A senior Swedish diplomat expressed hope on Tuesday that Armenia will help allay Russia’s concerns about the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program now that it is a member of a Russian-led alliance of ex-Soviet republics.
Marten Ehnberg, Sweden’s charge d’affaires in Yerevan, was present at talks which Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian held with the visiting political directors of the Swedish and Polish foreign ministries on Monday.
The talks focused on Armenia’s continuing participation in the Eastern Partnership, a program designed to significantly deepen the EU’s ties with six ex-Soviet states, including Ukraine and Georgia. Russia has been highly critical of the program championed by Poland and Sweden, saying that it is aimed at undermining Russian influence in the former Soviet Union.
“We discussed Armenia’s role in the Eastern Partnership,” Ehnberg told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), commenting on the meeting with Nalbandian. “As everyone is well aware, we are now in a difficult situation due to what’s going on in Ukraine.”
“We discussed Armenia’s role as a constructive mediator within the Eastern Partnership based on Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), where Armenia, we hope, can play a constructive role in discussing the Eastern Partnership with Russia in order to dispel any rumors that Eastern Partnership would be directed or even hostile towards Russia, which is not the case,” he said.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry made no mention of such mediation in its statement on Monday’s talks with Poland’s Jaroslaw Bratkiewicz and Sweden’s Thorbjorn Sohlstrom. The statement said Nalbandian discussed with them ongoing efforts to negotiate a new deal that would enable Armenia to step up cooperation with the EU.
The deal would serve as an alternative to a far-reaching Association Agreement which Yerevan and Brussels were close to signing in 2013. That agreement was abandoned after President Serzh Sarkisian’s unexpected decision to seek Armenia’s membership in the Russian-led EEU.
Sarkisian’s volte face was widely attributed to strong Russian pressure. Moscow’s attempts later in 2013 scuttle the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine led to the popular overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. That in turn precipitated Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a continuing armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Armenia remained part of the Eastern Partnership even after joining the EEU in January. The Sarkisian administration is now seeking a less ambitious accord with the EU that would contain political and even some economic provisions of the scrapped Association Agreement. Russian officials have not publicly objected to this delicate balancing act.
Earlier this year Armenian and EU officials identified concrete areas to be covered by the new deal. The executive European Commission now needs a formal “mandate” from the EU member states in order to negotiate and sign it with Yerevan. EU leaders are widely expected to give the green light to the start of such negotiations at next week’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, Latvia.
“In Riga we will either say that we will start negotiations or we are in the process of starting the negotiations,” Ehnberg told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Asked how long the talks will take, the Swedish diplomat said, “It’s difficult to say. But both Armenia and the EU are very anxious to conclude this document. Since we have already done negotiations [on the Association Agreement] once, I hope that this time they will not take three and a half years. I hope that they will go much quicker than that.”