Swiss Ambassador to Armenia Lukas Gasser: Switzerland will try to contribute to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict without questioning the established formats such as the OSCE Minsk process
ArmInfo’s interview with Head of the EU Delegation to Armenia, Ambassador Traian Hristea. The interview was given before Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said that Armenia is ready to join the Customs Union, but it is still topical.
by Marianna Mkrtchyan
Mr. Hristea, Armenia and the EU are expected to sign an Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013. What will be the next step of the Armenia-EU cooperation?
The EU and Armenia are expected to initial the Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013. Please note this is not the same as signature. Initialling is a technical step that confirms the agreement of both sides on substance.
To sign the Agreement, several procedural steps are necessary, among them translation of the text in all the EU languages, and the Council has to authorise the signature for the EU. This is an ambitious agreement, it is therefore legally complex and the EU is now a Union of 28 member states. Procedures do take time for all these reasons.
The EU hopes to provisionally apply parts of the Agreement (especially the trade part) as soon as possible after the signing, before full ratification procedures are completed. We want Armenia to benefit from the agreement as soon as possible.
What projects is the European Union currently implementing in Armenia and how effective are they?
Within the framework of the Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI), the 2011-2013 National Indicative Programme (NIP) put €157 million at the disposal of Armenia to conduct a number of reforms in 3 main areas: Democratic structures and good governance; Trade, investment and regulatory alignment; Socio-economic reform and sustainable development.
In partnership with the Government as well as civil society, a number of EU-funded projects are being implemented or have been recently implemented in the following main areas:
1. Trade and DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area):
- The EU Advisory Group has successfully supported the DCFTA negotiating team on the Armenian side which resulted in the negotiations to be successfully concluded in a record time;
- Three successive Budget Support programmes in support of DCFTA policy areas for a total amount of €69 million have started;
- The Comprehensive Institution Building (CIB) programme (€33 million) is supporting a number of Armenian public institutions through technical assistance and Twinning projects in the areas of Competition, Customs, Food safety, Consumer protection and Intellectual Property Rights. These projects have brought forward approximation to EU standards as well as institution building's best practices.
A first phase of support to Justice Reforms (€20 million in Budget Support) has been successfully completed with the following results: adoption of a Justice Reform Strategy 2012-2016, improvements in the areas of independence of justice and corruption, access to justice, advocacy and educational institutions (e.g. School of Advocates and Justice School) as well as financial support to building and renovation of court buildings (also supported by the World Bank).
A second Budget Support programme (€29 million) is being discussed with the Government at the moment with the specific aim to address the independence of judges, to increase the quality of services to the general public as well as to introduce alternative punishment systems (in cooperation with the Council of Europe) and improvement of detention conditions.
- A project in support of elections in Armenia in 2012 and 2013 started in February 2012 to improve the technical and professional capacities of election commissions, improve voter’s lists, build capacity among civil society for professional domestic observation as well as raise awareness of electoral rights and procedures. The project is implemented by OSCE and a number of civil society organisations through a contribution agreement. A project in support of women's active participation in local elections started in April 2012, implemented by UNDP to encourage women's meaningful participation in decision making and engage in a constructive dialogue on gender with media and civil society.
4. Vocational Education Training (VET):
Our ongoing sector budget support programme (€15 million) is achieving good results. The support is now based on the Government’s “VET Reforms Programme and Action Plan 2012-2015” aiming to align the Armenian VET system with the European professional standards, increase the efficiency of the VET system, and further develop social partnership in VET. Furthermore, the adoption of the National Employment Strategy for 2013-2018, supported by the EU, clearly sets the direction for linking the results of the VET reforms to the changing requirements of the labour market.
5. Support to civil society and media:
- Two programmes for almost €3 million in support to civil society are being launched ("Civil Society Facility" and "Support to good governance and media"). They aim at strengthening the capacity of Civil Society to intervene in policy formulation by better engaging in policy dialogue with the government, public institutions and bodies. They also aim at improving professionalism of media outlets towards establishment of free and pluralistic media, as an instrument of achieving good governance outcomes.
