BRUSSELS (RFE/RL)—Armenia’s integration with the European Union would only strengthen its traditionally close relations with Russia, a top EU official told Armenian parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian late on Wednesday.
Abrahamian met the EU’s Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Stefan Fuele during a visit to Brussels. A statement issued by the European Commission after the meeting said they discussed Armenia’s growing ties with the 27-nation bloc and ways to “accelerate the reform and modernization” of the South Caucasus state.
“Broader regional cooperation was also raised, with an emphasis on the fact that good neighborly relations are of strategic importance for Armenia, in particular as regards Russia,” said the statement. “It is in the EU’s interest to see good Armenian-Russian relations; they can in turn benefit also from Armenia’s partnership with the EU.”
The two men might have discussed the possibility of Armenia’s accession to the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The Armenian government appears to be facing growing pressure from Moscow to seek membership of the Russian-led trade bloc which President Vladimir Putin hopes will eventually grow into a closely-knit Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics. Putin and President Serzh Sarkisian apparently discussed the matter during talks held late last year.
Armenian leaders have not explicitly pledged to make their country part of the Customs Union in their public statements made so far. They seem more enthusiastic about signing an Association Agreement with the EU, which is currently being negotiated by the two sides. The agreement envisages, among other things, the creation of a “deep and comprehensive free trade area.”
The EU’s foreign and security policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said through a spokeswoman late last month that a possible Armenian entry into the Customs Union “would not be compatible” with the Association Agreement.
“This Agreement is of the utmost importance in moving the EU-Armenia relationship to a higher level. It goes far beyond a normal free trade agreement,” read the EU statement on Fuele’s talks with Abrahamian.
According to the statement, Fuele welcomed progress in the ongoing association talks which the Armenian side hopes will be concluded by the end of this year. He also again stressed the importance of the proper conduct of Armenia’s upcoming presidential election for Yerevan’s European integration drive.
“Successful — free and fair — elections really matter and are crucial for EU-Armenia relations; without them the continuous reform which we want to see could be undermined,” the EU official was quoted as telling Abrahamian.
A separate statement issued by the Abrahamian’s press office on Thursday said he reaffirmed the Armenian government’s stated commitment to holding the February 18 election “in conformity with European standards.”
The talks came the day before the entry into force of the government’s recent decision to unilaterally lift visa requirements for EU nationals visiting Armenia. They can now stay in the country visa-free for up to 90 days.
Fuele was reported to praise Yerevan’s move as well as the signing last month of an agreement to ease the EU’s stringent visa requirements for Armenian travelers.
Visa facilitation is another incentive for political and economic reform offered by the EU to Armenia and five other ex-Soviet states as part of its Eastern Partnership program. The planned Association Agreements with them also stem from that program.