Next month the European Union and Armenia will sign a five-year action plan related to the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) program that enables EU neighbors to establish preferential relations with the 25-country bloc. The development will be hailed by the authorities in Yerevan as an important milestone in their intensifying efforts at European integration. It will also underscore the EU’s apparent intention to press harder for democratic reforms in the South Caucasus country.
The ENP, which also covers Azerbaijan and Georgia, is designed to enable participating nations to build privileged partnership with the EU in return for sweeping reforms that would bring their political and economic systems into conformity with European standards and practices. Although the scheme does not open the door to membership in the EU, it offers other tangible incentives such as free trade, substantial economic assistance, and extensive political dialogue with the expanding union. More importantly, it means a chance to become part of what EU officials call Europe’s “four freedoms” — the free movement of people, capital, goods, and services.
The three South Caucasus states were not included in the ENP when it was launched in 2003, with the EU initially targeting other, geographically closer former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia’s November 2003 “Rose Revolution” appears to have been instrumental in the EU’s subsequent decision to extend the scheme, also known as “Wider Europe,” to the volatile region. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were officially invited to join the ENP in June 2004 and opened talks with Brussels on their respective “action plans” shortly afterwards.
The process has been slowed down by a controversy sparked by Azerbaijan’s decision to establish commercial and air links with Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus. The divided island’s internationally recognized Greek government retaliated by freezing Baku’s participation in the ENP. This led the European Commission to put on hold its talks with Armenia and Georgia as well. The negotiating process resumed only late last year. Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja of Finland, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, announced its effective completion as he visited the three counties earlier this month. He said their action plans would be signed in Brussels on November 14.
“The European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan is a significant step towards an increasingly close relationship between the EU and Armenia, going beyond cooperation to involve a significant measure of economic integration and deepening of political cooperation,” Tuomioja and his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian said in a joint statement issued after their talks in Yerevan on October 2. “The European Union and Armenia are determined to make use of this occasion to enhance their relations and to promote prosperity, stability, and security.”
Officials have said before that the Armenian action plan, which has not yet been made public, will be based on the recommendations of a report released by the European Commission in March 2005. The 30-page document called for democratic elections, the rule of law, respect for human rights, anti-corruption measures, as well as further economic reforms in Armenia. EU officials now stress that democratization of the country’s deeply flawed political system will be a necessary condition for Yerevan’s participation in the ENP.
Tuomioja specifically warned against a repeat of serious fraud in the next Armenian parliamentary elections, due early next year. “Armenia is aware that we all have to live up to our obligations, and if there are deficiencies [in the conduct of the elections] they will be noticed and there will be consequences,” he told reporters in the Armenian capital. The EU’s special representative to the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, likewise warned in July that the freedom and fairness of the polls will be “crucially important” for the Armenian government’s drive to forge closer links with Europe.
The EU has until now avoided active involvement in democracy-building in Armenia, criticizing its rulers for rigging elections but refraining from taking any punitive measures against them. The bloc’s external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, signaled a change in this policy during a February visit to Yerevan. Issues related to political reform and human rights protection were high on the agenda of her meetings with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials.
Armenian leaders insist that they are taking the EU warnings seriously, with Oskanian admitting that another rigged election would jeopardize his country’s participation in the ENP. They argue that “European integration” is now an increasingly high priority of Armenian foreign policy. As if to drive home their point, they set up on September 7 two new bodies headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and tasked with helping to deepen political and economic ties with the EU, Armenia’s number one trading partner. The move followed Kocharian’s recent instruction to his government to come up with a comprehensive plan of action that will accelerate Armenia’s integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures.
Whether the Armenian leadership, which has failed to hold a single election recognized as democratic by the West, is prepared to go as far as to end chronic vote rigging and run the risk of losing power for the sake of that integration seems doubtful. The EU questioned its commitment to democracy as recently as last December, in the wake of a fraudulent referendum on Kocharian’s amendments to Armenia’s constitution.
(Aravot, October 3; Joint statement by the foreign ministers of Armenia and Finland, October 2; Azg, September 8; RFE/RL Armenia Report, July 24, February 17)