Interview with Dutch Ambassador to Armenia H.E. Mr. Jaap Frederiks

April 2024

Guus Rotink

Research Fellow

H.E. Ambassador Jaap Frederiks

The Dutch embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, is one of the newest additions to the approximately 150 Dutch representations worldwide, having been opened in 2020. Following the 2018 Velvet Revolution in Armenia, the Dutch parliament called upon the government to open an embassy in Yerevan to support Armenia’s modernisation, democratic reform, and fight against corruption.

Our research fellow Guus Rotink had an opportunity to engage in a conversation with His Excellency Jaap Frederiks, the Ambassador Chargé d’affaires of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Republic of Armenia. During the discussion, they delved into various topics concerning the Netherlands’ involvement in Armenia and the broader South Caucasus region. Among the key points explored were the geopolitical challenges facing the area (e.g. Russia) and the potential role of initiatives such as the Middle Corridor. The interview, originally conducted in Dutch, was translated into English by Guus Rotink.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being with us. What could you tell us about the Dutch interest in Armenia? What goals and priorities does the embassy have?

“It is clear to us that whatever relationship we are building with Armenia is rooted within the Eastern Partnership. We realised in 2008 that if we want safe, stable and prosperous countries on our eastern border we are required to invest in these states ourselves. So safety, stability and prosperity, those three elements, are exactly our interest in Armenia.”

“That idea has only gained momentum since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So even though Armenia is relatively far away from us, it does belong to our eastern border on which we want stability and where we do not want the Russians to undermine that stability. We invest in Armenian democracy in order to decrease the likelihood of Armenia returning to the Russian sphere of influence. And, if Armenia wants it, we are open for a closer relationship between the Armenian market and the common market of the European Union.”

But the latter has not come to fruition yet.

“That is right, because in 2013 Armenia opted to become a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Unlike Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, it also does not have a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) agreement with the EU. So in that regard Armenia is still further away from us.”

To be more specific, what are the goals of the embassy? Are they mainly in the field of democratic reform and anit-corruption measures?

“Yes, the goals of the embassy are aimed at improving Armenia’s governance in general. This means we support the strengthening of democratic structures, improving the effectivity and integrity of the government and judiciary, human rights and anti-corruption measures. Those are the most important elements.”

“A new goal has recently been added, the assistance for displaced persons from Nagorno-Karabakh who entered Armenia. This has become a goal for two reasons. The first reason is humanitarian in nature, since we believe those persons need aid wherever they may have come from. Secondly, we want to assist this group because a large sense of dissatisfaction within groups of displaced persons could threaten the internal democratic system within Armenia. Furthermore, it is of importance to us to help Armenia to allow decent integration of Nagorno–Karabakh displaced persons into society whilst we simultaneously demand from Azerbaijan a possibility for these persons to return to Nagorno–Karabakh and reclaim their possessions.”

“What immediately follows from that is that we need to focus on strengthening Armenia’s position vis-à-vis Russia, because Russia is everywhere within Armenia and we believe that it is Armenia that should decide on its future, with whatever alliance that may be. If Armenia would choose to reduce the number of Russian entities within its vital sectors it should be free to choose so and the renogatiate whatever agreements it may have with Russia.

We want to help Armenia in this regard, because we believe Russia is in the process of binding the two countries closer together, or at least make such attempts, in order to restore the influence that was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union.”

To continue on that point, what can we say about the Russian influence within Armenia? How does that influence manifest itself and how do they attempt to maintain it?

“I think that the Russians preferably would like to return to a pre-2008 situation, when the relationship between Armenia and Russia very much resembled the relationship Russia currently maintains with Belarus. That would completely return Armenia to the Russian sphere of influence, the “Union State” with a very preferential relationship with Russia.”

“The agreement about the continued operation of Russian military base in Gyumri and the presence of Russian border guards on the borders with Turkey and Iran also date from that era. The Russians control the nuclear power plant, practically the entire energy supply as well as the railway network. So we see Russia present in all vital sectors.”

“Armenia has now notified Russia of its desire to have the Russian border guards removed from the Zvartnots International Airport. Up to now, Russian border guards maintained airport security and kept intelligence of which persons entered and left the country because the Russians viewed the airport as an external border. The Armenians have now judged that interpretation as being too broad and have requested the Russians to leave per the 1st of August.”

How important are the Russian border guards for the Kremlin. One could imagine the great significance of control of the border with Iran for the purpose of sanctions evasion?

