Lithuanian Foreign Ministry's Special Envoy for Eastern Partnership Vaidotas Verba who was on a visit to Armenia lately kindly agreed to answer ArmInfo’s questions.
by Emmanuil Mkrtchyan
Mr. Ambassador, how do you see the new reality in the South Caucasus now when some observers began speaking of civilizational divide in the region following Armenia’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with Europe and its decision to access the Customs Union?
I’d not give such tough assessment of the situation. Here is why. As you know, the Eastern Partnership project was introduced in May 2009 in Prague to help the eastern neighbors of the EU to improve their living standards, improve the democratic development of public life, make it more open, as well as make economic reforms. This project meets the interests of the EU, as it seeks good and wealthy neighborhood to cooperate and trade with.
The point is that after the three Baltic states of the former USSR and some eastern countries joined the EU, many residents of the former Soviet republics, now independent states, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the three South Caucasus countries, began perceiving the United Europe as a model of their future development. We offered them the Eastern Partnership project. The project did not pursue automatic admission to the EU. The countries are free to make a choice. Actually, many countries, including Lithuania, implemented program reforms being absolutely sure in their European perspective. For us, for Lithuania, this perspective helped find power to change rapidly, reform our public and institutions.
However, Lithuania and the other countries you have mentioned have always been part of Europe, European history and civilization. Some 60 years are between you and your European cradle. As for the Eastern Partnership countries, it’s not all that simple there.
By the way, I have been in Moldova quite recently and had a speech on the local television. A question was raised about Moldova’s aspirations for Europe, though the population remains at odds over that issue. Yes, it is true. In late 80s and early 90s all the layers of the population united in their aspiration for Europe, except, maybe, some marginal groups. Everyone sought a family. We saw no other goal.
It was not just genetic memory. Many yearned to return the pre-Soviet life in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Many sought to get rid of Russia’s patronage.
Well, we are where we are. The Eastern Partnership project is built in such a way for its member-states to be able to feel significant changes in all fields of life for the next 5 years. But I am confident that these measures and capabilities offered to partners opened the "Russian can" of worms, as Russia felt threat to its interests.
All these democratization processes of public life may put stresses at the area, which Russia considers to be its vital interests - legitimate or non-legitimate ones. Russia scares that these countries may choose another way. However, not only as a diplomat but also as a man I cannot understand the core of this threat and where it is coming from. Many high-ranking officials in Europe, heads of states and governments said that the partnership is not directed against anybody, it is simply for the open opportunities. Even the countries that are not members of this project, but are neighbors to EaP member-states, may gain profit from it. Eastern Partnership implies not only development of public and economy, but also, which is not less important, creates a basis for peaceful coexistence of the countries in the region in both short-term and long-term outlook.
Actually, there is divide between the countries that chose the European vector of development and the ones that can be conditionally included in a peculiar union of authoritarian countries. Many experts see Russia’s influence on the second group of states. However, let’s be objective, Russia has grounds to worry about its interests and possible further expansion of NATO to the East.
The EaP does not threaten the interests of Russia. The EaP member countries choose their own development vector, the project imposes nothing on them, it just makes them a little better. The project opens new opportunities for free trade. The free trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok is quite realistic and everyone will benefit from it. Therefore, the EU is modifying its relations not only with the EaP member countries, but also with Russia. However, different countries with different social systems and structures have different goals and the well-being of the society is not the primary target in those countries.
When Armenia faced a situation when it was to choose between the Association and the Customs Union, unlike the CU, in the EU they began speaking with “either-or” ultimatums. What do you think of that?
I have heard about that ‘either-or.’ Specifically, when the DCFTA was offered as part of the AA, one of the European officials said in a private talk that if a country chooses one path, it couldn’t walk along the other path simultaneously. The point is that DCFTA implies mechanisms that open markets for goods and services, and implies certain standards and regulations, a full set of instruments for legislative changes. Meanwhile, the Customs Union implies general foreign trade policy and the countries that join the Union are no longer sovereign in their foreign trade policy. They delegate a big part of their powers to the CU. This is what they spoke about. However, all this was flavored with special political sauce and it turned out that the EU allegedly offers an exclusive choice “either-or.” Later it has turned out that it was misinterpretation of what was said and meant. EU has never offered Armenia to make a choice between the European and Eurasian integrations. Later the EU representatives said for hundreds of times that DCFTA does not make Armenia choose. It is the country that makes its own choice with due regard for certain moments. In particular, part of sovereignty is lost in international trade within the Customs Union, and DCFTA becomes technically inexecutable, because it is the Customs Union, not Armenia or any other Customs Union country, that agrees with the third countries on the trade regime. To be honest, Armenia's decision to join the Customs Union has confused everyone. The negotiations on AA/DCFTA had been held for 3.5 years. Very hard and efficient work had been done, but the country made a different choice in a wink. Not everyone understands the reason of such a U-turn.
