By Atom Markarian
Holland’s Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm, echoing earlier calls by senior European Union officials, argued on Wednesday that economic cooperation among Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia will facilitate the resolution of ethnic disputes in the region. He suggested that the three impoverished nations follow the example of post-World War II Europe in bringing peace and prosperity to the South Caucasus.
“Our experience has been that it can be a method to start with economic cooperation and end up with permanent peace,” Zalm told reporters in Yerevan. “I think this could also be of relevance to this region, and we are certainly willing to support financially and otherwise any economic program involving the three countries.”
The remarks, made at the end of the Dutch minister’s two-day visit to Armenia, largely reflect the position of official Yerevan which maintains that Armenia and Azerbaijan can restore their economic links before the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Meeting with Zalm on Tuesday, President Kocharian was quoted by his press service as complaining that Azerbaijan remains firmly opposed to the idea.
Baku believes that by engaging in commercial ties with its arch-rival it would alleviate socioeconomic hardships suffered by Armenians and discourage them from seeking a peaceful solution.
The European Union and its member states, however, take the view that regional economic programs would be a strong confidence-building measure in the Karabakh peace process. “It was always a European-style habit to use economic cooperation as the first phase of more intensive political cooperation,” the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said after talks with Kocharian in Brussels in June.
The EU has been trying to promote economic cooperation and integration in the South Caucasus through a number of far-reaching transportation projects which would, among other things, facilitate trade between the region and Europe.
Zalm’s talks in Yerevan focused mainly on bilateral issues, including continued Dutch assistance to Armenia. Holland is one of Armenia’s leading donor states. Earlier this year, it released a fresh $5 million budgetary grant to the Armenian government.
Zalm and his Armenian counterpart, Vartan Khachatrian, signed on Thursday two agreements aimed at boosting economic ties between the two nations. The volume of their bilateral trade was $15 million last year. Dutch investments in the Armenian economy stood at an equally modest $2.5 million.