The European Union has indicated it is re-enforcing its engagement with the South Caucasus, including on the thorny issues of conflict resolution. Dennis Sammut argues in this op-ed that this is timely and necessary. The region needs more EU, less Russia and prospects for a better quality of life for all its people. For this to happen the EU needs to be more strategic in its approach to the region and there is no longer place for hesitation and ambiguity, he argues.
Two pieces of news emerged from Brussels on Friday (2 July) which go a long way to explaining the current thinking in the European Union on relations to its close, friendly, but sometimes problematic, neighbouring South Caucasus region – and the three countries that make it, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The first was a document on the future of the Eastern Partnership, written in the usual official jargon, which sets the thinking ahead of next December summit; the second a blog entry by Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, written in unusually refreshingly clear and unambiguous language. Both address the key issue of how the EU will engage with the region, at a time when it appears as if it has been elbowed out by a more assertive Russia, by a resurgent Turkey, and by others hovering around.
The EU is interested in the South Caucasus because it is its immediate neighbourhood, because it is a strategic connector with the countries of Asia to the east and those of the Middle East to the south, but most of all because the governments and people of the region have for the last thirty years consistently sought better and closer relations with Europe, even if all three countries have different approaches to how they can make this happen.
For thirty years the EU’s approach to the region has been benign – generous with its financial and economic assistance, encouraging to efforts for development and reform, welcoming to thousands who benefitted from studies at its universities. The EU has been indulgent of the idiosyncrasies of the region; tolerant when often faced with snubs and unjustified criticism; accommodating when asked to be understanding of the difficulties that the three South Caucasus countries faced as a result of being in a tough neighbourhood, and of the legacy of history.
The EU has never asked any of the countries of the region to choose it instead of – or at the expense of – someone else. When Armenia in 2014 unexpectedly terminated its intention to sign a partnership agreement, opting rather abruptly to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union instead, the EU promptly offered it an alternative framework of co-operation. It is true that the EU, being itself a community of values where personal freedoms and liberty are central, has nudged the three countries in this direction, but it has chosen its soft power to promote these values, rather than coercion.
Given this, there was, and there is, an expectation that the countries of the region appreciate this and respond appropriately. This has not always been the case, largely because Russia, the imperial power that ruled the region until 1991, still harbours a hegemonic approach towards the region – an approach that it has pursued with all means necessary, including force of arms. It continues to see the EU in the South Caucasus as an intruder. It has leant on the three countries in different ways, often questioning and challenging their sovereign decisions in the international sphere.
The South Caucasus needs more EU
Josep Borrell, writing on 2 July, explained in clearer terms than anyone in Brussels had done before, that the EU was committed to the region long term and was determined to engage with the region more. A few days earlier, Borrell, with the support of the 27 member states, sent a ministerial troika to the region with this clear message.
In Borrell’s words:
“We are ready to help with confidence building and conflict transformation, together with multilateral partners such as the OSCE and the UN. We want to support efforts to build an environment free of fear and hate. We are ready to help rebuild not only physical roads and bridges, but also paths to reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.”
related content: Josep Borrell argues for more EU engagement with the South Caucasus
According to Borrell, the leaders of three countries have appreciated the EU visit and indicated they want more EU involvement in the region. They stressed their readiness to co-operate with the EU on regional economic development and connectivity and that they value the EU’s role in building trust and in contributing to conflict transformation.
The most important tool that the EU has at the moment is the Eastern Partnership, which brings the EU together with the three South Caucasus countries, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. Since it was launched in 2009 the Eastern Partnership has engaged with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and has been the conduit for EU support for the future of the three countries. No one doubts its value. Yet the Eastern Partnership often failed to understand, let alone properly navigate, the complex geo-political context, and the fallout of that on the domestic politics of the three countries. There has in the past been too much ambiguity and too much hesitation. South Caucasus regional initiatives were frowned upon as being too risky, even though these were risks that were necessary to take. To put it simply, the Eastern Partnership was too technical and not strategic enough. This must not be allowed to be the case going forward, especially now that the Eastern Partnership is preparing for its next summit in December.
The EU must be front and centre in international engagement with the region, including in the process of securing lasting peace. Neither the assertive – sometimes aggressive – Russian demands of being primus inter pares in the region, nor the existence of the somewhat moribund Minsk Group process, should be a justification for not doing so. The member states have understood this, and they must do so again when they meet in the framework of the Foreign Affairs Council on 12 July. Whilst doing so they must also recognise, and communicate well, that the EU’s role is that of reliable partner not an external overlord.
The region needs less Russia
Russia is a neighbour of the South Caucasus too. No one should expect that Russia will not be interested in the South Caucasus. Yet its role needs to transform to being one of good neighbour. No Russia in the South Caucasus is neither realistic, nor even desirable. The Russians should also be contributing to peace, stability and prosperity in the region, as this is in their interest too. But the region needs less Russian interference, and a transformation from the Kremlin’s current neo-imperialistic approach to one of partnership. That inevitably means less Russia, and that is good for the region.
Better life for the people of the region
Any international involvement in the region must be guided by the objective of giving to the people living in it a better quality of life. There is still in the region too much poverty. The standards of health care and education, despite some spots of excellence, remain by and large lacking in many respects, the rule of law remains patchy, and personal freedoms are often infringed upon. The economic potential of the region, including its role in global economic connectivity, is far from being properly exploited for the benefit of all its citizens. There is a lot yet to be done, and there is space for all those who want to help in doing it.
The time of ambiguity is over
But the region, first and foremost, needs peace. The EU must play a full role in contributing to this, including, at the right moment, through the launch of a new ambitious diplomatic initiative that brings in all stakeholders and that can provide the right geopolitical framework for the region to develop. For this, the EU must sharpen its diplomatic tools and show resolve. The time of ambiguity is over.