Ambassador, Head of the EU Delegation to Armenia Piotr Switalski gave an exclusive interview to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Tuesday. See the full transcript below.
Azatutyun: How would you characterize Human Rights Dialogue raised with the Armenian authorities?
Ambassador: The Human Rights Dialogue held last week in Yerevan is a regular feature in the contact between the European Union and Armenia. The dialogue was conducted in a very open, frank and cooperative atmosphere. We discussed very openly all the issues on the human rights agenda. It is no secret that the most important issue discussed was the preparation to 2017 national elections and the work on the electoral code in Armenia.
Azatutyun: During the dialogue have you raised issues of human rights violations here in Armenia?
Ambassador: We discussed the whole spectrum of issues. As I said, the most important item on the agenda was the implementation of the Constitutional reforms and the work on the Electoral code. But we discussed also the situation of the vulnerable groups, the rights of women, the rights of children. We discussed issues of domestic violence. We discussed issues related to non-discrimination. We discussed also individual cases.
As a separate issue we addressed the topic of investigating the allegations of irregularities during the last Constitutional referendum, but we raised also the issue of the 2008 tragic events in Armenia and the need to clarify the issues and to bring all the responsible to account.
We also handed over a number of individual cases, names of people, whom we believe the Armenian authorities should pay very close attention, because this individual cases are not good for the image of Armenia.
Azatutyun: Could you please provide some examples or names?
Ambassador: I wouldn’t like to discuss this topic in public, because part of the success of this dialogue is that we do it in a very open spirit but in a confidential way. So there are issues I wouldn’t like to discuss in public, but it will not be a secret that we raised the issue of an activist, who was detained on the New Year’s Eve and who is on pre-trial detention and whose pre-trial detention, we believe, is excessive, is not commensurate with the situation in which he is implicated.
We raised also a number of other issues of people, who are in prison, who, we believe, are not treated in a commensurate way.
Azatutyun: Have you discussed the National Human Rights Action Plan and do you support Armenia’s reform efforts?
Ambassador: Yes, the Human Rights Action Plan was on the agenda. The general message that we sent as the European Union is the following: Armenia has very good plans, but it needs more action. There is abundance of plans, but there is some deficit of action. Therefore, what is most important for us, is to focus our shared attention on the implementation of this plans, on monitoring this implementation and bringing concrete results from the plans.
So, yes, we discussed Human Rights Plan, we discussed the link between the plan and the Human Rights Support Program, a big support program signed last year by the European Union, worth 12 million Euros, which deals with 5 areas of human rights. The new elements in this Human Rights Support Program are that some of the legislation that Armenia is planning to adopt is linked to concrete benchmarks. For instance, Armenia committed itself, through this Human Rights Budget Support Program to adopt a law on domestic violence by the end of 2016. Armenia committed itself to adopt the law on non-discrimination by the end of 2017 and this is the new elements that our Human Rights Support Program brings into the discussion of Human Rights in Armenia.
Azatutyun: How the result of this dialogue feeds into the overall EU - Armenia cooperation? How are they followed up?
Ambassador: This dialogue is very important, because, as stated by the President of Armenia and other leaders of this country, Armenia wants to build relations with the European Union on the basis of common values. And these common values are human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Therefore, if you want to have a strong relationship between Armenia and the European Union, the factor of human rights, the factor of democracy and rule of law is important. Therefore, we need to make progress, because making progress on Human Rights by Armenia will help to solidify this common basis of our relations.
Azatutyun: It is a very interesting point, because the European Union and the Armenian authorities are talking very much on human rights, democracy, but in Armenia we got very interesting referendum. What can you say about this? I mean, there is the reality and there are announcements.
