YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—The European Union and Armenia took a further step towards a wide-ranging “association” accord on Monday when they signed a deal to ease visa requirements for Armenians planning to visit EU countries.
Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian, his Cypriot counterpart Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis and EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom signed the agreement in Brussels during a session of the EU-Armenia Cooperation Council.
The agreement is meant to give Armenian nationals access to the so-called Schengen zone encompassing much of Europe with fewer documents and at a lower cost. Also, some categories of travelers such as university students, academics and state officials will now be eligible for long-term and multiple-entry Schengen visas.
The deal was initialed in Brussels two months ago shortly after Yerevan unilaterally lifted its visa requirements for EU nationals. Starting from next year, they will be allowed to stay in Armenia visa-free for up to 90 days.
The EU’s Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Stefan Fuele, who chaired the Cooperation Council meeting together with Nalbandian and Kozakou-Marcoullis, described the document as a “visible and tangible result of our close partnership.” Nalbandian, for his part, called its signing “an important step.”
Visa facilitation is one of the incentives for political and economic reform offered by the EU to Armenia and five other ex-Soviet states as part of its Eastern Partnership program. All of those states are also eligible for Association Agreements with the 27-nation bloc.
Fuele said the EU’s ongoing association talks with the Armenian government “have progressed well” this year. “For a successful outcome which allows EU-Armenia relations to reach their full potential, we will need sustained reform efforts next year,” he said, singling out the proper conduct of a presidential election slated for next February.
“We welcome Armenia’s efforts in the area of good governance and human rights. Important challenges remain, including ensuring independence of the judiciary and pursuing systemic anti-corruption measures,” Fuele told a joint news conference with the Armenian and Cypriot ministers.
The Armenian authorities have repeatedly assured EU officials that they will spare no effort to make the February election the most democratic in the country’s history. Nalbandian on Monday also reiterated Yerevan’s hopes to have the Association Agreement finalized by November 2013.