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Caucasus: New EU Envoy Predicts Only Tentative Engagement

  • Ahto Lobjakas

In an interview with RFE/RL, Heikki Talvitie, the European Union's first special representative for the South Caucasus, today predicted his appointment will not spell any immediate rapprochement between the EU and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. Talvitie said the bloc is interested in gradually increasing its presence in the region, however, and does not rule out closer ties in the long term.

Brussels, 17 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The "bottom line" for Heikki Talvitie is clear. His appointment as the European Union's first special representative for the South Caucasus should be seen as a sign of continuing EU engagement with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

What it should not be seen as, however, is an indication that the EU is ready to significantly upgrade its ties with the three countries. Hence, relations between the EU and the South Caucasus will -- for the foreseeable future -- remain predicated on the so-called Partnership and Cooperation Agreements, which are the bloc's designated cooperation instruments for the former Soviet Union.

In an interview with RFE/RL in Brussels today, Talvitie said his job materialized in July as a compensatory gesture once it became clear Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia would not be part of the EU's "new neighbors" initiative.

"When the 'Wider Europe' concept was introduced [earlier this year] and the South Caucasus was not included, there was -- let's say -- some criticism in the area, in the region, towards the fact that the South Caucasus was left outside. I think that this was one of the motives why the European Union became more interested in creating this job," Talvitie said.

Talvitie is a seasoned diplomat with long ties to the former Soviet Union and the South Caucasus. He served as the Finnish ambassador to Moscow, and in 1995 and 1996 headed the so-called Minsk Group at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is tasked with resolving the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

He stressed the fact that his mandate -- or that of his successors -- will need to be renewed by EU member states twice a year.

Talvitie described his main task as preparing initial assessments for EU member states on the prospects of his new job, and to help guide EU policy for the region. He said that, while it is not yet clear whether his mandate will be renewed in December, he sees his job as "long-term."

Talvitie acknowledged that his task is not an easy one, given that the key prerequisite for positive developments -- security -- has yet to be achieved in the region. "All three countries and all those countries which are active in the region have one common interest, and this [is] the stability of the region. This is true even for the great powers. Considering that, the [other] vital interests of these three countries and the other [involved] countries are taken into consideration. There you have it in a nutshell. Then it's up to everyone [themselves] to interpret how there national interests will be fulfilled," Talvitie said.

Talvitie said the EU pursues a policy of "democratic stabilization." He noted the situation in the region is "complex" and observed that change -- and thus reform -- although necessary, directly affects stability and must therefore be gradual. He observed that although there are "some aspects of democratic development" present in the South Caucasus, progress is largely hostage to the many festering conflicts. The conflicts, in their turn, often have to be put on hold as elections take place and their outcomes settled.

Talvitie listed the conflicts. There is Azerbaijan's ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, currently within the purview of the Minsk Group. Then there is the breakaway region of Abkhazia in Georgia, where a UN "Group of Friends" and a UN special representative are attempting to mediate. In addition, secessionist tendencies are evident in South Ossetia, and problems abound with different minorities.

Talvitie said his mandate at this stage is to assist other international bodies in their work, and that he interprets this literally. Although he has already had talks with leading officials in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia, Talvitie said the EU is not directly involved in any ongoing talks.

Talvitie avoided any direct comment on Russia's current interests or activities, but indicated the sovereignty of the three countries in the region, as well as the interests of the other major actors, must be respected.

"Russia has a long history with the region. It has political, military, cultural history with the region which reflects Russian interest in the region from time to time. I think the Russians are very keen to see their interests fulfilled in the region even today. But it will happen in a context with these three countries being independent countries, and the other actors will be present -- I mean the United States, the European Union," Talvitie said.

Talvitie noted that Russia appears to have adopted a "waiting position," preferring to react to developments in the EU position rather than engage it directly.

Talvitie prefered to skirt the question of whether he finds local leaders in the South Caucasus cooperative. Rather, he said, the European aspirations of the three countries mean certain choices are unavoidable.

"The main positive feature for the EU and its cooperation with these three countries is the fact that all these three countries voluntarily want to become members of the European family -- and I do not mean [a] member of the European Union. It means that they value European standards and are voluntarily ready to change their legislation to correspond to European standards as concerns their societies and democratic developments within the society," Talvitie said.

Talvitie said he does not think the three countries can become part of the EU's "new neighbors" initiative -- covering, among others, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova -- before they share a border with the bloc.

Another EU official, who asked not to be named, said it could take five years before the EU is prepared to look at incorporating Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia into the program. The official said the EU's noncommittal attitude derives partly from the fact that it needs to do more for partner countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, and partly because no "direct threats" emanate from the South Caucasus.

The foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia will be in Brussels on 29 September to restate their case for closer ties with the EU.

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