Internet Press Conference with Erika Lerner

David Stepanyan, Arminfo news agency - www.arminfo.am (Armenia)
 
1. Russia actively takes part in the recently events, occurring in Ukraine that is striving for Association. Meanwhile, with regard to Georgia which initialed the AA with the EU, no such scenario is being considered. What do you think the reasons for this situation are?
 
- I do not agree with your statement. As before here is a conflict between two camps in Ukraine: between those who see their future with Russia, and those who cannot imagine their future with Russia and therefore, they want to leave for Europe. Among Ukrainian Europeans, demanding a change of the regime these days, there are many nationalists. These people are the especially active ones in the crowd. They can hardly be blamed for having relations with Russia; therefore, Russia has no particular role in these events. But the situation was actually spurred by Yanukovich’s appeal to Russia for a loan. The EU was also ready to lend to Ukraine, but apparently, the conditions of the EU were not approved by the President. This was what caused an explosion to the already boiling cauldron.
 
Unlike Ukraine, Georgia is not getting torn between Russia and the EU. It does not trade its position on the “Who will pay more” principle. Russia has a plenty of problems, and it does not need to get involved in the problems of the neighboring countries. On the other hand, Russia should have refused to give out the loan, and thus Ukraine would have remained in peace.
And I want to remind you that officially, even after receiving the Russian loan, Ukraine did not refuse the association with the EU, it merely postponed its signing and continued negotiations. So, Ukraine and Georgia are equal in terms of their overall strategy, and the political influence of Russian loan seems minimal.
 
2. Recently Ilham Aliyev has yet again declared about Baku’s unwillingness to head for the AA and DCFTA with the EU. What is the motivation of this position, considering, that practically all Azerbaijani export of energy resources arrives in Europe?
 
- Azerbaijan is in such a favorable position that it does not have to prove anything to anyone. No matter how loudly apprehensions that the oil will soon come to its end sound or evaluations are given that there is no democracy in that country…So far, the situation has been in favor of Azerbaijan; it can afford to select the appropriate format for cooperation. Signing the Association Agreement and the DCFTA presumes certain obligations, and Baku thinks that it is not yet beneficial to have any relations with the EU, for at the moment Azerbaijan will owe something to the EU, and the latter will control its economy. So far, the EU has been dependent on the Azerbaijan export, and Baku cannot let anyone control its oil.
 
3. What are the European prospects for Armenia after the promulgation of its intention to join the Customs Union?
 
- As I have already mentioned above, the EU will try to demonstrate in every possible way that Yerevan should not have chosen Eurasian integration. New programmes may be offered. By the way, one should not forget that Armenia’s intention to join the CU is so far a mere intention. The recent developments with President S. Sargsyan suddenly announcing the decision to join the CU prove that it would be more preferable not to make any assumptions until the actual admission or a signed agreement. As for the prospects for Armenia when inside the CU, much depends on the specific economic conditions it will join the CU on. However, there are no discussions on this specific topic in Yerevan yet.
 
4. In the recent weeks, there have been daily shootouts on the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Karabakh-Azerbaijani borders, where civilians, apart from the military, happen to be victims as well. In your opinion, what is the reason for the aggravation of the situation? And why shouldn’t the USA, France and Russia, invested with the OSCE mandate and engaged in the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, interfere?
 
- The situation on the specified borders is periodically heating up. OSCE can interfere in this issue only by diplomatic methods, that is with calls and statements which are not perceived seriously by the parties. A military or most likely, an actual intervention in the control of tension is feasible only if the facts of the ceasefire regime violation develop into a serious confrontation, even if it proves to be a short-term hostility. Probably, a decision on the introduction of peacekeepers will be made, but there are no guarantees for the victims to become fewer. The Karabakh conflict is risked to turn into something like the Israeli-Palestinian one. Besides, I am not sure that France and the USA will definitely take Armenia’s side. Their attitude towards the conflict in Syria shows that, first of all, they can change their positions, and secondly, they are not necessarily supportive of the Syrian authorities. And yet, France has historically been closer to Syria than to Armenia.
 
