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EU Ministers Review South Caucasus Strategy, Mull Afghan Future

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French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (left) with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana at the foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on September 15

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (left) with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana at the foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on September 15

BRUSSELS -- There was an element of deja vu in the EU ministers' discussion of the South Caucasus. The bloc's current Swedish presidency had prepared a new strategy paper on the region.

The strategy review is largely a symbolic exercise, since the three countries all have existing engagements with the EU. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have all signed up to the bloc's European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and have agreed to ENP action plans. Earlier this year, they also joined the EU's Eastern Partnership together with Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus.

The EU's Swedish presidency is keen to keep the spotlight specifically on the South Caucasus region, however -- partly because next year's Spanish and Belgian presidencies are liable to have other priorities, and partly to counteract Russia's attempts to expand its influence in the region.

At a press conference after the latest EU meeting on September 15, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt emphatically asserted the right of all three countries to pick their own allies and friends.

"These countries are sovereign nations and they have their right to choose their own destiny," Bildt said. "They've expressed a [wish] for a closer relationship with the European Union."

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt in Brussels on September 15
Bildt then went on to say, in a thinly veiled reference to Russia, "They also have the right not to be restricted by the wishes of anyone else."

The Swedish strategy paper -- seen by RFE/RL -- breaks no new ground on the South Caucasus. Instead of membership prospects, the three countries are offered open-ended association agreements, which could in the longer term lead to free trade and easier travel arrangements.

However, the EU's emphasis on treating the South Caucasus as a single, integral, region contains a snub aimed at Georgia, which as late as last year saw itself as being on a par with Ukraine among eastern EU membership hopefuls. But the August 2008 war with Russia, sandwiched between crackdowns on opposition demonstrations, put an end to Georgia's dreams of rapid advancement toward the EU.

Describing the current situation in the region, Bildt offered no differentiation between Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan beyond noting that "some are working to establish the rule of law, democracy, [and] good governance in accordance with EU standards."

He then added that he "wouldn't say everyone has made the kind of progress we'd like to see."

EU Backs 'Afghan' Electoral Process

On Afghanistan, the gathering of EU ministers gave its tacit support to reported UN-led efforts to avoid a second-round runoff between President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, his nearest rival.

The "Times" of London reports a serious rift between the UN's Kabul mission chief, the Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, and his U.S. deputy, Peter Galbraith.

Galbraith, who argued that the UN mission should demand an extensive recount, has now left the country. Eide is said to be worried that a second round could leave the country in political limbo for months.

The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission has announced a limited recount affecting 10 percent of all polling stations. Observers say this makes a runoff less likely, with Karzai having garnered more than 54 percent of the vote.

Without commenting on the decision directly, Bildt said external powers must not "dictate" the outcome of the process.

"I think it's important that we support those institutions, that we give them the time that they need, and that we don't prejudge any result or try to dictate any outcome to the process that, at the end of the day, is in the hands of the Afghan people," Bildt said.

U.S. with Afghan National Police and French soldiers in Kapisa Province in July
"Afghanization" -- handing over as much responsibility to the Afghan authorities as possible -- has been a key theme in recent EU thinking. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in Brussels that the bloc believes holding a planned major international conference on Afghanistan's future in Kabul later this year or early next year would contribute to the "Afghanization" of long-term responsibility for the country.

Bildt said the EU is eager to step up its civilian, economic, and political efforts in the country as soon a new government is in place. The EU is placing a particular emphasis on promoting political reconciliation between the central government and the Taliban. Bildt said "peace-building efforts" will ultimately decide the fate of the country, but did not explain what role the EU would play in a possible reconciliation process.

Iran Options

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, also briefed the EU ministers late on September 14 on Iran's latest offer to hold talks with the "P5+1" -- the five permanent UN Security Council members, plus Germany.

Arriving at the ministers' meeting, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said the EU is ready to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran should talks on the country's nuclear program be unproductive and the UN Security Council divided.

"On Iran, we have three steps," Stubb said. "Step No. 1 is to have a dialogue, and that dialogue will most probably take place pretty soon, with the Americans and the Europeans together; step No. 2, if those dialogues don't lead to a result, we will have to go toward UN sanctions; if we don't get UN sanctions, then we will have to think about unilateral EU sanctions."

Finally, Commissioner Olli Rehn said he believes an understanding reportedly arrived at by Slovenia and Croatia earlier this month in their border dispute is a "genuine agreement" that will allow Zagreb to speedily conclude its accession negotiations.

Objecting to what it says is Croatian encroachment in the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia has blocked Croatia's EU talks for more than a year.