By Anna Saghabalian
Armenia has made progress in recent years in bringing its political and economic systems into conformity with European standards, Britain’s outgoing ambassador in Yerevan, Thorda Abbott-Watt, said on Thursday.
“I along with other European community member states have very much welcomed Armenia’s moving more closely towards Europe and European standards,” she told a news conference held on the final day of her three-year tenure in the country.
Abbott-Watt pointed to Yerevan’s inclusion in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) that commits the EU to forging privileged ties with its neighbors. But she would not say if she believes Armenia has become more democratic in the past three years. “It is sometimes difficult for an outsider to comment on Armenian internal developments because these are very much something for Armenia,” she said.
In a statement issued on behalf of the EU last month, the British embassy in Yerevan criticized the Armenian authorities’ handling of the November 27 constitutional referendum. “The EU is concerned at reports of ballot stuffing and manipulation of the turnout figures and of intimidation of local observers during the referendum held on 27 November. A failure to prevent activities such as this calls into question Armenia’s commitment to transparency and democracy,” said the statement.
It is not clear if such a commitment is necessary for Armenia’s meaningful involvement in ENP. The two sides are currently negotiation an “action plan” stemming from the EU scheme.
Abbott-Watt’s time in Armenia was marred in March 2004 by a diplomatic scandal sparked by her public comments on the 1915-1918 killings of over one million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. Citing the official position of the British government, the envoy stated that the massacres did not constitute a genocide. The Armenian Foreign Ministry protested the remarks in a diplomatic note sent to London.
Abbott-Watt was extremely cautious on the highly sensitive subject on Thursday. “I think our position is well known,” she said. “I know that this is a subject that is hurtful to my Armenian friends. Therefore, I really don’t see the need to keep restating it.”
“Great Britain was one of the first countries of the world to report on the events of 1915-1918, and it remains our position that we deplore the atrocities which took place and we offer our continuing sympathies to the descendants of all those people who were affected,” she added in an apparent reference to the British Foreign Office’s 1916 “Blue Book” that detailed the mass killings and deportations.
The British diplomat also echoed international optimism regarding a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “I think I share your foreign minister’s view that we have a window of opportunity on Nagorno-Karabakh,” she said. “The parties can reach even an interim solution that might soon allow the opening of borders. I think that that is something deeply to be welcomed because I believe that Armenia will never achieve her potential with closed borders.”