Brussels, 18 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Being made a "new neighbor" by the European Union involves both privileges and obligations.
The bloc holds out the offer of near-total economic integration and political dialogue. In return, it asks for reforms and -- above all -- stability and a readiness to peacefully defuse conflicts.
In the case of the South Caucasus, this is taking the EU into uncharted waters. So far, the bloc has sat back and let Russia, the United States, the United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) do the mediating in the region's so-called frozen conflicts.
"Azerbaijan's strategic policy towards integration into European structures continues, and today's visit confirms that once again. We made that choice 10 years ago, and Azerbaijan is moving very actively and quickly into the more active integration with Europe" -- President Aliyev
However, as today's visit to Brussels by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev indicated, the greater integration with the EU also means greater EU involvement in trying to resolve the conflicts.
European Commission President Romano Prodi made clear today that bilateral relations between the EU and Azerbaijan -- as well as Armenia -- should be seen against the backdrop of the neighborhood program. Prodi said that what he called the EU's "ring of friends" cannot tolerate conflicts.
Prodi said the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has gone on too long. He strongly hinted that greater EU involvement may be needed.
"We're worried that the [peace process] has stopped since 10 years. [There was] an armistice 10 years ago, [but] no peace. Clearly, [EU nations] don't want to interfere with the Minsk Group, but we're urging and pushing that the Minsk Group has some result. I expressed my will to be at the disposal of the two nations in order to help the Minsk Group [under the aegis of the OSCE] find a solution," Prodi said.
Prodi said there is "urgency" felt within the EU for a solution, and that the bloc could help "speed up the solution."
However, he acknowledged that the EU "cannot make positive proposals at this stage," as it has not been asked to get involved. The EU, Prodi said, has "complete respect" for the political autonomy of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
After meeting Prodi, Aliyev welcomed the extension of the EU's neighborhood program to Azerbaijan and the rest of the Southern Caucasus. He promised continued improvement through political, social, and economic reforms, as well as closer political dialogue with the EU.
"Azerbaijan's strategic policy towards integration into European structures continues, and today's visit confirms that once again. We made that choice 10 years ago, and Azerbaijan is moving very actively and quickly into the more active integration with Europe," Aliyev said.
However, Aliyev stopped short of endorsing full EU involvement alongside the Minsk Group, which is chaired by Russia, the United States, and France.
He stressed that the Minsk Group will continue to retain the mandate for mediation, adding he hopes it will become "more active." Asked by RFE/RL what precise role Azerbaijan would like the EU to play, Aliyev said he had simply asked the EU to more actively support international efforts.
"We already asked [the EU] and during today's meeting once again,” he said. “Of course, we all understand that [the] Minsk Group has a mandate from the OSCE, and nobody is going to question that mandate, and the Minsk Group is trying to do its best to find a peaceful resolution. But at the same time, we think that European organizations, [the] European Union, [the] Council of Europe, European public opinion can also be involved in the process."
Aliyev then added: "We do not mean that any country or institution can be an alternative to the Minsk Group."
Aliyev said Azerbaijan is seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict, but said such a resolution must be based on international law.
"Of course, the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was one of the topics of our discussions. Azerbaijan [intends] to continue its policy to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But at the same time, this resolution must be based on the recognized principles of international law. The territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan must be restored," Aliyev said.
He added that the immediate withdrawal of Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and other occupied territories is "one of the major conditions for finding a peaceful resolution."
Aliyev said dialogue with Armenia is continuing, but warned that if no concrete issues remain on the agenda, it is "not right to continue [and] imitate negotiations."