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Armenia's destination: Europe via the Baltics

  • 2004-11-25
  • by Gary Peach
Ever since European Union accession, the Baltics have become a model for other former republics of the Soviet Union, striving to join the West in economic integration. The three countries of the south Caucasus - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia - are certainly the most eager in this regard. In recent months there has been talk of an intensive program, dubbed "3 + 3," that would help propel these countries along the Baltic path of accomplishments.

Contact between the countries has certainly increased, with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili touring the Baltics last month and Estonian President Arnold Ruutel visiting Armenia last week. In connection with the latter, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian met with The Baltic Times in Yerevan this month to talk about integration, Nagorno-Karabagh, the extensive Armenia diaspora, and Turkey.

What specifically would the Republic of Armenia like to get out of these contacts with the Baltic states?

First of all, we would like to resuscitate our traditionally good bilateral ties. There are a lot of ways Armenia can benefit from [ties with] the three Baltic countries and the Baltic states from Armenia. For example, one of the areas in which we work closely with Estonia is information technology. Armenia has been a beneficiary of the Baltic experience and the progress that Estonia has made. Three expert teams have visited Estonia, and we've duplicated some of the things that they've done there in Armenia.

There's also the issue of the Baltics' experience with the European Union, and the process that they've been through. I think that could be exemplary for Armenia in that they have crossed this path. Armenia is moving in this direction, so there is a lot that we can learn.

There's also an interest to establish links between the three Caucasus states and the three Baltic states. There are a lot of similarities, including our past and our present - in terms of size, population, and the vision for the future. And there's talk now that we should establish links between the two regions - the "3 + 3" type of thing.

Baltic politicians are very interested in sharing their experiences with the Caucasus countries. This presumes, though, that Armenia is interested in a strategic relationship with the EU if not membership in itself. Is that what you're after?

Absolutely. We've clearly stated, in no uncertain terms, that Armenia wants to be a member of the European Union. We can set a date - the sooner the better - [and] we're moving in that direction now. There's no doubt about it. That's why we think that our cooperation with the Baltic states and countries that just joined the European Union will be beneficial.

Today we are a member of the New Neighborhood initiative. I think this has introduced a new quality in our relationship with the European Union. What will be next is difficult to predict at the moment, but we would like to see the processes accelerated.

As you know, membership in the EU entails a certain loss of sovereignty, which Armenia, with its policy of "complementarity" - get what you can from whom you can - holds dear.

Well, the circumstances will change. Armenia now will be different from Armenia, say, in 15 - 20 years. The world will change by then. And if the loss of sovereignty is good for France and the United Kingdom, it should be good for Armenia and the rest of us. So that issue does not concern us. Our goal now is to become as integrated as possible in European structures, because we think that it is a ready-made blueprint for Armenia's development, and we would like to adopt it.

In terms of security, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was just here (Nov. 5). Is Armenia after membership in the alliance as well, or are security arrangements a bit different?

Actually, security arrangements are a little bit different. If we say today that we are eying membership in the European Union, in the case of NATO, given the circumstances, we're not saying [that]. At this moment NATO membership is not on our foreign policy agenda. But given the broadening, more inclusive obligations with NATO, it is on our agenda, and I think we're making headway in that direction.

Our cooperation with NATO now is very extensive. We became a member of IPAP - Individual Partnership Action Plan - we're developing that plan now, and once that is finalized it will provide a new quality to our relations with NATO.

What is Armenia trying to achieve right now vis-a-vis Nagorno-Karabagh? Is it recognition of independent status or conflict resolution? Or do the two go hand-in-hand?

What we're after is to reach recognition among the international community for Nagorno-Karabagh people's right to self-determination. And we are also after a comprehensive resolution to this conflict. In other words, we're in search of long-term peace and stability in this region. Without the self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabagh, without a comprehensive resolution to the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, we cannot achieve long-term peace and stability in the Caucasus.

That's our goal, and we're working in that direction. But we understand that to achieve this goal, we've got to show a lot of flexibility in the negotiations, and we've got to be prepared to make compromises on all sorts of issues.

But why hasn't Armenia been very successful in getting that recognition for Nagorno-Karabagh over the past 10 years?

