Armenia’s destination: Europe via the Baltics

Armenia’s destination: Europe via the Baltics
by Gary Peach

Baltic Times, Latvia
Nov 24 2004

Vartan Oskanian

– born in Aleppo, Syria, 1955
– B.S. in structural engineering, Yerevan Polytechnic Institute, 1979
– M.S. in structural engineering, Tufts University, 1983
– M.A. in government studies, Harvard University, 1986
– M.A. from Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, 1991
– founder of Armenian International Magazine, 1990
– employed with Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992
– minister of foreign affairs, 1998 to present
– gave up U.S. citizenship to become minister, 1998
– fluent in Armenian, English, Arabic, working knowledge of French,
Russian, Turkish
Ever since European Union accession, the Baltics have become a model
for other former republics of the Soviet Union, striving to join the
West in economic integration. The three countries of the south
Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – are certainly the most
eager in this regard. In recent months there has been talk of an
intensive program, dubbed “3 + 3,” that would help propel these
countries along the Baltic path of accomplishments.

Contact between the countries has certainly increased, with Georgian
President Mikhail Saakashvili touring the Baltics last month and
Estonian President Arnold Ruutel visiting Armenia last week. In
connection with the latter, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian
met with The Baltic Times in Yerevan this month to talk about
integration, Nagorno-Karabagh, the extensive Armenia diaspora, and
Turkey.

What specifically would the Republic of Armenia like to get out of
these contacts with the Baltic states?

First of all, we would like to resuscitate our traditionally good
bilateral ties. There are a lot of ways Armenia can benefit from
[ties with] the three Baltic countries and the Baltic states from
Armenia. For example, one of the areas in which we work closely with
Estonia is information technology. Armenia has been a beneficiary of
the Baltic experience and the progress that Estonia has made. Three
expert teams have visited Estonia, and we’ve duplicated some of the
things that they’ve done there in Armenia.

There’s also the issue of the Baltics’ experience with the European
Union, and the process that they’ve been through. I think that could
be exemplary for Armenia in that they have crossed this path. Armenia
is moving in this direction, so there is a lot that we can learn.

There’s also an interest to establish links between the three
Caucasus states and the three Baltic states. There are a lot of
similarities, including our past and our present – in terms of size,
population, and the vision for the future. And there’s talk now that
we should establish links between the two regions – the “3 + 3” type
of thing.

Baltic politicians are very interested in sharing their experiences
with the Caucasus countries. This presumes, though, that Armenia is
interested in a strategic relationship with the EU if not membership
in itself. Is that what you’re after?

Absolutely. We’ve clearly stated, in no uncertain terms, that Armenia
wants to be a member of the European Union. We can set a date – the
sooner the better – [and] we’re moving in that direction now. There’s
no doubt about it. That’s why we think that our cooperation with the
Baltic states and countries that just joined the European Union will
be beneficial.

Today we are a member of the New Neighborhood initiative. I think
this has introduced a new quality in our relationship with the
European Union. What will be next is difficult to predict at the
moment, but we would like to see the processes accelerated.

As you know, membership in the EU entails a certain loss of
sovereignty, which Armenia, with its policy of “complementarity” –
get what you can from whom you can – holds dear.

Well, the circumstances will change. Armenia now will be different
from Armenia, say, in 15 – 20 years. The world will change by then.
And if the loss of sovereignty is good for France and the United
Kingdom, it should be good for Armenia and the rest of us. So that
issue does not concern us. Our goal now is to become as integrated as
possible in European structures, because we think that it is a
ready-made blueprint for Armenia’s development, and we would like to
adopt it.

In terms of security, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
was just here (Nov. 5). Is Armenia after membership in the alliance
as well, or are security arrangements a bit different?

Actually, security arrangements are a little bit different. If we say
today that we are eying membership in the European Union, in the case
of NATO, given the circumstances, we’re not saying [that]. At this
moment NATO membership is not on our foreign policy agenda. But given
the broadening, more inclusive obligations with NATO, it is on our
agenda, and I think we’re making headway in that direction.

Our cooperation with NATO now is very extensive. We became a member
of IPAP – Individual Partnership Action Plan – we’re developing that
plan now, and once that is finalized it will provide a new quality to
our relations with NATO.

What is Armenia trying to achieve right now vis-a-vis
Nagorno-Karabagh? Is it recognition of independent status or conflict
resolution? Or do the two go hand-in-hand?

What we’re after is to reach recognition among the international
community for Nagorno-Karabagh people’s right to self-determination.
And we are also after a comprehensive resolution to this conflict. In
other words, we’re in search of long-term peace and stability in this
region. Without the self-determination of the people of
Nagorno-Karabagh, without a comprehensive resolution to the
Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, we cannot achieve long-term peace and
stability in the Caucasus.

