Speaker’s Mission: Armenia reassures Brussels over its ‘European policy’

The visit to Brussels by the speaker of the Armenian parliament, Hovik Abrahamyan, this week took place against the background of the enforcement of a visa-free regime in Armenia for travelers from European Union member states.

Armenia became the fourth EU Eastern Partnership member country after Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to introduce this measure beginning on January 10.

During his meetings in Brussels Parliament Speaker Abrahamyan sought to reassure EU officials that Armenia is firmly on the path of European integration and will not go off it.

Thus, during his meeting with President of the Belgian Senate Sabine de Bethune and the head of the Chamber of Representatives of Belgium Andre Flahaut, Abrahamyan said that “the policy of rapprochement with Europe is not only a key issue of the domestic reform agenda, but also the foreign policy of Armenia.”

This is perhaps the first time that “complementary” senior officials of Armenia state their unambiguous intention to take a path towards Europe. Local observers and experts see several reasons for that. The Lragir online paper, for instance, believes that Abrahamyan’s clear assurances are connected with the intention to get money from Europe. As is known, there is a principle of “more for more” in the relations between Armenia and the EU, and the paper regards Abrahamyan’s trip to Brussels as a trivial ‘fundraising’ attempt.

There is another opinion according to which European officials are still skeptical about the Armenian government’s intention to integrate with the European community. They do not completely trust these assurances as all steps taken by Armenia so far in this direction have mostly been of a declarative nature. Meanwhile, democratic reforms that are a condition for European integration have not become tangible in Armenia yet.

“Successful free and fair elections are crucial to EU-Armenia relations. Without continuous reform that we want to see, these relations can be undermined,” said EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, Stefan Fule. “Before the [presidential] election next month it is necessary to improve the existing legal framework in line with the recommendations of the OSCE/ODIHR and simultaneously continue to reform the electoral legislation in the long term.”

A group of 25 long-term observers from OSCE/ODIHR have arrived, and another 250 will arrive closer to the February 18 election date. It is not ruled out that the pre-election process in Armenia, which resulted in the decisions by two key political forces - the opposition Armenian National Congress and the “alternative” Prosperous Armenia Party - to refuse to engage in the race at the last moment, drew certain criticism from the EU. And Abrahamyan’s mission may also have pursued the goal of assuring Brussels that “everything’s going to be alright.”

In Armenian society, meanwhile, most people do not believe in the sincerity of the European orientation declared by the government, rather they do not trust that it is their conviction and not a way to get international legitimacy and money. This skepticism is also driven by the failure of the government to reduce poverty and attract investments, while the number of small and medium-sized enterprises is decreasing.

Still, political analyst Levon Margaryan thinks that the relations between Armenia and the EU have been taken to a new level where Armenia should prove that it is ready to bring not only its laws, but also practices in line with European standards.

Some progress has already been made – almost all major opposition forces managed to enter the parliament in last May’s elections; media, especially television, have clearly become freer; procedures for business registration have been simplified. But the government still won’t go against the interests of oligarchs to completely liberalize the economy.

Instead, officials in Armenia more insistently assure Brussels that “the European policy of Armenia is the result of a deliberate choice, which is based on our common values, the rich cultural and Christian heritage.”