Brussels, 2 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan have taken another important step on the road toward closer alignment with the EU.
On 2 March, the European Commission adopted "country reports" on the three south Caucasus states, as well as Lebanon and Egypt. The reports are a detailed overview of the countries' progress toward adopting EU values such as rule of law, democracy, and a market economy.
Francoise Le Bail, a Commission spokeswoman, said the decision marks the completion of the first phase the EU's Neighborhood Policy -- the bloc's program to reach out to countries on its rim.
"These are measures within the framework of the neighborhood policy, which is a policy directed at countries to the east of the enlarged European Union, as well as the Mediterranean countries. We have already adopted a certain number of 'country reports' and 'action plans' for some countries, we're therefore now completing this action with the 'country reports' on five countries."
Le Bail said that the completion puts the states on the way to obtaining their own EU neighbourhood action plan. The action plans detail obligations on both sides for increased cooperation.
"These are measures within the framework of the neighborhood policy, which is a policy directed at countries to the east of the enlarged European Union, as well as the Mediterranean countries," Le Bail said. "We have already adopted a certain number of 'country reports' and 'action plans' for some countries, we're therefore now completing this action with the 'country reports' on five countries. And it is on the these 'country reports' that the 'action plans -- containing concrete measures for cooperation between these countries and the EU -- will be based."
The EU neighborhood policy is directed at a ring of countries stretching from Morocco to Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were initially excluded from the policy, but were taken on board largely as a result of the "Rose revolution" in Georgia that took place in November 2003.
The three south Caucasus countries, together with Lebanon and Egypt, should have their "action plans" by the end of the year. So far, Israel, Ukraine and Jordan have already signed theirs, with Morocco, Moldova, the Palestinian Authority and Tunisia about to do so.
The Commission has in recent months repeatedly stressed the neighborhood policy does not carry with it an EU commitment to eventually admit any of the beneficiary countries. The clarifications have been partly sparked by pressure from Ukraine to be put on a fast track to EU membership.
Another Commission official who asked not to be named explained on 2 March that the action plans consist of what he called two "baskets."
The first basket contains conditions set by the EU -- that is, reforms aimed at strengthening the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights, as well as certain foreign policy commitments, such as non-proliferation and counter-terrorism measures. These, the official said, are all specific measures which the EU will closely measure.
The other "basket" contains the EU offer. This could involve participation in EU programs, policies and agencies, approximation of national law with EU legislation to make cooperation and trade easier, and opportunities for people-to-people contacts.
The further countries go with reforms, the greater the degree of cooperation the EU will offer.
EU officials say that once the three-year action plans have successfully run their course, new and more extensive cooperation agreements may be offered. The neighbourhood policy could lead to a near-complete integration in the EU's single market.
On 1 March, RFE/RL spoke with Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili. She welcomed the Commission's decision regarding her country, but indicated it had been a long time coming. "[We react] very positively," Zurabishvili said. "We've been looking forward to that, already for some time since our versions of the country reports were transmitted to the EU already in the fall of last year, so we've been waiting for quite some time."
Georgia is seen by the EU as the most advanced nation in the region. It hosts the only full European Commission mission. There is a smaller "regional mission" in Yerevan, which reports to the one in Tbilisi. A similar small-scale mission will be launched this year in Baku.
Georgia's country report is the least critical, with relatively few problems identified when in comes to political reforms. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are criticized for deficient legislation, breaches of fundamental freedoms and a general lack of willingness to reform.
The reports note widespread Russian influence on decision-making in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The EU has no immediate plans to become directly involved in helping resolve the region's so-called frozen conflicts. However, it is currently considering setting up a border monitoring mission in Georgia and has contributed funds to the economic rehabilitation of areas affected by conflict.
Commission officials say they are confident Russia will not react negatively to EU moves to engage the South Caucasus, though they admit security cooperation in the ex-Soviet space is one of the most sensitive issues in EU-Russia attempts to agree a framework for their strategic partnership.
Officials in Brussels say the EU has made it very clear the bloc is not intent on weakening Russian influence in the region and encourages governments in the South Caucasus to pursue good relations with Moscow.