YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Armenia can forge closer links with the European Union even after joining a Russian-led alliance of former Soviet republics, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said during a visit to Yerevan on Thursday.
Steinmeier also insisted that the conflict in Ukraine will not cause the EU and Germany in particular to lose interest in other ex-Soviet states involved in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program.
“Despite the crisis in Ukraine, which we have discussed at length, Europe is saving no effort as we believe that it is because of this kind of crises that the other Eastern Partnership countries should not be forgotten,” he said after talks with his Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian. “They are not losing their significance.”
“We want good cooperation within the Eastern Partnership framework, including with Armenia. It is essential that these good relations endure crises,” added Steinmeier.
The Eastern Partnership launched about a decade ago entitles those countries to signing far-reaching Association Agreements with the EU giving them tariff-free access to the world’s biggest single market. Armenia was on course to finalize such a deal until President Serzh Sarkisian announced in September 2013 his decision to seek membership in Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Sarkisian signed an accession treaty with the bloc on October 10.
“We respect Armenia’s decisions, including the decision to join the Eurasian Economic Union,” Steinmeier told a joint news conference with Nalbandian. “I think that Armenia doesn’t view that as an obstacle to developing and deepening relations with Europe.”
“We will continue making efforts with our European partners to create a new legal basis for Armenia-EU ties,” agreed Nalbandian. He did not clarify, though, whether Yerevan is still seeking to sign a slimmed-down version of the Association Agreement with the EU.
Armenia’s ties with the EU were also on the agenda of Steinmeier’s talks with Sarkisian held later in the day. Sarkisian’s press office said the two men further discussed German-Armenian bilateral ties and the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Visiting Baku earlier on Wednesday, Steinmeier said he is “looking forward” to Sarkisian’s fresh talks with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev that will be held in Paris next week. He reportedly expressed hope that the talks hosted by French President Francois Hollande will “melt the frozen positions” of the conflicting parties.
In Yerevan, Steinmeier also said that he “clarified” to Nalbandian Germany’s position on Western powers’ ongoing talks with Iran over the latter’s controversial nuclear program. Yerevan hopes that further progress in those talks and the resulting easing of Western sanctions against Tehran would make it easier for Armenia to deepen its already cordial ties with the Islamic Republic.
Germany is Armenia’s leading European trading partner and donor. The two countries have also significantly increased bilateral military cooperation in recent years owing to the presence of 120 or so Armenian soldiers in Afghanistan. They have been serving there under German command. Sarkisian singled out “Armenia’s productive cooperation with Germany” at a NATO summit in Wales last month.
Just days after that summit senior Armenian and German defense officials drew up a plan of joint military activities for next year. The Defense Ministry in Yerevan said they are aimed at “enhancing the existing level of interoperability” between the two countries’ armed forces.