Natig Javadli, Bizim Yol newspaper - www.bizimyol.az (Azerbaijan)
 
1. Which of the three countries of South Caucasus is the closest to European integration? I mean the Eastern Partnership programme.
 
- If we consider that Georgia has initialed the Association Agreement, then, this is the country, closest to European integration. The leaders have periodically been changed since the existence of this programme, but the main tendency has remained stable with Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. Apart from this, Georgia is more open in economy and politics, compared to its neighboring countries. This pertains to the accessibility of the market, political openness, both competition conditions and the western standards of business, public management and administration. It is important to remember that Georgia does have local and autonomous government. Therefore, undoubtedly, Georgia is the leader in Transcaucasia.
 
2. Armenia did not sign the Association Agreement with the EU, but it accepted Russia’s offer to join the Customs Union. Azerbaijan did neither. How can it delay the European integration of these two countries?
 
- If we perceive European integration as an ultimate goal, that is admission to the EU, these prospects were so vague that it would be wrong to talk about it in the next decades. They simply do not exist. Both countries chose the most favorable format: Armenia entrusted itself to Russia with the latter being burdened with Armenia’s support costs, while this would never happen with the EU. But I have not seen Russia’s invitation to Armenia to join the CU. Things may be described just the other way round in that note. And Azerbaijan tries to show its independence from integration associations, realizing all its economic benefits. So, there is no need to think of European integration yet.
 
3. Russia puts pressure in the process of the European integration of South Caucasus. How can it affect the delay in the European integration process?
 
- This judgment is incorrect. Armenia’s willingness to join the Customs Union was not resulted by the pressure, applied by Russia onto Transcaucasia. This is a double-sided medal. Our European experts and even politicians make a serious mistake that is repeated by and within the expert circles in the countries of Transcaucasia: it is too early to speak about that region as a whole, as an entity. This is not a united organism. The unity of Transcaucasia is only formal. That is why it is not correct to speak of the integration of the region, it would be better to focus on integration into the European structures of every country, taken separately. And these countries in the best case will have to face the destiny of being permanent candidates for the integration into the EU, as Turkey has been for a while. We should not forget that the region has recently experienced three wars, and they may not be over yet. Such a situation is s problem even for NATO that usually goes parallel with the EU integration. I can even say it radically that if there were no wars in Transcaucasia in the last 20 – 25 years, this region would have long become a collective member of NATO and the EU. Now time has come for us to look for the real causes that prevented these developments.
 
Artak Barsegyan, Public Radio of Armenia – www.armradio.am (Armenia)
 
1. How do you see future relations between Armenia and the EU in the light of the decisions made during the Eastern Partnership Vilnius Summit?
 
- The Summit of the Eastern Partnership in Vilnius confirmed the willingness of the EU to continue cooperation with Armenia. The relations between these parties will develop and perhaps, they will reach the level promised to Yerevan, in case the Association Agreement was signed. I will repeat myself saying that there is no reason for punishing Armenia for its willingness to join the Customs Union. The EU itself is a major economic partner to Russia and the CU. If the EU needs to show to Yerevan that the latter was wrong in choosing the Eurasian route, the punishment will be in the political, rather than economic realm. But the CU is not currently a political organization and even theoretically the Eurasian Union is not a political organization. Armenia has great potential for developing political relations with the EU, but I will repeat myself, in Yerevan there are no discussions over the content of Armenia’s political relations with the EU.
 
2. Does Brussels have a specially designed policy in relation to Armenia? 
 
- Brussels has no specially designed policy for Armenia. To Brussels Armenia is one of the Transcaucasia countries, one of the six Eastern Partnership member states. As a separate country Armenia is not of any major interest, so that a special policy needs to be designed for it. And it is right to speak not of the quality of Brussels’ policy led towards Armenia, but about the quality of Armenia’s policy towards Brussels. This is exactly what I am interested in professionally.
 