Do you mean that the reason of such turn was the country’s security?
Yes, but I am not so sure about it.
Some analysts say that security was not the only reason of Armenia’s choice. They think that neither our authorities nor the public, at least the biggest part of it, was ready for the Association…
The advantages of the AA are not only the free choice of a country to strive for the EU or not. Unlike the CU, here no country delegates its powers. The EU on the one side and the country on the other side sign an agreement. In these documents the two sovereign subjects have absolutely equal relations from the first to the last page. I’d like to reiterate that these agreements pursued no political or any other final goal. They just create good conditions for political, social and economic development of a partner-country. An Association Agenda is currently being development for the countries that ratified the AA in Vilnius. It is a roadmap or agenda of how the sides will be implementing these agreements and commitments for 2014-2020. Furthermore, significant funds will be provided for that purpose. No country is pushed to anywhere. The countries will be developing and the programs can be corrected depending on the complicacy of reforms. These are very fair agreements. They had been drafted for a long period of time. The agreements took over 3 years, and not some 15 minutes. Governments have replaced each others, but processes continued. Therefore, from the European point of view, I think these processes are not only fair, but even naïve and generous.
What do you mean speaking of generosity?
Look at Lithuania, for instance. Before joining the EU, the country passed a long path, developing, signing and implementing relevant agreements. It is incomparable by comprehensiveness and generosity. I think Europe approached these issues very frankly and today Armenia remains a member of EaP, although it is joining the CU. For some reasons Armenia has chosen its own way of integration, but it is still in the orbit of our cooperation. We seek to find more fields of further cooperation with Armenia.
What do you think of the new shape of relations with Armenia? Have you already discussed that new vision of relation with officials in Armenia?
It is necessary to correlate our and your partnerships, commitments and opportunities in the new conditions in order they do not run contrary to your commitments to the CU and the future Eurasian Economic Union. We have no “finished product” so far. I have met with officials from several Armenian ministries and spoken with people involved in the talks with the EU to know what they feel and how they see their further ties with Europe. Now Europe is preparing to elect a new parliament and to change the leaders of the European Commission, so, they may come up with new fresh ideas. In any case, we are sorry to leave all we have done to the generations to come, especially as Armenia was very efficient in the talks and we had very good documents.
Is it possible to show an individual approach to Armenia? Look at Azerbaijan. It is a specific country that enjoys different logic of modern international relations and specific attitude to it as country- source of the world hydrocarbon resources. The approach to Belarus is also specific. On the other hand, the approach to Georgia, Moldova and now also to Ukraine will become definite irrespective of the developments in Crimea. What about Armenia? It has already made serious political reforms. If our cooperation within DCFTA is restricted with our commitments to the CU, can we expect that the political component of the EaP will be prioritized?
It is the most realistic scenario. After the Vilnius Summit, many issues have taken shape. Some five years ago all Eastern partners enjoyed more or less equal starting conditions but today each of them needs an individual approach. For some objective and subjective reasons, the positions have changed. An individual model must be developed for each country. I think it is the right way. Every country has its own approach to development.
Some observers think if Europe pays less attention to domestic political problems of Armenia, for instance to the problem of the public democratization, the country will turn to the path of authoritarism.
I think the EU and Armenia will continue and will even deepen their cooperation on human rights and freedoms protection, democracy-building and social reforms.
Will the situation in Ukraine affect the EaP?
First of all, one should not forget that the Ukrainian people went to the streets when the president refused to sign the agreement for which the country has been negotiating for long years. Second, the AA and DCFTA promote democratic public development and offer mechanisms of significant financial assistance. Along with this, the AA is one of the instruments that are able to provide targeted assistance to further building of democratic society. I think it is a necessity today.
Thank you for interview