By Ruzanna Stepanian
The dramatic post-election developments in Armenia have not undermined the Armenian government’s efforts to forge closer ties with the European Union within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) program, senior EU diplomats indicated on Tuesday.
The ENP offers EU neighbors committed to political and economic reforms a privileged relationship with the 27-nation bloc. Armenia undertook to democratize its political system as it was included in the scheme along with neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia in 2005.
That commitment was called into question by the Armenian government’s harsh response to opposition street protests against official results of last February’s disputed presidential election. The EU expressed serious concern about the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan and the ensued mass arrests of opposition members. Its Slovenian presidency twice urged the Armenian authorities to release citizens detained “in connection with their political activities” and to allow an independent investigation into the violence that left at least ten people dead.
But the EU appears to have avoided pressing those demands and threatening to sanction Yerevan, unlike the United States which has frozen $236 million in promised economic assistance to Armenia. Washington has made it clear that the development of U.S.-Armenian relations is conditional on Armenia getting back on a “democratic path.” And unlike EU leaders, U.S. President George W. Bush has pointedly refused to congratulate President Serzh Sarkisian on his controversial election victory.
According to Raul de Luzenberger, head of the European Commission’s mission in Yerevan, the continuing crackdown on the opposition has not endangered Armenia’s participation in the ENP. He said that participation hinges on the implementation of an ENP-related action plan which Armenia signed in late 2006.
“We have agreed that the intensity of EU-Armenia relations will depend on how quickly Armenia fulfills the implementation of the action plan,” de Luzenberger told journalists. “So I don’t see any problem in terms of European Neighborhood Policy.”
“But I hope that there will be positive reforms from the Armenian side so the intensity of our relations can continue to grow at the current pace,” he said. The diplomat did not specify what those reforms should be.
For his part, French Ambassador in Yerevan Serge Smessow, whose country assumed the EU’s rotating presidency on July 1, implied that Armenia’s ties with the EU will not necessarily be damaged if the Council of Europe decides to impose political sanctions on Yerevan over the crackdown. “It’s the Council of Europe, not the European Union, that has postponed the possibility of sanctions until the beginning of next year,” he said. “This is a decision that was taken by the [EU] member states. But the Council of Europe is not the European Union.”
Smessow stressed that the sanctions threatened by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly are largely “symbolic.” “We can only hope that the problem will disappear by itself and Armenia will follow the Council of Europe recommendations,” he said.
(Photolur photo: Raul de Luzenberge, left, and Serge Smessow.)