3. Do you think the EU has intentions to strengthen its presence in South Caucasus in the coming years?
 
- The EU still has too many internal problems to seriously discuss this issue. Hypothetically, such a development is quite  possible. But it will be difficult for the EU to compete with the still prevailing pro-Russian moods. Ensuring the EU military and peacekeeping presence in the conflict zones in the region would be a great step, but to what extent are the two parties ready to do that? Are people in Armenia and Karabakh ready to accept peacekeepers from the EU? If they are not, is it possible to speak about its strengthening?
 
Marine Martirosyan, Hetq online newspaper-www.hetq.am (Armenia)
 
1. Ms. Lerner, what political expectations does Europe have from the Caucasus, particularly from Armenia, considering Armenia’s declaration about its intention to join the Customs Union?
 
- The Government of Armenia made a very beneficial decision. Apparently, Russia could give more to Armenia than the EU. We cannot approve it because we do not know anything about the reasons which affected President Sargsyan’s decision. Oddly enough, he did not try to explain his decision to the public. We have also noticed that President Sargsyan does not like to communicate with the press: during his presidency we have been notified only about three-four press conferences, and he has made a few more announcements during his meetings with foreign guests. That is, there is no such tradition in Armenia to address the people on the radio, appear on television or be interviewed by newspapers. The EU does not expect anything from Armenia. There were some unfulfilled expectations. Now, perhaps, the EU will simply wish to diplomatically demonstrate that Armenia’s decision was incorrect. Nobody is going to punish Armenia. The EU is now completely absorbed in the problems with Moldova and Ukraine and meanwhile, it is satisfied with the cooperation with Georgia. Therefore, the worst punishment for Armenia will be, perhaps, the lack of EU’s attention towards Yerevan. We are more interested in what Yerevan wants to offer to Brussels, what award can be promised and given for Armenia to be allowed into the European family of democracies.
 
2. What is the role of the CU in our region? What is the driving force of creating this union?
 
 - Any Customs Union is intended to facilitate foreign trade and economic activity among its participants. Almost identical to what was planned within the Eastern Partnership, but was not realized because of the well-known situation in your region and the facts of its history. The Customs Union, that will bring together Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, is not an exception either. Duty-free trade and open markets support a more rapid development for the countries involved. Apart from this, those involved in the foreign economic activities of union member states have more space to maneuver and more freedom, including the choice of the country for customs clearance, submission of a declaration on goods import, tax payments and business initiatives.
 
As you know, the Customs Union projects between Georgia and Armenia, and Georgia and Azerbaijan, proposed during Saakashvili’s presidency, were not realized. Now, after Georgia’s withdrawal to the EU economic control zone, only two projects can be considered as alternatives to the CU with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan: the Customs Union of Turkey and Azerbaijan, and the CU of Armenia and Iran.
 
3. Who is the author of the Ukrainian scenario? What developments can take place on Maidan?
 
- The only person responsible for those events in Ukraine is the President and the Estabishment. Being aware of the moods in his country at a time when he had himself contributed to the probable split of the country with his own policy, a single spark would be enough for things to blow up. The situation heated so much that we already speak about victims on Maidan, and today President Yanukovich is making concessions: he has offered the oppositionists the positions of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, agreed to grant amnesty to the detainees from Maidan.
 
It is hard to say what Yanukovich was guided by, bringing the situation down to the limit. Oddly enough, no water cannons were immediately used for the dispersal of the protesters. This method has recently been effectively applied in Turkey, and considering the cold winter in Kiev, it would work there even faster. By the way, it seems as if in Armenia water cannons were not used for meeting dispersals in February 2008. As a result, there were victims both among the opposition and law-enforcement forces.
 
The situation in Ukraine is quite complex. The Prime Minister of Poland has already warned about the possible collapse of the country. This will lead to serious consequences for the whole region.
 
Aydin Kerimov, Novoye Vremya newspaper – www.novoye-vremya.vom (Azerbaijan)
 
1. Do you consider the refusal of Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement with EU to be the reason for the present unrests in Kiev?
 
- The protesters in Maidan went into the street with these very mottos. They called for signing the agreement instead of suspending it. Negative sentiments were aggravated after Russia honoured the Ukrainian President’s request for a credit. This resulted in demands for resignation of the government. Hence, the postponement of the signing agreement onto a later date was rather an excuse than the main reason.
 
2. The President of Azerbaijan stated that Azerbaijan was not happy with an EU association status. What is your opinion on this?
 
- The President of Azerbaijan thus demonstrates the special position of his country as compared not only with the other countries in the region, but also with other CIS countries. President Aliev is well conscious of the fact that association with the EU may take many decades, but at the same time he drops a hint that his country is not going to be a candidate for association, waiting long at the threshold. The present interest of Europe in energy resources from Azerbaijan allows President Alyev to keep to such a policy: the main goal of this interest is the diversification of energy resources providers to the EU market. It goes without saying that Azerbaijan’s share in this market is not that big, and that removal of sanctions from Iran makes this share even smaller, but there are still enough resources to ensure Azerbaijan’s special route to the West.
 
3. Who from among the six Eastern Partnership member states is EU going to sign a full association agreement with?
 
-Probably Moldova. If Romania doesn’t manage to have gulped it by that time.  This country is going to do away with its statehood with surprising perseverance. Now when new countries arise, histories are rewritten and some countries are recorded to be seen older than they are, Moldova is easily doing away with its long history and language in favour of Romania, which has long been implementing the policy of Romanization of Moldovans.
 
Armen Minasyan, panorama.am (Armenia)
 
1. Armenia’s and Ukraine’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the EU was regarded by Brussels as a result of pressure applied by the Kremlin. However there is an opinion that the EU has its share of guilt as well in that it denied a combination of European and Eurasian integration processes and refused to ensure guarantees in the sphere of economy and security, thus making the countries face a dilemma.  How well is this opinion substantiated?
 
- Deputy Foreign Minister of Armenia was the first to officially speak about pressure applied by the Kremlin onto Armenia three weeks before the 3rd of September. The pressure applied by the Kremlin was also touched on at the summit in Lithuania by Yanukovich himself. This is why it is clear that Brussels can in no way have doubts in the official statements of Armenia and Ukraine. Armenia and Ukraine wanted to get the utmost from Brussels giving the least possible in return. The EU is not accustomed to such an attitude. The EU is not Russia which can readily provide a credit to a “brother nation” just to help. In case of Armenia, the situation was somewhat different. Surprisingly enough, in Armenia it was considered that once a country expressed willingness to sign an Association Agreement with EU, the latter had to offer something in return. For instance, secure its safety instead of Russia or contribute to opening the border with Turkey. This is absurd. The EU cannot and must not secure the realization of these ungrounded demands. For any country association with EU is a gift, a historical chance, a prize, an invitation to take a higher stage and adopt European values. How can a pupil require any payment from the teacher for his own learning? This is nonsense. That is why initialling failed. On top of that, the EU is not an ATM to which you can turn to at any moment; one should pay for help and first of all by the results of one’s own progress.
 
2. Why does the West show such resentment when Russia pursues its interests in the post-Soviet area where it has always had a domineering position. Isn’t it doing the same, being away from these territories?
 
- It is in the nature of things. Everyone has his/her own apprehension of global law order, and struggle for power has been there since the world was created. Russia doesn’t approve the domineering of the EU and the USA, just as the EU and the USA don’t approve of the domineering of Russia in any country or in any sphere. The EU is not situated far from the territories where it wants to displace Russia from. On the contrary, it is adjacent to them: Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. If we speak of Transcaucasia, it is not a territory the EU is ready to struggle for. There will be no resistance, especially so, since Georgia is on its long way towards European integration without any internal shocks. It will not be possible to create competition in the region between the West and Russia: Georgia is on its way to the West, Azerbaijan sees its future with the West, Armenia participates in the EU and NATO programs as well. If Russia is willing to support Armenia’s economy, it is Russia’s choice.
 
3. Has the policy of Russia in South Caucasus changed after the Summit in Vilnius, and if so, what is it manifested in concretely?
 
- In contrast with the EU which regards Transcaucasia as an organic whole, Russia has no such illusions; this is why it builds its relations differently with any of these countries: partnership with Azerbaijan, patronage with Armenia, nostalgic relations with Georgia. It would not be right to divide the policy of Russia into periods: before and after the Summit. From the Caucasian point of view, the Summit in Vilnius was not anything to change Russia’s policy.
 
4. After the Summit, fears were voiced in Vilnius that the “Eastern Partnership” program had outlived itself: 2 countries out of 4 did not sign major agreements, differences became more stark, interest in energy resources made the EU go for double standards. In the given context, what is your apprehension of the European integration prospects for South Caucasus?
 
- If by European integration we mean the resultant gain – admission into the EU, there are no such prospects.  European experts and even politicians are making a serious mistake that is repeated by and within the expert circles in the countries of Transcaucasia: it is too early to speak about that region as a whole, as an entity. This is not a united organism. The unity of Transcaucasia is only formal. That is why it is not correct to speak of the integration of the region, it would be better to focus on integration into the European structures of every country, taken separately. The reality is such. Nowadays the Eastern Partnership program is being criticized a great deal but it should be admitted that these very Eastern Partnership standards ensure association with the EU for Georgia and Moldova and very soon Ukraine as well. The economies of Azerbaijan and Armenia are too closed for these standards, that is why they chose another way out.
 
Tarana Kyazimova, Turan news agency – www.contact.az (Azerbaijan)
 
1. What is the estimated level of South Caucasus countries’ preparedness for European integration?
 
- Transcaucasia is not prepared for European integration. Firstly, this is not an organic whole but three different countries with different levels of economic and political development. The unity of Transcaucasia is only formal. That is why it is not correct to speak of the integration of the region, it would be better to focus on the integration of every country, taken separately, into the European structures. And these countries in the best case will have to face the destiny of being permanent candidates for the integration into the EU, as Turkey has been for a while.
 
2. What is the role played by Russia’s resistance and military presence in Armenia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia (that declared their independence from Georgia) in the process of European integration of the region?
 
- As we are not speaking about the region but every single country in isolation, hence we shall speak about Armenia and not Georgia. The EU will hardly admit into its members a country with two de facto detached territories. As a rule, EU members are also members of NATO. That is why hypothetically if Armenia is offered the opportunity of becoming a member of the EU, it will not be able to remain in another defense union – the CSTO. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine how the military forces of a third country might be dislocated in the territory of the EU. On the other hand, the Russian forces in Armenia will in no way influence the hypothetical European prospects of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
 
3. How realistic is Azerbaijan’s signing a special agreement on strategic partnership with the EU beyond “Eastern Partnership” framework, taking into consideration the development of the energy cooperation between Baku and Europe?
 
– It is as real as the signing of an Association Agreement. It is a matter of bilateral relations. Baku has the power to define the conditions for economic cooperation. Today, Baku is in the most favorable position from among all the countries in Transcaucasia. But it should be borne in mind that it goes only to the economic sphere, as far as the political sphere is concerned, the demands of the EU from Baku are and will be such that today’s Baku will not agree to them.
 
4. Is the EU able to have an impact on the democratization processes in Azerbaijan and Armenia in the near future?
 
- The EU is trying to do something by allocating funds for reforming the legislations and judicial systems, but the situation remains unchanged. Laws change but there is no practice of law enforcement. Signals of violations and lawlessness of officials are constant. Monopolists dictate the conditions in the market. The situation is complicated. The EU can just go on exerting but it will be unable to change the situation. Besides, it is common knowledge in the EU that the government will change in Armenia in 2018, but in Azerbaijan it will not.
 
Gagik Bagdasaryn, Novosti Armenii News Agency – www.newsarmenia.am (Armenia)
 
1. Good afternoon, Erika. What is the reason for the activation of the Azerbaijani military at the border with Armenia and Karabakh?  What does Azerbaijan pursue by these steps?
 
