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Ensuring Armenia meets its commitment to European values

By Adam Hug. Source: E! Sharp

Bright future? Europe has diverse incentives to deploy to help consolidate democracy in Yerevan.

Over the past few weeks, Armenia has experienced a level of political turbulence not seen since 2008, as large crowds gathered to commemorate the third anniversary of the March 1 post-election protests that were strongly suppressed by the Armenian government, a move fiercely condemned by the international community.

This time, and at subsequent protests, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's activists were joined by unexpected reinforcements from the Heritage party, which had provided the sole independent voice in parliament before declaring a boycott due to the ruling coalition's new electoral pact.

Despite, or rather because of, the recent turbulence, it is imperative that the EU plays a greater role in supporting Armenia towards a more democratic and stable future. In December 2010, President Serzh Sargsyan committed his party and government to the pursuit of European values and standards. The EU needs to offer him support in this endeavour. But it must be prepared to hold Armenia to account if it fails to deliver promised reforms. So far, despite the many worthwhile projects the EU supports in Armenia, its work is often lower profile than comparable engagement by Russia and the US. Europe needs to show more clearly to the Armenian public that it is actively engaged and applying pressure for reform.

The Foreign Policy Centre's Spotlight on Armenia sets out ideas about what has gone wrong in Armenia and how the international community can help Armenians to fix it. The report identifies three key areas of domestic reform where EU pressure could really help deliver progress.

Firstly, there is a need to open up a media environment where television channels are all in pro-government hands and the independent station A1+ has been repeatedly refused a licence, despite the best efforts of the European Court of Human Rights, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and international pressure groups. Perhaps uniquely, Armenia's planned switch to digital TV will result in fewer channels being available than at present, further reducing opportunities for pluralism. Ending the government's restrictive approach to frequency allocation and presidential appointments to the board of the TV regulators are important first steps to increasing media freedom in Armenia.

In the courts, some judges remain too open to pressure from the executive and powerful individuals to achieve the desired result in politically or economically sensitive cases. Bribery is widespread, particularly in civil cases, while judicial salaries remain among the lowest in the former Soviet Union. With an acquittal rate well below one percent, the application of the rule of law is weak and at times arbitrary. Again, a mixture of EU pressure and support needs to be applied to curtail the president's role in judicial selection, to raise salaries and increase the transparency of disciplinary procedures that would help end Armenia's perceived lack of judicial independence and increase public trust in the rule of law being upheld.

Improving Armenia's democratic processes are essential if future elections are not to be marked by the problems of 2008, the source of much of the perceived credibility problems of the current government. Ending the direct appointment by the president of regional governors, who are believed to interfere in the electoral process, would be beneficial in its own right. But work also needs to be done on enabling a wider group of election observers to be involved and on reforming the electoral commission. The international community has a key role to play here, particularly in the run-up to any early parliamentary elections that may be coming up later this year where the early and widespread deployment of OSCE observers will be essential in establishing credibility.

The EU's influence in the region is not helped by the recent removal of the role of the special representative for the south Caucasus that, irrespective of an organisational rationale within the European External Action Service, sends an unfortunate signal that the region is less of a priority for Brussels. This perception will need to be countered in the near future to ensure that any reputational damage is not permanent. In order for Armenia to move further down the road towards the stated goal of European standards, Brussels should more clearly link progress on the association agreement and the incentives of a "deep and comprehensive free trade area" pact, visa liberalisation and increased aid to identifiable progress against the democracy and good governance benchmarks the EU has set for Armenia.

This was first published by E!Sharp at http://www.esharp.eu/Web-specials/Ensuring-Armenia-meets-its-commitment-to-European-values