By Tigran Avetisian
The European Union’s External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner visited Armenia Monday on the first leg of a regional tour aimed at promoting a new EU framework for closer relations with several former Soviet republics.
The so-called Eastern Partnership program unveiled last month seeks to foster more reforms in the South Caucasus countries as well as three other ex-Soviet states with the promise of "a substantial upgrading of the level of political engagement" with the EU. That includes far-reaching integration into the EU economy, easier travel to the EU, enhanced energy security arrangements and increased financial assistance.
The issue was high on the agenda of Ferrero-Waldner’s talks with President Serzh Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian. The latter reaffirmed Yerevan’s support for the scheme which was designed by the European Commission and needs to be endorsed by all EU member states.
Ferrero-Waldner stressed that Armenia needs to “maximize your reform efforts” if it is qualify for Eastern Partnership. “A lot is still necessary to be done, particularly on the questions of good governance,” she told a news conference in Yerevan. “The fight against corruption is very important; the question of judiciary has to be tackled. There has to be independent judiciary.”
“When all of that will have happened, then I think is the right moment go a step further and this step further will be the so-called Eastern Partnership,” she said. “I think the outlooks are quite promising,” she added.
While mentioning the need to overcome “difficulties between the [Armenian] government and the opposition,” Ferrero-Waldner did not make an explicit linkage between Yerevan’s participation in Eastern Partnership and the release of dozens of opposition members arrested following the February 2008 presidential election. EU officials expressed concern at the mass arrests in the wake of the disputed vote but have rarely commented on the matter since then.
The Sarkisian administration seems to have faced much stronger pressure from another pan-European structure, the Council of Europe, as well as the United States. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) will decide next week whether to impose sanctions on Armenia because of its government’s failure to free all individuals arrested on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges.” The PACE’s Monitoring Committee has described the jailed oppositionists as political prisoners.
“This is a sensitive question,” Ferrero-Waldner said when asked about the EU’s position on the matter. “We know that. But I think it is also important in a modern society that you find ways to work with the opposition. This is something that the government will have to decide. But we hope for that.
“If this were so, then I am confident that there is a chance to get over this difficulty in the Council of Europe. But or course it’s for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to take a decision.”