- As far as I can judge from the information provided by the mass media in Armenia and Azerbaijan, today’s more and more frequent facts of breach of suspension of arms do not stand out much as compared with violations which took place in the past. There is nothing new in what is going on now. There were losses among the peaceful population during fires before as well. In all likelihood, such actions pursue only a single purpose, that is – to show that the war has not ended yet. As to the far-reaching purpose of this demonstration, it is a matter of a different analysis. Both conflicting parties have assertions of preparedness for a successful war ready in their arsenal.
 
2. It is known that Armenia refused to initial the Association Agreement with the EU, while Georgia signed it. Do you expect that the differences in the region will become starker, considering the integration of the two countries in the region into two different geopolitical projects?
 
- On the one hand, Transcaucasia cannot be split further, it is already divided. It is another issue that Georgia is a connecting link in the region, responsible for connecting both Armenia and Azerbaijan. That is why relations with Georgia are valued both in Yerevan and Baku. But in contrast with Armenia, which tries its best to interest Georgia and only show all the beneficial sides of partnership, Azerbaijan offers and engages in real projects. Georgia’s association with the EU and the probable integration of Armenia into the Customs Union will sooner entail some changes in the customs regime of the countries of the region. But it will hardly affect the economy of Armenia in any way. The European market will not be closed for Armenia. No one will forbid trading through the ports in Georgia. From the political point of view the dividing lines come out and disappear without any dependence on the participation of the countries in economic and international projects; that is why it is safe to say that Transcaucasia is being divided not by Europe and Russia but by the hopes and aspirations the countries in Transcaucasia connect with them. It should not be left out that the European Union is a major foreign economic partner for Russia and consequently the Customs Union, as a whole.
 
3. Is it possible that the EU will tighten its policy towards Yerevan after the decision to integrate into the Customs Union? 
 
- I don’t think so. The EU will not benefit from it. There is no reason for punishing Armenia for its willingness to join the Customs Union. If the EU needs to show to Yerevan that the latter was wrong in choosing the Eurasian route, it will on the contrary facilitate, liberalize relations with Armenia. Somehow this is in progress. Since 1 January, 2014, after Armenia had announced its plans to join the CU, one of the major countries of Central-Western Europe opened its job market for the citizens of Armenia. I think that such steps will become more frequent. It is difficult to assume what it will bring about in the end. Besides, it should be taken into account that the EU will not be able to economically separate the CU from Armenia in the future. It will become a united customs territory.
 
4. Will the West make an attempt to put “its representative” as the head of Armenia at the nearest presidential elections? Is this realistic?
 
I do not think that the West will interfere with the private affairs of Armenia. Modern post-war history of Armenia certifies that it is not expedient either for the West or Russia to insert its representatives, let alone get involved in the long pre-electoral period of resistance.  Our experience of cooperation with the Government of Armenia comes to prove that agreement is possible with them. This means that it is of no use to make expenditures on some candidate, whom other people can dissuade later on. Both the West and Russia work with Armenia per situation. As a last resort everyone can recall the relations the West maintained with Ukraine and Yanukovich.
 
5. Do you assume that the opening of the Abkhazian railway sector is realistic in the near future? 
 
- This issue is as difficult as that of the Karabakh conflict resolution. It is difficult to assume who is more interested in it and what for. The issue of the railway is periodically raised in Georgia which comes to testify to the peaceful sentiments among the ruling circles of the country. This theme is circulated by the Armenian side as well. This issue serves as an opportunity for Yerevan to show its diplomatic abilities in “reconciling” Russia and Georgia. But it is necessary to reconcile Abkhazia, rather than Russia and Georgia, which like Karabakh has a status of an independent entity. And what are Armenia’s direct arguments for Abkhazia? Do they think in Armenia that they may ask Russia to exert pressure on Abkhazia, just as some people think they may ask Armenia to exert pressure on Karabakh? It seems very complicated.

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