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EU 'Troika' Begins Tour Of South Caucasus

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Union has found itself as the only international body with observers present along the Georgia-Russia cease-fire line after last year's conflict.

The European Union has found itself as the only international body with observers present along the Georgia-Russia cease-fire line after last year's conflict.

BRUSSELS -- A high-level EU delegation has arrived in the South Caucasus to tour Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia in the coming days.

The EU "troika" will be led by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who will be flanked by top officials from the EU's Council of Ministers and the European Commission.

The fact that the EU troika will spend three days in Georgia and just six hours in Azerbaijan and Armenia is a fairly adequate reflection of the bloc's priorities in the region -- and its ability to make a difference in the three countries.

Writing in his blog on July 16, Bildt said the visit will kick off with a lunch in Batumi. The host will be Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has invited the EU troika to stay at his summer residence on the Black Sea.

Bildt will be accompanied on the visit by the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, fellow Swede Peter Semneby. Also attending will be Karel Kovanda, a former Czech diplomat and now a high-ranking official at the European Commission; and a representative of the EU's next, Spanish presidency.

Along The Front Line

On July 17, Bildt said, the EU visitors will spend a day with the EU monitoring mission as its carries out its daily patrols in "different parts of the country."

Diplomats in Brussels say the itinerary is likely to include the town of Zugdidi and the village of Odzizi, on the Georgian side of the demarcation lines with the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively.

The EU team may also make an attempt to visit the Russian-occupied village of Perevi, contested by Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, with Moscow endorsing the South Ossetian claim that the village fell within South Ossetia's Soviet-era administrative borders.

With the pullout of OSCE monitors from South Ossetia and the departure of the UN observation mission from Abkhazia, the EU has with little warning become the only international body with observers present in the country.

Sweden's Carl Bildt will lead the delegation.
Debates in Brussels indicate this is a responsibility the bloc is barely beginning to apprehend and grapple with. A number of member states fear the EU's monitoring mission -- which has already seen a local employee killed -- could become embroiled in hostilities and thus complicate the EU's already fraught relations with Russia.

But the EU also faces a potential political mine field in Tbilisi as it tries to "open up Abkhazia and South Ossetia" -- an avowed goal of the bloc as Brussels tries to increase its "footprint" and "visibility" in the breakaway provinces.

True, the EU's ambitions are limited to fostering people-to-people contacts and carrying out rehabilitation projects with the ultimate aim of facilitating reconciliation between Tbilisi on the one hand, and Sukhumi and Tskhinvali on the other. But this will inevitably involve contacts with Russian and separatist authorities.

Authorities in Tbilisi will be pressing Bildt and his companions this week to toe a highly restrictive line, restrict contacts with separatist authorities to a minimum, and respect the provisions of a recent Georgian law on occupied territories. Privately, EU officials see some of the strictures contained in the law as unnecessary encumbrances.

Walking A Fine Line

Diplomats say Semneby is preparing a report in conjunction with the EU's representative at the Russia-Georgia talks in Geneva, Pierre Morel, on the "parameters" of future interaction with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The report will proceed from the EU's nonrecognition policy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and is likely to recommend limiting contact to humanitarian and reconstruction issues, and the favoring of contacts with local population and nongovernmental organizations wherever possible.

Semneby has argued in recent meetings that contacts with the de facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be carried out at no higher level than that of EU special representatives. No contacts are to be conducted with Russian diplomatic representatives in either Sukhumi or Tskhinvali.

There is a separate delicate issue for the EU in its attempts to tread the fine line between wielding its soft power to beneficial effect and respecting Tbilisi's sensibilities. That is the status and involvement in its work of Georgian-nominated representatives for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Another major item on the EU troika's agenda is facilitating the "internal dialogue" between the Georgian government and opposition parties. The opposition has been incensed recently by government plans to amend three key laws with the aim of placing restrictions on future demonstrations and increasing fines for infractions. In briefings with EU diplomats, opposition politicians have called the measures "three steps toward dictatorship."

Semneby last month told EU ambassadors in Brussels that the Georgian public's trust in state power remains low. But he has said more recently that both the government and opposition now seem to have a "better grasp of reality," due in part to the mediating efforts of the EU and other outside powers. Although the confrontation persists, there is now dialogue going on behind the scenes, diplomats believe. There are also reports of the government trying to co-opt some opposition leaders with sub-ministerial appointments, so far unsuccessfully.

Saakashvili's administration will be aware of the window of opportunity opened up by Sweden's six-month stint at the EU's helm. Compared to Spain and Belgium, which will hold next year's EU presidencies, Sweden is a very sympathetic partner for Georgia. Accordingly, the two sides hope to sign visa-facilitation and readmission agreements in October, and the EU-Georgian Association Agreement and a "deep free trade agreement" in December.

Georgia will also be keen to secure further economic support from the EU. EU diplomats say the country's economy has held up surprisingly well throughout the global downturn, but note that growth continues to fall and investment flows have dried up.

The talks in Geneva between Georgia, Russia, and separatist representatives have stalled, with the parties agreeing only on the need for deliberations to continue. Recent focus has been on concrete, specific issues, with an agreement on water-sharing between Georgia and South Ossetia a rare ray of light.

Little Time For Karabakh

In contrast to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia will receive relatively little attention this week. Baku and Yerevan caused bemusement within the EU with a vicious squabble over which country the EU delegation should visit first.

The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is likely to top the EU agenda in both Baku and Yerevan. The two countries' presidents will meet in Moscow July 17, and the EU delegation will take its cue from there.

The EU has limited leverage in the South Caucasus beyond Georgia. Azerbaijan with its gas reserves and possible transit role for Central Asian gas remains perhaps the most important country strategically for the EU, but diplomats in Brussels also describe it as the most problematic.