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South Caucasus: Slow Progress On Plans For Closer EU Ties

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli (right) and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, met in Tbilisi last month (InterPressNews) Officials from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were in Brussels this week for another round of talks on "action plans" for closer EU links. Although it is now a year since the European Commission first proposed the "action plans," there is no end in sight to the process. EU officials say the talks have proven complex. It also appears Azerbaijan must overcome a spat with Cyprus over its ties to Northern Cyprus before the "action plans" can be formally approved by the EU.

BRUSSELS, March 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Commission tabled its proposals for the "action plans" for the three South Caucasus countries in March, 2005. The plans detail the assistance the EU will offer Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan over the next few years.

All three countries are keen to pursue closer ties with the EU. Yet their second round of talks with the EU this week did not prove conclusive.

European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin told RFE/RL that the EU is moving as quickly as possible.

"We are hoping to be able to conclude consultations on the action plans for all three countries of the South Caucasus as rapidly as possible, and consultations up to this point have gone very well," Udwin said. "We've just completed the second round - - the first was held just before Christmas -- and we are making very good progress. We are narrowing down the number of topics that still have to be tackled."

EU sources say the bulk of Georgia's diplomatic energy is focused on securing greater EU involvement in conflict resolution -- something the "action plans" do not encompass beyond a reference to the EU's readiness to assist with postconflict rehabilitation.

However, Udwin said a third round of talks will be needed. Commission sources say these may take place in the second half of May. Commission officials refuse to elaborate on the details of the talks, saying it could have a negative impact.

Udwin said there was no political motive behind this extension of the "action plan" talks, and no technical difficulties holding things up.

"There is no delay as such; we started a little later than some had hoped, but the consultations, now they are under way, are going extremely well," she said. "It's important to understand that the action plans that we're talking about cover a very wide range of policy areas and each of the difficult chapters has to be tackled and they have a number of very precise points within them."

Georgia's Many Goals

Georgia's Deputy Foreign Minister Valeri Chechelashvili told journalists in Brussels today after his round of talks on March 7 that there is agreement with the EU on about three-quarters of the contents of the "action plan." He said the round of talks in May could prove to be the last.

Chechelasvili said Georgia would like the "action plan" to contain a reference to the prospect of free trade with the EU. He said Georgia is preparing to unilaterally give up trade restrictions for the entire world, but understands that the EU is not keen to tackle the issue within the framework of the present talks. Georgia would also like the EU to ease its visa regime, having itself unilaterally lifted its visa requirements for EU citizens.

Georgia would like more EU states to help monitor the situation in South Ossetia (AFP)

EU sources have told RFE/RL, however, that the bulk of Georgia's diplomatic energy is currently focused on securing greater EU involvement in conflict resolution -- something the "action plans" do not encompass beyond a reference to the EU's readiness to assist with postconflict rehabilitation.

The Georgian minister for conflict resolution, Georgi Khaidrava, was also in Brussels this week. According to diplomats, he was lobbying EU member states to join the Joint Control Commission -- which is tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone and is comprised of Georgia, the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, Russia, and the Russian republic of North Ossetia – to contribute peacekeepers for the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, and to agree to set up a border monitoring mission.

Azerbaijan-Cyprus Spat Delaying Matters?

The EU itself is at the point of dispatching a formal reply to an earlier letter from the Georgian government for assistance.

Armenia's main sticking point in the "action plan" talks appears to be the future of the Medzamor nuclear plant. Yerevan is keen to secure more financial EU support for the decommissioning of the plant and securing alternative energy supplies.

Azerbaijan's main problem regarding the negotiations is with Cyprus. The EU member state has, in the course of the past year, put the brakes on EU-South Caucasus progress over Baku's apparent willingness to pursue ties with Northern Cyprus. The internationally unrecognized government of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus relies on backing from Turkey. Ankara is also a close ally of Baku.

EU officials say Azerbaijan has only allowed one commercial flight to take place in violation of the policy of isolation followed by the EU with regard to Northern Cyprus, but refuses to commit itself unequivocally to ruling out any further flights. Similarly, Baku refuses to take steps to close down a cultural exchange center in Northern Cyprus, which it says is operated privately.

The Azerbaijani-Cypriot spat may partly account for why the EU is content to put off the conclusion of the talks on the "action plans" by a few more months.

EU officials say that Cyprus is likely to prevent the South Caucasus action plans from coming into effect unless Azerbaijan clearly renounces links to Northern Cyprus.

South Ossetia Cease-Fire

South Ossetia Cease-Fire

Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze (RFE/RL)

'NO OTHER WAY OUT': Georgia's parliament on February 15 called upon the government to review the 1992 agreement that put an end to the war with South Ossetia and secure the withdrawal of all Russian peacekeepers stationed in the separatist republic. Officials in Tbilisi have long accused the Russian soldiers of siding with the separatist forces and posing a threat to Georgia's national security. Russia has protested the Georgian vote, arguing that Tbilisi has no right unilaterally to amend the 1992 peace agreement. Georgia, in turn, says it has the right to do so.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent Nona Mchedlishvili asked former President EDUARD SHEVARDNADZE, who signed the agreement with his then Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, to comment on the dispute....(more)

See also:

Tbilisi Seeks EU Support As Tensions Rise In South Ossetia

Tbilisi, Moscow At Odds Over South Ossetia Resolution