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EU Envoy Calls South Caucasus A 'Broken Region'

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Peter Semneby says the South Caucasus is in the grips of "old-fashioned, ethnically exclusive" nationalism (Photolur) BRUSSELS, October 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's special representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, offered an analysis rare in its candor in his annual address to the European Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee.


Summing up the collective woes of the three countries in the region, Semneby said on October 2 that although Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan share history, they lack a common identity. Soviet attempts to impose unity failed, Semneby says, and now the three countries are each in the grip of "old-fashioned, ethnically exclusive" nationalism.


Semneby said Europe could help remedy this situation.


"Given the rivalries between and inside the countries, this identity has to be larger than the region itself," he said. "An additional layer of identity, a European identity, is what comes to mind here. For such an identity, or for such a layer of identity to work as a catalyst for bringing this broken region together again, the countries and the communities in the region need, however, to understand that this identity is based on much more than just interests, but is fundamentally based on common values."


Yet the EU envoy was equally candid in making it plain that the EU at this point has little new to offer.


Georgia Both Ambitious, Vulnerable


Semneby identified Georgia as the most advanced country in the region and the most ambitious in its drive to move closer to the EU and NATO. However, he also characterized Georgia as being the most vulnerable -- largely due to the impact outside players such as Russia can have on its domestic affairs.


"I would mention as a particular [regional] concern the rising tensions in Georgian-Russian relations, which is illustrated, for example, by the continuing Russian sanctions against Georgia and the increasing number of security incidents in and around the conflict zones in Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he said.


"Given the rivalries between and inside the countries [of the South Caucasus], this identity has to be larger than the region itself. An additional layer of identity, a European identity, is what comes to mind here." -- Peter Semneby, EU special representative

Semneby said there has been "no progress" in resolving the frozen conflicts in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Upcoming elections in Russia, as well as talks on the future status of another frozen conflict, Kosovo, are contributing to what Semneby describes as "nervousness" in the region.


He also poured cold water on Georgia's attempts to sideline the separatist government in South Ossetia by setting up a rival, pro-Tbilisi administration. Semneby said the EU will continue working with the de facto government in Tsinkhvali, as it is key to addressing "the problem which needs to be resolved," though it does recognize that there are parallel authorities in the region.


The Georgian government is also not likely to be pleased by Semneby's observations that the EU will not send peacekeepers to Georgia without the consent of all involved parties, or join the Georgian government's new Commission on the Staus of South Ossetia. He also failed to say when the EU might relax its visa requirements for Georgian citizens to match the concessions already made for Russia -- and enjoyed by the huge number of Russian passport holders in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.


Semneby listed a number of recent EU confidence-building measures in Georgia, but acknowledged that the bloc's involvement in what are mostly training and liaison missions constitutes a "rather modest effort." in the security sector.


Nagorno-Karabakh Situation 'Fragile'


Addressing Armenia and Azerbaijan, Semneby noted their continued dispute over the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. He said the stalemate remains "fragile" and that the situation could deteriorate in the run-up to elections in each of the two countries in 2008.


Semneby said the mediation efforts pursued by the OSCE Minsk Group in the region will intensify in the near future, adding that the EU will fully support them. As in Georgia, he said, the EU will focus on "confidence-building measures," among which he identified the promotion of people-to-people contacts to help minimize the isolation of those living in the conflict zones.


The EU special representative said little on Armenia aside from noting that the country's parliamentary elections in May were an improvement over previous polls. But he sounded a warning for Azerbaijan. Semneby said the EU's interest in Azerbaijan's energy resources and transit potential will not cause the bloc to turn a blind eye to its deteriorating rights standards.


"At the same time, we cannot close our eyes to other parts of the [EU] agenda -- the need to implement democratic reforms, to respect human rights, and freedom of the media, and so on," he said. "I mentioned [earlier] some of the problems we had with Azerbaijan in this context. I think it's important that [everyone] realizes that if these issues are also not taken seriously in the relationship [with the EU], this relationship will sooner or later run into trouble, and the interest-based part of the relationship will also suffer as a result."


Once again revisiting the region's frozen conflicts, Semneby noted Russia's role in negotiations, saying Moscow will remain a "key actor" in efforts to resolve the disputes and noting the EU's "common interest" in seeing such a conclusion.

South Caucasus

REGIONAL APPROACH, INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION: International actors often take a regional approach when dealing with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. But the three states get plenty of individual attention as well.

European Union

-- has assigned Special Envoy for South Caucasus Peter Semneby to serve as a liaison between the EU and the region. Semneby describes his role as assisting Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia "on their way to moving closer to the EU and its core values."

-- in launching the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1999, a joint declaration on relations between the EU and the Caucasus countries was adopted.

-- has included Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) on an individual basis.

-- the European Commission has a joint Delegation to Georgia and Armenia.

-- the European Commission is currently working on concluding consultations with each of the three states on individual "action plans" intended to foster closer relations with the EU.

Council of Europe

-- in 2006 launched its "Stability Pact for the South Caucasus" initiative.

NATO

-- has assigned a lone special representative, Ambassador Robert Simmons, to represent the alliance in its dealings with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

-- The NATO Parliamentary Assembly recently suggested that, "given the very different relationships that NATO has with each country and the varying level of involvement, it might be sensible to expand his office to include separate representatives for each country."

-- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have each agreed to Individual Partnership Action Plans with NATO.

-- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are all signatories to NATO's Partnership for Peace, a program designed to facilitate cooperation on security issues following the fall of the Soviet Union.

OSCE

-- under NATO's Science for Peace and Security program, NATO and the OSCE together conduct the South Caucasus River Monitoring project. The effort aims to help Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia develop their infrastructure and trans-boundary water quality.

Eurasia Foundation

-- in 1998 launched its South Caucasus Cooperation Program, an initiative to promote cross-border partnerships among Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

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