Interviews

We see Armenia's sincere commitment to achieving peace - Lithuanian Ambassador's interview

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We see Armenia's sincere commitment to achieving peace - Lithuanian Ambassador's interview

YEREVAN, MAY 6, ARMENPRESS.Peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the key prerequisite for a stable and prosperous South Caucasus. We see Armenia's sincere commitment to peace and appreciate clear steps undertaken in that direction. There is no doubt that the peace process must end with a sustainable, comprehensive, lasting peace and a commitment of both sides to respect it, the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Lithuania to Armenia, Andrius Pulokas, said in an interview with Armenpress.

The interview has addressed Armenia-Lithuania relations, prospects for the development of relations between the two countries, Lithuania's views on the current situation in the South Caucasus, as well as the rapprochement of Armenia-European Union relations, Lithuania's possible role in it, and other issues.

- Mr. Ambassador, Armenia and Lithuania have always had warm and friendly relations. How would you assess the present level of political dialogue between the two countries and what important points would you highlight?

The political dialogue is very intense and has been increasingly active since Armenia’s Velvet revolution of 2018. The main challenge is to maintain the pace and provide concrete content – every political process must be focused on a result that must be clear and tangible. Lithuania and Armenia share common historical connections and experiences. Having walked the difficult path of transformation itself, Lithuania is an example of successful reforms. Our successes and lessons learnt are close to the context of Armenia, we understand each other very well, thus the transfer and implementation of experience useful to Armenia is and will remain one of the main tasks in the near future.

Armenia, with the support of the EU as the main partner for the reform agenda and the involvement of civil society, has every opportunity to become the leader in democratic reforms in the South Caucasus. Of course, provided the pace of reforms is maintained or even strengthened, and we continue seeing Armenia confidently climbing up different international democracy, rule of law, transparency rankings. Lithuania is ready to cooperate at all levels in order to strengthen Armenia's resilience at this very difficult stage of historical turning point. The key word is diversification, and in this area, knowing Lithuania's difficult but very fruitful path in diversifying its economy, energy, and other areas, together we could do more to strengthen Armenia's resilience and sovereignty.

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- Last year, in October, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Lithuania Ingrida Šimonytė visited the Republic of Armenia. She announced that Lithuania intends to support the deepening of relations between Armenia and the European Union. Being an experienced member country celebrating its 20th anniversary at the organization this year, how could Lithuania contribute to the deepening of relations between Armenia and the EU?

I am very happy that the EU is being seen and discussed more and more in Armenia. Active involvement of the EU in Armenia means more support for sustainable democracy, resilience, security and sovereignty, and most importantly - peace in the entire South Caucasus region. For this, we call for the active use of all the instruments provided by the EU: the CEPA agreement, which will soon be supplemented by the new EU-Armenia partnership agenda, and the EU mission in Armenia. We also expect Armenia to receive support through the European Peace Facility, and to start a dialogue on visa liberalization.

Lithuania is one of the most active supporters and enthusiasts of Armenia’s rapprochement – as close as possible – with the EU, we firmly believe that Armenia belongs to the European family, and Armenia’s future lies in the European Union. Our experience tells us that one should always have a little more ambition than the possibilities sometimes seem to allow – our path to Europe was not the easiest one either, but we always saw the meaning in it and consistently followed that path. I believe that the idea of European integration should become central and dominant both in Armenia’s political agenda and in public life. We always encourage Armenia to be more ambitious in dreaming, planning and working and the maximum ambition is of course EU membership, as soon as possible. Ambition is not a political declaration, but rather the constant patient and tiring work, and the efforts of the entire state and society. Some call it homework, and it is precisely this homework that Lithuania contributes to, for example, in supporting reform of Armenia's internal affairs system, offering the best practice in the field of environment, as well as in other important sectors.

- Months ago, the European Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a resolution on the need for closer ties between the EU and Armenia and a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. With that resolution, the European Parliament also called to consider the possibility of granting Armenia the status of a candidate for EU membership. In your opinion, how realistic is it to grant Armenia the status of a candidate for EU membership, and how would you evaluate the adoption of that resolution itself?

Armenia is a democratic state, and democracy on our continent has a very specific address - the EU. I would think that there is still a historical chance to jump on the same European train together with the so-called EU-Associated trio – Ukraine, Moldova, and hopefully Georgia as well. I remember the integration process of three Baltic States, more than 20 years ago. The Baltic countries also moved at different speeds, yet we joined. I understand that it may sound bold today, but I remember Lithuanian experience very clearly - the idea of Europe at the time of accession had taken over Lithuania like a virus, we all got infected by the idea of Europe and thus gained immunity to totalitarianism and Sovietism (as well as oligarchisation, by the way). Lithuania's move towards EU membership was based on the understanding that the EU is where we belong, because this organization represents the same values of democracy and the rule of law, which we share, and – let us not hide that as well – the same norms, standards and the level of prosperity we wanted to reach. And the whole process of preparation for the EU accession with related reforms, was about constructing a modern, effective, resilient state, taking over new methods of governance, raising the quality of public services. Looking back, I can confidently say that this process was the best thing that happened to Lithuania in the 20th century. Still today we are the biggest supporters and enthusiasts of the EU. We succeeded, and I believe, Armenia must succeed as well. Aspiring for membership is valuable in itself. So, we did not waste time, we did not reinvent the wheel, we adopted the best European experience.

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- Mr. Pulokas, since the 2020, Azerbaijan continues to take destabilizing actions in the region of South Caucasus. It is well known that as a result of an ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Azerbaijan in September of 2023 more than 100 of thousands of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh were forcibly displaced. How do these steps influence the peace agenda in the region?

This was a great tragedy, with thousands of Nagorno Karabakh residents fleeing their homes, and this displacement taking place against the backdrop of a lengthy blockage of the Lachin corridor. We understand the frustration and disappointment of people whose lives have been broken, abandoned by those whom they had once considered the guarantor of their security. Armenia’s government and all the people have demonstrated a unique solidarity in ensuring shelter and dealing with all the problems. Along with many other countries, Lithuania provided humanitarian aid. I believe that the people of Nagorno Karabakh should have the opportunity to return safely to their homes. Peace can only prevail in the South Caucasus through good-faith negotiations, while coercion has never led to any good, and playing with people's destinies, using them as a tool is simply not justifiable. This also applies to the return of all the detainees, which is a very important step towards restoring trust.

- Beginning from 2021, Azerbaijan has attacked Armenia several times occupying Armenia’s sovereign territories, even now, Azerbaijan refuses to withdraw its troops from those territories. What kind of steps can and should be taken by the international community, particularly the European Union, to force Azerbaijan to stop the aggressive policy against Armenia?

Peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the key prerequisite for a stable and prosperous South Caucasus. We see Armenia's sincere commitment to peace and appreciate clear steps undertaken in that direction. There is no doubt that the peace process must end with a sustainable, comprehensive, lasting peace and a commitment of both sides to respect it, with eventually completed process of border delimitation and demarcation, based on internationally recognized borders – the same borders which existed at the moment of the dissolution of the USSR, - and with the opening of regional communications across all the borders.

Lithuania consistently supports the mediation efforts of the EU and the US in peace negotiations. Peaceful South Caucasus is in the interest of the entire democratic community. There is nothing beneficial for small countries when larger regional powers try to maintain their monopoly. This is why conflict resolution must be re-internationalized – more Europe means more respect for the rules-based international order.

Lithuania not only firmly expresses its political support for the peace process, but also is ready to share its still fresh experience on border delimitation and demarcation, as we were one of the first countries to fully delimit and demarcate all its land borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Again, we have a unique experience, as we went through a long and difficult negotiations process. Our neighborhood is not very easy as well, yet we managed to complete those processes based on the principles of international law, and this practice can be used in South Caucasus as well.

It is important that the international community expresses its clear position and condemns the actions of countries that do not respect the core principles of international law. For us in Lithuania, values are at the heart of the foreign policy, and we behave accordingly. We fight for the countries that are striving for their freedom, security, and democracy. We also realize that the fate of the South Caucasus depends greatly on the outcome of Ukraine's heroic struggle for its country's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia's war in Ukraine has shown that Russia kills, destroys, and breaks any principles of international law daily. In this context, it is very important that Armenia is trying to diversify its political and security partnerships as well as providing humanitarian support to Ukraine and activating the level of political dialogue. Armenia itself knows very well the price of independence and democracy.

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-Mr.Ambassador, in recent years there has been a lot of talks about the need to unblock the regional communications in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan demands the so-called “Zangezur corridor” from Armenia by threatening at the same time to get it by force. How would Lithuania assess such an aggressive and unprovoked behavior of Azerbaijan?

Lithuania geographically has similarities with Armenia: the Kaliningrad region of the Russian Federation, like the Nakhichevan region of Azerbaijan, is an exclave for which communication with the mainland country is important. Again, the accession to the EU played a crucial role in this area as well. The EU, Lithuania and Russia agreed on the so-called Kaliningrad transit scheme, and now, even in the conditions of the Russian war in Ukraine, mainland Russia’s and Kaliningrad region’s residents travel through the territory of Lithuania. We managed to harmonize two main things, namely full control of Lithuania in its territory and maximum convenience for travelers to transit without unnecessary obstacles. We have repeatedly shared our experience with both Yerevan and Baku. I believe that some elements of this so-called simplified transit model could be useful in regulating the movement of persons in Armenia. After all, it is a European experience and a model of success. As regards the rhetoric, we understand its importance, and we would prefer the term “transit” rather than “corridor”. After all, we are in the 21st century.

In response to these claims of the Azerbaijani side, last year the Government of Armenia initiated the “Crossroads of Peace” project. What is your opinion on this initiative and how does Lithuania see the peace in the region of South Caucasus?

This idea is indeed logical and understandable, it is an effort to restore functional cooperation among the neighboring countries, using the existing and future transport infrastructure. Regional transport arteries and global transport links must also operate in Armenia. They must work in all directions and for all modes of transport. It might even make sense to expand the project to include pipelines, power lines, etc. After all, it would be beneficial for everyone, it would stimulate the economic growth of the entire region, as well as trade and cross-border cooperation. However, implementation of such a project would require engagement of all the regional partners. I hope that the EU can offer certain stimulus for them to also accept the idea of open communications.

The development of economic ties and mutual trade usually leads to even deeper cooperation and increase of mutual trust, which is the basis for peace. The South Caucasus has every opportunity to become one of the fastest growing and prosperous regions. The EU could also contribute to the restoration of communication links in the region and the implementation of the Crossroads for Peace initiative.

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- Economic cooperation between Armenia and Lithuania: What was the trade volume between the two countries in 2023? What trends are seen in the bilateral export and import markets?

The available data on trade between Lithuania and Armenia are very different. We belong to two different trade blocs - EU and EEU, therefore re-exports are seen differently in our statistics. According to Lithuanian data, in 9 months of the last year, bilateral trade amounted to over 100 million EUR, yet only a small part were goods of Lithuanian origin. The level of economic-trade cooperation does not match the level of active political dialogue, so we will have to do a lot to increase mutually beneficial economic links and to transform intensive political dialogue into sustainable economic relations. At the same time, of course it is key that trade relations are not exploited to circumvent sanctions.

- Mr. Pulokas, which economic areas are of greatest interest in the relations between Armenia and Lithuania, and what should the two countries do to develop economic ties?

Both traditional trade areas such as food products, beverages, or tourism services, as well as high-tech sectors demonstrating impressive growth rates, have good prospects. For trade exchanges, the main challenge remains expensive and complex logistics. A direct flight between Vilnius and Yerevan would be truly beneficial for our daily cooperation.

- Mr. Ambassador, are there any planned high-level visits from Lithuania to Armenia in the near future?

Last year, a historic visit took place – the Prime Minister of the Republic of Lithuania Ms Ingrida Šimonytė visited Armenia for the first time.The Prime Minister of Armenia also visited Lithuania a few years ago, the Presidents of the countries also exchanged visits in the last few years, the exchange of visits of various institutions continues on a regular basis. Just a few weeks ago Speaker of the Armenian Parliament visited Lithuania. This spring, several ministerial visits to Vilnius and Yerevan took place.

- Thank you for the interview opportunity. Is there anything else you would like to add?

It's no secret that Armenia has many friends in Lithuania and this circle has been expanding rapidly in recent years. Historically, our nations have always been extremely close, starting with the Middle Ages and close coordination between our independence movements. We understand and sympathize with each other's experiences. Lithuanians feel great sympathy for Armenia's effort to diversify its relationships and move closer to the West. It is not only a feeling, but also concrete willingness to contribute with proactive support.

For any ambassador, such an environment is very favorable, so we must make the most of this chance. After starting my term in Armenia, I constantly meet open and sincere people who are full of benevolence, new ideas and striving to pursue shared values. I am very grateful for the attitude and warm feelings of Armenians towards my country. For its part, Lithuania will continue to support Armenia in its efforts to increase resilience, protect democracy and establish a closer dialogue with the EU.

We admire the perseverance of the Armenian people to firmly defend your democratic choices, despite all the challenges - this only proves that our countries are moving in the same direction, and shared democratic values are the most important foundation of this relationship.

Interview by Davit Mamyan

Photos by Gevorg Perkuperkyan

AREMNPRESS

Armenia, Yerevan, 0002, Martiros Saryan 22

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