What should the EU do about South Caucasus? Here are some proposals

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

File photo. Josep Borrell and Federica Mogherini during a Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, 13 May 2019. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA/EFE]

It appears the South Caucasus is not a foreign policy priority of the new European Commission. But it should be, write Dennis Sammut and Amanda Paul.

Amanda Paul is Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC)

Dennis Sammut is director of LINKS.

The EU’s new leadership must define Europe’s place in a world driven by a geostrategic rivalry between China and the US and an increasingly opportunistic Russia, or risk becoming totally side-lined.

By announcing that the new European Commission will be a “geostrategic one”, the college’s new President, Ursula von der Leyen, has recognised this fact.

The EU needs to become more strategic and coherent. Furthermore, if the Union’s foreign policy is to command respect, the first place where it must achieve success is in its neighbourhood. This should include the South Caucasus.

The history of the South Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia as independent countries in 1991, has been turbulent. Economic and political collapse soon translated into conflicts as regions seceded, and violent grabs for power ensued.

By contrast today the three countries are reasonably stable, their institutions are slowly maturing, and their governments are actively engaged in eradicating poverty. The conflicts remain unresolved but now largely managed.

Still, this region remains highly fragile. Democracy, where it exists, is not deep rooted; the potential of further flare-ups around the unresolved conflicts remains high; and despite progress, the quality of life is well below the expectations and demands of citizens. Surrounded by Russia, Iran and Turkey, the risk of further turmoil remains amongst the highest in Europe and in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood.

Over the years, the EU has significantly increased its footprint in the region, deepening ties with all three countries – albeit to different degrees. While Georgia continues to aspire for full member of the EU, Armenia and Azerbaijan have chosen “tailor made” relations in line with the EU’s differentiated approach.

However, not only does the EU still lack a long term strategy for the region, bilateral agendas have become rather lacklustre and bogged-down. While Armenia signed a new agreement with the EU in November 2017 Yerevan has moved slowly in its implementation, despite having a new, reform-minded government.

Meanwhile despite years of negotiations for a new Agreement with Azerbaijan, talks have stalled. For Georgia, the lack of long term perspective is becoming increasingly frustrating. These days the EU is more focused on internal reforms than making new promises to would be candidates or beefing up political support to neighbours.

Hence there is growing concern in the region, especially among those that see their future in Europe, over the EU’s intentions, and its capacity to deliver. The forthcoming departure of the UK, which has always been a strong voice calling for a robust neighbourhood policy, has further exacerbated concerns.

The membership perspective desired by Georgia, will remain off the table for the life of the incoming European Commission at least. After the debacle over North Macedonia that would have not meant much anyway.

But the impression that several EU member states, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, along with the US, are pushing for a new rapprochement with Russia, worries many.

A free hand in the neighbourhood, not least in the South Caucasus, is what Russian leaders want and expect. A sell out of the interests of South Caucasus countries, particularly Georgia, is feared.

In the current mood, small things, arising out of administrative, rather than political considerations take on a disproportionate importance. The decision to move the premises of the EU delegation in Tbilisi out of a free standing building into two floors of an apartment block may be absolutely justifiable for logistical reasons.

Yet coming at a time when the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans have invested in huge complexes to house their diplomatic presence in the region signalling their long term interest and commitment to it, the EU appears to be doing the opposite.

Similarly, the decision to leave a long gap between different phases of the current EU programme to promote civil society engagement in support of a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be perfectly understandable administratively, but given this is one of the few tools the EU has for engaging with the issue, the gap sends a wrong signal that somehow this is not so important.

Faced with criticism EU officials cite the large amounts of funds that the Union has spent in the region over the last three decades, initially as part of a concerted humanitarian effort, and subsequently in support of the reform agenda in the three countries.

This of course is a very valid point, and needs to be hammered-in in conversations with local interlocutors. But it does not address all concerns. Beneath the surface, the elites in the South Caucasus still worry about the sustainability of their states, Russian intentions, and the possibility of a slide into chaos because of wrong political calculations.

These concerns cannot be addressed with money only. They need a political commitment that is visible, real, and consistent.

The EU needs to sharpen its tools of engagement with the region – it should be more strategic and less patronising; a partner not a donor; and its actions must reflect its words.

The incoming EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Joseph Borrell, whose office has recently been strengthened, has found a big in-tray left over from Federica Morgherini. He will have to prioritise.

As regards the South Caucasus the choice is clear: he either prioritises it now, and helps to avert new crises later, or he will be obliged to prioritise it later in a crisis management fashion. In his statements, his visits and through all the tools of hard and soft power that the EU external arm has the South Caucasus needs to be high on the agenda.

There are some immediate steps that need to be taken:

  • The mandate of the EU Special Representative (EUSR) for the South Caucasus and the conflict in Georgia needs to be reviewed, and where necessary expanded to include a co-ordinating role in developing and delivering a strategic engagement with the region.

At the moment the EUSR is appointed by, and reports to, the member states. This has its benefits, but in order to increase coherence he and his team need to be better integrated in the EEAS structure.

  • The mission of the EUMM needs to be reviewed on the basis of the experience of the last decade. The mission is expensive but useful but its work has evolved, and its modalities now also need to evolve to ensure that it continues to be fit for purpose;
  • The unresolved conflicts remain central to how the region will evolve in the future. The EU’s engagement with the conflicts in Georgia has been high since the 2008 Georgia-Russia War. That engagement needs to be sustained. On Nagorno-Karabakh the EU has only as yet tiny threads of engagement. These need to be expanded, building on the work already done by the EUSR and by civil society organisations.
  • In the European Parliament there must be more attention to nuance when addressing the region. Longwinded prescriptive statements are often counter-productive. Instead the parliament should put effort in a more thoughtful analysis of the region and the EU’s relations with it, offering a vision for the way forward.

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