The interview was conducted by Nvard Chalikyan
Dr. Licínia Simão, PhD in International Relations, is an assistant professor at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra, Portugal. Dr. Simão is an expert on the EU foreign policy and the South Caucasus region.
– Recently we have been witnessing a growing interest of the EU in the South Caucasus: as you know Armenia and the EU are about to sign the EU-Armenia Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) as a part of the Association Agreement. Could you comment on this process and particularly on the interests of the EU in this region?
– While speaking about the interests of the EU, it is important to understand its structure – the EU is not a state (even a state has difficulties in aligning all the positions and coming up with a vision). As for the process that we are witnessing now – the Association agreement, the DCFTA, the visa liberalization issues, etc. are very much driven by the European Commission and the leadership of the Commission provides the vision that sometimes is lacking within the member states, because they are so many; so it is hard to speak about one common interest, but as long as the Commission has this vision in place and is coherent towards its neighbors, we must see some tangible results.
Of all the steps that have been taken within the Neighborhood Policy and especially the Eastern Partnership, I would say the Association Agreement is the most consolidated; it is an important step the EU has taken, so I wouldn’t see any reason why the EU would give up this project. It can have flexibility in terms of the deadline and if you look at the 6 members of the Eastern Partnership, they stand now at different points in the process of getting to this agreement, so the Commission and the other European Institutions negotiating these agreements have also used this process of negotiation to withdraw concessions from the partner states and to consolidate a closer political relationship among them, meaning that there is a strong conditionality element ongoing now which will further increase the ties between these states.
– What significant changes is DCFTA going to entail for Armenia?
– Joining the DCFTA would mean better access of Armenian products to European markets in exchange for better access of some European products to the Armenian market. For the EU the most interesting part is the ability to invest and produce in Armenia rather than the local market as such: the market in itself is not very attractive for the EU, but the investment opportunities are. It seems to be a win-win situation as Armenia does need investment and this would open ways to other markets too. There are issues here such as sanitary and quality control, as the European market is very strict in this regard and this would mean that by following some European standards Armenia may find difficulties in entering other markets but in a way also the European standards are some of the highest in the world, so if they pass these standards they will for sure be able to enter other markets.
– Do you think the Association Agreement between the EU and Armenia is going to present a major challenge to the Russian interests in the region or not? To what extent do you think the Russian concerns in this regard are justified?
– When you look at the Russian foreign policy during the last couple of years at least, since the Eastern Partnership has become more expressive in its goals and this idea of the DCFTA became also more explicit, Russia has been concerned with this, and the Eurasian Union and Customs Union are in a way prophylactic measures to avoid greater integration of these states into the EU. I think Russia is catching up on this idea that the EU’s soft power, which is economic, is not so soft; sometimes it can have a hard effect – economic integration is harder to overturn than other types of political agreements, so I think Russia woke up to that aspect of the EU foreign policy and is now genuinely concerned. If you look at what’s going on in Moldova, Ukraine and other countries, we have the similar process where Russia is clearly saying “you are either with us or against us; we have leverage over you and we will use it”. However, Russia needs to consider also the losses of such a position in terms of its overall goals in the region. In fact what places these countries in such a hard situation is the lack of genuine dialogue between the EU and Russia. Since 2007 the two actors have been unable to coordinate their positions and genuinely engage in meaningful partnership as they call it, so the fragility of EU-Russia relations is having negative spillovers.
– We frequently hear the message that Armenia is now facing a choice between the EU and Russia, while the Armenian leaders are trying to maintain the balance. Do you think it is possible for Armenia to be economically greater integrated within the EU while at the same time to keep the strategic and military alliance with Russia? Why does Armenia necessarily have to face this “either… or” choice?
– I think the Armenian government and the Armenian foreign policy has been quite wise and successful in combining its multi-vector relations. I also think that Russia’s presence in Armenia, both the military cooperation and security assurances are important for Armenia, but they are also important for Russia. So there is also a stake for Russia in terms of the potential threat of withdrawing from Armenia or creating uncertainties… Considering the context of the South Caucasus, Russia’s presence in Armenia is extremely important for Russia. So if Russia is to make such a threat it would have to consider the losses that it would have to incur itself. I think Armenian leaders know this very well and this provides a little room for Armenia to maneuver.
– And what about the EU? After the signing of the Association agreement to what extent is it possible that the EU exerts pressure on Armenia regarding her relations with Russia?
– I think the EU is genuinely concerned about this. Of course the EU would like Armenia to be more independent from Russia, but at the same time there is a very strong understanding inside the EU and in the European capitals about the difficulties that Armenia faces. The Armenian Diaspora is an active lobby always informing the European partners on why Armenia has to take the decisions it takes. I think the EU will never demand that Armenia gives up its partnership with Russia. At the same time the EU considers the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a means for Armenia to obtain a greater independence from Russian support in the military sphere. So in order for Armenia to rely less on Russia militarily, the relations between Turkey/Azerbaijan and Armenia need to be normalized. Here the EU can have a greater role; as a matter of fact you cannot integrate the country economically and lack the strategic vision for the security and political issues that the country has to deal with on daily basis. If the EU manages to have a greater impact on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process then the relations between Armenia and Russia might ultimately change towards something resembling less dependence and more cooperation.
– According to the assessment of a large number of experts the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not likely to be resolved soon. If you agree with this then what are the ways of developing the de facto NKR and promoting the well-being of its population? How can the European structures assist the NKR authorities in this process?
– It is a complicated issue for the EU. There is a US support for Karabakh, but for the EU to do something like that it has to be an official policy and the EU is not going to do it any time soon. In Georgia the EU has managed to develop a policy of engagement with the de-facto authorities of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (some small scale development projects); so in theory this is not impossible – if the EU has done it there, it could also do it here. But the development of this region will not be fostered unless they become recognized internationally (other ways of development are very limited).
– Do you see the international recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic feasible given Azerbaijan’s refusal to ever recognize it?
– It depends on the Armenian lobby. We had countries recognizing Abkhasia and South Ossetia despite the opposition of Georgia… But recognition is less important by now than the development of the framework which will bring to the resolution of the conflict.