has,” the EU official said.
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 in May that this means the next Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections should “definitely” be more democratic than the previous ones. The EU has not officially made such a linkage, though.