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Armenian local leaders embracing EU opportunities  

​Armenian leaders at the national and local level on 24 October struck an upbeat note about the decentralisation of power in Armenia, about the country's relations with the European Union, and about the potential of EU initiatives to help local communities, suggesting that a pending agreement between the EU and Armenia has substantial support at lower levels of government.

The mayors and national politicians from Armenia were speaking at a conference – entitled "Innovation and regional development: Agents for growth in Eastern Partnership countries" – at which European local and regional leaders shared their experiences of efforts to stimulate growth progress and to embrace e-governance. The conference – which was co-organised by: Armenia's Ministry of Territorial Administration and Development; the Conference of Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP); and GIZ, the German development agency – was a follow-up to a meeting in Yerevan in 2016 at which the EU launched a bottom-up initiative, Mayors of Economic Growth. It was held a month before the planned signing of a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the EU and Armenia on the sidelines of the summit of national leaders of the Eastern Partnership.

Emin Yeritsyan, the president of the Union of Communities of Armenia and a member of CORLEAP, said that Armenian municipalities had joined the Mayors for Economic Growth eagerly, accounting for over 40% of the 195 Eastern Partnership mayors in the bottom initiative, which sees the European Commission provide technical support to regional and local administrations that draw up plans for sustainable economic development. He traced the high take-up back to promotional efforts by CORLEAP, a forum created by the European Committee of the Regions in 2011 at which its members can meet counterparts from six Eastern Partnership countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine.

The Mayors for Economic Growth initiative, which has a secretariat in Tbilisi, Georgia, has proven even more popular in Armenia than an older, similar initiative – Covenant of Mayors East, a regional branch of the Global Covenant of Mayors – in which communities receive technical support from the EU if they pledge to exceed the EU's emissions-reduction targets. Mr Yeritsyan is also a major proponent of climate action, drafting a report for CORLEAP on energy efficiency.

The EU's support for regions and cities in Armenia and the other Eastern Partnership countries come in the midst of substantial changes in Armenia's political system, with the gradual amalgamation – between 2015 and 2019 – of local administrations, reducing their number from 915 to some 400. The mayor of the first community to be consolidated – Armen Santrosyan, mayor of Dilijan and member of CORLEAP – said at the conference that the process had been popular in his area, with 73% support in a referendum in May 2015.

Mr Santrosyan said Dilijan was now stepping up e-governance initiatives, broadcasting council meetings live, running a municipal management information system (MMIS) for documentation, financial and property issues, and providing citizens with a 'one-stop shop'.

Karen Nazaryan, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, opened the event by suggesting that reforms within Armenia and the planned CEPA with the EU would create more momentum and opportunities for economic growth.

Mr Nazaryan and other Armenian speakers stressed that practical benefits – at work, at home, and on the move – of cooperation with the EU will do much to shape Armenian voters' attitude towards the EU, and that it will therefore be important for national leaders to agree at the Eastern Partnership summit on 24 November on a package of '20 deliverables for 2020'. CORLEAP is pressing for local authorities to be involved in all phases of Eastern Partnership projects, from their conceptualisation to their implementation.

The same message was voiced by Europeans at the conference. Piotr Świtalski, the Head of the European Union Delegation to Armenia, said that local and regional authorities would have a significant role in ensuring the '20 deliverables' – projects to strengthen economies, governance, connectivity and society in the six countries– are implemented by 2020.

Addressing the broader political role of local politicians, Paweł Adamowicz (PL/EPP), the mayor of Gdańsk, emphasised the need for local administrations to strengthen grassroots democracy, highlighting initiatives by Gdańsk to develop participatory budgeting and encourage social innovation. Mr Adamowicz was the author of a report on strengthening local democracy in the Eastern Partnership, which was adopted by CORLEAP in 2016.

Mr Adamowicz also spoke of the need for local administrations to cooperate internationally, mentioning Gdańsk's support in setting up a Local Democracy Agency in Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine. Pavel Branda (CZ/ECR), deputy mayor of the town of Rádlo, said that experience from the Czech Republic and other parts of the EU suggested that cross-border cooperation could have a major impact on economic development.

The conference devoted a thematic session to e-governance. Jelizaveta Krenjova, an e-democracy expert from the e-Governance Academy in Estonia, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and which is an acknowledged leader in e-governance, called for a "balanced" approach, by coupling electronic services with efforts to promote online engagement in local policymaking. She said that it was very important for local and regional authorities to be involved, as promotion at the local level boosts the general level of e-activism.

Case studies came from the Czech Republic, Latvia and Georgia. Petr Osvald (CZ/PES), a former deputy minister for regional development, said that an award-winning initiative from his city, Plzeň, enables travel, payments, and cultural services through a contactless chip card and may be extended through connections with similar projects in the Czech Republic. Davit Melua, executive director of the National Association of Local Authorities of Georgia (NALAG), said leadership by local politicians is critical, and said that Georgia hopes to have municipal management information systems (MMIS) in place in all municipalities by the end of 2018.

Vache Terteryan, Armenia's First Deputy Minister for Territorial Administration and Development and moderator of the event, noted the striking similarities with the problems faced by post-Soviet countries. He made a commitment to reflect together with Mr Yeritsyan and the Union of Communities of Armenia on how Armenia could develop many of the ideas presented, particularly by Andris Jaunsleinis (LV/ALDE), member of Ventspils Municipal Council, and Maris Pukis, senior adviser at the Latvian Association of Local and Regional Governments.

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