The European Union has announced a new initiative to promote economic integration in the South Caucasus and link the volatile region closer to Europe. A high-level international conference that ended in Armenia on 16 April was the first practical step toward the launch of the EU's Caucasus Information Technology Initiative, or CITI. But as RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from Yerevan, the continuing bitter conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains a serious hindrance to the implementation of regional projects.
Yerevan, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Senior government officials, business executives, and representatives of international organizations who gathered in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, agreed to promote the development of an "information society" in the Caucasus.
In a joint declaration, they pledged to work out an action plan that will flesh out the European Union's latest initiative -- the CITI. The participants in the EU-sponsored conference said the successful implementation of CITI will result in the further integration into Europe of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
The EU has still to work out details of the initiative, but it has already pledged financial and technical aid for the spread of information technology (IT) in the three regional states. In a video message to the conference participants, the EU's External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said Brussels strongly supports the development of the high-technology sector because of its potential impact on economic development, good governance and regional integration.
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said the new EU effort represents an opportunity for the three impoverished countries to share in the benefits of the global IT boom. Oskanian chaired the opening and concluding sessions of the two-day forum.
"This conference is not an end; it's only a beginning. That's how we view this. And the key in all this is that we somehow manage to provide continuity. The next thing we've got to do -- not Armenia alone, but along with Georgia and hopefully Azerbaijan -- is to go and knock on the European Union's door and put new questions before them."
Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili also welcomed the EU initiative, saying it will contribute to the region's sustainable development.
"Our conference is an attempt to place the South Caucasus on the global IT map. The development of information technologies can play a crucial role in the mobilization of all regional intellectual potential, which would eventually create a so-called knowledge-based economy in the region," Beruchashvili said.
The idea to hold the conference under the EU's aegis was proposed in 2000 by the Armenian government, which regards the development of IT as one of its chief economic priorities. Armenia, which is seen as the most advanced of the three Caucasian states in the IT sector, will be the first beneficiary of CITI.
The European Commission has already allocated 1.8 million euros for the creation of an IT center in Yerevan. The center will provide existing and prospective Armenian specialists with training, relevant information, and access to computer facilities.
IT is one of the most rapidly growing sectors of the struggling Armenian economy. Government officials say the aggregate output of an estimated 200 private firms involved in the sector jumped by 30 percent last year, with exports of IT products exceeding 22 million euros. About 60 companies deal with software development. Twenty-six of them operate with foreign -- mostly U.S. -- capital.
The head of the EU representation to Georgia and Armenia, Ambassador Torben Holtze, told RFE/RL that the European Commission has yet to decide on similar support projects for Azerbaijan and Georgia. Holtze said the Yerevan conference will help Brussels officials draw up an IT strategy for the entire region, impoverished after the Soviet collapse.
CITI envisages, among other things, the harmonization of IT-related legal frameworks in the three countries with international standards. It also aims to create a regional IT infrastructure that would be integrated into the European information and communication networks.
However, the boycott of the conference by Azerbaijan highlights the difficulties ahead. Baku refuses to engage in any cooperation schemes with Yerevan before the resolution of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh -- the main source of instability in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijani officials argue that such contacts would prolong and legitimize Armenian control of the disputed enclave.
The EU and Armenia, by contrast, take the view that joint economic projects could facilitate any settlement.
According to Britain's ambassador to Armenia, Timothy Jones, integration is also vital for the economic development of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Addressing the conference, Jones said: "Their prospects for growth depend critically on their ability to start a process of integration amongst themselves. As things stand, there is a remarkable absence of integration within the region. There is not even a scheduled flight service connecting its three capitals."
Armenia's Foreign Minister Oskanian agreed: "All of us recognize and acknowledge that, individually taken, we cannot make much of a dent. We cannot keep pace with the fast developments in this area that are taking place in the world."
The Karabakh dispute has already seriously hampered the implementation of the EU's other regional initiatives, including the ambitious Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia (TRACECA) project to revive the ancient Silk Road. The status quo in the South Caucasus is thus bound to be a serious obstacle to the achievement of goals set by CITI.