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EU: Parliament Adopts Report On South Caucasus

The European Parliament today adopted a report on the South Caucasus that urges the EU to strengthen its ties with the region. The report also urges the neighbors of the three South Caucasus countries -- specifically Russia and Turkey -- to play a more constructive role in facilitating reconciliation of the region's so-called "frozen conflicts." However, the report acknowledges formidable obstacles exist to a greater rapprochement with the EU. R

Brussels, 26 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament has long called for greater EU involvement in the South Caucasus.

Its report today follows the first tentative steps taken by the EU's member states in January. That's when they indicated the three countries could eventually be included in the bloc's "Wider Europe" program for closer economic and political integration. Today's report welcomes that decision, but demands that the bloc do more.

"We stand ready to assist post-conflict reconstruction following peace settlements or to assist measures agreed between parties to the conflict."
Specifically, it asks the EU to contribute more aid, take steps to establish free trade, better coordinate its involvement in the region, and extend the powers of its special representative to the South Caucasus. The report also says the EU must bring pressure to bear on Russia and Turkey to help resolve conflicts involving the three countries.

When it comes to foreign policy, however, the European Parliament can only act in an advisory capacity. This was evident in the address to the European Parliament this morning by Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external relations. Reflecting widespread skepticism among EU member states -- with which most decision-making powers in foreign policy rest -- Patten put the onus on Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to first pursue reforms themselves.

"The European Union is closely monitoring developments in all three countries, to see whether there is continued progress towards democracy and continued progress in the economic sphere. We want to see a credible and a sustained commitment to reform, clearly reflected in concrete steps forward -- for example, in fighting corruption," Patten said.

Many member states are concerned that the inclusion of the three South Caucasus countries will divert attention from other "new neighbors," especially those on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

The inclusion of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the "Wider Europe" program at the EU's June summit now appears likely. However, key to their hopes will be whether the decision is accompanied by concrete proposals for aid and integration.

Georgia, thanks to the positive international response generated by its "Revolution of the Roses," appears best placed. There is some support among the member states to elevate Georgia to the ranks of those "new neighbors" -- such as Moldova and Ukraine -- which will receive concrete EU "action plans" in June.

Although the European Parliament would like to see greater EU involvement in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus, this appears to be a long way off. Patten today indicated the bloc is not prepared to play an active mediating role.

"On the issue of conflict resolution and reconciliation, the European Commission continues to provide its full support to the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and the United Nations in their efforts to resolve the region's frozen conflicts. I was pleased that we were able to discuss some of these matters with the presidency-in-office of the OSCE at the beginning of this week. We stand ready to assist post-conflict reconstruction following peace settlements or to assist measures agreed between parties to the conflict, which would reduce tensions and raise confidence between the two sides," Patten said.

The author of the parliament's report -- Swedish deputy Per Gahrton -- describes the situation in the South Caucasus in an accompanying explanatory note as resembling a "powder keg." He lists internal divisions, a "democratic deficit," poverty and corruption, as well as the so-called "frozen conflicts," to support the point. But he goes on to note that the EU "does not appear to view either its security interests in relation to the South Caucasus, or the benefits of deeper economic relations, as important enough to motivate its greater commitment."

The parliament's report repeats earlier calls by deputies to sponsor a comprehensive "stability pact" for the South Caucasus. Patten today said the idea is premature.

"The European Parliament takes note of the call for a stability pact for the region. I have to say when the issue was first raised a couple of years ago, there didn't seem to be all that much support for the idea. I'm not yet wholly convinced that the time is ripe yet to return to it. Certainly, it has budgetary consequences, which we'd want to look at in some detail," Patten said.

Other calls that the member states or the European Commission may find hard to respond to include a suggestion that the EU should bring pressure to bear on Russia to play a more constructive role in conflict resolution in the area.

The report also notes that stabilization in the Caucasus cannot be brought about without an end to the war in Chechnya, and urges Russia to honor its commitment to pull its troops out of Georgia.

Turkey is also asked to establish "good neighborly" relations with Armenia in accordance with its EU candidate status.

Of the three countries, Azerbaijan comes in for the sharpest criticism, with the report expressing concern over the human rights situation and curbs on media freedom in the country.

Gahrton, the report's author, also suggests in his accompanying note that the Armenian side has carried out an "ethnic cleansing" operation around Nagorno-Karabakh, displacing 1 million Azeris. However, deputies today deleted from the report a request that Armenia withdraw its troops from the five occupied regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for the restoration of the Baku-Yerevan railway route.

Gahrton today also said he is worried that the 7 percent vote threshold in Georgia's 28 March elections could leave opposition parties out of parliament, making Georgia what he called "the world's first democratic one-party state."

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