[email protected]

April 24, 2012, Tuesday

The EU and the Caucasus: navigating the course of integration

This month has seen increased EU-based involvement in the South Caucasus, with the second plenary session of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly held in Baku from April 2-4 and with recommendations being issued at last week's European Parliament session to the European Council and European Commission regarding the negotiation of Association Agreements with Armenia and Azerbaijan, which first began in July 2010.

The Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, it was hoped, would provide a platform for mediation between Azerbaijan and Armenia and would serve to build trust and understanding between the two countries. The European Parliament issued two documents, one each for Azerbaijan and Armenia, which addressed two key issues for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the implementation of the EU Association Agreement.

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

In their recommendations to the European Council on the EU-Azerbaijani Association Agreement, the members of the European Parliament touched on the importance of the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, emphasizing the right to return to the region, the property rights and the right to personal security of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDP) from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories. They called for the unconditional restoration of their rights and financial support from the EU for those affected.

Many of the same recommendations appear in the EU-Armenian Association Agreement, in which the members of the European Parliament call upon Armenia to withdraw its forces from the occupied territories and to return these territories to Azerbaijani control, which would be a positive development from the EU perspective. The same recommendation was made in the past but saw little follow-up action, despite the European Parliament's resolution of May 20, 2010, “on the need for an EU strategy for the South Caucasus,” which stressed that “frozen conflicts are an impediment to the economic and social development and hinder the improvement of the standard of living of the South Caucasus region, as well as the full development of the Eastern Partnership; whereas a peaceful resolution of the conflicts is essential for stability in the EU neighborhood.”

Another important aspect of the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is security guarantees following the post-settlement return of IDPs to their homes, which the EU describes as a “genuine multinational peacekeeping operation in order to create suitable conditions for the future legally-binding free expression of will concerning the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh.” But the question of who will lead such a peacekeeping operation is conspicuously absent from this document, and the matter remains one of some contention. Any UN-mandated multinational peacekeeping force would likely be seen as neutral and a potentially realistic solution.

Regional issues beyond the Association Agreement

One of the concerns raised by the members of the European Parliament is Armenia's policy regarding Iran; Armenia still does not fully support the sanctions against Iran. The recommendation by the European Parliament states the need to “urge Armenia to make efforts to align its policy towards Iran with the EU approach to this country.” Clearly, Armenia's energy future, as far as it is based on joint initiatives with Iran, will be negatively affected. Despite international sanctions on Iranian oil exports, Armenia has continued, and even increased, its import of Iranian oil, much to the dismay of the West.

When Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan visited Washington on March 20, his US counterpart, Leon Panetta, raised the question of Armenia's coziness with Iran. It seems that the EU and the US are both concerned about the future of this Armenian-Iranian cooperation. When asked, Armenian government officials simply replied, “We have several scenarios, and they are described in our National Security Strategy.” If we look at Armenia's National Security Strategy, it states only that the sanctions against Iran pose security challenges to Armenia, despite claims by Armenian officials that there is described in the document a strategy for how to join in the implementation of sanctions against Iran. In fact, there is not; neither is there any description of what Armenia's strategy should be nor any possible alternate courses of action for how to deal with security if Armenia chooses to fall in line with the sanctions.

Another issue in EU-Armenian cooperation is the upcoming parliamentary elections in Armenia in May. The EU has urged Yerevan to take all possible steps to ensure free and fair elections. While the EU does not seek to impose a model or “recipe” for political reform in either Armenia or Azerbaijan, it supports a policy of mutual effort; “do more to get more.” The resolution notes that at the time of Armenia's last elections, people were killed during the course of police attempts to prevent an opposition demonstration. It further notes that Armenia has yet to complete a "transparent and impartial investigation of the events of 1 March 2008."

Additionally, one of the important points in the European Parliament's recommendations relates to democratic development and political reform. The EU emphasizes in the Association Agreement the crucial importance of freedom of expression and human rights issues.

It appears that such issues are high on the agenda of the EU; the EU's general strategy since 2009 can be read as supportive of sensitive issues -- namely territorial integrity. Additionally, it has used this support as leverage in improving human rights and democracy.

One of the basic problems with the EU's regional policy is that on the one hand it wants to perform a balancing act, especially between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but on the other hand it demands full support for the Minsk Group process, in which it is not directly involved. The Minsk Group spearheads efforts by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to find a political solution to the conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia and Azerbaijan. This balancing act is the main problem in the EU's conflict resolution policy, as EU assistance cannot replace a targeted political and security strategy for conflict prevention and the deterioration of the situation on the ground has destroyed the potentially stabilizing effect of EU financial efforts towards long-term conflict resolution. This is related to the EU's failure to create sufficient leverage over the conflicting parties, which would have enabled it to broker peace. Moreover, the EU proved incapable of using policies of conditionality, which bring to bear the pertinence of European Commission President Romano Prodi's decade-old comment that “the European Union has ‘limited resources' to settle the unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus” (November 2002). The real question is whether they have limited resources or whether they only want to invest limited resources.

Previous articles of the columnist