Opinion: Those who seek an upgrade in EU-Armenia relations need to be patient
19 October 2016

The fifth round of negotiations between Armenia and the European Union on a new framework agreement is scheduled to take place in Yerevan next week. Independent political analyst Alexander Petrosyan reflects on the current state of negotiations in this op-ed for

After Armenia's U-turn in 2013, which saw it abandoning at the last minute the signing of an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union (EU), there remained a mutual desire to put the relationship between Armenia and the EU on a contractual basis. Following this logic, and based on the principle adopted at the Riga Summit 2015 - to adopt a differentiation principle, and to pursue a made-to-measure approach - the European Commission received  authorization by the Council in October 2015 to start negotiations over a new overarching agreement with Armenia. This new agreement is seen as a replacement to the current legal basis between the parties, which is the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) dating back to 1999. 

 The milestone of current negotiations is the acknowledgment of Armenia's commitments to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Given the limitations this puts on the scope of negotiations, the parties try to find those aspects which are not covered by the EEU Treaty and other related documents. Hrant Kostanyan, from Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), notes that, "the format of this document duplicates former AA/DCFTA minus trade and customs-related aspects which contradict Armenia's commitments".  There are four sections - Political Dialogue; Justice, Freedom and Security; Trade and Sectoral Cooperation. The core ingredients are the rule of law, democracy, fight against corruption, constitutional and judicial reforms, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, education, environment, energy (mostly renewables), tourism, trade and Investment.

The name of this document is also under consideration. There are various options discussed both by negotiators and proposed by external actors, such as politicians and civic circles. It varies from "PCA plus", "AA Light" to "Enhanced Partnership Agreement" or "Framework Agreement of Enhanced Cooperation".  By and large, as this new agreement lacks DCFTA component it will not have the same weight and value as the previous AA/DCFTA text.

Behind Armenia's motivations to update the outdated PCA, officials from the European External Action Service (EEAS) indicate not only its desire to reduce asymmetric dependence on Russia, but also financial assistance provided through the European Neighborhood Instrument (ENI). Evidence suggests that, in the period of 2007-2013 Armenia has received €281.5 million, through the ENI, and for the period of 2014-2017 the Single Support Framework will allocate €140-170 million. 

Though the first round of negotiations started in February of this year, the pace of negotiations has been subject to several fluctuations caused by important domestic and regional developments, which could not but impact on the speed and depth of the negotiations. First, shortly after the conclusion of the first round of negotiations, there was an unprecedented escalation of violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict - the so-called "four-day war". Subsequent developments mobilized and shifted the attention of Armenian society towards intensified negotiations to resolve the conflict, occupying domestic and foreign policy discourses. 

The unilateral initiative role taken on by the Kremlin, and Russia's assertiveness vis-à-vis the West, hindered Armenia's position. In addition to regional and geopolitical shifts, the worsening domestic socio-economic situation led to the Erebuni police station siege by a group of Karabakh war veterans. This raised alarm bells about the need for reforms. 

Four phases of discussions between the EU and Armenia have taken place, and the parties are now in the fifth round. Even though, during his last meeting with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, at the UN General Assembly's 71st session, Edward Nalbandyan, Armenia's Foreign Minister, said he expected to conclude negotiations soon, it may be that his comment was premature and one should not jump to conclusions. The main reason is the changes ongoing in the Armenian government, which slow down the negotiation process. The newly appointed Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan. is busy replacing obsolete and corrupted ministers from the ruling Republican party with technocrats from his own circle. The new government has been labelled "Gazprom's government", given the career background of the Prime Minister at Gazprom.  Seemingly these changes are part of Armenia's leadership's announced commitments to reforms. However, given the Prime Minister's ties, and the fact that Foreign Minister Nalbandyan was not replaced, show that the current situation satisfies the current Armenian leadership, and he is reluctant to embark on changes which can run contrary to the interests of Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union.

In September 2016, during the meeting of Foreign Ministers of the EU and Eastern Partnership countries, Nalbandyan stressed the necessity of starting discussion on a visa liberalization process.  This is a totally separate process, and besides, visa-free travel regime negotiations are determined by political conditionality.

Amongst other domestic developments three important events have the potential to impact EU-Armenia relations. First, the adoption of a new Constitution in December 2015. Many malpractices were registered during the referendum to approve the Constitution. Opposition and civic circles were alarmed  by the prospect that  President Sargsyan was preparing the  ground to stay in power after 2017.

The second issue is the reform of the election code, the importance of which was stressed by Mogherini during her last visit to Armenia this September. Finally, it is expected that the parliamentary elections of 2017 will play an important role in assessing the reforms conducted by Armenia. If the Armenian leadership holds elections without serious fraud, and respects the newly adopted Constitution and developed election code, then there will be a way out for the government from further political and economic stagnation.

Overall, the changes in the composition of the government will not lead to serious shifts in foreign policy, given its technocratic nature, and loyalty of the newly appointed Prime Minister to a pro-Russian foreign policy. Therefore, there is no basis to expect a serious, diversified approach, towards the EU.  On the other hand, the geopolitical situation in the region, and between Russia and the West, continues to be fragile, which also impacts EU-Armenia relations. Moreover, the EU itself faces serious and unprecedented crises such as migration and Brexit.  Finally, Armenia's commitments to the EEU narrows the scope of any future agreement, leaving only a small space for bilateral engagement in the economic sphere, thus reducing the EU's chances to be effectively engaged in domestic reforms of Armenia.

Given these realities, patience is needed on both sides, before the existing level of relations can be seriously upgraded. 

source: The author, Alexander Petrosyan is an independent political analyst, based in Yerevan. He recently graduated from the College of Europe in Bruges. 

photo: Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and EU High Representative Federica Morgherini at a press conference at the Armenian foreign Ministry earlier this year. (picture courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia.