Rebooting Armenia: What can the Eastern Partnership Offer after the Velvet Revolution?

Rebooting Armenia: What can the Eastern Partnership Offer after the Velvet Revolution?

Last year, Armenia underwent a peaceful political transformation as people poured into the streets to protest the usurpation of power in what was dubbed a ‘Velvet Revolution’. This democratic opening offers a chance for Armenia to reboot its stalled transformation, as well as provides an opportunity for the country to reset its relationship with the EU. However, self-reflection will be required on both sides before moving forward. On its tenth anniversary this year, it may be crucial to rethink what the Eastern Partnership (EaP) is and what it is not.

Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia — Image Credits

 

Taking into consideration the peculiar dynamics that exist between the EU and Russia, a look back at Armenia’s journey through the EaP provides some food for thought. At the start of the EaP project, Armenia chose to keep a rather low profile amongst more vocal Eastern partners with membership ambitions. The rationale was not to provoke Russia, given Armenia’s security predicament and overreliance on Russia in the economic and security spheres. This was the period between 2010 and 2013 when Armenia underwent what some scholars refer to as a ‘silent Europeanization’.[1] Contrary to common wisdom, the country proved to display a high level of receptivity to EU stimuli for reform; the country underwent a vigorous approximation and harmonization with the acquis even if did not have EU membership ambitions.[2] This evidence contains a mixed message. On the one hand, it means that a country can still embark on a close partnership with the EU without wanting to accede into the Union. This should be good news for the EU whose reluctance to offer a clear membership promise to the Eastern partners is thought to have considerably curtailed the power of positive conditionality in spearheading reforms. Even without membership prospects, the Armenian elites accepted the EU as a role model for reforms and modernization, at least to a certain degree.

But there is also bad news: the Armenian administration of that time jumped into an EU integration path under the assumption that the prospective reforms would not affect major components of the country’s hybrid regime or its vested interests. The bottom line is that the reforms driven by the EU are often more technical than they are political. They are mostly about approximation and harmonization with the EU acquis, and a country can be a frontrunner on EU technical integration while lagging in true democracy and liberalization. Ukraine and Moldova, to various degrees, have fallen into similar traps, as elites with pro-EU commitments have lost the pace of progress or even backslid after a promising initial performance.

The second lesson is offered by Armenia’s Velvet Revolution. The revolution happened at a time when the EU had somewhat given up on Armenia viewing it as a lost cause. After Yerevan’s infamous U-turn of 2013, when Armenia had to abandon its long-negotiated association agreement with the EU because it had to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Armenia and the EU still managed to renegotiate and reach a new framework agreement in 2017. The new Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) was a compromise between Armenia’s membership in the EAEU and a closer partnership with the EU, allowing Armenia to keep its European anchor and stick to its European integration and reform path, even if it was less ambitious one. But if the EU’s flexibility on CEPA and the geopolitics surrounding it was a welcome move, its resignation to Armenia’s rather low democracy threshold meant that the EU could be a modernizing but not necessarily a transformative actor for the country. For example, Brussels was too soft on President Serzh Sargsyan’s pursuit of a third term in office after the Constitution was changed to make it possible for him to move from the president’s office to the prime minister's office. Such an approach, even if pragmatic from the EU’s perspective, was problematic for a country like Armenia, which had accumulated huge bottom-up democratization demand, but where the leadership did not represent its people due to the lack of free and fair elections. The question in such cases is how Brussels can balance between pragmatism and values and not end up compromising its transformative power.

Other than Armenia, recent developments in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia offer a broader picture for the EaP project. Frustrated by slow progress on reforms, during the April 2019 presidential elections, Ukrainians chose non-politician Volodymyr Zelensky over the more experienced Petro Poroshenko, whose vehement pro-EU rhetoric did not match the slow pace of reforms being implemented in the country. Just when the EU seemed to have given up on Moldova, pro-Western and pro-Russian political parties joined forces to oust a nominally pro-Western government thought to have captured the state. In addition, discontent continued in Georgia for a second summer in a row; recurring protests triggered by various issues point to broader public dissatisfaction with the status quo. These developments show that even in countries with membership aspirations where the EU is a major partner and reform-driver, the transition process underway is not sufficient for the citizens. Policymakers in the EU should draw conclusions as much as local elites across the EaP countries.

