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Caucasus: EU Increasingly Targeting Georgia Over Conflict-Stricken Armenia, Azerbaijan

  • Ahto Lobjakas --> The European Union this week formally included Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in its European Neighborhood Policy. The move does not open the door to EU membership -- officials studiously avoid speculation, saying simply membership is "not on the agenda." However, the new neighborhood initiative could, over the next decades, lead to free trade, substantial aid grants, and extensive political dialogue with the EU. In the South Caucasus, Georgia now appears best placed to make use of EU goodwill, while officials say the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a serious obstacle for Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Brussels, 15 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- With increasing confidence, EU officials are singling out Georgia as deserving star treatment among the South Caucasus countries.

It was Georgia's "Rose Revolution" that forced the EU to reverse its decision to exclude the region from its neighborhood policy. The decision to include the South Caucasus was formally confirmed on 14 June by EU foreign ministers.
What is seen as President Mikheil Saakashvili's genuine desire for reform has propelled Georgia far ahead of its two neighbors in terms of EU attention.

The EU's special representative for the South Caucasus, Finnish diplomat Heikki Talvitie, spoke in Brussels today praising Georgia's pioneering role. "Basically, when I started [last July] we had on the agenda [the question], 'How to develop these relations [with the South Caucasus]?' And then suddenly the 'Rose Revolution' happened in Georgia and this accelerated things a lot. Georgia became [a] focus [for] international politics; Georgia got the priority on the agenda of many countries -- including the United States, Russia, Turkey, the European Union, among others, and our member states. This meant that there was a sort of a push to our relations with the South Caucasus," Talvitie said.

What is seen as President Mikheil Saakashvili's genuine desire for reform has propelled Georgia far ahead of its two neighbors in terms of EU attention. EU foreign ministers on 14 June decided to launch a "rule of law" mission in Georgia to help the country improve its criminal-justice system. Not only will it be the first EU mission of its kind, it also marks the first application of the bloc's defense and security policy outside of the Balkans or Africa.

Tomorrow, a World Bank-sponsored donors conference for Georgia will take place in Brussels. The United States and Russia sit side by side with EU member states and the European Commission. Officials say the pledges are expected to total almost 500 million euros ($607 million) from 2004 to 2006.

Speaking privately, EU officials say the bloc has no choice but to focus on Georgia. Saakashvili's anticorruption drive is seen as particularly impressive.

The recent peaceful defusing of the stand-off with Adjaran strongman Aslan Abashidze is another credit to Saakashvili's name. EU sources note that Talvitie, together with the U.S. ambassador to Georgia and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, played an important mediating role.

The EU, however, remains concerned over the possibility of conflict in another troubled Georgian region, South Ossetia. Another challenge Saakashvili is said to face is that of allowing a credible opposition to appear.

Armenia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, are in the back seat. Their main problem is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. One EU official told RFE/RL that although the EU wants to help both countries, "we cannot do much with two armies facing each other."

Talvitie today said democratic reforms in both countries have also been slow. "Azerbaijan and Armenia naturally had been [in] focus earlier [with their] elections," he said. "And that has been a little bit negative development because we had expected quite a lot, especially in Armenia, concerning the elections, [as regards] the democratic process, fair and free elections. It was a little bit of a disappointment that the Armenians could not fulfill the expectations. In Azerbaijan, the situation was the same, but basically we are now over this period and we are working with both Azerbaijan and Armenia on their constitutions and how to develop further respect for human rights, [the] rule of law and democratic process."

EU officials stress that both Azerbaijan and Armenia must take steps for the more than 10-year-old mediation effort to get off the ground. Sources make clear, however, that the bloc seeks no formal mediating role in the foreseeable future.

Instead, said Talvitie today, the EU stands by with offers of substantial aid. "If there's [a] need for some rehabilitation program in order to start the peace process, the EU could be ready to tackle these programs, to really make positive initiatives in order to facilitate, even in a detailed way, a solution, try to find a solution," he said.

The EU is also conducting discreet talks with Turkey and Russia on the issue.

Meanwhile, Talvitie said today, the EU is preparing concrete aid measures to help relieve tensions between Georgia and its breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In South Ossetia, a new railway link with Georgia is planned, as well as support for refugees. As for Abkhazia, plans for a construction program are under way to span a valley cutting the region off from the Georgian mainland.

Overall, EU officials say Armenia is in the least favorable situation of the three countries, having to rely heavily on its diaspora in Russia and elsewhere in the absence of significant natural resources. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has massive oil reserves, which will also benefit Georgia by means of a new pipeline to the Black Sea, which will be put into operation next year.

EU officials have in recent weeks praised the constructive role Russia has begun to play in the region. One senior diplomat mentioned the Adjaran crisis, as well as ongoing talks with Georgia on joint border management. The diplomat said Russia has clearly become interested in stability on its southern borders.

The diplomat said good links exist between EU and U.S. diplomats in the region. He said the U.S. stance became significantly "more cooperative" during the spring, adding that this has allowed a detailed coordination of efforts to take place.