STRASBOURG — Armenia still hopes to finalize an Association Agreement with the European Union next month despite its decision to join a Russian-led customs union, President Serzh Sarkisian said on Wednesday.

Addressing the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in Strasbourg, Sarkisian insisted on his proposal to conclude the agreement without its key free-trade component and thereby make it compatible with Armenian membership in the union.

“Even now we are ready to sign the Association Agreement with the EU,” he said. “But unfortunately, after our statement on joining the Customs Union our partners from the European Commission said that there is a direct contradiction between the Customs Union and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement [with the EU.] “We suggested that we sign an Association Agreement envisaging mainly political reforms, and we are not only ready but also determined to carry out those reforms in our country. This process is now underway.”

“We will participate at the [EU’s November] summit in Vilnius, and our expectation is to make some changes in the negotiated document by that time,” added Sarkisian.

The European Commission as well some EU member states have until now rejected the idea of signing a significantly watered-down version of the Association Agreement. Visiting Yerevan last month, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said the two sides should now start working on “a new legal framework” for their relationship. But he made clear that it is unlikely to be worked out in time for the Vilnius summit.

In a speech at the Strasbourg-based body that preceded his question-and-answer session with PACE members, Sarkisian stated that the Armenian government is keen to be “as close to Europe as possible.” “This policy will not be interrupted,” he said.

The Armenian leader went on to stress, however, that Yerevan will not seek to forge closer links with the EU “at the expense of relations with its strategic ally,” Russia. He claimed in that regard that the Kremlin did not force him to make what many analysts consider a foreign policy U-turn.

“No official from the Russian Federation or the Customs Union has said a single word about the need for [Armenian] membership in the union,” Sarkisian said. He said Armenia could not have stayed away from the Russian-led trade bloc while remaining part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization together with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Following is the full text of statement of President Sarkisian:

Mr. President,
Mr. Secretary General,
Honorable Members of the Assembly,

I am glad for this opportunity to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—our Organization that represents 800 million Europeans.

It is a particular honor and responsibility for my country to hold, for the first time ever, the Chairmanship in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. During this six-month Chairmanship, we have aspired to make a contribution to the strengthening of the European system of values as a means of confirming that Europe is a family of nations committed to common values, and not merely a geographic toponym.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A few days ago, Armenia celebrated the 22nd anniversary of her independence. The 22-year-long path of building a free and democratic state has not been easy. With Azerbaijan, which is constantly voicing war threats and forcing an arms race, Turkey, which contrary to all international rules and norms is keeping closed the shortest route connecting Armenia with the outer world for so many years have forced us to make extraordinary efforts to develop and build a modern state. Acting in a complex environment which is not comparable with the conditions of any other state, successive Armenian governments and the Armenian people have remained focused on the pursuit of substantial reforms in all the areas of our public life.

Declaration of independence was the realization of a dream held by my people for many centuries and many generations. Accession to the Council of Europe restored our historical and cultural belonging to the European family of nations. Our society has always clearly aspired to have a state system anchored in the system of European values – freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. We view our membership in the Council of Europe and our cooperation with other European organizations as an important means of consolidating democracy and carrying out effective reforms in Armenia.

The results of our joint efforts are visible and irreversible. Armenia today is a country of free speech and free media. We safeguard the freedom of assembly; civil society is vibrant and aware of its rights and ways to uphold them. These and numerous other achievements are, in my opinion, essential for our future.

Honorable Members of the Assembly,

Armenia completed three major electoral cycles in the last eighteen months. As a result of the May 2012 parliamentary elections, all significant political players in Armenia gained seats in the Parliament, making it a stronger and more viable political entity. The 2013 presidential elections were conducted in a competitive environment; the Yerevan City Council elections were held in May.

The Council of Europe sent observation missions to all three elections. The first two were observed by the Assembly, while the Yerevan City Council elections were observed by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the CE. The delegations were able to observe the elections and produce reports containing relevant recommendations. I value these reports as a candid opinion of partners interested in Armenia’s future. In this regard, I would like to mention that we have followed up on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly and other international partners regarding the organization of free and fair elections: they are being meticulously considered and acted upon by a task force created specifically for the improvement of the electoral process. In the next few days, we will hold broad public discussions with the participation of all stakeholders and the international community which will focus on the legal amendments proposed under the corresponding recommendations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We face a number of serious challenges such as unemployment, poverty, and corruption, and our government is implementing comprehensive programs to address them.

