YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–President Robert Kocharian left for Brussels on Tuesday to start three-day talks with senior European Union and NATO officials which he hopes will help bring Armenia closer to Europe. The Armenian leader is scheduled to meet with the president of the European Commission–Romano Prodi–and NATO Secretary General George Robertson.
"We are taking practical steps to move closer to European institutions and that is a natural process for Armenia," Kocharian said in an interview with the Armenian Mediamax news agency circulated by his press service. "This country has always associated itself with and felt part of Europe. We have centuries-old historical and cultural ties–and our aims and approaches to the development and strengthening of democracy are congruent."
Kocharian said while in Brussels he will be particularly looking at ways of boosting trade with the EU member states–which has grown consistently over the past decade and currently accounts for nearly 40 percent of Armenia’s annual external turnover. He added that Yerevan’s economic and political ties with Brussels must go hand in hand. "Europe has clearly demonstrated that prosperity and security are firmly linked to the democratic system and the unconditional protection of human rights," he explained.
Kocharian’s visit comes less than three months after a tour of Armenia–Azerbaijan by the EU’s three top foreign policy makers–Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh–the EU’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana–and External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten. Lindh said in Yerevan on February 20 that Europe wants to "have the Caucasus higher on the EU agenda for the future."
The EU has been a leading donor of the three Caucasian states–with over one billion Euros spent on various assistance programs over the past eight years. A quarter of that has been channeled into Armenia. Much of the assistance involved annual direct transfers to the state budget and food supplies to the agricultural sector.
Officials said Kocharian’s talks with NATO’s Robertson will address Armenia’s participation in the NATO Partnership for Peace Program and issues of regional security.
The Kocharian-led delegation and the Belgian government are due to sign three bilateral agreemen’s on the mutual protection of investmen’s–avoidance of double taxation and the establishment of a regular airplane communication between the two countries.