by Marco Zschieck
The Republic Square in the center of Yerevan has considerable dimensions, but in spring 2018 it was full of people for several weeks. They protested against Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and his Republican Party. At the beginning of May, the mass protests led to a change of power. Since then Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist and opposition leader, leads the government and is enjoying great popularity – at least so far.
About half a year has passed since the change of power in Armenia. But still the course of the country seems unclear. This applies especially to the foreign and European perspectives of the country on the edge of Europe. For years Armenia has been one of the six countries of the Eastern Partnership of the European Union. Co-operation with the EU offers the country a number of opportunities to promote its further development, but it must also overcome obstacles and shortcomings.
So far, however, it does not appear that European politics is a high priority in the Armenian capital. A year ago, the relation was restarted by signing the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA). By and large, this is a light version of the Association Agreement that Armenia cancelled in 2013. It does not include free trade and no cooperation in security unexpectedly policy. Listening to protagonists and political analysts on the ground, it becomes clear that European ambitions are limited anyway. Especially in trade and security policy, Armenia has long been bound to Russia.
At the EU delegation in Yerevan, one hears only positive things first. Armenia is regarded as a cultural giant and a definitive part of Europe, says Ekaterina Dorodnova, who heads the Political Department of the EU’s 36-member office. When the diplomat from Latvia talks about Armenia, terms such as window, bridge and junction fall. According to her the country’s largest resource is Armenia’s well-educated workforce. Particularly promising is the IT sector, with recent double-digit growth rates.
But Dorodnova also admits difficulties. The Armenian parliament unanimously approved the partnership agreement CEPA, which was concluded in November 2017, during the ongoing mass protests against the then acting government, but then the implementation stalled. For months not even working meetings took place. Well, one year after the signing, the roadmap is now ready for implementation. “We understand the difficulties of the new government,” says Dorodnova, but the EU has high expectations regarding the reform efforts. There will be very careful attention to implementation if the granting of financial support depends on it, Dorodnova says. Nevertheless, Europe has a great interest in contributing to stability, especially in the conflict-ridden region. Money to promote culture, tourism and infrastructure is well invested.
At the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs difficulties are not a preferred topic to talk about. The acting head of the European Department Tigran Samvelyan points out the enormous amount of work that has been done during the negotiation process. Nevertheless, according to him the administration is highly motivated. After all, he says, the Ministry does not work on the reforms to please Brussels, but for the benefit of the Armenian population. The Roadmap very much foresees that all reforms will be transferred into national law by 2030. “Cooperation leads to reforms,” he says. “That’s why Europe is good for us.” However, membership is not an option, he says. Armenia is very closely tied to Russia and cannot get rid of it. The reasons are the limited resources of the country and the conflicts with the two neighboring countries Azerbaijan and Turkey.
For the Republican Party, which over the past two decades has determined the fortunes of the country, it is natural to speak critically about the European policy of the successor government. Shortly before the snap election of the national parliament, Deputy Party Chief Armen Ashotyan speaks about the mistakes of the Pashinyan Administration. “Since the new government was in power, it has not implemented any measure from the CEPA treaty. There is a lack of understanding of the importance of the subject and of professionalism“, said the head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Parliament.
However, when it comes to general questions, it becomes clear that old and new governments hardly differ in their foreign policy orientation. “Armenia does not want to become a playground for the great powers like Georgia,” he refers to the NATO ambitions of the neighboring country and Russia’s military intervention in 2008. That is, in his words, why the country made a rational decision and bound itself to Russia on security issues rather than looking for a NATO perspective. “Nonetheless, cooperation with the EU is important in order to create wealth and guarantee human rights,” Ashotyan says.
Artur Ghazinyan, who heads the European Studies Center at the State University of Yerevan, also points in a similar direction. “In practice, we currently have no cooperation with the EU. Everything is frozen“, he says. From his point of view the new government is responsible for that, because it lacks a programmatic approach. “The cooperation with the EU is a great opportunity to import expertise and technology,” he says. The long-term perspective of the country, on the other hand, depends on the situation in Russia. “Armenia used to sign everything to get protection“, he explains the decisions in the past. But if the economic and political crisis symptoms in Russia increase, Armenia will have more freedom of movement – also towards European integration.
Marco Zschieck is freelance journalist based in Berlin. He graduated at the University of Leipzig and has a diploma in Journalism and Political Science with a focus on post-soviet societies. He works for nationwide, regional and local newspapers in Germany. For several years he is doing foreign reporting, mostly from Ukraine.