YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia has made substantial progress towards the signing of an “association agreement” that would upgrade its political and economic ties with the European Union, a senior EU official said on Wednesday.
Gunnar Wiegand, head of a department on Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus at the EU’s executive Commission, praised the Armenian government during the third round of negotiations in Yerevan on the agreement.
The EU plans to sign similar deals with five other ex-Soviet states, including Georgia and Azerbaijan, included in its Eastern Partnership program. They all would be entitled to a permanent free trade regime with the EU and simpler visa procedures for their citizens traveling to Europe. The scheme also envisages a harmonization of their laws, regulations and government policies with the EU standards.
Armenian and EU officials began the first round of association talks in July. The two sides have to reach agreements on 14 concrete “chapters,” including trade, migration and human rights. The negotiating process is expected to take several years.
“I see that Armenia is significantly better prepared, and it has now become an effort not only by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but all relevant ministries and agencies,” Wiegand told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “We are very pleased with this because it’s a very comprehensive undertaking.”
“Eight negotiation chapters have already been closed,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Karine Kazinian, Armenia’s top Eastern Partnership negotiator. “Today, for example, we are negotiating over political dialogue as well as justice and liberties,” she said.
The association talks are expected to run parallel to a reform of Armenian state agencies — most of them dealing with external trade and immigration — as well as changes in various Armenian laws. The European Commission has already earmarked at least 32 million euros ($42.5 million) for financing those reforms.
The EU says democratization, human rights protection and a stronger rule of law are a necessary condition for Armenia’s participation in the Eastern Partnership. Yet just how aggressively it plans to press for political reforms in the country is still an open question.
Wiegand on Wednesday refused to comment on the course of such reforms which the Armenian authorities claim to be already implementing.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Kazinian insisted that EU officials pay “serious attention” to human rights protection during the talks. “We have received their appreciation of the fact of the six Eastern Partnership countries Armenia was the first to start a constructive human rights dialogue with the EU,” she said.
The most recent session of that dialogue took place in Brussels last week. It is not clear if the meeting discussed the fallout from Armenia’s 2008 post-election unrest and, in particular, the fate of about a dozen opposition figures remaining prison.
Wiegand also said that the European Commission expects to receive early next year a formal “mandate” for the launch of negotiations with Yerevan on the facilitation of EU visa procedures for Armenian citizens. “I hope that we will be able, in the course of next year, to conclude negotiations on visa facilitation,” he said.
Kazinian told RFE/RL late last month that said some groups of Armenia’s population such as students, academics and businesspeople will be the first to qualify for less cumbersome visa requirements. The same simplified rules will eventually be applicable to all Armenian nationals, she said.