Armenia’s political leadership is committed to holding free and fair elections and carrying out broader democratic reforms, the European Union’s two top officials said after talks with President Serzh Sarkisian in Brussels late on Tuesday.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy also confirmed significant progress in the ongoing negotiations on an “association agreement” between the EU and the South Caucasus nation.
“My message to the President today was very clear: we fully support the President's reform and modernization agenda, and we remain committed to deepen our engagement with Armenia in the framework of the Eastern Partnership,” Barroso told journalists after meeting with Sarkisian.
“I trust that you, Mr. President, will continue to pursue reforms to strengthen democratic institutions, to enhance the independence of the judiciary, to encourage political pluralism and media freedom, and the protection of fundamental freedoms,” he said.
“I was happy to welcome your, Mr. President, commitment to reforms,” Van Rompuy said for his part after a separate meeting with Sarkisian.
“I was also happy to hear that you once again confirmed your intention to do all you can to ensure that the Parliamentary elections in May and the Presidential elections next year will be conducted in conformity with international standards,” Van Rompuy said, standing next to the Armenian leader.
Barroso described the conduct of the Armenian elections as an “important benchmark.” “I am reassured by the President’s commitment that these elections will be conducted in accordance with democratic international standards – and just now the president has reiterated that very clearly to me,” he said.
Sarkisian reaffirmed that pledge in his remarks to the press made after both meetings held at the EU headquarters in Brussels. “We are determined to give new impetus to comprehensive reforms going on in our country,” he said. “In this context, the conduct of free and fair elections is of pivotal importance.”
Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian similarly assured EU officials late last year that the May 6 parliamentary elections will be the most democratic in Armenia’s post-Soviet history.
The leading Armenian opposition groups dismiss such pledges, saying that President Sarkisian and his Republican Party (HHK) will seek to retain control over the National Assembly at any cost. They point, among other things, to the Sarkisian administration’s refusal to enact major electoral amendments which the opposition believes would complicate vote rigging.
Sarkisian’s talks in the Belgian capital also focused on the negotiations on the Armenia-EU association agreement stemming from the 27-nation union’s Eastern Partnership program. Both Barroso and Van Rompuy spoke of “good progress” in those talks that began in July 2010. They also stressed the importance of the impending launch of separate negotiations on the creation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with Armenia, a key element of the association agreement.
“The opening of the DCFTA negotiations marks a turning point in our trading and economic relationship, providing new opportunities for our citizens and businesses,” Barroso said. “This is also a sign that our ties are getting stronger.”
The Eastern Partnership offers six former Soviet republics the prospect of much deeper integration into the EU in return for sweeping political and economic reforms.
The EU has until now been cautious in monitoring and reacting to political developments in Armenia. Some Armenian opposition leaders accuse the bloc of being too lenient towards the authorities in Yerevan.