Moving forward

The good news is that the new Armenian elite possesses the political will to make reforms irrespective of any push from the EU. The Velvet Revolution reflected strong public demand for a democratic and economic transformation, and the government now must respond to the heightened expectations of its citizens. This is a challenge the Armenian government cannot face on its own. The EU’s toolkit will be of help, as the CEPA offers a broad framework for cooperation and a reform path. However, the way it is tailored to Armenia’s needs will play a key role in delivering a successful outcome. Armenia needs to undergo extensive reforms in all fields, but prioritization and concrete support in coordination with civil society will be required. Some priorities that can be pointed to, and where the EU can be of help include three urgent matters: Reforming the judiciary system, putting an effective anti-corruption policy in place and fostering economic development. In addition, there are two ‘background processes’ necessary to sustain the reform-oriented environment: Further empowering civil society and institutionalizing the political party system.

Reform of the judiciary is a pressing matter. After the Velvet Revolution, the independence and integrity of Armenian courts came under scrutiny in the context of the “1st of March” criminal case involving ex-president Robert Kocharyan. There is a broad public consensus that, notwithstanding the political changes, courts in Armenia still suffer from a lack of independence and continue to be influenced by various interest groups, not to mention the problem with petty corruption. Unless the judicial branch is reformed and gains the public’s trust, it will not become a working element in a system of government where the separation of powers functions as a vital component of democracy. The government announcement to initiate reforms in this field, including introducing a judicial integrity and verification process for judges, has already received initial support from Armenia’s international partners. Support from the EU with advice and expertise would help ensure that the vetting or verification process, whatever form it eventually takes, is carried out in a just manner and actually serves its purpose rather than exacerbate the situation. The EU and other partners can help the Armenian government develop a roadmap for the reform of the judiciary. The roadmap should ensure that the body carrying out the verification process is independent, impartial and adheres to high professional standards. In addition, clear criteria must be laid out for the evaluation of the judges, as well as a monitoring body comprised of civil society representatives and international experts that will be tasked with carrying out oversight of the process.

Another issue is the government’s anti-corruption policy. Following the Velvet Revolution, there seems to be political will at the highest leadership level to combat corruption. But resistance at lower levels of public service remains and needs be addressed via a solid anti-corruption strategy, increased transparency within the public sector and broader anti-corruption education geared towards the public. The Armenian government is currently in the process of developing an anti-corruption policy and a designated body to coordinate its implementation. The EU and other partners are already helping with money and expertise, and Armenia’s civil society is part of the process through representation in the anti-corruption body. But as seen in some other EaP countries, losing the pace during the anti-corruption drive is easy. The EU could use its lessons learned from elsewhere to ensure Armenia does not repeat others’ mistakes. Beyond the anti-corruption bodies and laws that penalize corruption, opening the political and economic space for fair play and competition will be crucial.  In all EaP countries separating money and politics has been the most difficult task and one that the EU toolkit does not always cover. Furthermore, the need to reform the public service sphere towards competition and meritocracy should not be overlooked.

A key aspect to the EU’s support for the Armenian government is ensuring that the proper legislative and institutional changes solidify the democratic transformation currently underway in Armenia and that it is not only based on political will. For example, to ensure the irreversibility of democratic elections, a reformed electoral system should be in place so that free and fair elections do not depend on the goodwill of the authorities – whoever comes to power next. The same logic applies to transformations in all other fields.

The next challenge is economic development which, in the case of Armenia, requires foreign direct investment (FDI). Even though barriers to market entry have been removed, some of the businesses that formerly enjoyed monopolistic control still hold structural advantages on the market. FDI has not flown in expected volumes partly because of Armenia’s geographic constraints but also because the major reforms necessary to improve the business environment, such as developing an impartial judiciary or adopting anti-corruption legislation, still must be carried out. Nevertheless, the Armenian government also expects that its EU partners will, in turn, prioritize and promote trade and business links to facilitate Western investment in Armenia. Investment in building and the renovation of infrastructure is crucial. To help both economic development and regional cooperation, the EU could help further in improving and developing road and infrastructural links between Armenia and Georgia to increase the transit capacity between the two countries and to support the tourism sector. As Armenia and Georgia seek to boost economic and energy cooperation, this may be a good time for a further needs assessment by Yerevan and Tbilisi to identify where Brussels could be of help.

Support in establishing forums and platforms for the exchange of best practices in public policy-making and reform for Eastern Partnership countries, both at the level of public service professionals and civil society, could be another useful tool and one that would partly address the lack of cooperation within the EaP.

