Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, EU Vice President Josep Borrell, European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pose for photos at a meeting in Brussels on April 5. (Photo: primeminister.am)

European Union, United States Woo Armenia with Economic Assistance Package

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By Ani Avetisyan

The European Union and United States are incentivizing Armenia to maintain its westward geopolitical shift. The growing EU-US role in supporting the country’s reform efforts is drawing a predictably hostile reaction from Russia and Azerbaijan.

A meeting April 5 in Brussels involving Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen, EU Vice President Josep Borrell and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken yielded a significant assistance windfall for Armenia. The EU pledged 270 million euros (about $291 million) over four years and the US added another $65 million in aid designed to help Armenia recover from its decisive defeat in the Second Karabakh War and reduce its economic dependence on Russia.

In a joint statement, the participants affirmed a commitment to expanding cooperation across multiple political and economic spheres, including “governance, law enforcement, trade, connectivity, agriculture, energy, and technology.”

“The European Union and the United States acknowledged the substantial progress Armenia has made since 2018 on democratic and justice reforms and the fight against corruption, and expressed a commitment to continue partnering with and supporting Armenia as it further strengthens its democracy and the rule of law, in line with our shared values and principles”, the statement read.

Describing EU-Armenian relations as “increasingly aligned,” von der Leyen also praised Armenia’s efforts to combat sanctions-busting trade that helps the Kremlin prosecute its war against Ukraine. Pashinyan and other Armenian leaders in recent months have expressed interest in exploring EU accession.

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US assistance, it appears, will focus on building Armenian “resilience” following the loss of Karabakh. Specifically, Washington’s assistance will help Armenia cope with a refugee surge and withstand expected Russian pressure to prevent Armenia’s geopolitical realignment. USAID Administrator Samantha Power also attended the April 5 gathering in Brussels.

“The United States will work with Armenia to … increase cybersecurity cooperation, and expand technology infrastructure,” the joint statement noted, adding that the US is “committed to Armenia’s safe, reliable, and secure energy future and is working to support energy diversification and explore the feasibility of new civil nuclear power options.”

Armenia was a key Russian ally until 2018, when Pashinyan rose to power amid a popular uprising and proceeded to engage the EU and US as part of a reform effort to make his government more efficient and less corrupt. A turning point occurred in 2022, when, amid Azerbaijan’s push to retake Karabakh, Russia, in the eyes of many Armenians, failed to live up to security guarantees it had given Yerevan. Since then, Pashinyan has steered the country on a steady Western course.

To no one’s surprise, news of the EU-US aid package received a chilly reception in Moscow and Baku. Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement characterizing the meeting as another attempt by the “collective West” to ratchet up tension in the South Caucasus, which the Kremlin has long considered to be its geopolitical backyard. It described the aid package as “irresponsible and destructive“ while cautioning that pressing ahead with helping Armenia implement reforms could have “negative consequences.”

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, voiced concern that EU assistance for Armenia threatened to compromise Brussels’ ability to mediate a lasting peace settlement between Baku and Yerevan.

Against the backdrop of the Armenia-EU-US meeting on April 5, building pressure burst along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Both sides accused the other of ceasefire violations, with sporadic gunfire reported at multiple sections of the heavily militarized frontier.

The Armenian Defense Ministry condemned Azerbaijan’s provocative actions, alleging cross-border firing targeted at Armenian positions and civilian infrastructure.

The Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process is currently snagged on a dispute over possession of villages in disputed areas of the border. Hoping to break the deadlock, Pashinyan announced unilateral concessions to Azerbaijan, agreeing to hand over abandoned Azerbaijani villages controlled by Yerevan since the 1990s without demanding an exchange for similar Armenian areas controlled by Azerbaijan. The transfer has the potential to disrupt the ability of Armenians to travel on a highway linking Armenia to Georgia. Pipelines carrying Russian natural gas to Armenia are also located near the soon-to-be-returned villages. Pashinyan’s proposal has, accordingly, generated lots of domestic pushback from various constituencies.

With Baku unhappy about the pace of the handover, both sides now appear to be massing troops on the border. On April 6, the EU’s civilian monitoring mission in Armenia reported that the situation was “stable and calm.” (See related story on page 1.)

Back in Brussels, some influential policy voices are urging the EU to pick up the pace of its efforts to support Armenia’s reorientation. “This reorientation takes time, but it also requires the European Union to adopt a more ambitious strategy towards Armenia’s democracy,” wrote former NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in a commentary published by the French daily Le Monde.

“Europe should play a role in mediating negotiations towards a lasting peace agreement. But its approach must reflect the reality that Armenia has chosen the community of European democracies, while Azerbaijan sits in the camp of aggressive autocracies,” Rasmussen said.

(This article originally appeared in eurasianet.org on April 8.)

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