Europe and Armenia: Policy Advocacy and Impact: Learning While Doing European Approximation

On March 1, 2012, the first-ever meeting of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) Armenian National Platform (NP) took place with the main negotiator on EU issues from the Armenian government side, the Deputy Foreign Minister for European Issues Zohrab Mnatsakanyan. This meeting was a part of the strategy on establishing the tripartite dialogue and cooperation system between the EU, the Armenian government, and civil society. At the meeting, Mr. Mnatsakanyan shared with civil society the reform and approximation agenda in detail. In particular, he said:

"I have read very attentively the policy briefs delivered by Eurasia Partnership Foundation. We at the government pay very serious attention to the documents which come from civil society. The policy briefs are relevant to our work and help us determine the negotiation agenda and the scope of policy work. We may agree or disagree, accept the recommendations or not, but it is crucially important for us to know what the recommendations from civil society are. They impact on our thinking about the next steps. I encourage EPF and the other NGOs present to continue on providing us with their similar advice and expertize."

This fair acknowledgment of EPF's policy work has a long background story, which illustrates the day-to-day work needed to achieve a modest policy impact. For an NGO, making a policy impact is not an easy task, especially in a country like Armenia, where the civil society-state dialogue has been inefficient and truncated for the past 15 years.  The legal framework of the country is complex and often, as NGOs claim, unnecessarily complicated, as well as not particularly citizen-friendly. Sometimes positive developments in legislation and high quality policy formation take place due to civil society involvement, but these cases are few.

EPF became a delegate of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum as early as 2009 and started to work incessantly, via its Europe Program, for the successful buildup of the EaP CSF National Platform. The reason for that activism was the understanding that a crucial step in having an impact on policy is having/building the correct coalition. While choosing its strategy, EPF decided to become an active unit in a larger-scale coalition, rather than to multiply the amount of players via developing an independent advocacy group, in a situation where none of the existing NGO coalitions were fully set up and well-functioning.

The niche that EPF identified for itself in the large coalition of EaP CSF NP, which had many agendas, was the focus on policy work. For two years, EPF advocated for the creation of a ‘tripartite' dialogue format: a format where the Armenian government, the EU and civil society work together. For that, first the conflict had to be overcome between the different visions which existed among the EaP CSF delegates on how the NP should be set up and function. Overcoming that conflict and setting up a potentially viable NP took two years and efforts of many organizations. The advocacy message that EPF and its partners were delivering read:

‘CSF NP should become a well-functioning coalition to be engaged, as a respectful and recognized player, in the government-EU dialogue'.

Another step in having a policy impact is to select a topic which gathers multilateral supportand which one can make sure to implement to a high quality. The first such topic for EPF was the manual for youth called ‘Hello, Europe', which for the first time in Armenia explained to the general youth what the EU is about and the major elements of Armenia-EU relations. In 2010, the Ministry of Education of Armenia adopted the textbook as a pilot teaching course in high schools.

The advocacy message here was:

‘The Armenian public does not trust the EU sufficiently, because it does not know what the EU is about. If the youth learn more about the EU, reform will be easier'.

Yet another step in policy impact targeting is, while moving from more general to more targeted work, to select those issues/topics which are highly relevant. This means that a window of opportunity should exist to address these issues in a concrete historical timeframe, and players should be in place who can constructively address them.

After establishing itself as a respectful player in the field of Armenia-EU relations, EPF embarked upon identifying the issues to which it could contribute with targeted advice. The issues had to be highly relevant to the Armenia-EU Approximation Agreement (AA) negotiations and to the upcoming Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) negotiations. Armenia and the EU are moving to the approximation agenda with a gradually accelerating speed. The milestones here are Eastern Partnership, the new Neighborhood Policy Strategic Plan, AA and DCFTA negotiations.

The matter was complicated by the fact that the details of the draft AA were not known to the general public, and only the general policy framework was known - democracy, human rights, elections, energy, environment, culture, etc. Via competitive selection, EPF identified 5 groups of policy researchers who could contribute to the major issues which had to be on the negotiations table. Five research papers were commissioned of which, after further focused work, three resulted in policy briefs in the fall of 2011:

This paper identifies some targeted needs in structural reform in one of the most complex and difficult areas - the customs system. It points to reliable solutions to address at least some of the issues, for instance, the conflict of interest which exists between those agencies which set up customs rules and those which implement them. Success in this area is crucial for moving forward with DCFTA.

This is essentially a project proposal aimed at achieving a significant advance in indoctrinating the alternative energy culture in Armenia with minimal investment.

This brief is a comprehensive overview of the entire background of Armenia's environmental reform, which identifies the difficulties in mainstreaming the environment throughout the entire framework of the relevant legislation and points to some ways on how to do that.

The briefs were distributed both online and in print. Over 1,000 copies were distributed during conferences, to representatives of civil society, policy-makers, EU and government officials. The EaP CSF put the papers on its official website.

These steps and the acknowledgment of Deputy Minister Mnatsakanyan illustrate the relevance of EPF's European policy advocacy strategy to the approximation agenda. But there are other obstacles to policy impact. One major issue is the incapability of many smaller NGOs to frame their advice and expertise in the policy language accessible to decision-makers, both local as well as European. To address this issue, EPF supported a policy writing seminar for younger representatives of the expert and think-tank community.

EPF will continue, while advocating for reform in identified areas, to also address the need for further trust-building in society towards the Armenia-EU agenda; further capacity-building for civil society to have a functioning coalition and be heard; as well as further buildup of civil society skills to deliver sound advice and expertize. Civil society should, while keeping its independence and critical eye, stay highly relevant to the state reform policy agenda in the areas where its role has been less significant in earlier years.