A senior British government official praised what he described as a significant expansion of Armenia’s relations with the European Union and NATO as he visited Yerevan on Tuesday.
“We are impressed by the progress Armenia has been making in developing closer ties with both the European Union and NATO,” David Lidington, the British Foreign Office minister for Europe, said after talks with Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian. “And now the negotiations on the association and deep and comprehensive free trade agreement are going well. We welcome this wholeheartedly.”
Lidington, who held separate meetings with President Serzh Sarkisian and Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian later in the day, said Britain is also “deeply grateful” to Armenia for having deployed about 130 soldiers in Afghanistan.
The association agreement currently negotiated by Armenian and EU officials stems from the EU’s Eastern Partnership program covering six former Soviet republics. Nalbandian said he discussed with Lidington “great progress” made in the ongoing talks along with British-Armenian bilateral ties and regional security.
Armenia’s continued participation in the Eastern Partnership talks was called into question by the scandal sparked by the release from a Hungarian prison of Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani army officer who hacked to death an Armenian colleague during a NATO course in Budapest in 2004. The Armenian government suspended diplomatic relations with EU member state Hungary in protest immediately after Safarov’s extradition to Azerbaijan on August 31.
Nalbandian and other Armenian officials have implied that they do not expect the row with Hungary to slow further progress towards the signing of the association accord with the EU. Some of them have expressed hope that the talks with the EU will be completed before the end of next year.
The fallout from the Safarov case was also on the agenda of Lidington’s talks in Yerevan. Nalbandian said he briefed the British minister on “big damage” caused by the affair to international efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Lidington said the United Kingdom agrees with international criticism of the Azerbaijani government’s decision to pardon and promote the convicted murderer. “We have welcomed and support the statements that have been issued by the Minsk Group co-chairs, the European Union, the Council of Europe and the OSCE on this case,” he told a joint news conference with Nalbandian.
Lidington went on to express hope that Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks will resume soon despite the scandal. “I think the fact that there are, yes, significant British commercial interests, through BP and other companies, in Azerbaijan means that the region is less distant from us than might otherwise be the case,” he said. “It means the United Kingdom has a clear interest in trying to promote peaceful reconciliation and stability in the South Caucasus.”