Opinion: EU engagement in the South Caucasus is bringing stability and prosperity to the region

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is causing a permanent shift in Europe's security landscape and influencing the foreign and security policies of the European Union, writes Simona Scotti in this op-ed for commonspace.eu. Russia's war against Ukraine has reverberated beyond its borders, posing threats and raising specific concerns in other neighboring post-Soviet regions. This act of aggression has also underscored major security implications for the South Caucasus, presenting an opportunity for the EU to enhance its relations with these countries and create historic prospects for deeper cooperation.

Events in recent years have demonstrated the EU's need for stability on its borders, as it is vulnerable to the adverse consequences of the turmoil in its immediate and extended vicinity. Therefore, ensuring peace and stability in the South Caucasus is crucial for Brussels. As Russia's attention is primarily focused on Ukraine, its relative disregard for the South Caucasus region has created a wider space for other powers to shape the security dynamics in the area.

While this situation presents the possibility of a more disruptive Iranian presence, as highlighted by the recent tensions with Azerbaijan, it also offers the EU an opportunity to engage positively in the region. In fact, three significant developments highlight the EU's involvement in the South Caucasus.

The first development is the EU's newfound role as a mediator in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. In 2021, the primary mediation for Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations was carried out by Russia, with the EU - and the US - joining the process at a later stage. The EU-led mediating efforts, known as the "Brussels format" and spearheaded by Charles Michel, have resulted in important agreements. Notably, extensive discussions of an interstate peace treaty were held in April and October 2022, and Baku and Yerevan came to a preliminary understanding on the mutual recognition of territorial integrity.

The Brussels format represents a shift in the European approach that has been moving beyond humanitarian actions towards a more politically driven strategy that involves close collaboration with the governments of both countries. The most recent meeting in Brussels, the 5th to be held in this format, took place on 14 May, yielding significant progress in border delimitation and facilitating the unblocking of transport and economic links in the region.

Azerbaijan's strategic significance, EU monitoring mission in Armenia

The second development pertains to Azerbaijan's strategic significance in the Eurasian space, fueled by its favorable location due to the Caspian Sea’s abundance in energy resources. Following the Ukrainian conflict, Azerbaijan's relations with the EU have become particularly noteworthy. Recognizing the gas threat posed by Russia, the EU engaged in energy negotiations with Azerbaijan, resulting in the signing of a strategic partnership agreement in July 2022.

This agreement solidified their alliance in trade, transportation, and energy. The increased delivery of Caspian gas through the TAP/TANAP pipelines played a vital role in mitigating the energy crisis caused by the war and reducing the dependence of Western Balkan and Southern European countries on Russian gas. President Ursula Von der Leyen even projected that gas imports from Azerbaijan could potentially reach 20 billion cubic meters (bcm) by 2027.

The third prominent development involves the establishment of the EU Monitoring Mission in Armenia (EUMA) under the Common Security and Defense Policy. Led by Markus Ritter, EUMA is a civilian mission and consists of approximately 100 staff on the ground from EU member states based in Yeghegnadzor. With an initial two-year mandate, EUMA aims to promote stability in Armenia's border areas and support the normalization efforts facilitated by the EU between Armenia and Azerbaijan. EUMA could be considered as an upgrade of the EU Monitoring Capacity (EUMCAP), which was proposed at the Prague meeting on 6 October following the September 2022 clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the largest escalation since the Second Karabakh War.

Subsequently, 40 observers from the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia were dispatched to the Armenian side of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border for a two-month period. While the EUMCAP's mission concluded on 19 December, the EU Council decided to deploy a comprehensive monitoring mission along the entire border with Azerbaijan following a request from Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan. The decision was taken without consulting Baku - which created some discontent among the Azerbaijani leadership, who claimed that the credibility and transparency of decision-making within the EU were impacted by the display of bias by certain member states, leading to a decline in overall trust. At the end, Azerbaijan agreed to acquiesce to the mission, albeit with some hesitation, on the condition that it would consider and respect Azerbaijan's interests.

Challenging Russia’s Influence

The recent developments have not only demonstrated the European project's ability to bring stability and prosperity to its neighboring regions, but also posed a challenge to Russia's monopoly over the security of the former post-Soviet space. Predictably, Russia has not warmly embraced the renewed engagement of the EU in the South Caucasus. The deployment of the EUMA was harshly criticized by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova, who accused the European Union of trying to win a foothold in its traditional sphere of influence. The dispatch of the EUMCAP did not elicit a positive response from the Kremlin either. In fact, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was prepared to deploy observers to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, coinciding with the EU's approval of their own prearranged observer mission.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have harbored longstanding frustrations with Russia's transactional approach to peacekeeping in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has consistently lacked genuine intentions to resolve conflicts in its neighboring regions, opting instead to maintain unresolved conflicts in order to exert long-term influence and control over the host countries, as well as to prevent their eventual integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that both Armenia and Azerbaijan have widely welcomed the EU's increased involvement in the South Caucasus.

Future Challenges and Priorities

The EU's expanded engagement in the region reflects a strategic shift and a recognition of the region's geopolitical significance. Through its mediation efforts, its energy partnerships with Azerbaijan, and the deployment of a monitoring mission in Armenia, the EU is actively promoting stability, economic cooperation, and connectivity in the South Caucasus, contributing to regional security and fostering positive developments in the aftermath of the conflict. However, it remains to be seen whether the enhanced EU involvement in the region will bring longlasting, concrete results to the stability of the region.

If successful, the EU's efforts in establishing a state of relative peace for Armenia while firmly recognizing the restoration of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity would send a powerful message that Yerevan has alternative sources of support and diplomatic engagement beyond its traditional reliance on Russia. This would not only diversify Armenia's options but also contribute to a more balanced geopolitical landscape in the South Caucasus, where multiple actors can play a constructive role in achieving lasting peace and prosperity.

source: Simona Scotti is an expert on the South Caucasus, Turkish security policies, energy and connectivity. She holds a Master's degree in International Relations from the Ca' Foscari University of Venice. She carried out exchange programs in Bogotá, Moscow and Belgrade, receiving education in Security Studies and Political Science.
photo: European Union
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