“Actually I believe the Armenia-Iran border is not the most important border for Russia, but rather the Armenia-Turkey border, since that is a border with a NATO member. Even though the relations between Moscow and Tehran at the moment are good, the border that mattered for the Russians before, and still does now, is that with Turkey. The fact is that the security was managed by Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which was formed after the fall of the Soviet Union, whose main goal was to provide counterweight to NATO.”

The Russians control the nuclear power plant, practically the entire energy supply as well as the railway network. So we see Russia present in all vital sectors.
Talking about trade, what is Armenia’s potential? If peace would really come to the South Caucasus could Armenia participate in the so-called “Middle Corridor”? How can the Netherlands contribute to this?

“Armenia would strongly benefit by integrating itself within the South Caucasus region in terms of economy and infrastructure. A large amount of growth potential is obstructed due to the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan being closed. This affects all sectors, imports, exports, but also transit from Central Asia to Europe.”

“On the Middle Corridor, I think its potential for the Netherlands is often overestimated. If Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan want to invest in this route they do so because it is meaningful for them. The route from China passes to so many Central Asian countries and ends in either Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan after which the cargo needs to be transferred to a ship to cross the Caspian Sea and back onto land once it arrives in Azerbaijan, which is still a corner of Europe. From China, it is much easier to load a container on a ship straight to Rotterdam or Hamburg. However, in case something happens on the more common trade routes through the Suez Canal, or if the Russians maintain a strong influence over the more northern routes, it is good to have a diverse network of connections. So in that sense, we will not discourage it, but I am not sure of the extent to which we would commit ourselves.”

If there is any further escalation in the conflict with Azerbaijan, I foresee that it would be very difficult for the West to help Armenia. What can the Netherlands, as well as the EU as a whole, specifically do in the coming years to provide even stronger support for Armenia’s renewed orientation to the West?

“First of all, I think you should not think about what the EU can do to support Armenia in military means. What the EU can do is help in removing tensions, in order to help improve Armenia’s relationship with its neighbours. We see this already in the ongoing process in Brussels between Armenia and Azerbaijan but also in the contacts the EU has with Ankara, which I believe can really make a difference.”

But at the same time Ankara states that it won’t talk to Yerevan before Yerevan has reached an agreement with Baku?

“That is right, and I believe we can tell Turkey it is okay to continue its close relationship with Azerbaijan. My point is that you could use the preferential relationship between Turkey and Azerbaijan to aim for the next step in the peace process. At the same time, it is important to show Armenia’s neighbours what Armenia’s orientation towards the West entails. It does not mean Armenia will become a member of NATO soon. It means we are present in Armenia to strengthen the country from the inside out, but not by military means. We need to show that Armenia, and our presence here, is not a threat.”

May I ask a similar question, but related to Azerbaijan? What can the EU offer Azerbaijan to be more willing and open towards the peace process with Armenia?

“The main thing we can offer Azerbaijan is respectability. However, I think it is important we do not merely define our relationship with Azerbaijan based on its conflict with Armenia. We try to mediate, we try to make sure Armenia is not exploited but it is not the European Union, nor its member states, who are in conflict with Azerbaijan. Our relationship with Azerbaijan is broader than just the conflict with Armenia. We have other priorities in Azerbaijan than the peace process, and within those also often lie points of criticism. Within the Eastern Partnership, we made it clear to Baku: more for more and less for less. This means that if there were progress on democratisation, human rights and the rule of law that could mean a closer relationship. At the same time, an increase in repression and authoritarianism will mean a more distanced relationship.”

“This is exactly the reason why Azerbaijan should refrain from comparing the EU’s relation with Armenia to its own relation with Brussels. Armenia’s relationship is closer because it is in a process of democratisation. In Azerbaijan, this is not the case. If you want to meet prominent opposition figures or journalists you have to visit a prison. Azerbaijan is also a major exporter of fossil fuels and some EU countries have contracts with Azerbaijan for gas supply. So it is a broader relationship than only Armenia and we should keep it like that.”

Allow me to ask a concluding question. I gather from our conversation that one of the main capabilities of the EU in the South Caucasus is the foster and promote stability. In this light, how do you view the EU Mission to Armenia (EUMA)? How can this mission develop itself in the coming years?

“The mission was organized to contribute to de-escalation on the border. Incidents, also deadly ones, still occur. But we also see that the presence of EUMA on the border makes the Azerbaijani side show restraint. Even though Azerbaijan has no interest in hosting the mission on the Azerbaijani side of the border but EUMA nevertheless provides the EU with visibility and is successful in providing trust to the local population that steps are being taken towards peace and de-escalation. The number of incidents also dropped. The mission clearly has success in terms of de-escalation and tension reduction.”

Thank you Mr. Ambassador. I would like to thank you for your time and valuable insights.

Share this on social media