That’s our goal, and we’re working in that direction. But we
understand that to achieve this goal, we’ve got to show a lot of
flexibility in the negotiations, and we’ve got to be prepared to make
compromises on all sorts of issues.

But why hasn’t Armenia been very successful in getting that
recognition for Nagorno-Karabagh over the past 10 years?

It’s not an easy thing to do. I don’t know if you can provide
alternative examples where the international community has recognized
other people’s rights for self-determination within a nation. There
are one or two that work in our favor – that is, East Timor. That’s
why we’ve been saying that the overall trend [of conflict resolution]
now is in that direction. Especially in the case of Nagorno-Karabagh:
the legal and historic substantiation of their right to
self-determination is so strong that it cannot be denied.

Yes, they are very strong. And in that sense does Armenia feel
disappointed in the international community, which is more interested
in Azerbaijani oil than in rectifying the injustice of decrees by
Lenin and Stalin in the 1920s, which essentially gave
Nagorno-Karabagh to Azerbaijan – a country that did not exist before
WWI?

To be fair to the international community, and in particular the
mediators – France, Russia and the United States, as well as the
Minsk Group of the OSCE – I should say that they’ve managed to hold a
balanced approach and to adapt an even-handed policy. I don’t think
anyone has favored Azerbaijan because of its oil. The one thing they
haven’t done – they haven’t been assertive in forcing their views and
draft proposals that they put forward on Azerbaijan. For example,
there have been different proposals that Armenia has accepted and
Azerbaijan rejected. The international community and the Minsk Group
co-chairs have not been forceful in impressing that upon Azerbaijan,
because their thinking is that we cannot force peace or a solution
onto one side or another. This would have to be a mutually accepted
peace, providing us with long-term stability in the region.

So in that sense I think they’ve done a good job. There are no
disappointments. Our disappointment comes from the Azerbaijani side.
We’ve been so close several times to a resolution, but they have
backtracked from the very principles that they agreed to. Now with
the new leadership in Azerbaijan things have become even more
difficult because of attempts to roll back everything that their
predecessor [former Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev – ed.] had
done, and the successes we have achieved. But we’ve got to keep
working on it to reach a solution.

About the Armenian diaspora – it is very large [approximately two
times Armenia’s population – ed.], wealthy and has given much money
to the country over the past 13 years since independence. What role
does the diaspora play in the formation of foreign policy?

Our diaspora, of course, has been very helpful over the past 10 – 12
years, but not to the extent that we expected – potentially much
bigger than the size of the contribution that they’ve made. And we’ve
seen an increase in their involvement in Armenia’s economic
development. As our economy continues to do better there is more
interest in our diaspora.

With regard to the diaspora’s impact on our foreign policy
formulation, well, I wouldn’t say there’s a direct effect, but we do
consider public opinion – both here domestically and among the
diaspora. And not always do [the two] match. But we take into
consideration not only their views on different foreign policy
matters, but also the impact of our actions on Armenian diaspora
communities throughout the world. So it’s a two-way consideration:
one is to hear their views, and [the second] to consider what impact
our policies will have on our diaspora communities.

The European Commission recently recommended that the EU begin
accession talks with Turkey. However, during [former EC President]
Romano Prodi and [former Commissioner for Enlargement] Geunter
Ver-heugen’s report to the European Parliament in October, nothing
substantial was mentioned about the genocide of 1915. Here we have a
state of almost 70 million that wants to join a group of civilized
countries but denies that the genocide took place. What does Armenia
think of this, and is Armenia working with its friends in the EU to
somehow get Turkey to acknowledge this genocide?

It’s not only the genocide that is an issue but the border between
Turkey and Armenia as well. I think this is an issue that should
concern the European Union. Basically, they’re beginning accession
talks with a country that has closed borders with a member of the New
Neighborhood policy and a state with which Brussels has good
relations. How those two positions will be reconciled is difficult to
tell. We hope that this issue will come up at the summit on Dec. 17,
and that the EU will directly tell Turkey that they have to open the
border with Armenia because there is no reason to have that border
closed.

We expressed our opinion when Brussels decided to begin accession
talks with Turkey. We expressed our concern that this was a political
decision, because Turkey has criminalized the use of the term
genocide in its penal code, and because they still have their border
with Armenia closed.

Brussels wants to have open borders and good relations with all
neighboring countries, particularly those that are part of the New
Neighborhood initiative. I hope the EU will make that view more
forceful and clear to Turkey.

What, in your opinion, is preventing more nations from recognizing
the genocide, such as the United States, the United Kingdom –
countries that know what happened in 1915?

Deep down, I think, all these countries are aware that genocide was
committed, but because there is such huge opposition from Turkey, and
given bilateral ties with the country, these states are looking at
this issue from a political angle. Otherwise, as we talk to them
privately, it is clear that they don’t lack any evidence [that the
genocide took place]. It is more political expediency than a moral
judgment.

Interview by Gary Peach

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