Ambassador: As I said, the preparations to 2017 national elections were in the focus of the discussion, because for the European Union the next elections are crucial for the future of Armenia. The next elections will determine the model of political governance and also the model of relationship between the authorities and the society at large. Therefore, we had a very frank discussion, where we simply made it clear that we would wish the next elections to be held according to the best standards not only in this regions of South Caucasus, but the best European standards to the extent possible. For this reason we would encourage the authorities to conduct a very inclusive dialogue with the opposition and the civil society. Armenia needs a frank discussion between all the interested parties. Armenia needs a political round table to build a national consensus around the next elections. So we hope very much that there will be an inclusive dialogue inside Armenia and also all the recommendations by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and the OSCE, which will be prepared in the weeks to come, will be taken into account and will be reflected in the Electoral Code.
Azatutyun: If we don’t have democratic elections, what kind of influence will it have on EU – Armenia relations?
Ambassador: I have mentioned it several times during my work here in Armenia that we proceed from the need to have a positive agenda, therefore we want to work on the basis that there is a will to improve the standard of elections in Armenia. We have heard many declarations by members of the government, by the leaders of Armenia that Armenia will have better elections, Armenia will have elections on the basis of the Electoral Code, which will meet all the necessary criteria and requirements and be negotiated on a very wide, inclusive basis. So we hope for the best and we work on the assumptions that these declarations are sincere and I think that this is the only logic that we can adopt in the present circumstances. So, yes, we believe that there is a wish from all sides, from the parties involved in the political life in Armenia to improve the political governance in Armenia.
Azatutyun: Could you elaborate a bit more on the agenda items related to anti-corruption efforts?
Ambassador: In addition to the Human Rights Dialogue we met the subcommittee on Justice, Freedom and Legal Affairs. Two items dominated the agenda: one is the reform of justice and the other is fights against corruption. We discussed it at length.
Armenia needs a breakthrough in its fight against corruption. We have again a number of good documents, we have Strategy, we have an Action Plan, we have an anticorruption body chaired by the Prime Minister. But we need results. So we have plans, but we need action.
Unfortunately, last year Armenia slipped from position number 94 to 95 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, while its neighbor Georgia climbed from 52 to 50. And Georgia is a good example that even with the legacy of the past years, even with the same level of income per capita, it is possible to make decisive steps and make a breakthrough.
For Armenia the fight against corruption is probably one of the most important tasks, a task, which would require national consensus, which would require the unity of all political forces, because without fighting corruption the progress in all possible aspects – economic, political, social, is hard to imagine. So we sent this messages very clearly, we received very detailed presentations from the Armenian side, sometimes very frank assessments. We expect action and the most important things are, of course, changing law, changing legislation, including all the necessary standards of the fight against corruption which exist in the European practice and also the establishment of independent anticorruption body with investigative powers according to the best standards of Europe and the West in General.
Azatutyun: But in Armenia anticorruption body is headed by the prime minister, so you are talking about an independent body, but…
Ambassador: We are talking about independent investigative body. There are different models. The European Union is supporting a project with Civil Society, with experts to suggest the possible solution for Armenia. There are different examples of such independent investigative anticorruption agencies starting from Singapure, Hong Kong, going through Western experience, also transitional countries’ experience: Poland, Romania. All these countries have developed such independent institutions.
Azatutyun: Not headed by authorities.
Ambassador: Not headed by administrative branches of power.
Azatutyun: Is it crucial for anti-corruption steps to have an independent body?
Ambassador: This agency will always be a part of the system of governance. It will have to be put into the structure of the executive branch, but it would have to be separate from political influence, it will have to be separate from political appointments, it will have to be totally independent from the governmental, ministerial and other structures.
Azatutyun: Can we say that without the independent body we cannot get real results in anti corruption fight?
Ambassador: There are different scenarios. I have spoken many times in public on how to address the issue. You can try to do some measures in selected branches. And it is also possible. I wouldn’t, probably, believe that Armenia necessarily should follow the path of Georgia concerning the fight against corruption in the Judiciary or in the Police, which in Georgia took a very radical form by totally renewing the composition of the Police or the Judiciary. Probably, Armenia doesn’t have to apply the same radical approach, but it is possible to look into different sectors and to focus there.
There are very concrete ideas for the fight against corruption for instance in the education (in the tertiary education, university education), prepared by good experts under the auspices of the Council of Europe and funded by European Union. There are recommendations made by the civil society concerning the secondary education.
There is, as I understand, also a pilot project financed by the international community in some secondary schools, which would include the fight against corruption, which the government supports.
So, even these sectoral measures, if implemented quickly, decisively, can bring some results. So I wouldn’t say that the establishment of this independent body is a condition sine qua non, condition, without which you cannot move forward. There are different scenarios. But what is necessary also for the population, for the society at large that they can see quick results.
We are encouraging the government -- look at these sectors. And the Action Plan singles out certain priority sectors, but act decisively. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And, by the way, when I said this expression, the Justice Minister quickly said -- I agree with you. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because there are enough good examples around. Simply, there should be a political decision -- yes, we should be doing it.
Azatutyun: Is it a political issue?
Ambassador: I think it is a political issue since the President himself, in his very important speech in February mentioned the same issues that we, as the European Union, are emphasizing. Fight against corruption and the independence of Judiciary.
The February speech of the President is a speech, which can be the basis for resolute action.
Azatutyun: Many people here in Armenia don’t believe that the authorities, whose relatives have businesses in this country, can fight corruption. Do you believe that men, who have businesses can really do real steps against corruption?
Ambassador: For Armenia to be successful in its further development, for sure has to draw a very clear line between politics and business. That’s also the experience of many transitional countries. The link between business and politics can be very very damaging for the development of both the political model of governance and also the economic model of governance. So that is something that Armenians, now having the opportunity to implement the Constitutional changes, should pay a very close attention to.
But as I said in some of my public statements, the presence of rich people, business people in public life, in government, in the parliament, is not bad in itself. There are other countries where rich people are there. Look at the electoral campaigns in some other countries. You have millionaires running for big jobs. So it’s not bad in itself. But what is necessary is to have a clear rules for avoiding the conflict of interests, clear rules for transparency of your economic activities in the past and of course withdrawal from active economic activities, when you are in a public function.
And it's not only you, but also the transparency concerning your family, your extended family, etc. These are clear rules, which exist in many countries avoiding conflict of interest, transparency. Because if there is a suspicion that you are using your job as a minister or as a parliamentarian to create better conditions for your own personal and business activities, nobody in Armenia or in any other country will believe that you are acting in the interests of the whole nation. But when you have very transparent and very strict rules on the conflict of interest, then even very rich people can be trusted, because people will understand -- OK, they have some wealth, but they’re not in the government to make themselves richer or to protect their wealth.
Azatutyun: And the last question, Mr Ambassador. Are you concerned that after negotiations with Armenia the new framework agreement will not be signed and in that case what will be EU attitude toward Armenia?
Ambassador:We conduct all negotiations on the basis of good faith. I cannot imagine a situation the situation, where the European Union would start a negotiation and then say that at the end: sorry, we just changed our position and now we are no longer interested.
I believe that now these issues of what are the possibilities for the relationship between Armenia and the European Union are clear. And we negotiate on the basis of clear statements by the president, by the leaders of this country. So we do not have any B scenario or C scenario, of what happens if there is again a complicating factor.
Azatutyun: But the last time we know what kind of results we had after long term negotiations.
Ambassador: Well, I think that last time was the last time, meaning that it will never be repeated. I can only hope that the proper lessons have been drawn from that experience and we are now in a process, where this experience will prevent us from going through the same situation again.
So, I am quite confident that we will have a good document, because there is nothing in this document, which would complicate Armenia’s life within the Eurasian Economic Union. At least the political part, the trade part and some of the sectoral parts are clearly on the level that should not be seen as being difficult for Armenia in any way, quite the contrary.
So, we are who we are and we want a good, fruitful process and the signals that we are receiving from Armenian negotiators are constructive. So why assume a bad scenario again? One time is enough.