Armenia Steps Up European Integration Drive

By Emil Danielyan

Armenia appears to be intensifying integration into the European Union, despite Moscow’s unease over the growing EU presence in its former Soviet backyard. The authorities in Yerevan are particularly keen to conclude a far-reaching “association agreement” that will lead, among other things, to a permanent free trade regime with the EU. Armenian leaders are also increasingly asserting their commitment to “European standards,” with promises to hold democratic elections and carry out other wide-ranging reforms.

President Serzh Sargsyan highlighted that stance with his participation on December 7, as a “guest of honor,” during a congress of the European People’s Party (EPP), a coalition of Europe’s leading center-right parties. His Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and two other Armenian parties are seeking to join the EPP, and the congress held in the French city of Marseille reportedly brought them closer to that objective. Sargsyan received an EPP badge from Wilfried Martens, the pan-European organization’s president, at the gathering (www.a1plus.am, December 8).

“We have stated more than once that the European direction is our priority,” the Armenian leader said in a speech at the Marseille City Hall on December 7, adding “In recent years, we have registered considerable success in that area. The European Union has not only become one of our most important partners in the world, but it also plays a significant role inside Armenia, assisting us in the implementation of reforms and in strengthening the economic and overall stability of the country.” Sargsyan also stated: “Today, the political field of Armenia is also becoming European, adopting European values, and I hope, the work style too” (Statement by the Armenian presidential press office).

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Yerevan is mainly channeling its European integration drive through the EU’s Eastern Partnership program that offers six former Soviet republics, including all three South Caucasus states, closer ties with the 27-nation bloc in return for further reforms. These ties would be enshrined in association agreements to be negotiated with each partner state. Armenian and EU officials have held numerous association talks since July 2010, agreeing on 19 negotiating “chapters,” covering a wide range of areas. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s top foreign and security policy official, praised the “real progress” in the talks when she visited Yerevan on November 17 (Armenian Pubic Television).

The two sides have yet to open formal talks on a key element of the Armenia-EU association agreement: the creation of a “deep and comprehensive free trade area,” or DCFTA. It envisages not only the elimination of all barriers to trade, but also the harmonization of Armenian laws and regulations with those existing in the EU. The start of the free trade talks has been hampered by EU objections to a controversial methodology of determining the market value of imported goods used by Armenia’s customs service. The bloc’s executive European Commission also wants the Armenian government to change the existing different excise duties on domestic and imported alcoholic beverages, saying that they discriminate against importers. Gunnar Wiegand, a senior commission official leading the association talks with Yerevan, said in October that Armenian officials had assured him that the EU concerns will be addressed by the end of this year (www.armenialiberty.org, October 26).

Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan (no relation to Serzh) discussed the matter with top EU officials on December 5, during what was his fourth visit to Brussels in less than one year. He told EU Trade Commissioner, Karel De Gucht, that his government has fully complied with the EU demands and expects the European Commission to set a date for the DFCTA talks early next year (Statement by the Armenian government’s press office).

The Armenian premier sought to accelerate the DCFTA process less than two months after signing a Russian-initiated free trade agreement between eight former Soviet republics, including key EU partner states such as Ukraine and Moldova. EU officials say that the deal does not run counter to the DCFTA as it falls short of a deeper “customs union” binding Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In an October newspaper article, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested that the union could form the basis of a broader Eurasian Union including Russia and former Soviet states remaining within Moscow’s orbit.

Tigran Sargsyan essentially ruled out Armenia’s accession to that union, arguing that it has no common border with any of the countries in the Russian-led Customs Union (www.armenialiberty.org, December 7). What makes Yerevan’s European policy even more noteworthy is the fact that Russia, which remains the South Caucasus nation’s number one geopolitical ally, has been very suspicious about the Eastern Partnership ever since its inception by Poland and Sweden in 2008. Some Russian officials have denounced the Eastern Partnership as an attempt to undermine the Russian presence in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. However, none of them has publicly faulted Yerevan for actively participating in the program.

The Armenian authorities are seeking to highlight their stated commitment to the scheme also with a plan of fresh political and economic reforms, which Prime Minister Sargsyan presented to the European Commission in September. He said it covers 33 specific areas of state policy, including human rights protection, judicial reform, tax and customs administration, and even food safety. Sargsyan assured senior EPP figures during his next trip to Brussels that Armenia’s next parliamentary elections, due in May 2012, will be the most democratic in the country’s history (Statements by the Armenian government’s press service, September 19 and November 8).

There have been few signs yet, however, that his government is serious about that pledge. Tigran Sargsyan himself made clear recently that the ruling HHK intends to maximize its already overwhelming presence in the Armenian parliament and leave its challengers “empty-handed.” This, he said, is its pre-election message to not only other political forces but also “our public” (Haykakan Zhamanak, October 27).
Eurasia Daily Monitor