The EU Delegation is ready to provide its moral support to the anti-corruption CSO coalition

“The most important thing in the fight against corruption is political will. If there is political will by the political class, in particular, the ruling elites, then you can achieve progress” – this is the firm belief of the Head of the EU Delegation to Armenia, Ambassador Świtalski. In his interview with Iravaban.net, he advised the Government and civil society to make simple steps: “Armenia doesn’t have to spend much time studying possibilities and making feasibility studies. It is simply the question of taking the right political decisions at the top and telling all relevant people and institutions, “We have to do it.” This is very simple”. Below we set out the Ambassador’s interview in full.

– Can we start with the Riga Process – can this be seen as the beginning of a new platform for EU-RA cooperation?

– We can say that there are three platforms where the European Union is pursuing the deepening of relations with Armenia. One, the most generic platform, is the Neighborhood Policy. As you know, quite recently the European Union has adopted a review of the Neighborhood Policy. As we are talking, the Council adopted conclusions on this review, and this review offers new possibilities also for Armenia to deepen relations with the European Union. We hope very much that next year we will be able to start a dialogue between the European Union and Armenia on partnership priorities, a politically binding document which would develop an agenda for EU-Armenia relations.

– The second platform is Eastern Partnership. You referred to the Riga document, and indeed, Eastern Partnership is an important tool in promoting relations between the European Union and Armenia. Since Riga, the Eastern Partnership is based on the assumption that the partners in Eastern Europe and South Caucasus adopted different strategic choices. Three of them are on the association path: Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova. Armenia and Belarus are part of the Eurasian Economic Union. Azerbaijan is not yet member of the Eurasian Economic Union and it is not interested in the association process. So the Eastern Partnership will be a regional programme but tailored to the choices made by individual members, including Armenia, but its main focus will be the promotion of regional cooperation and in a very flexible format.

– The third platform is the bilateral relationship between the European Union and Armenia. Last week, as you know, we started negotiations on a new framework agreement. The framework agreement will constitute a legal basis for our relations. So, in fact, we have three mutually reinforcing platforms: neighborhood as the most general platform of politically binding commitments and actions; we will have Eastern Partnership promoting regional cooperation, regional measures, and a bilateral legally binding framework.

– Since the EU Foreign Affairs Council has given permission to the Commission to begin negotiations on a new framework agreement with Armenia, I want to understand: What should we expect from this process – will it give new opportunities to Armenia? In what way will the new negotiations differ from the previous Association Agreement?

– The negotiations on a new framework agreement were launched last week on the 7th of December with the participation of the Foreign Minister Nalbandyan and High Representative Mogherini. I can say that it was a good start. The parties agreed on a schedule of sessions for 2016. They started negotiating the contents of the agreement and significant progress was made. In particular, as far as sectoral cooperation is concerned, but also on the political chapter, very important progress was made at the first session. What is the difference between the new agreement and the Association Agreement? There is a difference in the political logic of the agreement. The Association Agreement was based on approximation, it was made on the assumption that Armenia will be coming closer and closer to the European Union. The new agreement is not based on this logic. We hope, and this is the hope expressed both by the European Union and Armenia, that the political part, including the part relating to the values will not differ from the text negotiated during the association talks. So you will be able to benefit from all the assets of the political dialogue and cooperation, as envisaged in the previously negotiated agreement. The main difference will concern the trade part. It will not be possible for the reasons that Armenia is now a part of the Eurasian Economic Union to discuss and to agree, for instance, on tariffs, because Armenia is no longer in a position to discuss tariffs. But otherwise, I hope that the substance of the Agreement negotiated before Vilnius two years ago, will be preserved.

– This time, are each side’s demands clearly set out, and is there no fear on the EU side that this attempt to bring Armenia closer to the EU could again fail, as happened in September 2013?

– The main dilemma for Armenia is how to reconcile its commitments and obligations from the Eurasian Economic Union with its aspirations to have a closer relationship with the European Union. The European Union made clear in recent months that it will not be possible to subordinate the new agreement to Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. If the Armenian partners decided to pursue this line, I’m afraid there would be not much progress in the negotiations on the framework agreement. The European Union will accommodate its policy to the choice of Armenia. We conduct the new negotiations in good faith. It is, we believe, that both sides want to reach a constructive conclusion by the end of the road. And I hope that the Armenian side will, as the European Union, show full determination to reach constructive finalization of the talks. It’s not up to me to judge what is the margin of maneuver for the Armenian side. You must ask people in the Foreign Ministry who is responsible for the conduct of negotiations.

– I understand that in 2016 the EU will be providing 23 mln EUR in assistance to Armenia. What sectors will be developed, and, in your opinion, what successes will we have in those sectors? Will it help Armenia’s economy to become more open and competitive? Will it help to increase investment from EU member states?

– Annually the European Union provides overall more than 50 mln EUR to Armenia. As you said, more than half of it goes through direct budget support: the European Union transfers money directly to the budget of Armenia. Our priorities concerning development assistance are clear and the European Union is number one international donor in Armenia. You mentioned the importance of a good business climate. It’s one of our priorities, and a considerable portion of the assistance, probably more than 10 mln, will be devoted to creating a better business environment in Armenia, including support to small and medium-sized enterprises. This priority is in line with the strategic goal of stabilization, as promoted by the European Neighborhood Policy. On Wednesday together with EU Member State Ambassadors I met the Prime Minister of Armenia to discuss the issue of competition law, because one of the prerequisites for a better climate for doing business in Armenia is to have a more level playing field for participants in economic activity, to have better conditions for, in particular, startup initiatives. So, it’s not only a question of transferring money, helping private business to perform better but it’s also the question of ensuring the proper legal framework. And on these two aspects, the European Union will be intensifying its efforts.

– The Commission’s recent review of the European Neighborhood Policy states that the principle of “more for more” has not been successful where political will is lacking. Will we see a change in the EU’s approach to Armenia in this respect, and will there be more emphasis on supporting civil society?

– The European Union will attach big importance to its cooperation with civil society and in fact we have launched a big support project to make civil society stronger. I am in constant contact with civil society representatives. Civil society is important for the European Union, both as an interlocutor, providing an independent view on the situation in the country, but also as a partner in implementing our project. But a strong civil society is even more important for Armenia. Without a vibrant and active civil society Armenia will not be able to build a strong democratic system and a strong rule of law system. Therefore, I can assure you that civil society organizations in Armenia will always be in the focus of our activities. When we discuss cooperation with Armenia, we pay particular importance to the question of moving to European standards and values. The recently negotiated budget support programme for human rights, which was signed on 11 December in Brussels is a new development, because this budget support programme provides for the Armenian side to prepare a number of very important laws which hopefully will make a significant change in terms of issues like elections, rule of law, tolerance, non-discrimination, and other related topics. In this budget support programme we have a clear commitment by the Armenian Government to prepare corresponding draft laws, corresponding legislation in this field.

– Returning to internal issues in Armenia, I would like to ask your opinion about corruption: do you regard the fight against corruption as an important issue, and if so, will it be reflected in the new framework agreement?

– I do not remember any single meeting that I have had so far with civil society, students, journalists and other groups of Armenian society where the question of the fight against corruption hasn’t been raised. And I think rightly so, because I consider corruption to be one of the main structural problems, structural impediments for Armenia’s growth. And it is obvious that without fighting corruption Armenia will not be able to move forward in modernizing its economy, in developing its political governance, in building a more just society. Armenia is the least corrupt country in the Eurasian Economic Union, according to Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. However, Armenia is lagging behind significantly some other countries, including its immediate neighbour, Georgia. Armenia is number 94 on the Corruption Perception Index and Georgia is number 50. Georgia is performing better than some members of European Union. The Georgians were able to show that it’s possible to do it. And I think Armenians should get some inspiration from that fact. The fight against corruption has many levels. It starts from petty corruption, everyday corruption, paying policemen, doctors at hospitals, paying professors at universities, etc. But it ends up with what is called meta-corruption meaning the very corrupted link between business and politics. I consider also for the European Union the fight against corruption in Armenia to be one of the top priorities.

– In Armenia, we are always seeking to learn from the experience of other post-communist countries, in order to understand how to win the fight against corruption. Please could you tell me about Poland’s experience: what were the main factors which ensured a reduction in corruption, and how long did the process take?

– The most important thing in the fight against corruption is political will. If there is political will by the political class, in particular, the ruling elites, then you can achieve progress. And that’s the case of Poland, but also some other countries who have gone through the transition period can testify to this truth. It all starts with the political will. It is not easy to fight against corruption, and no country is immune to corruption. You know about big corruption scandals in many countries, including members of the European Union, which took place only recently. I think that Poland, overall, has been quite successful in the fight against corruption. It started long ago, more than 20 years ago, after the change of the system, when one of the ministers, the Minister of Justice, started a campaign of “clean hands”. Today Poland is at quite a good position on the Transparency International index. It has very strong instruments, including institutional instruments, including the Central Bureau for Anti-Corruption. So, for Armenia there is plenty of experience to take inspiration from, including from the transitional countries. Armenia doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Armenia doesn’t have to spend much time studying possibilities and making visibility studies. It is simply the question of taking the right political decisions at the top and telling all relevant people and institutions, “We have to do it.” This is very simple.

– I would like to ask a few questions about the EU-funded Multi-Sector Budget Support Programme, since this programme encourages the Armenian Government to undertake a number of anti-corruption measures. One of the conditions is for Armenia to establish an independent anti-corruption body. How would you describe such a body? Does the currently established Anti-Corruption Council fulfil this condition, or is the EU expecting something different, in line with the principles of the Jakarta Statement?

– What is needed now is action. What is needed now is the political will to start implementing the measures. What you need is an independent anti-corruption body, immune from external political pressures. What you need is good laws which would expose corruption activities, and you need a workable, independent judiciary system with very high ethics and determination to fight corruption. These are the necessary ingredients. And I think for the Armenian government it’s high time to show concrete results in practice; to show that these wonderful documents are seriously taken by those who should be implementing them.

– One of the conditions in the Multi-Sector Budget Support Programme talks about increasing the effectiveness of the Ethics Commission for High Ranking Officials. Do you believe it can become an effective tool in the fight against corruption?

– The Ethics Commission is important because it can play a very useful early warning and preventive role. The moral responsibility of civil servants should be higher than the standards of the Criminal Code. And the Ethics Commission should deal in particular with cases where, although there was no breach of the law, the actions were morally suspicious or even morally unacceptable. Therefore, you need an active Ethics Commission, and again, there are plenty of international cases where such bodies play a very useful role. It’s the question of doing something. The body as such, without initiative, without political will, will not produce anything. It is simply an instrument. If it’s not used it will not play its role.

– What about whistleblower protection? Is this simply a question of legislation or should there also be other guarantees to ensure that the system works in practice? What experience can the EU give in that respect?

– There are different models of whistleblower protection but in every model, protecting people who are the first to expose cases of corruption is very important. For instance, the system which is in operation in Poland is quite strong to the extent that the person who has offered a bribe is free from any responsibility if he/she reported it before it was formally investigated by the respective authorities. The guy who received the bribe is not relieved from responsibility, but the person who gives the bribe is relieved. And this is whistleblower protection of a very strong kind. But there are also some other elements of protection of whistleblowers, including by the prosecutors and by the courts. So it’s both: it’s the question of law and the necessary legislative provisions, and it’s the practice – how people in the respective services, in government, in the courts, in other branches are serious about corruption and the fight against corruption but I agree with the assumption that protecting whistleblowers is very important.

– As you know, the EU-funded Multi-faceted anti-corruption promotion project implemented by AYLA and FOICA has established an anti-corruption coalition of 70 CSOs. How do you see the future role of the coalition in the fight against corruption in Armenia?

– I think it’s a very precious initiative because public pressure on the political system, on the Parliament, on the Government, and other branches of power is very important. And I can say that we, as the European Union Delegation, are ready to provide our moral support to the activities of the Coalition, to the extent possible. So, yes, it is important because the problem is very serious and also the fight against corruption is simply an utmost priority for Armenians.

– And what about criminalization of illicit enrichment in Armenia? Do you see this as an essential part of anti-corruption reform?

– Yes, again, there are different models as regards the extent to which these activities should be criminalized. There are some strict models where it’s not only the illicit enrichment but also the inaccurate statement of income and assets is punishable under the Criminal Code. I understand that Armenia is in the process of discussing amendments in the Criminal Code. I would support a very strict approach: make as much as possible punishable under the Criminal Code, if you want to be successful in fighting corruption. Some countries decided for a grace period, saying, “Ok, we forget what happened in past but from now on we will be stricter than ever.” It’s a possibility also for Armenia to think about such solutions. But my recommendation to the Armenian authorities is to include as many provisions addressing illegal enrichment in the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code.

– What about judicial reforms? What assistance will the EU be giving and in what aspects of judicial reforms?

– We have been conducting here a very ambitious project concerning judicial reform and, to be frank, we are not satisfied with everything that has been done. Some promises were not delivered and therefore we withdrew payment of some money devoted to the reforms. This shows you that the European Union doesn’t give blank checks, that if we are not happy with the way our money is spent we simply do not provide it. And we did it. There are elements of the judicial reform that went very well, including the e-Governance elements of the reform, but generally the judicial system in Armenia has a very important public image problem. People do not trust the courts. And if Armenia wants to move forward, if Armenia really wants to make a breakthrough in its development, it needs an independent judiciary and effective, efficient courts. They are also necessary to ensure more foreign investment, more trade. Foreign partners will not come to Armenia if they have doubts about the impartiality and fairness of the Armenian courts. So it is in the interests of Armenia to move forward the question of reforms. There are many elements which are still necessary to be addressed in the process of reforming the courts, including the issue of corruption in the courts, which is still a recognizable problem for Armenia. And therefore, I was heartened by the very resolute statement of the Minister of Justice at our recent Steering Committee meeting to fight corruption, where she declared her will to make a change. I think that’s important, and let’s see what will be the results.

– As regards the referendum on December 6th, what is your assessment of how the referendum was undertaken?

– Yes, the European Union here, in cooperation with the EU Member States, issued a very strong statement. I invite you to read the statement. We will be monitoring the situation, we will be interested to see how all the allegations and concerns as to the irregularities and even falsifications are investigated. We will be looking forward to see how the constitutional amendments will be implemented. And for the European Union – and it is clear in our public statement – the moment of truth will be the adoption of the new Electoral Code. This is where and when we will judge the effects of the referendum and the constitutional changes. So we hope very much that next spring Armenia will have a new Electoral Code.

Photos: Gevorg Tosunyan 

Iravaban.net

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