The Progressive Post

Armenia: a new opportunity for European Progressives

Last year's "Velvet Revolution" is an opportunity for closer relations with the EU, as well as for more progressive policies.

Marina Ohanjanyan is a Senior Project Manager for Eastern Europe and South Caucasus at the Foundation Max van der Stoel, based in the Netherlands.

Armenia has been in Europe’s blind spot for many years. Last year’s “Velvet Revolution” however presents an exciting new opportunity to bring the country into Europe’s focus again. A previous tabu topics like women’s representation and LGBT rights are being discussed in parliament, there’s hope for Progressives too.

Speaking bluntly, the European Union (EU) had seemed to have lost interest in Armenia for a long time, especially after 2013, when the President at the time, Serzh Sargsyan, chose to essentially negate four years of negotiations on an Association Agreement that was ready to be signed, announcing instead that Armenia would become a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

While most observers understood that Sargsyan’s move was likely prompted by pressure from the Kremlin, this nevertheless caused a cooling down of relations with the EU, its negotiators being understandably disappointed with this result. It took some years of increased diplomatic efforts on Armenia’s part to achieve talks on what would become, in essence, a less far-reaching substitute: the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA). 

However, Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” of April/May 2018 looks like an opportunity for a fresh boost to EU-Armenia relations. While the leader of the protests that toppled Serzh Sargsyan and his Republican Party, current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his associates always explicitly ruled out any foreign policy element in their push for power, it could still have the (indirect) effect of opening some diplomatic doors to the EU that may have been only slightly ajar or even completely closed before.

The new government’s expressed focus on transparency, democracy, the rule of law, a genuine fight against corruption and so on., is completely in line with the values that the EU seeks to see upheld and promoted in general, and in Eastern Europe in particular. Pashinyan and his government, while working hard not to alienate Russia, have also been clear in their interest in good relations with all relevant international actors, the EU being a crucial one. The EU, in turn, has been unequivocal in its praise for the Velvet Revolution’s conduct and achievements, and Pashinyan’s ensuing government for its efforts in democratising Armenia so far. It has pledged political and economic support amid increasing contacts between Pashinyan’s government with EU structures and individual key member states. 

In fact, Armenia can represent an interesting case study in Eastern European diplomacy, depending on how well it fares in the geopolitical equivalent of having its cake and eating it

Of course, any such rapprochement hinges on two important aspects: the success or failure on the part of Armenia’s new authorities to implement genuine democratic reforms, and the Kremlin factor. Moscow continuously reminds the newly-elected Prime Minister and his team that it is keeping a close eye on its regional ally and is not prepared to accept a deviation of true significance in its international course. However, if there is readiness on both the Armenian and EU sides to take this into account – which seems so far to be the case – and to tread carefully, much can be done. In fact, Armenia can represent an interesting case study in Eastern European diplomacy, depending on how well it fares in the geopolitical equivalent of having its cake and eating it, that is, choosing firmly a path of democratisation, while not making Russia an enemy.

For Progressives in Europe, the new Armenian government, with all its growing pains, and any faults it might have, still presents an exciting opportunity. Pashinyan, while having led a truly national movement during the Revolution, more than anything else represents a young generation of Armenians. Some of the most important figures in his inner circle can be considered progressive, as are many of his followers. This has revitalised public debate in the country especially on subjects important to Progressives, which had been taboo in mainstream politics for many years.

Suddenly, topics like women’s representation and LGBT rights are being discussed on the parliament floor. Even though Progressives are still a minority in the country, and taking the rest of the nation along in this process will take much effort and even more time, the first steps are evident. At this stage, and especially because of the difficult task ahead for the Armenian progressive movement combined with this historic window of opportunity, it is crucial for European progressives to show their support and bring Armenia into their focus and out of a blind spot, where it seems to have been for many years.

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