by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
In the current Cold War climate in East-West relations, exasperated by the British-Russian crisis around the Skripal affair, it has become increasingly difficult for smaller nations to maintain an independent stance in the interest of protecting friendly relations with both the West and Russia. No one knows this better than the Armenians. Thus, when Ambassador Ashot Smbatyan was invited to speak at the Lepsiushaus in Potsdam on March 22, he faced an audience of intellectuals, political figures, diplomats and members of the Armenian community, eager to hear his views on “Armenia and Europe: Taking Stock, with a View to the Future.”
To explain his country’s relations with Europe, Ambassador Smbatyan addressed the question, “Where does Europe begin and where does it end?” An ostensibly simple question, it actually can be answered from different perspectives: geographically, he said, Germany belongs to Europe whereas India does not. But then perhaps “Europe” designates more a “shared value system” than a land mass; or, yet again, one may be referring to the economic dimension. The aim of his remarks was to explain “what this concretely means for a country like Armenia.”
Situating Armenia in the “geographical interface between Europe and Asia,” as a country sharing borders with Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran, Smbatyan said it had managed, despite centuries of conflicts, to preserve its independence, “national identity and unique culture” – also thanks to its early development of a written language culture. A brief historical overview of the last century, from its short-lived independence from 1918 to 1920, to its membership in the Soviet Union until 1991, set the parameters for his remarks on Armenian foreign policy.
“Since our independence, the aim of Armenian foreign policy has not been to act against any country, but to work together with all our immediate and proximate neighbors towards an enduring peaceful coexistence for the region. On the basis of this premise,” he said, “one has to consider Armenian foreign policy as a whole, which means not only single bilateral agreements but also Armenia’s inclusion in various structures and organizations of the international community.” With this in mind, one should understand that Armenia “for historically developed reasons fosters a close strategic partnership with Russia on the one hand and very good relations with the West, that is the European Union and the USA, on the other.”
Europe: Neighborly Cooperation
Since the start of the new millennium, bilateral relations with the EU have progressed steadily in line with Armenia’s foreign policy guidelines. Smbatyan ticked off a number of cornerstones of this partnership, from 2004 when it was admitted into the European Neighborhood Policy to 2006 when the EU action plan entered into force; from 2009 when it joined the Eastern Partnership, together with five other former members of the USSR, to 2010 when it consequently started association negotiations with the EU.
Last year in November a framework agreement with the EU was concluded which is to enter into force this Spring. If the earlier steps in the process already opened the way for strengthening national sovereignty and contributing to social and economic stability on the regional level, this new framework “opens up not only a new chapter in Armenian-European relations but also the possibility of finding new paths towards Eurasian and especially European-Iranian cooperation.” Smbatyan highlighted the fact that Armenia has built good relations with Iran and could play “an important mediating role” between the Islamic Republic and the EU. “You see,” he stated, “that relations to Europe are in not at all one-sided!”
Economic Partnerships: Exclusive or Inclusive?
To contribute to overcoming the conflicts plaguing the region, clearly economic stability is a key factor. Smbatyan stated that Armenia has decided to pursue a western economic model, a step which “is still not undisputed” inside the country. “Our economy,” he added, “is linked to Russia’s through many ties,” as is the case for others from the Commonwealth of Independent States.
This led the Ambassador to the crux of the issue. Anyone familiar with the debate in German political and press circles knows that there has been criticism leveled at Yerevan for its close ties to Russia. And, in the context of currently escalating East-West tensions, it was important to address this issue. Smbatyan said that, considering these ties, “the key to success of a Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) lies in dialogue including all sides and in the readiness of our European partners to tolerate the agreements that Armenia has made. The EEU,” he explained, “is for us one part of the international integration processes that we have planned. From our standpoint, integration processes can unfold successfully, also in parallel.” In other words, there need be no exclusiveness.
Smbatyan pointed to the example of China, to show that a liberal market economy system can coexist with a different social system – “which may not be the best” – and can still be very successful. “For this reason,” he said, “I think that when we entered the European Neighborhood Policy and Armenia, as a member of the Eastern Partnership, began negotiations on association and a free trade agreement, it would have been right to start from the onset with ‘as well as’ instead of ‘either/or.’ For in retrospect, there are many who argue that one should not have raised an ‘either/or’ but should have spoken of an ‘as well as’. Maybe we could have avoided a lot that way.”
Those who remember the two-day visit paid by then President Serge Sargsyan to Germany in early April 2016, may remember that there was controversy surrounding Armenia’s decision to join the EEU. He was asked about this during an interview with Deutsche Welle: “Armenia has been part of the ‘Eastern Partnership’ program, which implied association prospects with the EU. But you decided in favor of the Eurasian Economic Union. What triggered this decision? Russia’s pressure? Economic calculations? Ukrainian developments?” Sargsyan was precise: “I would like to make a correction: We still are a member of the ‘Eastern Partnership.’ The new phase of negotiations began in December of last year. We will sign an agreement with the EU. There was no pressure from the Russian side. We were guided by economic reasons. Russia is our biggest market and our largest trade partner. Russia has offered very favorable conditions for us within the Eurasian Economic Union, by providing a 30% discount on its products. My principle is taking decisions which can be realized.”
At the time, and to her credit, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany was not raising any objections. “We do not want an either/or situation,” she stated. (She also noted that Sargsyan had stressed the importance of the Iran nuclear accord and its positive repercussions.)
Armenia, Smbatyan said, has always been opposed to establishing any dividing line between cooperation with the one or the other partnership. He added that Armenia had “never concealed the fact that it has strategic relations” and noted that it is the only country in the Eastern Partnership that has made such progress with the EU notwithstanding.
Returning to his rhetorical question, ‘what is Europe?’ Smbatyan emphasized respect for the norms of shared European values, and he reiterated Armenia’s readiness to pursue collaboration on the reforms process, democratization, human rights, good governance and fighting corruption. But he strongly underlined the need as well to consider the geopolitical and geostrategic aspects when discussing Armenian foreign policy. In this context, obviously the Berg-Karabach conflict looms large, and with it, the fact that the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed. The EU has an important role to play in pursuing a peaceful solution to the conflict, especially in the Minsk Group of the OSCE. Smbatyan lamented the fact that despite the Minsk Group’s mediation efforts since 1994, a solution “is still not in sight, because the Azerbaijan side is not constructive and does not want to face reality.”
A durable peace, he said, would come “only with help from Europe, the USA and Russia.” He endorsed the deployment of Armenian troops in the context of NATO peacekeeping cooperation, in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Lebanon. “And still,” he added in the same breath, “Armenia’s ties to the Russian Federation, in view of the historical and political background, will remain close even in the future.” Ultimatums and false dilemmas are not on the agenda.