Relations between the European Union and the three South Caucasus countries are at a crucial juncture. The Riga Summit did not decide on any new initiatives, but a pattern as to how these relations are likely to develop has emerged nonetheless. In the first, in a series of three articles for commonspace.eu Dennis Sammut analyses relations between the European Union and Armenia after the Riga Summit.
A terse announcement ahead of last week's Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga stated that the European Commission had on May 19 "adopted a recommendation for the Council to authorise the opening of negotiations on a legally binding agreement between the European Union and Armenia."
It added that, "following Armenia's decision to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) rather than pursue with signature of the Association Agreement with the EU, both sides reconfirmed in November 2013 their commitment to further develop and strengthen cooperation in all areas of mutual interest within the Eastern Partnership framework".
According to the statement, "Last year the EU and Armenia launched a reflection exercise on the scope of a future renewed agreement of cooperation, clarifying the areas that are compatible with Armenia's new commitments under the EEU." A "reflection exercise" is a diplomatic term often used when diplomats and officials have no idea what to do next. It seems that in this case, after nearly two years, they have now found the basis on which to start talking again.
The discussions, according to informed sources, boiled down to the issue of form versus substance. The EU wanted a legally binding agreement; Armenia wanted a vague political declaration, not least because it is still getting to know what its legal obligations as a new member of the Eurasian Economic Union look like. Regardless of the discomfort of the situation both sides were keen to remain engaged. On the EU side there was a wish to salvage whatever possible from the years of work and negotiations, prior to September 2013, on the now defunct Association Agreement. On the Armenian side there was a desperate need, mainly for domestic political purposes, not to be seen abandoning relations with Europe, and showing some semblance of balance to what started to look like complete dependence on Russia. For this reason pro government media in Armenia have for the last year or so been inflating out of all proportion any event that seemed to show that Europe remained Armenia's friend and partner. Few of these events had any substance, but they served the purpose.
In its new role of "ex bride" in an abandoned marriage Armenia has found some unlikely allies. There are some in Europe who have not been excited at all that the South Caucasus countries seek closer relations with the EU, even - in the case of Georgia - full membership. They come from the same political groups, and often from the same countries, as those who two decades ago were resisting the idea that the South Caucasus countries should join the Council of Europe, saying that the region was not part of Europe at all. For those still thinking in this way Armenia's September 2013 decision was a welcome development rather than a setback, and they even see Armenia's quest for friendly but distant relationship with the EU as a model.
What lies ahead is not clear. The Commission Recommendation "is for a Council Decision authorising the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini to open negotiations on a framework agreement. It will be presented to Member States for their final adoption". This means that the Commission is now asking the 28 EU member states permission to start talking with Armenia again, leading hopefully to a legally binding agreement. This process will take years to come to fruition. It will keep the diplomats and the bureaucrats busy, and the politicians looking suitably engaged, but it does not mean that the missed opportunity of 2013 is going to be revisited any time soon.
So where does this leave the people of Armenia? Armenia is now de jure and de facto anchored in an economic framework with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan - the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). It is a terrain that Armenia and Armenians understand well, and they will make the most out of it. But this model offers Armenia little prospect for a breakthrough from its present economic problems. The EU is keen to maintain lines open to the Armenian population at large. The Riga summit dangles the distant prospect of "consideration in due course of opening a visa dialogue with Armenia", and Armenians in future may participate in some EU research and education programmes, such as Horizon 2020. The EU remains committed to people to people contacts across a wide spectrum of themes.
The prospect of a legally binding document between Armenia and the EU offers scope for issues such as human rights and democratic freedoms to be institutionalised as part of the agenda between the two sides. This is to be welcomed. The Riga Summit declaration also opens up the prospect of a more robust EU engagement with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process. Negotiating a framework agreement in itself gives the EU some leverage, and if this is accompanied by a generous financial assistance package that leverage can be significant.
For the Armenian government it is opportune that it can sometimes remind Russia that, as a last resort, it has an alternative to the EEU. The EEU is a project that has been put together in haste. It is trying to do in four years what the EU did in forty. Like other bombastic post-Soviet projects it may quickly stagnate. The Armenian government understands this risk, and wants to keep as much manoeuvrability as possible. Relations with the EU are an essential part of this strategy.
Both sides therefore seem to have identified value in taking their discussions forward. Where this long and cumbersome process on which they have now embarked will end is however as yet too early to say.
In this first in a series of three articles for commonspace.eu, Dennis Sammut analyses relations between the European Union and Armenia. The second article, "Georgia's European quest: a question of stamina" will be published on commonspace.eu on Tuesday, 26 May.
Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research). he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan at a meeting of the leaders of the European People's Party held immediately prior to the Riga Summit on 21-22 May 2015. (picture courtesy of the press service of the President of Armenia).