Mediamax’s interview with EU Ambassador to Armenia Vassilis Maragos
Mr. Ambassador, on January 18, 2023, representatives of Armenia and the European Union announced the official launch of the Resilient Syunik Team Europe Initiative in Yerevan. Let’s talk about the peculiarities of the initiative that brought together EU structures and member states. In what way does it differ from other aid or development initiatives?
Thank you for the question. The Resilient Syunik Team Europe Initiative may look somewhat unusual indeed, but we live in unusual times and we need to take the approaches needed to respond to the challenges we face during such times.
Team Europe Initiatives as a unique and innovative way of working together with our Member states in the EU is gaining momentum. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that we realized how powerful joint actions can be, when we go the extra mile to unite our forces. Within its external action, the EU and its Member States have put together so far around 170 Team Europe Initiatives.
In comparison to other Team Europe Initiatives, Resilient Syunik is unique as it is probably the only one focusing on a region. This initiative is very important for everybody involved and for the local stakeholders. Syunik is a very important region for Armenia’s society, economy, and security. It is very important also in terms of good connectivity throughout the country and beyond, and we should not forget how much this region was affected by the 2020 war and then by the refugee crisis. Let me clarify however that our engagement in Syunik is not detrimental to our work in other regions of Armenia – we actually cover the whole territory of the country with significant investments in education, in agriculture, in the economy in in Lori, in Tavush, Shirak and other regions, and of course in Yerevan.
A Team Europe Initiative implies the existence of a framework, an umbrella, under which EU institutions such as the European Commission and the European Investment Bank, EU member states, likeminded partners and development organizations - can find their place, participating with significant or sometimes smaller activities with a set of common goals, to strengthen the resilience and unlock the social and economic potential of the region. All participants are particularly proud of the work we have launched together in Syunik. More than 110 million EUR have already been allocated for this initiative and are being invested on the ground. But this is not the most important element. Our funding fosters creativity and the opportunities for the people on the ground, and this is essential.
I was in Syunik a couple of months ago, I met many of the implementers, and I have seen the potential and the enthusiasm of everybody. Let me also stress that in particular in such an initiative where the focus is on people, “Team Europe” is primarily the people on the ground. Their aspirations, their creativity, their ideas – this is our own “Team Europe” in Syunik. And this message is very well received and understood in Brussels but also in Yerevan.
Can we already talk about some initial results? What has been done in nearly a year within the framework of this initiative?
First of all, during this first year (a year of challenges for the region and for the whole country) we have clearly identified our actions and our goals. There are number of thematic areas we are focusing upon. First focus is on economic development, which is key also for resilience and security. This comprises support to private sector, employment and social services. Second area of investment in resilience and security is the capacity of the local authorities. We partnered with local authorities and this is a sine qua non condition for success.
A key focus is human capital. We are supporting the creation of a new Tumo Centre in Kapan; works are already underway. Numerous actions also focus on the integration of refugees, including elderly people, involving the civil society in this area is also key; people need to be offered opportunities and feel empowered to be able to create value for their region. And let me stress that I have met amazing people in Syunik, enthusiastic civil society actors, committed officials, media workers who are keen to inform responsibly their fellow-citizens, women who work tirelessly to preserve the local handicraft traditions and skills.
The Team Europe Initiative comprises so far 32 projects, but it is further developing as this is an open-ended process, and we get signals and more donors and partners wish to step in.
When it comes to education and human capital, let me add that, at the Global Gateway Forum in Brussels in October 2023, where President Khachaturyan was present, we have signed an agreement on two very important non-formal education centres, which will be implemented by COAF. Non-formal education cannot replace formal education, but it is crucial as it is offering significant opportunities to develop skills and capabilities of the people on the ground, in particular youth.
We are now working actively on the ground to build further capacities to work with farmers to strengthen their capacity to produce high quality goods and to reach the markets.
You have already mentioned why it was decided to put the special emphasis on Syunik and you have also stated that this does not mean that other regions are not important. Do you think this special focus on Syunik will give additional hopes or trust to the people living there?
One of the reasons why we focused on Syunik is because the Armenian authorities asked us this back in the aftermath of 2020 war. And we have received from the local authorities of Syunik a very clear concept and a very clear vision. Ownership is always the basis for any cooperation. Without ownership, it is impossible to implement any project. And I hope that the people feel more secure as well, because of the presence of the European Union, and its partners in this part of Armenia. The message that this region is not abandoned, that we are there, we are standing by them, we are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the people on the ground, is very well understood and a daily experience in Syunik.
But the key here is creativity and the initiatives of the people on the ground. This is the main condition of success of our projects. And I would like to reassure the people in Syunik that we are there and we will continue to be there. And we will focus even more on civil society, help develop their capabilities, strengthen their capacity to act. No matter how much people sitting in Yerevan, in Brussels, Berlin, or Paris want to help, at the end of the day it will be the people on the ground who know what are their needs, and engage and guide us through the various processes.
In other areas of Armenia, we have been piloting the EU LEADER approach with local communities developing and implementing specific projects based on their local strategies. This is something we can further expand also in Syunik. All partners on the ground, as well as international partners bring invaluable expertise which is key for the success of the various actions.
Also, let me recall here that since February 2023 the European Union has mobilized a very important civilian mission (the EUMA) which is doing monitoring on the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan, and it is very much present in Syunik as well. This is also a powerful message of solidarity to the citizens on the ground.
And I think this is also some kind of a unique combination. From one side, we have the EU patrol mission, which is contributing to security and also development projects through Team Europe. So they go hand in hand.
I think you are absolutely right. And of course, all this has to be seen in the context of the current effort that we are doing together with the Armenian authorities to further develop our partnership agenda. In October last year the European Council tasked the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell and the European Commission to present options on how best to strengthen relations between Armenia and the European Union in all their dimensions. We are now preparing such options, but let me stress that we are already working on the ground on the basis of this new paradigm of a deepened engagement. And the Resilient Syunik Team Europe initiative is one of the elements which illustrate very clearly such a paradigm shift.
Ara Tadevosyan talked to Vassilis Maragos
“The Resilient Syunik Team Europe initiative is the joint undertaking of the European Union, the European Investment Bank, EU Member states - Austria, Czechia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland also joining as an external partner. The initiative aims to contribute to the sustainable socioeconomic development of the Syunik region’’.