EU LIKELY TO STAY CAUTIOUS ON POLITICAL REFORM IN ARMENIA
When the European Union formally launched the Eastern Partnership
program one year ago it signaled a significant upgrading of its
political and economic engagement in six former Soviet republics
covered by the scheme. It also fuelled hopes for a more aggressive
EU push for democratic change there.
Yet all the indications now are that in at least one of them, Armenia,
the bloc will continue to tread carefully in pressing for democratic
elections, respect for human rights and other political reforms
required by the Eastern Partnership. Accordingly, local civic groups,
which believe EU involvement in democracy building in the country
has been insufficient, are cautious in their positive expectations
from the program.
"It will reflect positively on democratic changes in Armenia only in
one case: if the European structures put forward very serious demands
before our authorities," said Amalia Kostanian, chairwoman of the
Anti-Corruption Center, the Armenian affiliate of the Berlin-based
group Transparency International. "So far, we have seen only
Boris Navasardian, the chairman of the Yerevan Press Club closely
monitoring the effort, is more optimistic. "I believe that any
initiative coming from our European partners is an opportunity for the
country," he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. "Just how the country
and its government structures, political parties and NGOs will use
that opportunity is a different matter."
In Navasardian’s words, a lot will also depend on details of an
"association agreement" stemming from the Eastern Partnership which
the EU is due to negotiate with Armenia in the coming years. "Only the
results of the negotiations will clarify what the program’s priorities
are," he said.
EU member governments gave on May 10 the formal go-ahead to the start
of association talks with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. According
to Raul de Luzenberger, head of the EU Delegation in Yerevan, the
talks between the EU’s executive European Commission and the Armenian
government will get underway "in the coming months."
Armenia – Serzh Sarkisian, President of Armenia, and Angela Merkel,
Chancellor of Germany, at the EU Eastern Partnership Summit,
"It depends very much on Armenia how quickly it will be possible to
conclude an association agreement," Luzenberger said in an interview
with RFE/RL. "We are working with Armenia to speed this up."
As part of those talks, the two sides are to work out a "comprehensive
institution building" program, or CIB, which will apparently be the
main legal instrument of the Eastern Partnership. "It will focus
on a few selected institutions that will have a central role in the
implementation of the Association Agreement," the European Commission
explained in a recent policy paper on Armenia. The Brussels-based
commission said it will spend at least 32 million euros ($40 million)
on reforming those institutions in the next four years.
Luzenberger described a free trade regime and a facilitation of visa
procedures for Armenians traveling to the EU as "the two main pillars"
of the future agreement. Therefore, he said, only those Armenian
government agencies that mainly deal with immigration, trade and
other economic issues will be chosen for the CIB.
"The Association Agreement does not specifically cover electoral reform
or judicial reform," stressed the EU official. "But the rule of law and
respect for democracy and human rights are an important element of the
common values that are the fundamental of an association agreement."
The EU’s new National Indicative Program on Armenia, which sets out the
bloc’s reform efforts and objectives there in 2011-2013, likewise makes
clear that "sufficient progress" in the country’s democratization is
"one of the main preconditions for upgrading contractual relations
under the Eastern Partnership." That means, among other things, an
"improved quality of the electoral process and administration in line
with international standards."
It is unclear whether that also means the next Armenian presidential
and parliamentary elections must be evaluated by Western monitors
more positively than the last ones. Luzenberger said only that the
EU is "encouraging Armenia to make progress in improving and better
implementing the electoral law." He said the EU has provided technical
assistance for that purpose in other countries. It has primarily take
the form of training of election officials, monitors and proxies of
Armenian opposition groups and civil society representatives believe
that a similar training program in Armenia would not address the root
causes of the country’s increasingly entrenched culture of electoral
fraud. As Kostanian put it, "Even assuming that members of an election
commission know electoral legislation perfectly, if they get an order
from above to turn a blind eye to fraud or stuff ballots or bully
observers, proxies or journalists, they will duly comply."
What the EU considers a democratic election is another question. The
bloc, for example, endorsed OSCE observers’ largely positive verdict
on the disputed Armenian presidential ballot of February 2008, which
was followed by the worst street violence in the country’s history. By
contrast, the U.S. State Department branded the vote as "significantly
flawed," giving more weight to opposition allegations of massive vote
rigging. There is similar disparity between the EU and U.S.
assessments of the May 2009 municipal polls in Yerevan, which were
also denounced as fraudulent by the Armenian opposition.
Armenia — Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos of Spain, current
holder of EU presidency, comments on the Eastern Partnership at a
news conference in Yerevan on March 2, 2010.
U.S. officials have also been more vocal (at least in public) in
criticizing the Armenian government’s 2008 post-election crackdown
on the opposition that involved use of deadly force and mass arrests.
European diplomats insist privately that the EU has been no less active
in conveying its concerns to President Serzh Sarkisian behind the
scenes. They also argue that the 27-nation bloc has lent full support
to another pan-European structure, the Council of Europe, which has
brought the Sarkisian administration to task over the crackdown.
Even so, the dominant sense among local opposition and civic groups
is that EU pressure on the Armenian authorities has so far been
too weak to generate any meaningful democratic change. They regard
as practically fruitless Armenia’s participation in the European
Neighborhood Policy (ENP), another, less ambitious EU scheme launched
five years ago. In a recent assessment report, the European Commission
said Yerevan has made "progress in several areas" of an ENP action
plan aimed at bringing the country’s political and economic systems
into greater conformity with European standards.
Kostanian is "quite disappointed" with this conclusion. Reflecting a
common view among local pro-democracy campaigners, she claimed that
Armenia has in fact regressed in terms of democracy and human rights
in recent years. She argued in particular that more a dozen supporters
of opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian arrested following the 2008
election on dubious charges still remain in prison.
"One of the most important flaws of the ENP is that it has been too
much focused on institutional or formal reforms such as the adoption
of laws, [structural] improvements in the activities of various
state structures," said the YPC’s Navasardian. "While that process
is certainly very important, it doesn’t solve the problem in full."
"If citizens see no serious changes in their relationships with state
institutions and their lives in general, if they don’t see that
corruption, bureaucratic red are declining, that their rights are
better protected, then those formal changes become not only meaningless
but could also be harmful in the sense that they discredit the very
idea of reforms," he warned.
The EU seems to realize this, having decided to somehow involve civil
societies in all six ex-Soviet states in the Eastern Partnership. In
each of them, it is now helping to cobble together coalitions of NGOs
interested in promoting the program and monitoring their respective
governments’ compliance with its requirements.
Navasardian, who coordinates the NGO selection process in Armenia,
hopes that this will give EU officials a vital feedback which he thinks
has been sorely missing in their reform initiatives. Yet neither the
YPC chairman, nor other pro-democracy activists are convinced yet
that EU pressure for democratization in Armenia will grow markedly
as a result of the Eastern Partnership.
Ambassador Luzenberger also sounded a cautious note. "We are here to
support reforms that bring Armenia closer to the values that are the
fundamental part of our society, and we do it through a very broad
range of instruments," he said. "Nonetheless, our ability to support
is limited, first of all, by our budget possibilities and then by the
ability of the beneficiaries to receive our support and implement it."