"Armenia is reforming and modernising itself, thus making EU efforts effective and truly valuable"
Interview with Diogo Pinto, Director at European Friends of Armenia (EuFoA) in Brussels
by Nikos Tzanetakis, Policy Coordinator at Bridging Europe
1. What are the major projects the European Friends of Armenia are involved in?
European Friends of Armenia’s mission is to build bridges between Armenia and the EU. In that sense, and at this stage, the new Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement between the EU and Armenia is our main priority. The Agreement was concluded after difficult yet swift negotiations, which showed willingness, ambition and commitment on both sides; it was initialled in March, and should be signed at the Eastern Partnership Summit, in November. This agreement is a huge opportunity, but also a big challenge to Armenia and the EU alike, and European Friends of Armenia wants to contribute as much as possible to its success.
Besides the Agreement, everything else that can contribute to building new and consolidating the existing bridges between Armenia and the EU will remain our focus. At the institutional level, the EU-Armenia Common Aviation Agreement and, more importantly, visa liberalisation between Armenia and the EU will get our full attention; but we will keep working in every possible way to promote Armenia in the EU, and the EU in Armenia. We do it, for instance, by promoting people-to-people exchanges, involving decision-makers, civil society activists, journalists, academia, etc.
Other than that, European Friends of Armenia remains available to help the EU audiences understand the problems and grievances of the Armenian people. In that sense, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the ongoing dispute around Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) are two good examples of issues in which we want to help our Armenian friends.
Follow Diogo on Twitter: @joaodiogopinto
I am glad to say that we have established good working relations with all democratic forces in the European Parliament and Members from every democratic group, including the EPP, S&D, ECR, ALDE, GUE/NGL and The Greens/EFA.
What is the depth and degree of the EU-Armenia relations at this stage?
Until the new Agreement enters into force, the relations between the EU and Armenia are governed by the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, signed in 1996. Armenia is part of the European Neighbourhood Policy and of the Eastern Partnership; as such, Armenia already benefits from EU support for its reforms, namely in terms of democratic consolidation, promotion of human rights, transition towards the market economy, and the promotion of sustainable development.
The most recent and pertinent example was the assistance the EU has provided in reaching an agreement on the new electoral code and in organising the April parliamentary elections. The EU has also been providing significant financial and technical support in various fields, such as public administration, justice, education, infrastructure, and public procurement. And this is working: Armenia is reforming and modernising itself, thus making the EU efforts effective and truly valuable.
Armenia recently joined the program for the Competitiveness of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises and “Horizon 2020”, and will soon join “Creative Europe”. Last but not least, the EU is Armenia’s main trading partner, accounting for more than a quarter of Armenia’s total trade. EU countries are the biggest export market for Armenian products, and the biggest investors and exporters.
In which areas EU and Armenia have developed strong ties?
Political, economic and social reforms in Armenia; and trade.
Has EU’s Eastern Partnership fostered regional ties, benefiting also Armenia’s role in Caucasus?
The most tangible aspect of that stems from EU’s decision to extend the Trans-European Transport Networks into Eastern Partnership countries, which led to the European Investment Banking funding the construction of modern highways in the north-south corridor going through the whole of Armenia, and border crossing checkpoints with neighbouring Georgia (and Iran).
Unfortunately, regional cooperation in the Caucasus is hindered by the ongoing situation around Nagorno Karabakh, and Azerbaijan’s war threats against Armenia, refusal to negotiate a solution to the conflict, and to make peace with its neighbours.
Which political groups in the European Parliament have endorsed your work in EuFoA?
EuFoA is a non-partisan NGO and, as such, seeks to collaborate with all political groups who share our values and objectives of building bridges between Armenia and the EU. I am glad to say that we have established good working relations with all democratic forces in the European Parliament and Members from every democratic group, including the EPP, S&D, ECR, ALDE, GUE/NGL and The Greens/EFA.
European Friends of Armenia remains available to help the EU audiences understand the problems and grievances of the Armenian people.
The situation in Nagorno Karabakh is critical. What is your opinion on that?
It is. 25 years after the war and the cease fire agreements, young servicemen and civilians on both sides keep paying with their lives the aggressive and non-constructive attitude of Azerbaijan, and the silent complicity of the international community. Nagorno Karabakh is not a “frozen” conflict; it’s a place where 150.000 people every day try to live normal lives, under a permanent threat and a real danger for their safety. And this should be unacceptable in the 21st century.
Many experts agree that, after last year’s 4-day war in April, the risk of a new conflict is higher than ever. I still believe that this is avoidable; but not if the international community insists on looking the other way, and allows Azerbaijan to continue its belligerent attitude and flagrant disrespect for the agreements made, and the rights of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination and to live in peace and security.
In particular, as an EU citizen, I feel ashamed of the EU’s behaviour. Not only has it insisted on keeping itself out of the pursuit of a negotiated solution between the parties – which I can still understand, given the circumstances and the existence of the OSCE Minsk Group; but it also keeps resorting to a supposed “balanced” or “neutral” position, refraining from naming and shaming Azerbaijan for its provocations and violations of the cease-fire.
Also, the fact that the EU accepts that Azerbaijan imposes a de facto veto on any visits to the territory, persecuting even elected members of the European Parliament, is something unprecedented, and an attitude of subservience to a brutal dictatorship that should make us all, citizens and officials alike, blush.
Do you believe bilateral relations between Yerevan and Ankara will normalize in the near future?
I must start by saying that there are plenty of relations between people and businesses from Armenia and Turkey, including direct flights several times per week. Now, I do understand that the question is about diplomatic relations between the two countries, and there I am not very optimistic…
Armenian side is still disappointed by the failure of the 2009 roadmap to normalising diplomatic ties, and the Turkish refusal to re-open its border with Armenia (which, again, seems to stem from the collusion between Ankara and Baku). Also, the Turkish refusal to recognise the Armenian Genocide and its active boycott of the commemorations of the 100th anniversary, are still a strong cause for concern amongst Armenians.
But, in my opinion, the strongest obstacle to the normalisation of the relations between Yerevan and Ankara are the recent developments in Turkey, and its long slide into an increasingly authoritarian regime with Ottoman Empire-like inspirations and/or aspirations, which threaten to further isolate Turkey from the rest of democratic countries.
What are the major aims of your directorship at EuFoA?
I don’t have any particular individual aims, besides working hard and contributing to the success of the organisation in achieving its objectives of bringing Armenia and the EU closer together. After me, other directors will follow, and I just want to be remembered as someone who did his best and contributed to a better future for Armenia and the Armenians, within Europe.