YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The European Union pledged on Tuesday to provide Armenia with 157 million euros ($213 million) in fresh assistance designed to support political and economic reforms stemming from its participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program.
The EU’s Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Stefan Fule signed a relevant “memorandum of understanding” with the Armenian government during a visit to Yerevan that focused on the scheme offering six former Soviet republics closer ties with the bloc.
The document, worked out by Armenian and EU officials after months of consultations, identifies a plan of reforms which the Armenian authorities are to carry out in 2011-2013. Officials said the EU funding will be channeled into its implementation.
The so-called “national indicative program” has not yet been made public. The government’s press office quoted Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan as saying during his meeting with Fule that one of its key aims is “the establishment of democratic structures and effective system of governance.” “That will reduce the scale of corruption and foster the development of small and medium-sized business and more transparent operations of big business,” he said.
It remained unclear whether the EU expects the authorities in Yerevan to hold free and fair elections, improve their human rights record or address the lingering fallout from the 2008 post-election unrest in Armenia as a result of those reforms. Fule made no mention of these issues during a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and in a speech at an international human rights conference that began in Yerevan on Tuesday.
“The European Union has a strategic interest in stability, prosperity and development, and we are glad that the relationships between the EU and Armenia are enhancing,” Fule told journalists. Eastern Partnership is raising them to “a new level,” he said.
Under the scheme also covering neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia, Armenia is to negotiate an association and free trade agreement with the EU. Visiting Yerevan last month, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said the EU intends to speed up the planned association talks.
Fule confirmed this after talks with Nalbandian. “I expressed the hope that we will soon be able to start negotiations on the association agreement between the European Union and Armenia,” he said.
The EU commissioner put a particular emphasis on the economic component of the deal, saying that it envisages not only free trade but also policy harmonization. “The European Union is offering a very strong instrument to Armenia … to get Armenia closer to the European Union. It is about a deeper political association and deeper economic integration,” he said.
Nalbandian urged the EU to press ahead with the easing of visa rules for Armenian citizens, another aim of Eastern Partnership. He told Fule that Yerevan has already taken “a number of necessary steps” for the liberalization of the visa regime, pointing to the signing of readmission agreements with several EU states.
The EU has recently somewhat tightened the visa rules for the citizens of Armenia and other countries planning to travel to its Schengen zone. Fule defended the measure, saying that it will make the work of EU consular services more “transparent and predictable.” While reiterating EU commitment to visa liberalization, he made clear that “the road to that will not be easy.”
The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement were also on the agenda of the EU official’s talks with Armenian leaders. Fule reaffirmed to the bloc’s strong support for the implementation of the Turkish-Armenian normalization agreements “within a reasonable period of time and without preconditions.”
“The European Union stands ready to assist in cross-border management and so on, once these agreements are implemented,” he said.