The rule of law is another priority. Equality before the law is a condition sine qua non for our economic and political advancement. The human being, human dignity, fundamental rights, and freedoms are viewed as the ultimate objectives. The state in its turn is restricted by the fundamental human and civil rights and freedoms as immediate laws. These provisions which are also enshrined in our Constitution preset the behavior of individuals and state authorities in our efforts to strengthen the rule of law and civil society.

I am confident that constitution of virtually any democratic state this way or another encompasses the idea of the rule of law. However what matters the most is its practical implementation so that the authority limited by the law becomes a rule of life. Particularly for young democracies, it requires a consistent and structured effort. It requires an independent judiciary and impartial administration of justice. In this context, I believe that the Conference on the Rule of Law and the Scope of Discretion of Powers held this July in Yerevan under the auspices of the Armenian Chairmanship in the Council of Europe generated strong interest and continued the process initiated by the UK Chairmanship.

Our country has embarked on a new stage of systemic reforms in these areas. Long-term programs are being implemented. They are all centered on the human being, as well as on the safeguards for the protection of human rights and freedoms and the creation of an environment of tolerance, pluralism, non-discrimination, justice, and mutual trust in the country.

Consolidation of democracy and respect for human rights are our other priorities, connected directly with the previous one – the rule of law. Notable achievements in this field include a number of major amendments to the Judicial Code, which enhance the transparency and fairness of the procedure for the selection of judges. We remain focused on legal aspects of the appointment of judges with a view of ensuring the complete independence of judges.

The penitentiary institutions are being modernized, and a probation service will be formed. We have developed and started the implementation of the Armenia 2012-2016 Strategic Program of Legal and Judicial Reforms, which, I am sure, will produce a judicial and legal system consistent with the standards of a democratic legal state. In this context, I attach great importance to the fully-fledged implementation of the 2012-2014 Armenia-Council of Europe Action Plan, which contains a number of important initiatives in this field.

We have registered some success, but we will not stop there. I have initiated a process of amending the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia with a view of further strengthening the constitutional safeguards for the rule of law and respect for human rights and freedoms, achievement of an appropriate balance of powers, and enhancement of the efficiency of public administration. We would be grateful if the Council of Europe supports this process, among others, through the Venice Commission.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European Union is one of Armenia’s most vital partners. Wide-scale reforms in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law make up the core of the Armenia-EU relationship. The Eastern Partnership Instrument created under the EU Eastern Partnership program in cooperation with the Council of Europe is an important initiative covering a variety of activities in the participating states related to elections, judicial reform, good governance, fight against corruption and cyber-crime.

There has recently been much talk about the civilizational choice of the countries-members of the Eastern Partnership initiative. We have always stated that we don’t believe it is right to view the issue in that dimension. Armenia aims to continue its comprehensive, mutually beneficial partnership with the EU. From the outset of the Eastern Partnership initiative and even before, we have stated and continue to state that we aspire to have the closest possible and widest possible relations with the EU, and to be close to the EU. This policy will not be terminated.

As is known, Armenia has a close allied relationship with Russia. Armenia is not building new relationships at the expense of the relationship with her strategic ally; in the same vein, we will not build relationships with other partner, which might be aimed against our other partners. We will continue to develop in parallel relationships and interests with our key partners.

Honorable Members of the Assembly,

Peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship has been and will remain our priority until we achieve a comprehensive settlement. We value the efforts of all those who support regional stability, but we also know that we must rely primarily on our own power to deter the opponent against possible negative developments and to maintain peace, especially as the leader of our neighboring state continues to make public statements threatening with war, declaring the Armenians his “enemy number one”, boasting about disproportionate increases in military spending, and the buildup of arms.

Nonetheless, I hope that the people of Azerbaijan or their significant part actually do not share this mindset. Unfortunately, those in Azerbaijan who are trying to bring up candid memories of the past, which was once shared with the Armenian people, are being publicly admonished, threatened “to have their ears cut,” and expelled from the country. Hence, the actual mood of the people of Azerbaijan is not articulated and whatever is voiced is demanded by the propaganda machine. It results in the ineffectiveness of any attempt to implement confidence-building measures.

I am confident that our peoples will have a better future than the one contemplated by some leaders who preach hatred and war. As I have already stated publicly on other occasions, I do not consider the people of Azerbaijan to be the enemy of the Armenian people. We are capable of respectfully resolving our disagreements and peacefully co-existing as neighbors.

Two days ago, my people mourned demise of Sos Sargsyan, a brilliant actor, the People’s Artist of the Republic of Armenia. The master’s last public statement was his open letter to the intellectuals of Azerbaijan, which was nothing but an appeal for peace, justice, and reason: “Are you really going to unleash a war? My dear neighbors! It will bring nothing except innocent victims. Why? It is very simple: Karabakh is a territory for you, but a Sacred Fatherland for us,” wrote the great intellectual. Indeed, we regularly appeal for sobriety and firmly claim that zealous incitement of xenophobia, unyielding threats to use force and the arms race will not do any good. Peace and cooperation are the only feasible means of building a prosperous future for the peoples of the region. It is an axiom that requires no proof.

The international experience proves that democratic societies are best placed to resolve conflicts peacefully. In the last two decades, democratic institutions have been built and continuously developed in Nagorno Karabakh. According to respectable international organizations such as the Freedom House, the level of democracy in Nagorno Karabakh is noticeably higher than in some of its neighbors.

Karabakh has been and will remain a part of Europe. Its people are a part of the European family, regardless of Karabakh’s political status. Therefore, I believe that the Council of Europe could, regardless of Karabakh’s status, initiate direct contacts with Karabakh within the framework of its pertinent functions, especially since the Council of Europe has similar experiences with respect to other conflict zones.

Dear Friends;

As Armenians, we have been destined to become advocates of the fight against genocides. Genocide is not only a heinous crime against humanity but also a striking manifestation of fascism and intolerance, as well as a grave encroachment upon the right to life. Indeed, peoples that have survived such tragedies have a distinct mission of preventing their reoccurrence. The best way to prevent atrocious crimes against the mankind is to discuss those terrible pages of history and to assess the past in the light of universal values. Fighting against the preconditions with nourish such heinous crimes is, in my opinion, is equally important.

Armenia has been taking practical steps to mobilize efforts of the international community for the prevention of genocides and combatting their root causes. For years, Armenia has been initiating various resolutions on genocide prevention in different international fora. Time and over, we have assisted the UN Human Rights Council in adopting resolutions on the prevention of genocides. The aim is to keep the international community focused on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and to remind of the commitments of the states to eliminate crimes against humanity.

Armenia has declared the fight against intolerance and propaganda inciting discrimination and hatred as priorities throughout the term of the Armenian Chairmanship in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. We consider it shameful that such practices still exist in the modern era, as well as the fact that in some countries they are being encouraged at a state level. We have to be resolute to eradicate such practices in every corner of the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our societies are undergoing major transformations and facing numerous challenges. What are our values in the 21st century? Which values prevail today? Why do extremist political currents and practices gain momentum? Why is social cohesion weakening? Why was the Council of Europe compelled to initiate the youth campaign against hate speech online? These and other questions are not easy to answer briefly. These practices are reprehensible. In the era of modern information technology, such practices can spread momentarily among millions of people. Hence, swift and adequate responses are needed. It is our duty to strengthen bridges between nations, our citizens, societies, cultures, and religions, so that the future generations inherit a much more peaceful and safer planet.

These days, we remain focused on Syria. We are deeply concerned with everything which is happening there, causing death of innocent civilians. Syria is home to several thousand Armenians who constitute an integral part of the Syrian society, and Armenia unequivocally welcomes the Russian-American understanding on the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria as well as the UN Security Council resolution adopted a few days ago.

We simply must unite our efforts for the future. We need especially to engage the younger generations in the building of our common future. They are so young, courageous, and full of energy: our societies will have a brighter future if we give them right ideas and educate them by true values enriched by freedom and democracy and free from prejudice.

As a unique Organization which defines and spreads over standards of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, the Council of Europe has a crucial mission in this process, and its role in accomplishing our common objectives must be strengthened further.

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