Peter Stano, the European Union’s chief spokesman for foreign affairs, clarified the statements coming from the European Union regarding supporting Armenia through the European Peace Fund and starting a visa liberalization process with the country. In an exclusive interview given to the “Armenpress” reporter in Brussels, Peter Stano also referred to the statement of the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan, in which the latter had accused the EU of promoting a new conflict in the region and threatened an adequate response.
Stano also spoke about the importance of returning Armenians forcibly displaced from Nagorno Karabakh to their homes under international guarantee.
– Mr. Stano, EU High Commissioner Josep Borrell spoke about the possibilities of visa liberalization after the Council of EU Foreign Ministers meeting. How realistic is this, and what processes does it depend on to come to life?
-The European Union said very clearly during the meeting held at the level of EU leaders in October that we want to look for ways to support Armenia further and deepen our cooperation with Armenia. Then there were discussions by foreign ministers, and the ministers said that one of the ways considered by the EU is the liberalization of the visa regime. We are going to explore visa liberalization options with Armenia. This means we will start a process to see if it is feasible. Is it possible? Visa liberalization is essential because it is tangible and visible to people, but it is also something that all member states must agree to. Some tasks must be performed by a partner country, in this case, Armenia. There must be an agreement. We want to start looking at the options and exploring the possibility of visa liberalization. We are creating a process. This is the beginning of a process, but it is a process that, in the end, if all goes well, could greatly benefit the citizens of Armenia.
-What kind of tasks are you talking about? Can you give an example or two?
-In general, there are technical requirements for liberalization, among which is, for example, the requirement for biometric passports. But there are also political demands to ensure that the political framework in the country does not allow people to abuse the asylum system and that people are not forced to leave the country and seek asylum. That is one of the main priorities regarding the visa. We do not want a sudden increase in asylum seekers, and the abuse of visa-free or liberalized travel regimes must be prevented. So, first of all, it is essential that the applicant maintains political and technical logistic standards, and then, of course, the member states must be convinced; they must be sure that everything has been done by the partner country so that visa liberalization is not abused.
– The second point of the High Commissioner’s press conference was about the support mechanism through the European Peace Fund. What is the support to Armenia through the European Peace Fund? This receives different interpretations in Armenia. What explanation do you have?
-Perhaps explain what the European Instrument of Peace means. It is the European Union’s financial instrument, through which we support countries in strengthening their resilience and their ability to improve their stability and security. The European Peace Fund has two levels. For example, in Ukraine, we use it a lot to help the military defend the country from Russia’s illegal aggression. But in other countries, we use the fund, for example, to finance our peace missions or observation or monitoring missions. This is also the case with Armenia. So, for example, the EU mission currently in Armenia is also financed through the European Peace Fund. So, many ways exist to support the country’s security, stability, and resilience. Therefore, member states have said that this is another way of showing our willingness to help Armenia and a way to look at ways to support Armenia’s resilience through the European Peace Fund. Again, this is the beginning of the process. We are looking for ways and with what to keep. So, there has yet to be a concrete proposal as to what this support could be. But, when you look at other countries, what we’re doing, for example, in the case of Moldova, is helping to improve their ability to counter foreign interference; we’re assisting the countries to enhance their ability to fight cyber attacks. These are ways through which the European Peace Fund supports them, but in the case of Armenia, everything is possible. Thus, member states begin discussions on what the European Peace Foundation fund will be to best support Armenia.
– The Azerbaijani MFA criticized the statements made by Josep Borelli during the press conference held after the EU Council of Foreign Ministers meeting. In Azerbaijan, they announced that “by supplying weapons, the EU contributes to Armenia’s militarization policy, which undermines peace and stability in the region.” Azerbaijan has also announced that the EU will receive an adequate response, effectively threatening Armenia and the European Union. What is your attitude toward this? Azerbaijan criticizes Armenia’s arming, while it has a military budget three times larger, and the orders with ammunition do not stop landing at Baku airport. How do you interpret the rhetoric of Azerbaijan?
– It is logical that each country takes sovereign, independent steps to protect itself. It also means strengthening the army and getting military aid from where they decide. Every country does it. You don’t have to name names, but every country does it. It’s like the fundamental doctrine of self-defense or the defense of an army. So, countries get military support from their partners in different markets. They can get it depending on their relationship. This is the right of every independent and sovereign country, and no one has the right to interfere with it as long as all international laws and agreements are followed. But again, the support, or what the European Union has said in terms of supporting Armenia, has nothing to do with arming Armenia. We want to increase or help Armenia’s ability to strengthen its democratic institutions and protect itself from any kind of threat. In other words, we have clearly said we firmly stand by Armenia’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. This is one of the cornerstones not only of relations with Armenia but also of all international relations. That is why we are helping Ukraine because Ukraine is fighting precisely because its neighbor Russia has grossly violated the UN Charter, international laws, and bilateral agreements and wants to deprive Ukraine of the right to exist and be an independent country that has its own decisions. But in the case of Armenia, of course, we are in a different situation, but in terms of principles, we must respect Armenia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. If it is not appreciated, there will be consequences for those who violate it. This is the apparent position of the European Union. Secondly, our support for Armenia is to help, in the current situation, strengthen democratic institutions and their capacities and flexibility, not arm them. So anyone who criticizes the European Union for what we are doing with Armenia should maybe try to think twice and understand what we are doing and what we are saying because what we are doing with Armenia is in no way directed against anyone else. The European Union is a very transparent partner that provides aid very transparently, no matter what kind of aid it is, political, economic, or military. So there is no need to worry because this is to strengthen Armenia, the Armenian people, and democratic institutions, and to strengthen respect for Armenia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.
