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South Caucasus: Frozen Conflicts Show Little Sign Of Thaw

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner (file photo) (epa) The visit by Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, to the three South Caucasus countries last week brought no tangible advances in the bloc's relations with the region. Talks between the EU and Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan on the action plan for closer links drag on. Meanwhile, no breakthroughs have materialized in the region's "frozen conflicts" -- in fact, in Georgia, tensions related to South Ossetia appear to be on the increase.

BRUSSELS, 20 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The neighborhood policy action plans and the "frozen conflicts" in the South Caucasus were top of commissioner Ferrero-Waldner's agenda.

Yet officials in Brussels have said after the visit that there was no tangible progress to report on either issue.

Emma Udwin, Ferrero-Waldner's spokeswoman, said the commissioner urged the three countries to continue with the ongoing "good consultations" on the "action plans." The plans will lay out the guidelines for the three countries on building closer relations with the EU over the next five years.

The action plans were initially to be concluded late last year. Udwin told RFE/RL today that the delay does not mean anything is amiss: "The action plans are moving very swiftly and very effectively. There was one round at the end of last year, we're about to embark on the second round in early March. And we hope that second round will go as well as the first, with a view to rapid conclusions of the consultation process."

However, Udwin refused to put a deadline on the talks.

Azerbaijan-Cyprus Dispute Drags On

EU sources have told RFE/RL that talks are being held up largely because of a long-running feud involving Azerbaijan and Cyprus. Cyprus, an EU member state, wants Azerbaijan to rule out any future commercial flights to Northern Cyprus, which it contests with Turkey.

EU officials say only one such flight took place last year. However, efforts at finding a solution that simultaneously satisfies Cyprus and allows Azerbaijan to save face vis-a-vis its close ally Turkey have not brought success.

Officials say it is unlikely Georgia and Armenia will see their action plans approved before the issue is resolved to Cyprus's satisfaction.

Spokeswoman Udwin said other, substantive issues were holding up the conclusion of action plan talks, but confirmed Cyprus's approval is needed. "This is not at this moment a stumbling block. It is of course the case that when texts have been approved they have to be approved unanimously by the [EU] council of foreign affairs ministers," she said. "In other words, [that] unanimously means that any one single member state can decide to bloc the approval of those texts."

Rambouillet Meeting Positive

Ferrero-Waldner's visit took place after the inconclusive talks at Rambouillet in France between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents on 10-11 February. The talks mostly focused on the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The EU has said it stands ready to assist the rehabilitation of Karabakh, but not before a peace settlement is in place.

Fighting in Karabakh in 1989 (Photolur)

Udwin told RFE/RL today the EU views the outcome of the Rambouillet meeting in a positive light. "I think that although the press reports of Rambouillet struck a rather gloomy note, it was heartening to see that the two sides themselves are still committed to keep working and regarded the meeting at Rambouillet not as the end of the process but as a step in the process."

Udwin said Ferrero-Waldner had been keen to tell all three governments in the South Caucasus that resolving their "frozen conflicts" is essential if they are to be able to move closer to the EU.

"We stressed very much the message that regional stability is essential if each of those three countries are to draw the full potential of the [EU] Neighborhood [Policy] action plans," Udwin said. "The countries concerned will not be able to take full advantage of the neighborhood policy unless 'frozen conflicts' are resolved and that is just one more reason why it's important for all sides to make all possible efforts to find compromises, to find solutions."

Udwin said that there is also an "obvious need" for regional cooperation in the South Caucasus in the fields of energy and transportation. She said the commissioner had said it is in the countries' own interests to work together.

One EU official, who asked not to be named, said the EU is increasingly concerned over the possibility that Georgia might resort to force in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Last week, the Georgian Parliament adopted a declaration asking for the departure of the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

The EU will today name Peter Semneby, a Swedish diplomat, as its new special representative to the South Caucasus.

EU Expands Eastward

EU Expands Eastward

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