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EU Panel Weighs Prospects Of Caucasus-Caspian Region

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has sought closer ties with the West (NATO) BRUSSELS, November 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A panel of eminent political figures from the European Union, its neighboring countries, and the United States will today release a report outlining a "future vision" for the Caucasian-Caspian region and its links to the rest of the world.

But the findings and goals laid out by the Caucasus-Caspian Commission, meeting in London, are likely to be overshadowed by the recent political upheaval in Georgia.

Although Georgia has until recently shown a clearer sense of purpose than most of its neighbors in its pursuit of EU membership, it now seems to risk backsliding into instability. The events there come as a timely reminder for the European Union, if one was needed, that leaving the Caucasus region and its Caspian hinterlands to their own devices is not a wise move.

The report promises insights, in the words of its authors, into possibilities of "upgrading" the region's relations with the EU.

Yet the EU has long made clear that it does not wish to move beyond the cooperation offered under the aegis of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). And EU officials readily admit that the ENP does not give the EU enough leverage to influence basic policy choices in the most enthusiastic country in the region, Georgia. Offering Georgia prospects for EU membership would give the bloc greater influence -- but that has no backing among most EU member states.

Little Engagement In Georgian Upheaval

Although the EU has criticized the state of emergency declared last week by President Mikheil Saakashvili, it has done so in deliberately distant tones. Its statements have been no different in content or ambition than those normally issued about events in Latin America, South Asia, or elsewhere.

Some in Brussels believe that what triggered the Georgian crackdown on the opposition was the realization that the country's bid to start on the path toward NATO membership will be rebuffed by the alliance at its next summit, in Bucharest in April 2008. Without prospects of further rapprochement with the EU, progress toward NATO membership remained the only major deliverable, and Tbilisi may simply be trying to mitigate an inevitable domestic backlash, or so goes the thinking in Brussels.

The limitations the EU has put on its own policy options in the region can only hamstring the work of bodies like the Caucasus-Caspian Commission. Its chairman, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, said in an interview published on the commission's website in June that the report will be "complementary" to the efforts already being made by the EU. In other words, the report will not offer seismic revelations, but is instead likely to limit itself to building on existing policy.

Rupel traces the familiar outlines of the conundrum facing the EU in the region. Its location and energy reserves make it important for the EU, and the EU recognizes that only external pressure can thaw the "frozen conflicts" continually destabilizing the region, but the bloc is in no position to dramatically increase its involvement.

A preview of the main recommendations of the Caucasian-Caspian Committee's report on its website notes that "it is critical for the region to diversify and better balance both politically and economically its relationships with both regional and global players -- such as Russia, China, Europe, India, Iran, and the [United States]."

In the absence of prospects of integration with either the EU or NATO, the countries in the region must fall back on what they have -- and the key asset shared by most countries there is energy resources, or strategic locations in terms of their transit. Tellingly, the Central Asian countries have already adopted the very posture advocated by the report. They will try to keep friendly relations with all neighbors and sell their gas and oil to the highest bidder. Azerbaijan is taking a similar course, although less enthusiastically, because its resources will run out sooner than those of its Caspian neighbors.

That leaves Armenia and Georgia. Armenia has already been removed from the energy game, and must make the best of a very difficult situation. Georgia will remain important to the EU as a transit country, and Brussels will doubtless continue to seek accommodation in this respect with whomever may be in power in Tbilisi.

Looking ahead, Slovenian Foreign Minister Rupel -- whose country will take over the EU's rotating presidency in the first half of 2008 -- proffered a sobering assessment of the report's likely impact. "If we can make a positive impact, fine; our endeavor will be well worth it. If not, we will each go back to our day jobs and try to do the best we can from there," he said.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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