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July 11, 2012, Wednesday

The role of the EU in the Caucasus: ‘Zero problems’ directive?

Last week's fifth International Black Sea Symposium (IBSS) in Athens addressed, amongst other issues, the question of the EU's role and responsibility in this region. As it happened, the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, was visiting the South Caucasus at the same time.

Following such a high-level official visit, the regional media concluded that “[this visit] indicates the increased attention on the part of the EU that reflects its growing strategic interests in the South Caucasus.” This might be true, but identifying the EU's role and efforts in the region does not necessarily mean that they have a clear strategy; however, the region has great expectations of the EU.

In this sense, the word “strategy” can be seen as something of a misnomer within EU-South Caucasus relations. The past 20 years indicate that the term “rapprochement” best describes the EU's policy in the region. In terms of assessing EU engagement in the South Caucasus, there were three main factors that drove and defined policy in the '90s and are still relevant. Firstly, there has been a notable lack of coherent and consistent Western policy toward the region. Interestingly enough, in the 1990s “Western” engagement can be interpreted as the US' intensified approach toward the region rather than the EU's.

Secondly, the EU's engagement was based on technical assistance to the region. Prior to 1999, it is hard to talk about the EU's role in the region as opposed to the role played by individual member states. One difference between the US and EU's approaches during that time is that the US started building its regional strategy after 1997, and energy companies had an important place in Washington's strategy. In the case of the EU, it was the notion of “democratization” -- Georgia's Rose Revolution -- that pushed the EU to intensify its role in the Caucasus.

Thirdly, in the region's security affairs, the European absence has long seemed appropriate -- at least in comparison with players such as Russia and the US. The EU has not managed to be a decisive force for good or to prevent negative regional trends. Now while it may be the case that the region's expectations of the EU are high, the president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Dr. Alexander Rondeli, aptly sums up the situation in these words: “If you play the piano, it doesn't mean that you are playing only with white keys.” No one can expect an external actor to come and solve problems of the region; it is first and foremost the duty of the regional countries themselves.

For the EU, there are a series of coexisting opportunities and challenges: Firstly, there is a need for active engagement in conflict resolution. The EU needs to adopt a “zero problems” strategy that encompasses the conflicts between the South Caucasus countries. For example, the EU's Black Sea strategy emphasizes the importance of resolving regional conflicts and describes the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a real threat but makes no mention of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These disparities create uncertainty and diminish faith in the EU and its institutions.

Second is strategic dialogue. It would be beneficial to support strategic dialogue within the three South Caucasian countries. The EU's civil society initiative is very important in the process of democratization; a lot of people can and do demand more democratization measures from their respective governments. The EU should increase support for civil society in these three countries by stepping up funding for NGOs and by providing more educational exchanges and support programs.

Thirdly, there needs to be a “single voice” in EU policy. For example, the appointment of the EU's Special Representative (EUSR) for the South Caucasus in 2003 was not that groundbreaking in terms of the EU's role in conflict resolution. Throughout the years, the EUSRs found themselves struggling to increase the EU's relevance in conflict settlement efforts without significant backing from a number of key EU member states. During the 2008 August war over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the EU was divided, with one group of EU member states who were unconditionally supportive of Georgia and “hawkish” on Russia, and another who sought to avoid tensions with Russia over Georgia. In terms of the EU's engagement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the EUSRs acknowledge that this conflict comes under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group's mandate rather than the EU's. Consequently, the EUSRs did not have sufficient backing to pursue meaningful conflict resolution.

Fourth, there needs to be a “crisis policy,” both for the internal problems of the EU and for preventing further crises in the Caucasus. In the first case, the EU is experiencing grave financial problems. But if this crisis distracts the EU from its commitments in the Caucasus, it will lose all of the leverage it has worked so hard to gain -- and there are states that don't want to see Western engagement and are ready to fill any political vacuums that may occur. In the Caucasus, the EU's “conflict prevention” methods failed in the shadow of 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. It's not clear what the EU's response would be in the event of a new political or military crisis in the region.

To sum up, for a strategy, one should not need a strategy paper -- of those, the EU has enough. In the short term, for the EU, the main challenge will be to mobilize EU public opinion and the EU member states behind a collective EU foreign policy action towards the South Caucasus. For the South Caucasus the main challenge will be to avoid regional security complications and focus on political, economic and social relations with the EU. If we consider the opportunities and challenges for the EU, then the following saying is very applicable: “Change is not a destination, just as hope is not a strategy.”

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