Armenia: Restoring & repairing relations with the EU

Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center (Armenia, Yerevan)

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In a move that stands out as a unique “second chance” to repair and restore the relations with the European Union, Armenia signed a new strategic agreement with the EU in late November, despite an earlier forced sacrifice of the country’s Association Agreement. Although the new EU – Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) is less than the 2013 Association Agreement, as it has no  Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade (DCFTA) element, it serves as a fresh start for the deepening of the relations between Armenia and the EU.

Domestic Policy. Changes in military conscription

Amid a series of the protest demonstrations by several student groups, the country’s controversial restrictions on the military service deferments, the Armenian parliamentarians and the government officials met with the student leaders  to seek to diffuse a tension. The new restrictions were sought by the Ministry of Defense and were formally approved by the Armenian parliament on 15, November. According to the new law, any deferment for a male student would require some education contracts in return for the agreement on a three years military service after completing the studies.

Otherwise, students will be drafted into the army at the age of 18 for a two-year mandatory military service. The critics of the new law argue that these changes would only discourage the students from pursuing their scientific careers and could seriously damage the development of the science and higher education in the country.

Armenian government imposes cut to health program

In a controversial move, the Armenian government imposed a serious cut in spending for a public heath program that provides couples with support for the infertility treatment. In Armenia, artificial fertility is a fairly expensive medical treatment and in 2015 the government decided to help couples who cannot conceive a child by covering the costs of the treatment. Initially, some 35 couples were chosen as the beneficiaries of the program with $100,000 in state financing. According to the Ministry of Health, the official statistics for the period of 20162017 revealed that some eight children were born under the state-assisted program of the artificial fertilization. However the data from three Yerevan hospitals involved in the program shows, however, that during the same period 37 children were born under the program. The officials defended the move, arguing that the deeper cuts in the overall state budget of some $29 million forced the decision, related to a decrease in the state spending on the total budget for the healthcare issues.

Armenian Veteran sentenced to six-year prison term

In a move widely seen as a preemptive strike by the Armenian authorities against the domestic political rivals, an Armenian court on 28, November convicted a former Nagorno-Karabakh war military commander of the weapons smuggling and money laundering, and sentenced him to six years in prison.

The  Armenia-European Union agreement is hailed as a new mechanism for the institutional cooperation fostering between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union

Although the veteran Samvel Babayan has long been a controversial figure, his support for the opposition was interpreted as a trigger for the latest legal proceedings against him. Two of the Babayan’s co-defendants were also sentenced to prison, with one receiving a two year sentence and another one a three year term, while another four defendants were also convicted but receiving suspended sentences. Babayan was the top commander of the Karabakh forces from 1993 to 1999. He was first arrested in March, 2017 after the security forces claimed to have confiscated a portable Igla missile system and alleged that he was behind its acquisition as a part of a broader plot to attempt to assassinate the president. The arrest came two weeks before the parliamentary elections in which Babayan supported an opposition alliance led by the former Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian and two former foreign ministers. The 52-year old Babayan was arrested previously in 2000 and later imprisoned after being convicted of the masterminding a failed assassination attempt against the then-president of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Economy. Armenian president hails country’s growing IT sector

In a speech in mid-November, the Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian hailed  the progress in the country’s expanding IT sector, citing it as the driver for the development of the Armenia’s long sought knowledge economy. Roughly 600 Armenian companies are engaged in the IT sector, providing about 20,000 jobs and responsible for an impressive rate of growth of between 20-25% in the recent years.

Armenian officials downplay impact of looming rise in tariffs

Although Armenia is required to begin a round of the gradual increases in tariffs on a wide range of imports, the Armenian officials optimistically downplayed   the impact on the economy. Since joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in January, 2015 Armenia limited the negative impact of the trade bloc’s significantly higher trade tariffs through a reliance on a set of the “transitional exemptions” on over 800 goods and products. But those exemptions are now due to expire, with economists concerned over what they see as a resulting surge in prices for the basic commodities and staple foodstuffs in Armenia. The possible impact may be especially serious given a dramatic rise of about 40% in the domestic prices for such basic imports. According to the Armenian government, such a development would actually boost the domestic production and better “protect” local products against the “foreign competition”.

Foreign Policy. Armenia signs new strategic agreement with the EU

While attending the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels, the Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian formally signed  the new Armenia-EU Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) on 24, November. The move is seen as an effective success in overcoming the damaging 2013 reversal of having sacrificed its earlier Association Agreement with the EU in favor of committing Armenia to joining the Eurasian Economic Union instead. The agreement is also hailed as a new mechanism for the institutional cooperation fostering between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, with Armenia now holding a new sense of the strategic significance as the only EEU member with such a high level of partnership with the EU. The EU–Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) offers a fresh start for the deepening of the relations, with both the EU and Armenia demonstrating the political will to forge deeper ties in the areas of the political dialogue, justice and freedom, and even security, as well as including legally binding provisions across a range of sectoral areas of cooperation.

Iranian Foreign Minister visits Armenia

In the first high-level visit of a senior Iranian official to Armenia in over a year, the Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian met on 28, November with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Yerevan. The meeting largely focused on the planned development and deepening of the bilateral economic cooperation and the trade relations, with an added emphasis on the Armenia’s pursuit of a greater role as a bridge for the Iranian goods to access the markets of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The Iranian minister, who was also accompanied by a business delegation, also met separately with the Armenian Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, to discuss tax treatment for the Iranian investors. The level of the bilateral trade  remains modest, however, with a total trade volume of only $197.4 million for the first nine months of this year, but representing an increase of about 10% against the same period in 2016.