A DISTORTED EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVE

Transitions on Line
http://www.tol.cz/look/TOL/article.tpl?IdLang uage=1&IdPublication=4&NrIssue=319&NrS ection=2&NrArticle=20545
April 30 2009
Czech Rep.

Many Armenians insist they are European, but they have a lot of work
to do to make it a reality.

A tiny chapel sits in far southwestern Armenia, on the border with
Turkey. Built in the seventh century and rebuilt many times since,
it is so plain that, aside from its antiquity, it would hardly merit
attention.

But it is notable for what lies beneath it: a pit where, according
to legend, the founder of Christianity in Armenia was condemned to
live for 13 years. Grigor Lusavorich, St. Gregory the Illuminator,
was persecuted for being the son of the man who had killed the king's
father. He languished in his underground cell until being called upon
to cure the desperate king's madness, which he did. As a result, the
story goes, the grateful king adopted Christianity at the beginning
of the fourth century, and Armenia became the first country to make
it the state religion.

It is this long history with Christianity that some Armenians first
cite when they argue that in their outlook they are European - not
eastern, not post-Soviet. But just as it took 13 terrible years for
Gregory to emerge from his dungeon, this sense of Europeanness has
been slow to make itself felt in the Caucasian country.

"Everybody understands very well that in civilizational terms, the
model closer to the Armenian value system is Europe," Karen Bekaryan,
director of a private group that advocates greater Armenian integration
into Europe, recently told a group of visiting journalists from EU
countries. "And at the same time everybody understands that this is
the main way for development, and not being Russia's little brother."

Likewise, Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute
think tank and a university professor, said of the many young people
who seek to leave Armenia, "I am absolutely sure that they want to
emigrate to Europe." He estimated that half of his students speak
English better than Russian. And while one or two have been to Russia,
about one-third have visited some part of Europe.

European countries far exceed Russia in their level of trade with
Armenia.

And yet. Armenian diplomats talk frequently about a policy of
"balance" between Russia and the European Union. Armenia has welcomed
Russian troops stationed in Gyumri, a city on the Turkish border,
as a hedge against expansion by or attacks from its hostile neighbor
to the west. Russian companies have bought up Armenian businesses in
strategic industries such as energy and aluminum manufacturing.

Further, some officials here acknowledge that in some ways, the
Armenian mind still lives in a Soviet-era time warp. An older
generation hangs on to its Cold War-era distrust of the West and
largely associates NATO with the hated Turks. By one estimate,
corruption taints about half the country's economic activity. Some
70 people arrested in March 2008 demonstrations against flawed
presidential elections languish in jail, their cases still not
adjudicated. No members of the police or security forces have been
prosecuted in connection with the clashes, which left 10 people dead.

The list goes on. Jacqueline Hale, an analyst with the Open Society
Institute in Brussels, said she has seen hotels in Armenia back away
from agreements to host meetings of human rights or other groups
critical of the government, and she decried the establishment of a
council to oversee such groups. Both moves are echoes of Vladimir
Putin's authoritarian Russia.

"It's not a question of Armenia being close to Russia," Hale said. "It
couldn't get any closer, to the point of being smothered."

MORE CARROT THAN STICK

In some quarters, then, the release last week of an EU report on
Armenia's progress toward certain goals was anxiously awaited. The
country is part of the European Neighborhood Policy, which seeks
to strengthen ties to countries on the periphery of the EU. Yerevan
received 25 million euros from Brussels last year, in addition to a
share of regional aid. That sum is to set to double in 2010.

In anodyne language, the report cites legislation not yet adopted
or implemented, and further steps to be taken in many areas. Those
looking for strong language, or even forceful urging, after Armenia's
troubling year, will be disappointed. EU officials stress that their
relationship with Armenia is a partnership, existing only with the
consent of both sides. They are not in a position to force things,
they say.

"The EU is afraid that if they push too hard, Armenia will move
closer to Russia, and that's just not true," said Stepan Safaryan,
a member of parliament from the opposition Heritage Party.

Instead the EU relies on the powerful attraction of its way of life. In
speaking of the role of Russian and European influences in the country,
one EU official said, "We have a model of civilization to sell. They
have tanks."

The same official said the essential questions for Armenians
now are, "How do they see themselves? Where is their
place? Moscow? Washington? Brussels? Iran?"

Which is to say that Armenians must decide what it means when they
say they are European. And they must go beyond the notion of Christian
kinship, a backward-looking idea as Europe tries to better integrate
its large Muslim communities. Is it a desire to have rules and live
by them? To encourage opportunities for the poor and minorities? To
enjoy the freedom to dissent? Or simply to have lively cafes and
splendid public squares?

Deputy Economy Minister Mushegh Tumasyan, reflecting on his country's
pervasive corruption, lamented, "There is no understanding of public
benefits and the public interest," ideas at the core of the European
project.

So go to Europe, young Armenians - as soon as Yerevan and Brussels
can agree on looser visa regulations, that is. Soak up the culture,
and the values. Then come back. Your country needs you.