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EU: Armenia Shrugs Off Setbacks, Restates Hope Of Closer Ties

When the European Commission published its "Wider Europe" program for preferential ties with the EU's "new neighbors" earlier this year, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were excluded. In an interview with RFE/RL, Armenia's ambassador to the EU, Vigen Tchitetchian, said that despite the setback, the South Caucasus will continue to seek closer ties with the bloc. All three foreign ministers will get their chance for firsthand reactions when they meet EU officials in Brussels on 30 September.

Brussels, 29 September 2003 (RFE/RL) Armenias first resident ambassador to EU headquarters in Brussels, Vigen Tchitetchian, may be experiencing a certain sense of irony as he follows the debate over the bloc's new constitution.

One of the most symbolically charged aspects of the debate involves the issue of whether to include a reference to the EU's "Christian heritage." Armenia embraced Christianity in the very first centuries after Christ, and hence much earlier than most of the rest of Europe. Yet it is not even considered part of the "Wider Europe" sketched by the European Commission.

"Wider Europe" refers to the motley group of countries on the fringes of the enlarged EU, stretching from Morocco -- through Israel, Syria, and Palestine -- to Belarus and Russia. All of these countries have the prospect, in the words of European Commission President Romano Prodi, to one day share with the EU "everything but [its] institutions." The commission notes that even full membership is not ruled out in the long term for its so-called Eastern European "new neighbors" like Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

To be left out is clearly a bitter blow for Armenia and its fellow South Caucasian nations, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Ambassador Tchitetchian told RFE/RL: "Naturally, the 'Wider Europe' initiative has been the focus of our attention, and it was with some bewilderment -- among the public and the government in Armenia, but also the NGOs and civil society outside Armenia, in international NGOs who are approaching us with questions. There was certainly a great deal of surprise at why Armenia and the [other] countries in the South Caucasus were not included in the program."

EU officials have suggested that Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan may have to wait until the still-distant prospect of Turkey entering the EU before they will be accorded "new neighbor" status. None of the three countries has strong backers among EU member states. To the contrary, most EU members are enlargement-weary, and some southern countries like Spain do not want to divert attention from the Maghreb region on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

One sign of hope could be the recently created post of a new EU special representative for the South Caucasus - now held by Heikki Talvitie, a seasoned Finnish diplomat. Talvitie has suggested his appointment may have come as some form of "compensation" for the South Caucasus having been left out of the "Wider Europe" - something Tchitetchian dismisses. "Frankly, I wouldnt want to think that," he said. "The discussion on the appointment of a special envoy had been going on for four years, when there was no talk of Wider Europe or the enlargement itself was not that near so I never thought of the appointment as a compensatory measure."

Tchitetchian said Talvitie should be seen as a "catalyst," not "compensation." He pointed to the EU envoys wide mandate, and indicated that he expects Talvities first priority to be to act as a mediator, bringing about "better understanding" in the region.

The region is home to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which flared up again this summer. What little diplomatic contact there is between the countries appears to be mediated by Georgia, although Tchitetchian hinted that contacts between him and his Azerbaijani counterpart in Brussels are not completely ruled out.

Tchitetchian does not see any direct role for the EU in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict itself, however. He noted that such "delicate issues" put a premium on in-depth knowledge and expertise -- of which he says the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europes Minsk Group, presently mediating in the conflict, has plenty.

Foreign ministers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia will meet with EU officials in Brussels tomorrow (30 September). Tchitetchian noted the lunch that follows - under EU auspices -- will be one of the very few occasions where the foreign ministers from all three countries meet face-to-face.

As for Armenia's EU aspirations, Tchitetchian said the country will continue with reforms to bring it closer in line with the so-called Copenhagen criteria for all prospective EU candidates.

"Weve faced too much in the course of our history to succumb to despair that easily. But, again, what is important is the course of the reforms we undertake and the progress we make in that direction. Were not here to approach things emotionally or become desperate, frustrated, or draw early conclusions. We might or might not be talking about specific dates right now but were sure the right step will be taken sooner or later. And whatever progress we make in that direction in the meanwhile will be beneficial for us," he said.