The European Union has approved 60 million euros ($75 million) in fresh assistance to Armenia which is designed to support judicial reforms and speed up the country’s integration into the EU.
The annual assistance announced late on Tuesday by the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, stems from its Eastern Partnership program covering six former Soviet republics. The commission said the money will be spent on “accelerating justice reform and preparing the ground for increased bilateral relations, political association and economic integration with the EU.”
Armenia’s Deputy Economy Minister Garegin Melkonian said on Wednesday that the largest segment of the aid package, worth 25 million euros, will take the form of budgetary funding for Armenian state bodies involved in ongoing negotiations on an “association agreement” with the EU.
The agreement will envisage, among other things, the facilitation of EU visa requirements for Armenian nationals and the creation of a “deep and comprehensive free trade area,” or DCFTA, between Armenia and the EU. The two sides opened formal negotiations on DCFTA and visa facilitation earlier this year.
According to Melkonian, another 20 million euros will be channeled into judicial reforms promised by the Armenian government. In a written statement, the European Commission said much of that assistance will be used for setting up special schools for lawyers, judges and prosecutors.
“The overall goal is an independent, transparent and effective judiciary to serve the Armenian people, and builds on the EU’s previous support to judicial reform in Armenia,” explained the statement.
The authorities in Yerevan announced in June a four-year plan of reforming Armenia’s judicial and law-enforcement systems. Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian said afterwards that the reforms will substantially boost the rule of law in the country.
Opposition politicians and other government critics are highly skeptical about those assurances, saying that an independent judiciary would pose a serious threat to President Serzh Sarkisian’s hold on power. They say Armenian courts will therefore continue rarely defying the government and security apparatus without a democratization of the overall political system.
According to official statistics, only about 2 percent of individuals charged with various crimes in Armenia were acquitted by local courts last year.
The latest assistance approved by the European Commission represents a significant rise in the EU’s annual aid volumes for Armenia. Melkonian said this testifies to a strong EU appreciation of political and economic reforms implemented by the Armenian government. “This is an indicator that the work done by us is effective,” the official told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). He said the EU aid to Yerevan should rise further in the years to come.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy praised those reforms when he visited Yerevan last month. He said the Sarkisian administration is “on the right track.” Van Rompuy also described the Armenian authorities’ handling of the May 6 parliamentary elections as an “important step forward.”
Armenia’s leading opposition groups have denounced those elections as fraudulent.