It's not an easy thing to do. I don't know if you can provide alternative examples where the international community has recognized other people's rights for self-determination within a nation. There are one or two that work in our favor - that is, East Timor. That's why we've been saying that the overall trend [of conflict resolution] now is in that direction. Especially in the case of Nagorno-Karabagh: the legal and historic substantiation of their right to self-determination is so strong that it cannot be denied.

Yes, they are very strong. And in that sense does Armenia feel disappointed in the international community, which is more interested in Azerbaijani oil than in rectifying the injustice of decrees by Lenin and Stalin in the 1920s, which essentially gave Nagorno-Karabagh to Azerbaijan - a country that did not exist before WWI?

To be fair to the international community, and in particular the mediators - France, Russia and the United States, as well as the Minsk Group of the OSCE - I should say that they've managed to hold a balanced approach and to adapt an even-handed policy. I don't think anyone has favored Azerbaijan because of its oil. The one thing they haven't done - they haven't been assertive in forcing their views and draft proposals that they put forward on Azerbaijan. For example, there have been different proposals that Armenia has accepted and Azerbaijan rejected. The international community and the Minsk Group co-chairs have not been forceful in impressing that upon Azerbaijan, because their thinking is that we cannot force peace or a solution onto one side or another. This would have to be a mutually accepted peace, providing us with long-term stability in the region.

So in that sense I think they've done a good job. There are no disappointments. Our disappointment comes from the Azerbaijani side. We've been so close several times to a resolution, but they have backtracked from the very principles that they agreed to. Now with the new leadership in Azerbaijan things have become even more difficult because of attempts to roll back everything that their predecessor [former Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev - ed.] had done, and the successes we have achieved. But we've got to keep working on it to reach a solution.

About the Armenian diaspora - it is very large [approximately two times Armenia's population - ed.], wealthy and has given much money to the country over the past 13 years since independence. What role does the diaspora play in the formation of foreign policy?

Our diaspora, of course, has been very helpful over the past 10 - 12 years, but not to the extent that we expected - potentially much bigger than the size of the contribution that they've made. And we've seen an increase in their involvement in Armenia's economic development. As our economy continues to do better there is more interest in our diaspora.

With regard to the diaspora's impact on our foreign policy formulation, well, I wouldn't say there's a direct effect, but we do consider public opinion - both here domestically and among the diaspora. And not always do [the two] match. But we take into consideration not only their views on different foreign policy matters, but also the impact of our actions on Armenian diaspora communities throughout the world. So it's a two-way consideration: one is to hear their views, and [the second] to consider what impact our policies will have on our diaspora communities.

The European Commission recently recommended that the EU begin accession talks with Turkey. However, during [former EC President] Romano Prodi and [former Commissioner for Enlargement] Geunter Ver-heugen's report to the European Parliament in October, nothing substantial was mentioned about the genocide of 1915. Here we have a state of almost 70 million that wants to join a group of civilized countries but denies that the genocide took place. What does Armenia think of this, and is Armenia working with its friends in the EU to somehow get Turkey to acknowledge this genocide?

It's not only the genocide that is an issue but the border between Turkey and Armenia as well. I think this is an issue that should concern the European Union. Basically, they're beginning accession talks with a country that has closed borders with a member of the New Neighborhood policy and a state with which Brussels has good relations. How those two positions will be reconciled is difficult to tell. We hope that this issue will come up at the summit on Dec. 17, and that the EU will directly tell Turkey that they have to open the border with Armenia because there is no reason to have that border closed.

We expressed our opinion when Brussels decided to begin accession talks with Turkey. We expressed our concern that this was a political decision, because Turkey has criminalized the use of the term genocide in its penal code, and because they still have their border with Armenia closed.

Brussels wants to have open borders and good relations with all neighboring countries, particularly those that are part of the New Neighborhood initiative. I hope the EU will make that view more forceful and clear to Turkey.

What, in your opinion, is preventing more nations from recognizing the genocide, such as the United States, the United Kingdom - countries that know what happened in 1915?

Deep down, I think, all these countries are aware that genocide was committed, but because there is such huge opposition from Turkey, and given bilateral ties with the country, these states are looking at this issue from a political angle. Otherwise, as we talk to them privately, it is clear that they don't lack any evidence [that the genocide took place]. It is more political expediency than a moral judgment.

Interview by Gary Peach