Andrea Wiktorin

Andrea Wiktorin

“We are in this together”

Andrea Wiktorin is not new to Armenia. She was Germany’s ambassador to Armenia in 2007-2009, then she came back here in 2019 as the European Union Ambassador. Regional Post discusses with Ms. Wiktorin challenges our country has been facing since recently and the ways they can be overcome with the support of the EU.

Interview : Artavazd Yeghiazaryan    Photo : EU in Armenia

 

 

Mrs. Wiktorin, you've been in Armenia for almost two years now. How would you describe this country in two words? 

Well, first of all Armenia is a country with a lot of potential, with very nice people and beautiful landscapes… I have to say, I knew where I was coming. I always liked it here, though I had no idea about the 2020, but who knew!

 

You worked here in the late 2000s, so you’ve seen Armenia before and after the Velvet Revolution. Do you see the difference? 

When I came back I had the feeling that this was a totally different country. After the revolution people were much more open, more optimistic, there were a lot of new places to go, new initiatives. Then there was a dramatic situation last year that again brought a change. Fortunately, now I have the feeling that we are slowly starting to look at the future. 

 

Obviously, the part of the dramatic 2020 was the Second Artsakh War. How do you think that 44 days changed life here? What should Armenians do to build a better future?

The war had terrible consequences for the people, there were losses of lives, incredible troubles of the displaced persons from Nagorno Karabakh. I had the impression that after the war society was still in a deep shock. Of course it will take a lot of time to heal the wounds. I personally believe that we have to stand together to help Armenia to overcome this very deep crisis.

 

By “We” you mean the European Union?

Yes, and the member states separately. We are in this together. On one hand we have to show political support, which has been done, obviously. I mean, three high-ranking European officials visiting the country in one month and offering support. I think this activity speaks for itself. But we also need to give hope for the future. With all due respect to the sorrow and to the wounds, we need to look forward. There is a chance that if we act cleverly, we can come out even better than before. I clearly see that potential. 
With the recent elections that had a clear result, I see the willingness of the government to continue the reform process, which is hugely important, and also to work with the international donor community on the economic and social recovery of this country. 

Andrea Wiktorin, EU Ambassador to Armenia

 

This brings us to the EU initiated EU4Business programme. What is it about?

In two words, the EU4Business “Innovative Tourism and Technology Development for Armenia” wants to open opportunities for small and medium enterprises in the northern regions – Lori, Tavush and Shirak, both in the field of tourism and innovation. These are the two sectors where Armenia has especially big potential. So, we want to strengthen the private sector. We want to support the development of the economy, and also empower the interested entrepreneurs both with the knowledge and resources, and make them participate in the knowledge-based economy. We need to find more high-tech solutions to help the regions.

 

How did you choose the mentioned regions?

Actually, it was decided before I arrived but the main idea was to support the regions that are mostly in need. I think it was in 2017, and at that time three northern regions were in the worst situation. Today we also switched to the South, it happened after the war. We want to offer people in that part access to knowledge and European markets, which is very important for business development. I have to mention a previous commissioner Mr. Hahn, it was his vision from the start. As he said, it’s better to concentrate the activities in some regions, show how you could work and then produce results in other regions. 

 

Why is it important for the EU to support small and medium businesses in countries like Armenia in times like these? 

Easy, it’s based on our own experience. For the European Union, small companies are the backbone of the economy, the engine for success. The more small and innovative enterprises you have, the better you can adjust to the unexpected situations. If you don’t have big, natural resources, then you have to concentrate on how to develop a country, to make the regions successful, give opportunities to the people to develop their ideas, while staying where they were born and grew up. You can clearly see this pattern in EU’s member states. For example, Baltic states targeted the SME’s very successfully. I don’t see why this couldn’t happen in Armenia.

 

I believe, pandemic must have brought some changes in the plans of programme.

Yes, but I have to say that we adapted very fast to the situation last year. Truly, there was a heavy impact from the COVID crisis, so we gave roughly a million euro grants to SME’s to overcome the tough period. I’m happy we did this together with implementing partners, such as GIZ. I hope the companies who got the grants will now finally go on the market and see new opportunities. 

 

The EU has a particular emphasis on that sector; do you think local tourism has enough potential to attract a tangible number of European tourists? 