As is usually the case, the Armenian revolution too has seen scores of civil society members move to the government and parliament. This is good and bad at the same time. On the one hand, civil society expertise is invested in public service, and the links that have emerged between the government and civil society means that the latter can have a say in public policymaking. But losing people from among its ranks also means that Armenian civil society still needs support from actors like the EU in order to fill in the gaps and be better equipped to carry out both its watchdog function and provide input to the reform process the state is undergoing. Other deficiencies that pertain to the civil society sector, which include the lack of links with the wider public, capacity-related issues, and donor-driven agenda setting, are yet to be overcome.

The institutionalization and democratization of the political party system is a need largely overshadowed by other pressing matters. Armenia’s political party system, and with it the parliamentary system, remains fragile. For now, the ruling My Step alliance continues to enjoy high popularity after having secured a landslide victory during the December 2018 Parliamentary Elections winning the absolute majority of the votes. The consensus around post-revolution reform and transformation keeps individuals in the group with often divergent political beliefs together for now. Once this popularity slumps, PM Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party will find itself in need of building resilience. Other parties represented in parliament still struggle to carve out their place within the political framework of post-revolutionary Armenia. Prior to the revolution, and against the backdrop of a marginalized and deserted political party field, civic movements and other civil society groups had been the dominant drivers of change in the country. The revolution succeeded as a result of a fusion between civil society groups and a political force that led the process. The role of civil society remains crucial in the democratic transformation of Armenia, but for Armenia to transform into a proper parliamentary democracy, political parties should be the major drivers of change – with civil society reverting back to its watchdog role and function. Overcoming personalistic politics and moving towards the institutionalization of the political system remains crucial for the development of a consolidated democracy. The EU has not quite prioritized this field for support in the past, but it can now initiate or fund the capacity building and political dialogue initiatives to help develop the field. Individual EU member-states with developed parliamentary systems could be of help too.

The elephant in the room

Notwithstanding the new avenues of cooperation and increase in EU financial assistance to Armenia, Yerevan is not witnessing the kind of political and financial support that the West has poured into post-revolutionary Georgia and Ukraine. One reason is that Armenia’s bottom-up democratization push emerged unexpectedly for everyone, and the EU’s heavy bureaucratic machine has not been able to keep up. But the unspoken fact is that Armenia’s democratic transformation is happening without the country’s foreign policy reorientation towards the West. This is a new phenomenon for the EU, now compelled to respond to the democratic ambition of a country which remains in Russia’s ‘zone of influence’ and at a time when EU capitals seek to avoid further possible tension with Russia.

The expectation from within Armenia – from both the political elite and the wider public – has been that the liberal West, or what is left of it, would help make this revolution a success: now that Armenians have helped themselves out of the quagmire they were in, it is time for the EU to double down on the bet. Russia, for its part, is also compelled to be flexible on Armenia-EU relations, as it also is seeking to contain the tension with the West and even re-engage with it. Russia’s blocking powers remain, but Yerevan and Brussels should keep an open mind to new avenues of cooperation. The EU should be cautious not to confirm the suspicion that its ‘more for more’ principle is less about democratic ambition than it is about Euro-Atlantic aspirations or a hostage to the Russia factor. The prospect of a democratic and resilient Armenia is by definition good news for the liberal West. And in Armenia, the Eastern Partnership and CEPA are now largely viewed through the prism of how they can help the revolution’s next stage succeed. Armenia has the ambition to go beyond ‘technical Europeanization’, and this may provide Brussels an opportunity to test the EU’s normative/transformative power further. The EU needs more ambition to support a sustainable reform process in its Eastern neighborhood.

Certainly, there are also lessons for Armenia from across the Eastern Partnership and from its own recent past: that the political will to reform should be paired with the daunting task of institutional development which is a never-ending process; that the EU’s largely technical support will prove helpful only if there are dedicated reformers at every level of the power pyramid; and finally, that Armenia may still at times find itself alone on the journey it has embarked upon. In light of this, the timely implementation of CEPA provides a test of how serious Yerevan is in its commitment to reform. If CEPA records a success, it can catapult Armenia-EU relations to the next level and set the stage for a more ambitious agenda in the future.

 

[1] Laure Delcour&KatarynaWolczuk (2015) The EU’s Unexpected ‘Ideal Neighbour’? The Perplexing Case of Armenia’s Europeanisation, Journal of European Integration, 37:4, 491-507, DOI: 10.1080/07036337.2015.1004631

[2] See, for example, Eastern Partnership annual Index calculating progress in integration from 2012 (http://www.eap-index.eu/sites/default/files/EaP%20Index%20%202012.pdf) and 2013 (http://www.eap-index.eu/images/Index_2013.pdf)

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