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Romania: President Offers Karabakh Mediation, Vows Better Economic Ties With Armenia

Romanian President Ion Iliescu today concluded a two-day official visit to Armenia, where he held talks with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials. During the visit, Iliescu offered to mediate peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Iliescu and Kocharian also signed a series of agreements and pledged to step up economic cooperation. But despite traditionally good relations between Romania and Armenia, economic ties are almost non-existent.

Prague, 1 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Romania's President Ion Iliescu today ended a two-day state visit to Armenia, during which he held talks with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials.

Iliescu and Kocharian discussed political and economic ties between the two countries, the state of peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and ways of fighting organized crime and terrorism in the region.

After talks with Kocharian, Iliescu said Romania -- which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- is ready to help mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The two former Soviet republics have been in conflict over Karabakh since the enclave seceded from Azerbaijan in 1988. A six-year war followed, in which some 35,000 people were killed.

Despite a cease-fire and peace talks sponsored by the Minsk Group -- composed of the U.S., France, and Russia -- under the aegis of the OSCE, no political settlement of the conflict has been reached so far.

Iliescu said Romania -- besides holding the OSCE presidency -- also has good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and could act as a mediator.

"First of all, we have good ties with both sides, and we would like our permanent political dialogue with Armenia and Azerbaijan to become a factor in a direct dialogue [between the two countries], which should, in the long term, lead to a normalization of the situation."

Kocharian welcomed Iliescu's proposal and said Armenia appreciates Romania's contributions to the negotiation process.

"During the negotiations, we touched upon all the issues of our bilateral relations, discussed the regional problems. I informed the president of Romania about the progress in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We highly appreciate Romania's role [in the Nagorno-Karabakh problem] as the chairman of the OSCE."

Iliescu and Kocharian signed a cooperation agreement on fighting organized crime, a program to strengthen bilateral ties in culture, science, and education, as well as a customs agreement. Iliescu also met with Armen Khachatrian, president of parliament, and Catholicos Karekin II, the head of Armenia's Christian Church.

The two countries maintain excellent relations, and the meeting between Iliescu and Kocharian was the fifth between the presidents since Armenia became independent in 1991.

Ties between Romania and Armenia go back some 1,000 years, when the first groups of Armenians fleeing persecution in their country arrived in what is today the Romanian province of Moldavia.

Thousands of Armenian families in the Middle Ages settled in Moldavia and Transylvania -- which today is also part of Romania -- where most of them became prosperous merchants.

Although one of the most influential communities, the Armenian minority in Romania was never a large one -- reaching only 60,000 at its peak between the two world wars. Its numbers have dwindled since and currently stand at some 2,000.

Varujan Vosganian is a prominent ethnic Armenian politician and founder of Romania's Armenian Union. He says Romania was for centuries a safe haven for Armenians fleeing political or religious oppression. He points out that Romania was the first country to accept some 20,000 Armenian refugees after the 1915 massacres of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire.

Vosganian told RFE/RL that the enduring friendship between the two nations resurfaced once again in 1991 when Romania became the first state to officially recognize Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union. Despite traditionally good relations, he points out that economic cooperation between Romania and Armenia is almost non-existent.

"In Armenia, whenever they discuss the development of bilateral relations, they are evoking Romania's extraordinary [1991] gesture toward Armenia. On paper, relations developed very well since, with several bilateral treaties being concluded. Unfortunately, because of the big distance between the two countries, the practical economic and cultural relations have known only a modest development. But there still is a steady, century-long friendship."

With monthly per capita incomes of $100 and $40 respectively, both Romania and Armenia rank among the poorest countries in Europe. But while Romania is a candidate for European Union and NATO admission, Armenia -- marred by political instability and the ongoing Karabakh dispute with Azerbaijan -- harbors no such ambitions.

Despite projected growth of some six percent this year, the economy of Armenia -- a country of 3.8 million -- is mainly based on agriculture and the exploitation of raw materials.

The country also owes some $840 million in foreign debt -- out of which $575 million is owed to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and more than $100 million to Russia.

Both Romania and Armenia are in need of foreign investment. Romania -- with its 23 million people -- has attracted some $7 billion in foreign direct investment since the collapse of communism, while in Armenia -- a country of 3.8 million people -- foreign investment has amounted to a mere $600 million over the same period.

Iliescu, who was accompanied during the visit by a group of Romanian businessmen, said Romania could become an economic gateway to Europe for countries in the Caucasus.

Romania and Armenia have long been interested in participating in the European Union-funded TRACECA and INOGATE programs. The two programs are aimed at opening additional transport routes to Europe for Central Asian oil and gas -- across the Black Sea, through the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea to Central Asia.

Varujan Vosganian says both Romania and Armenia -- a landlocked country -- could reap important benefits if oil pipelines and new transport routes along the ancient Silk Road connecting China to Europe end up crossing the two countries.

"It is in Romania's interest that the Silk Road [transport route] and oil pipelines coming from Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan choose the route through the Romanian port of Constanta. For Romania this is of great interest, and Armenia is also interested to cooperate with Romania in such a project because if all these commercial routes and pipelines go through Romania, they would also go through Armenia."

So far, neither country has enjoyed significant benefits from TRACECA or INOGATE projects. However, Iliescu yesterday hailed the recent reopening of a ferry link between the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta and the Georgian port of Batumi as a first step toward opening an access route to the rest of Europe for Armenia and other countries in the southern Caucasus.