– How was this statement, or rather, the threat received by the Azeri MFA in the EU institutions?
-The European Union is very transparent when it comes to the management of relations with third countries, our partners. We have nothing to hide; again, our bilateral cooperation with one is not directed against the other. This is just between the two of us, which is in line with European policies and principles, and the European Union is one of the few actors in the world where these principles are very transparent and very inclusive, so we don’t do any under-the-table, black deals, hidden agenda. It is not the European Union that provokes instability. It is not the European Union that is taking unilateral military steps. But what we saw in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh was a unilateral military move; an army operation was launched despite the assurances previously voiced that the issue would not be resolved militarily. Therefore, before pointing the finger at someone else, it would be good for some to be a little self-righteous. But I repeat: there is no reason to criticize what the European Union says or does for Armenia. This is very transparent. It is not directed against anyone, and we are working honestly and sincerely to bring more stability to the region, to prevent hostilities, and to prevent unilateral moves because, based on our own experience, we believe that issues, problems, and conflicts are best resolved through talking, engagement, and negotiation. And for that, we are always happy, and we stand where we need to so that we are also ready to contribute or continue to contribute to the process of normalizing relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We reaffirmed this after the meeting of the Council of the European Union and the meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers. At this week’s meeting, we called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to resume negotiations and resolve all pending issues to conclude a peace treaty. It would be ideal if it happened before the end of the year. We are here to support, but we cannot impose. The EU is an honest mediator without any hidden agenda. Our only goal is peace, stability, and prosperity.
– At the last minute, the Azerbaijani side first refused the meeting in Granada, and then the meeting was scheduled for the end of October in Brussels. How do you interpret this dodge of Aliyev? To what extent does the EU consider Azerbaijan’s steps constructive?
-Our role as a mediator or coordinator is not to judge the behavior of one side or the other. Our role and efforts are focused on being with both sides as long as they want us to help them find solutions. We are mediators. We cannot impose; we do our best. We offer our abilities, energy, time, and sometimes resources to ensure the engagement continues. And when the parties are ready, we mediate the concrete meetings. But, even though you mentioned higher-level canceled meetings, the engagement continues. We have many bilateral engagements with Armenian and Azerbaijani partners in Brussels and places like Baku and Yerevan. Again, we are trying to do our best, encouraging the parties to meet as soon as possible, and this has also been fixed. This political expectation of the European Union was reflected in the title of the Foreign Relations Council when the EU High Commissioner said we call for the resumption of negotiations, we want them to continue, and we are ready to continue to offer our services in this process. After all, two of the parties also turned to us after they realized that Russia was not an honest mediator and that you couldn’t rely on Russia because Russia has a hidden agenda. In the case of Armenia, Russia essentially needed to fulfill its commitments to Armenia. So we are there because we are honest mediators; we will do our best because our best or strongest motivation is our history. We know that we are the relations between European countries. We have had a troubled history. We were at war with each other; we were killing each other, but we found a way to create a unique community called the European Union, and we want to share this experience, the best experience, also with the people of the South Caucasus and the region east of us, because we know that, after all, the victims are just ordinary people, and we want to prevent that. So, we are ready to help, advise, and encourage. But again, we cannot and will not force anyone.
– As you mentioned, in Nagorno Karabakh, the Artsakh Armenians suffered from unilateral attacks, political calculations, and sometimes the silence of the EU. Regarding the protection of the rights of violently displaced Artsakh citizens, what does the EU plan to do apart from financial assistance?
– First, the EU has not been silent. We know very well that, perhaps, there is disappointment or criticism that the EU has not done enough work, but I must remind you that the EU is not an interventionist force. The tools at our disposal are political and diplomatic. There were public statements condemning Azerbaijan’s unilateral military action in Nagorno-Karabakh. I can remember only two powerful statements by the High Commissioner and Member States on this issue. I can remember the extraordinary session of the UN Security Council, where the EU High Representative, on behalf of the European Union, publicly issued strongly condemning messages, expressing our shock at the sudden killing of people from Nagorno-Karabakh in connection with displacement and mass departure. Thus, the European Union was loud, not only in the public domain, because we were doing the same on international platforms, which, perhaps, are not so audible and visible to the general public. We used to do the same in bilateral meetings. There have been messages to colleagues relevant in this context not only to Azerbaijan, of course, but also to Azerbaijan’s allies because, as I said, the EU is very transparent. We need to speak up when principles are violated, and then we very clearly demand that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh return safely and have return guarantees. You know, their property cannot be confiscated by someone else. There must be guarantees for the safe return of these people if they decide to return. We have also increased our humanitarian assistance to the forcibly displaced. We continue to demand international access and an international presence in Nagorno-Karabakh as part of these guarantees for the people.