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June 08, 2012, Friday

Armenia: looking for a brighter future

While Georgia is presently the most progressive country in the South Caucasus, it would seem Armenia is increasingly signaling the intention to strengthen democratic values.

This has been demonstrated by intensified efforts in terms of its Euro-Atlantic integration processes and recent parliamentary elections which, while far from perfect, represented a step in the right direction. Today the political landscape is more vibrant, with active dialogue between the leadership and opposition -- a rare occurrence in the South Caucasus. However, the 2013 presidential elections will be the real test for Yerevan’s adherence to international standards.

In a speech by Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan during a visit to Brussels earlier this week, he stated that Armenia is taking steps to democratize and bring about fundamental change in the country, including building a middle class -- not an easy task given the average annual income is only some $3,000. Armenia remains an extremely poor country, still shadowed by its Soviet past, including the ongoing negative role played by oligarchs in business and politics. With two closed borders (Turkey and Azerbaijan) as a result of its war with Azerbaijan over the Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, Armenia has been left reliant on Iran and Georgia as trade corridors. In 2008 during the Russia-Georgia war, trade through Georgia was stopped. And while Yerevan has a special relationship with Tehran, with international sanctions and pressure increasing on Iran because of its nuclear program, Yerevan is increasingly in a difficult situation. According to the prime minister, the sanctions on Iran are challenging Armenia’s potential for economic growth, which they are unhappy about. The optimal solution remains the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border. However, following the failure of efforts at rapprochement in 2011, principally as a result of Turkey linking it to progress on the Karabakh conflict, the issue has become frozen indefinitely.

According to the prime minister, Armenia has “cautiously” chosen a European development path and views the EU’s Eastern Partnership Policy as a vital tool for driving the reform process and closing the gap between values and aspirations. Three Armenian parties are now members of the European People’s Party (EPP), and according to EU officials, Armenia is making good progress in the negotiations for an association agreement with talks on a deep and comprehensive free trade area (DCFTA) to kick off shortly.

Steps are being taken to reduce the country’s widespread corruption. There is now an interactive state budget, all public procurement deals are accessible online, and cabinet agendas are publicized and broadcast. When I asked him whether Armenia had drawn on the experience of Georgia, which has been so successful in eradicating corruption that the World Bank wrote a book about it, he said he considers Georgia’s approach to be too “revolutionary” and not sustainable -- although there are very few facts to support this. Armenia is aiming for a longer-term “evolutionary” approach.

Sargsyan reported that relations with the US have “never been better,” with mutual confidence so high that there are no political issues where agreement cannot be reached.

Yerevan continues to have very close political, economic and security ties with Moscow, which it sees as essential for its security. Yet Sargsyan stated this should complement its closer ties with Euro-Atlantic structures. In 2011 Yerevan entered a free trade agreement with the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and Sargsyan did not see why Armenia could not have excellent security relations with Russia, while at the same time deepening ties with NATO.

Lastly, Sargsyan underlined that the only way the South Caucasus could reach its potential would be for all states to work toward a common platform of values. He pointed the finger of blame at Azerbaijan and Turkey, citing Turkey’s negative approach to the Karabakh conflict and backtracking on rapprochement, and Azerbaijan’s hostile language over Karabakh. However, Armenia also needs to take its share of the blame -- first because the ongoing occupation of Azerbaijani lands has been recognized in various international reports, including from the European Parliament, as contributing to regional instability. Moreover, I would argue that Armenia’s close military ties with Russia also help maintain regional instability. Russia has planned substantial military exercises in September, taking place under the auspices of “Caucasus-2012.” These exercises are supposed to demonstrate the preparedness of Russian troops for internal as well as international challenges and will be held in Russia, the occupied territories of Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and Armenia. They closely resemble the maneuvers Russia held prior to the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, threaten the security of the whole region and are far from constructive.

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