YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Citizens of the European Union member states travelling to Armenia will no longer need entry visas starting from next year, the Armenian government announced on Thursday in what it called a further boost to the country’s European integration.
The landmark measure, effective from January 10, 2013, means that EU nationals will be allowed to stay in Armenia visa-free for up to 90 days each year. It also applies to citizens of European nations such as Switzerland that are not EU members but are part of the bloc’s borderless Schengen area.
Armenia thus became the fourth non-Baltic former Soviet republic — after Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova — to unilaterally abolish visa requirements for Europeans. It currently has mutual visa-free regimes with less than two dozen countries, including Georgia, Russia and most of the other ex-Soviet states.
In an explanatory note, the government said that visa-free travel will stimulate a greater influx of European tourists and help to expand Armenia’s business ties with the EU. More importantly, it also put the measure in the context of ongoing negotiations on the signing of an “association agreement” between Armenia and the 27-nation bloc.
The Republic of Armenia has adopted a policy of integration with the EU and is holding negotiations with the EU on the association agreement and the creation of a free and comprehensive free trade area,” explains the document.
One of the main elements of that accord is a facilitation of the EU’s strict visa requirements for Armenians planning to travel to Europe. It is expected that they will be able receive Schengen visas with fewer documents and at a lower cost. In return, Yerevan will have to sign a separate “readmission agreement” with Brussels that will commit it to helping EU immigration authorities expedite the repatriation of Armenian illegal immigrants.
Armenian and EU officials opened formal negotiations on visa facilitation in February. Diplomats in Yerevan have reported major progress in the talks.
In the written explanation endorsed by the government, the Armenian Foreign Ministry also argued that a unilateral scrapping of visas would encourage the EU to take a “differentiated approach” to Armenia and Azerbaijan on the issue.
Ministry officials are worried that the EU could delay the entry into force of a more liberal visa regime with Armenia until it negotiates a similar deal with Azerbaijan, presumably to avoid Azerbaijani accusations of pro-Armenian bias. Brussels’ visa facilitation talks with Yerevan are apparently at a more advanced stage than those with Baku.
The document also declares that the EU is ready, in principle, to eventually scrap visas for Armenians altogether. It says the two sides plan to start a “dialogue” on the matter one year after the softer Schengen visa rules take effect.
Armenia’s own visa procedures for much of the outside world have been quite simple since the late 1990s. EU and U.S. citizens can get visas at not only Armenian consulates abroad but also the country’s border crossings and Yerevan airport.