Armenia Looks to Europe

Armenia remains locked in a bitter territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.  Although the country is geographically distant from Europe, Yerevan continues to look west for support.  That process will be strengthened through continued economic and political reforms.

Through history and culture, Armenia views itself as part of the West.  Tensions with neighboring Turkey run back a century, to the slaughter of ethnic Armenians during World War I.  More recent has been violent conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.  Reaching out to the European Union, in particular, is a geopolitical necessity for Yerevan.

In March, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan participated in the Summit of the European People’s Party in Brussels.  He emphasized that Europe-integration was a basic priority of Armenian foreign policy, which contrasted with Azerbaijan’s “pick and choose” approach to European values and policies.

Although Sargsyan’s re-election was criticized by civil society groups in Armenia, observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the vote was “generally well-administered and was characterized by a respect for fundamental freedoms.”   Norwegian Karin Woldseth, who led observers for the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, concluded that “the conduct of these elections showed progress over the previous presidential elections.”

Whatever the assessment of the recent vote, more remains to be done.  Council Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland wrote Sargsyan:  “I am confident that you will pursue the ongoing process of reforms to which you and your country are already committed, with a view to securing its democratic stability and to ensuring full respect for the rule of law and for human rights in Armenia.”  If so, explained the former Norwegian prime minister:  “I can assure you that the Council of Europe is ready to support you in these endeavors.”

One of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” countries, Armenia joins with Georgia to lead the pack for achieving visa-free status, which requires work on documentation, technology, and safety.

Armenia also has been working to resolve disputed territorial issues with Georgia.  Meetings were held in Tbilisi, prompting Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to express his hope:  “I think this issue will be resolved given the interests of both countries.”  One serious border dispute is enough for Yerevan.

Geography ties Armenia to Russia economically.  However, Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian opposes having his nation join the Russian-dominated Customs Union with former members of the Soviet Union.  Because Moscow views Armenia differently than Ukraine, explained Sergey Minasyan of Caucasus Institute, it has not sought to pressure Yerevan into joining.  He argued against any abrupt decision to join the Customs Union or the European Union:  “Russia remains Armenia’s main economic partner.  It is important to find a serious solution so that the choice of the way does not cause a problem for our country.”

Armenia cannot escape its geographical position:  it should seek a solid relationship with Moscow and a warmer peace with Azerbaijan.  However, building ties with Europe will improve Armenia’s leverage.  And doing that will require further opening the economy and strengthening democratic practices.

Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons.