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Trade agreements, economy and security are the focus of BGIPU Delegation to Armenia

From 17-21 February 2014, I led a delegation of six members to Yerevan in Armenia. Two of our number – myself and Steve Pound MP – had visited Armenia several times before but for the other members, Mike Gapes MP, Harriet Baldwin MP, Baroness Hooper and Lord Faulkner, it was their first visit.

Armenia is a small country of just 3 million which was the first non-Baltic Republic to secede from the Soviet Union and to declare independence in 1990. However, it remains close to Russia while at the same time its borders with two of its four neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan, are closed. The borders with Iran and Georgia remian open.

During our visit, we met a number of members of the Government including the Foreign Minister, Defence Minister, Transport Minister, the Speaker of the National Assembly and the President of the Republic, HE Serzh Sargsyan. However, we also had the opportunity to talk to members of all the major Parties in the Assembly as well as the President of the Heritage Party and former Presidential Candidate, Raffi Hovhanissyan, and Deputy Leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party, Vartan Oskanian. We also had very useful discussions with younger members of Civic Society and voluntary bodies including a number of John Smith Fellows.

The major issue which featured in our discussions was the President’s sudden announcement in September that Armenia would break off discussions with the EU about an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and instead seek to join the Eurasian Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Although this came after two years of negotiations with the EU and with little warning. It was presented to us that this was an obvious decision given the importance of Armenia’s trading links with Russia, its historic ties and its dependence on Russia for its security. At the same time, it was emphasised to us that Armenia still wished to have closer ties with the EU and that these two objectives should not be incompatible. However, there did seem to be an element of post hoc justification and we met several opposition critics who argued that it was the wrong decision.

One factor behind the decision was clearly the strong perception of a military threat to Armenia from Azerbaijan and, to a lesser extent, from Turkey. Although the Armenian armed forces are highly professional, there are also a large number of Russian troops based in Gyumri and close to the Turkish border. It is only twenty years since the war over Nagorno Karabagh, now an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan but whose population is overwhelmingly Armenian. The issue of Nagorno Karabagh came up repeatedly in our discussions and we also had a meeting in Yerevan with the Speaker of the NK Republic. Although little progress has been made in resolving the dispute and there are still frequent exchanges of fire, and often casualties, along the Line of Contact, we were encouraged by the recent meeting which took place between President Sargsyan and President Aliyev. The OSCE Minsk Group remains the best forum for negotiation and we hope that further dialogue may lead to reduction of tension in the region.

Although there is no serious threat from Turkey, relations between the two countries are also poor. Many Armenians are directly related to those who died in the massacres carried out by the Ottoman Government within the present territory of Turkey during and after the First World War. Approximately one and a half million Armenians were murdered in what was an act of Genocide. Next year sees the centenary of the start of the massacres and will be marked by Armenians throughout the world. The delegation discussed the plans to commemorate the Genocide and also laid flowers at the Genocide Memorial in Tsitsernakaberd.

We were also conscious that Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world and has a magnificent heritage. We visited several museums as well as Etchmiadzin Cathedral where we were privileged to have an audience with the Catholicos, His Holiness Karekin II.

Finally, we were keen to learn more of the opportunities to strengthen economic, political and cultural links between our two countries. We had several discussions with Karen Chshmarityan who chairs the British Friendship Group in the National Assembly. We went to the offices of the British Council to learn more of their work in the country. We also had the opportunity to visit PharmaTech, a major British investment manufacturing IV solutions where we had a useful discussion about the opportunities and challenges of doing business in Armenia with the Chief Executive, Bedo Eghiayan.

I would like to thank the IPU branch of the National Assembly of Armenia for their wonderful hospitality, Amias Moores of the British Embassy and other members of the Embassy staff for looking after us so well, and of course Stef Kenyon from BG IPU for her patience and good humour.

Rt Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP