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EU: South Caucasus Countries Discuss 'Frozen Conflicts,' Closer Ties

Javier Solana (file photo) (AFP) The foreign ministers of the three South Caucasus countries -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia -- were in Brussels today to hold talks with EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and other officials. After the meetings, Solana said the EU is willing to get more involved in the region’s so-called frozen conflicts, without offering any details. The discussions also touched on progress in ongoing talks on EU neighborhood Action Plans that outline the bloc's support for the three countries over the coming years. The talks were delayed as a result of a spat between Cyprus and Azerbaijan, and final agreement could yet be held up.

Brussels, 13 December 2005 (RFE/RL) – Javier Solana today displayed unusual willingness to explore ways in which the EU could get more involved in resolving the "frozen conflicts" that badly impede the development of the South Caucasus.

Standing alongside the region's three foreign ministers, Solana indicated he has hopes the conflicts involving Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia could see movement soon. "There are some [conflicts] which are frozen, some others which are less frozen. But in any case, we would like very much -- being the type of conflict that exists there -- to [offer] help from the European Union as much as possible," Solana said.

Solana was particularly optimistic with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh, where he said a "solution may begin to move" as early as next year. He also praised recent "progress" between Georgia and separatist South Ossetia.

Solana did not elaborate about what shape the promised greater EU involvement might take. He stressed the fact that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) remains the main mediator in the conflicts.

The parties to the conflicts had different priorities.

On Nagorno-Karabakh, Solana said if the EU "is asked to get more involved, we will."

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian indicated his country prefers that the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group continue mediating. He said EU offers are appreciated, but said Armenia is not looking for "direct EU involvement in conflict resolution," but rather in the postconflict situation.

"We believe as we continue to make progress in our talks, [that the] EU’s involvement will become necessary for the postconflict rehabilitation part of this process," Oskanian said. He said that if next year sees a breakthrough on Nagorno-Karabakh, EU aid will be crucial for the quick development of the areas affected by the conflict.

Solana said that "important meetings" taking place in the coming days will determine the nature and extent of EU involvement.

Oskanian said Solana is referring to the current visit of the Minsk Group co-chairs to the region. They are due to meet the Armenian president on 15 December. The mediators will then proceed to Baku. According to Oskanian, they will discuss "some of the elements of the content of the talks," and will try to agree a venue and time for the next meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Oskanian said the meeting could take place as early as January.

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said Solana had told him the EU supports the Georgian peace plan for South Ossetia. Solana welcomed the plan's acceptance by South Ossetia, which he said was communicated to the Georgian government today.

Bezhuashvili told RFE/RL that Georgia is looking into "concrete mechanisms" for involving the EU in the peace plan. "First, as we proposed, the South Ossetian plan and the implementation of the plan should be a point on the agenda of EU-Russia talks," he added. "So, they need to have this political dialogue -- EU and Russia -- because Russia is an important player, and without the engagement of Russia it will be very difficult to achieve results."

The Georgian foreign minister said he believes his country secured the engagement of Russia at the recent OSCE ministerial meeting in Ljubljana. He confirmed Georgia now also has the engagement of South Ossetia. He called the breakaway region’s acceptance of the peace plan "a very significant step forward."

Georgia also wants the EU to extend the mandate of its special representative for the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, so that he can represent the EU on the Joint Control Commission for South Ossetia. Bezhuashvili said Georgia is also hoping to secure an EU border-monitoring mission akin to the one currently under way in Moldova and Ukraine.

All three ministers said their countries want closer ties with the EU, but none mentioned ambitions to join the bloc.

The three countries’ Action Plans outlining EU support over the next five years are being delayed by Cyprus, which objects to commercial air links between Azerbaijan and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. As a result, today’s meetings were also formally downgraded to "informal" talks from the intended Cooperation Council format.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said his country is seeking a solution to the dispute. "We are discussing this issue with the Greek Cypriots, and one [piece of] evidence [of that] is my last meeting in Ljubljana with the foreign minister of the Greek Cypriots, Mr. [George] Iacovou," he said.

Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian stressed that despite the change of format, the content of the meetings had not suffered. He said his earlier concerns that the spat could hamper Armenia’s Action-Plan talks were laid to rest by the European Commission, which has already dispatched teams of experts to the region to discuss the plan.

However, EU officials have told RFE/RL that Cyprus could still block final agreement. Oskanian said he hopes that will not be the case. "We hope that everything will move smoothly and Armenia will not become a victim of the differences that Azerbaijan has with one of the EU member states," he said.

Solana said after the meetings that he had also raised the subject of the recent elections in Azerbaijan, which the OSCE said did not meet international standards. Solana said he had discussed the concerns with Mammadyarov "in a friendly manner," adding that "our friends know very well what we think."

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