6. Infrastructure projects with the support of the Neighbourhood Investment Fund (NIF), EIB and EBRD:
- Several ongoing projects include Metro Rehabilitation Project Phase I and Phase II with two NIF grants of €5 million, Armenian Small Municipalities Water Project with €7 million NIF grant, Kotayk Solid Waste Management, which has been put on hold in anticipation of the solid waste management strategy, Modernization of Bagratashen, Bavra and Gogavan Border Crossing Points (MBBG) with a grant of €12 million, North-South Corridor with another grant of €12 million, and Yerevan Water with €5.5 million.
In its annual report for 2012, the European Union stressed the need to decommission the Armenian Nuclear Power Plant. What alternative to decommissioning of the nuclear plant could the EU offer to Armenia?
The EU continues to request the earliest possible closure of Medzamor nuclear power plant (NPP), as it cannot be upgraded to meet internationally recognised nuclear safety standards. It is a matter of concern that Armenia has not yet drawn up a detailed decommissioning plan for Medzamor. Following the Fukushima nuclear accident, Armenia undertook with the EU a comprehensive risk and safety assessment (‘nuclear stress test’) of the plant, the report of which will have to be submitted soon.
The EU offers to Armenia support along with other development partners to the development of alternative and renewable energy and improve energy efficiency, notably through Programme such as INOGATE or other major projects funded by the Neighbourhood Investment Facility (NIF).
How effective are the on-going reforms in the system of justice in Armenia? What flaws could you point at?
The Government of Armenia initiated a large-scale reform in the sphere of justice that already resulted in some improvements, particularly improvement of the implementation of court orders, ensuring transparency of transactions by implementing a comprehensive statistical system, providing a better service to the population and improve access to the justice system.
Nonetheless, there is still substantial work to be done to restore the trust of the population towards the courts and judges and the European Union is currently discussing with the Government and civil society a new Budget Support programme to further support progress in this sector in order to improve the situation (particularly if we look to indexes such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for Armenia), and address other concerns such as those related to the independence of judges, as evidenced by an EU – Council of Europe analysis of judicial reforms in Eastern Partnership countries (see http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/cooperation/capacitybuilding/source/judic_reform/Project_report_final.pdf ), strict application of the law and court rulings or detention conditions in prisons. In this respect capacity of law enforcement bodies need to be developed.
The European Union will therefore support the Government in the following priority actions:
- Introduction and implementation of clear-cut judicial independence and anti-corruption programmes;
- Efficiency and accessibility of the justice sector by improving cooperation between all the stakeholders, by setting up proper training for advocates, judges and prosecutors and by increasing the quality of the judicial process in the first instance courts;
- Revision of the Criminal Code and promotion of alternative punishment systems to decrease the level of incarcerated persons in line with international standards; improving detention conditions;
- Increasing the quality of services to the public and businesses in the areas of arbitration, notarisation and civil registration;
Nowadays Armenia is often urged to choose between the Eurasian Union and the European Union. Do you think Armenia can participate in the two integration projects simultaneously? If not, then what do you think might hinder it?
In general, there is no conflict between increasing links with the EU and links with the Russian Federation and organisations in which the Russia plays an important role. Armenia can freely participate in the CIS multilateral free trade agreement and at the same time to conclude negotiations on the Association Agreement with the EU.
At the same time, we have to make a distinction between Free trade agreements and a Customs Union. Within any Customs Union, a country surrenders its sovereignty over its trade policy, including the management of its import duties, and other elements, such as regulatory framework.
We have said on numerous occasions that the DCFTA does not preclude Armenia to develop its economic relations with any other third party and we understand the importance of other markets than the EU for Armenia’s trade. There is nothing wrong in seeking an establishment of close trade and economic relations between Armenia and the Customs Union.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly expressed its desire to change the format of the OSCE Minsk Group, which, it says, has run its course. What do you think of this initiative? Is the European Union ready to become a mediator in the Karabakh peace process?
The European Union is not party to the official mediation efforts on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The EU supports the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, namely France, Russia and the USA in their efforts to help the parties find a solution.
In support of efforts towards peace, the EU conducts regular political dialogue with both partner countries, and has also appointed the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia, Ambassador Phillipe Lefort.
The EU stands ready to provide enhanced support for confidence building measures, in support of and in full complementarity with the Minsk Group, with a view to facilitating further steps towards the implementation of peace