Armenia has a combination of the cultural heritage, unique landscapes and opportunity to offer different kinds of tourism. When I arrived in 2019 Armenia was in almost every media in the West, as a “secret” destination of the year, it was something new to discover. Then lockdown happened, but again, it pushed domestic tourism. Last year in September I was in Gyumri to give two grants to very interesting initiatives who were focused on the new elements: what are you doing with the kids, what are the offers for the families who want a domestic vacation? It shows that local businesses don’t just sit and wait, they try to find new opportunities. In general I am very optimistic that European tourists will soon be back here, until then you have to create a better, more safe and green environment. 

 

You mentioned what we have to offer, but what do we lack?

Sometimes it is the question of infrastructure and environment. I mean, it is often difficult to find English speaking or French or German speaking guides. Also tourism professionals here must more clearly understand the targeting and the packages they offer. If you have a backpacker, he doesn’t want to go to the 5 star hotel, but just a decent hostel with a shower. Teenagers have different demands than the elderly who are happy just to visit monasteries. When I was in Syunik, I was touched by the beauty of the region, but the roads were, let’s say, demanding. And if we go down to the very basics, toilets in restaurants are not in very good condition. It seems just a little detail, but tourism consists of such things. Also, Armenia, just like the whole world, has to recover the service sector. Many people had to leave their jobs to survive the pandemic. 

 

As a foreigner what would you suggest your friends to see in Armenia? I mean not as an ambassador, but as just a European living here. 

I would suggest making a mixed trip to get the spirit of Armenia. First, look at Yerevan, go to certain museums to get the feeling of the culture, but then I would highly advise to visit the regions to see the different faces of Armenia. Start with lake Sevan, it’s a must-go destination. Then, Tatev, for me it’s one of the most stunning sights. I’m also fascinated by Meghri, but again there is a problem with the roads. 

EU Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi visits Armenia to present the Economic & Investment Plan for the region & its flagship initiatives.

 

To say COVID-19 has impacted the economy might be an understatement, especially for small countries like Armenia, lacking infrastructure and medical facilities. What does the EU do to support the country in the context of the pandemic? 

At the end of the last year EU and the member states supported Armenia with a significant amount of money, around 90 million euros. It was meant for the midterm recovery plan, we are now finalizing it with the government. If you ask me as a European, the economy of the future must be green – we are putting it as a main priority, this is also our idea on how to overcome COVID in Europe. And it must be social. We have to protect those who were heavily affected by the pandemic. This brings us to another form of assistance – we brought sanitary devices, raised awareness, gave small grants, as I said, to the companies who needed to keep their employees to overcome the crisis. We are also working on a big economic and investment plan, again, mainly focused on the SME’s and geographically, the South, which needs support now more than others. 
We are in close cooperation with the Health Ministry. We helped with the equipment, distribution of Covax vaccines, and we also brought some medical teams from Europe to help their local colleagues. And it is still very important to have an awareness raised, because vaccination figures are surprisingly very, very low here. 

 

How do you think Armenia handled COVID crisis in general?

I would say that the government did what it could. There was a right guidance as I saw it. But sometimes Armenians have their own ideas about things. One thing that I can’t understand is why so few Armenians trust the vaccines, it really worries me that this way the numbers will eventually again go high. 

 

Everyone here is interested in the following question: when will the Armenians be able to travel to the European Union countries? 

Based on our recommendations the EU took Armenia out of the list of the high risked countries. There are clear conditions of how the Armenians can travel, though. One thing is it is much easier if you are fully vaccinated! This could be an incentive for vaccination. 

 

If we go further, to the future where the pandemic is over, can we talk about visa-free travel to EU countries?

This is on our agenda, there is a willingness from the side of the Commission. However before we start the dialogue we need the consent of all members. At the moment here are one or two members who still have certain concerns, but I know that Foreign Ministry is closely working with them and I really hope that we can start the process. 

 

Do you think that it will be possible to go back to normal in the post-COVID world or there will be a new normal?

The question is what is “normal life”? The world, not only the EU or Armenia, suddenly discovered that we are extremely vulnerable. We discovered that we have to work together. This should stay with us. This situation taught us important lessons. We saw how good sometimes distant working is, how it helps, for example, women with kids who could stay with the family and still work. Pandemic showed us how fast nature recovers when we stop the economy. And we understood that we have to be innovative and build the green future for all of the world.

 

The European Union and World Health Organization - WHO Country Office in Armenia donate X-ray equipment to the Martuni Medical Center for use in their radiology room as a part of a larger assistance package, provided by the EU to help boost COVID19 response in the country.

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