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Caucasus: EU Seeks To Revitalize Contacts With Region

The European Union is about to hold a series of meetings with high-level officials from the Caucasian republics Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Brussels hopes the meetings will provide the opportunity to revitalize the union's relations with these volatile new states, and remind them that the way forward lies in establishing lasting peace in the region. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 17 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's Executive Commission is opening a series of fresh contacts at the deputy minister level with Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

The meetings are taking place under the EU's Partnership and Cooperation Agreements, which came into force only last summer.

Sources inside the EU commission told RFE/RL that Brussels views the meetings as an important opportunity to re-launch the relationship with the three republics, on the new footing provided by the cooperation agreements.

Arriving first in Brussels are the Georgians, who will confer with European Commission officials on Monday (Feb. 21). They will be followed next month by delegations from Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Under discussion will be the whole spectrum of ties, political and economic. The EU sources say that questions of democratization, the rule of law and human rights will be raised, as well as prospects for increased trade and investment. The war raging in Chechnya in the north Caucasus, and its impact on the entire region, will also be discussed.

The latest contacts coincide with a call from Commission President Romano Prodi (on Feb. 9) for closer relations between the Caucasus republics and the European Union. One senior commission official, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that there is much truth in a recent assessment by Turkish President Suleyman Demirel. Demirel pointed out the strategic importance to Europe of three conflict-ridden areas on its fringes, namely the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East.

The EU has spent close to $1 billion in grants to the southern Caucasus republics since they left the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. But the EU realizes that the effectiveness of that aid is being undermined by continuing conflicts and ethnic tensions in the area.

Therefore, according to the same official, the policy now being followed aims to give assistance which will underpin peace settlements in the area. He says the message is that the world cannot let regional leaders continue arguing "until kingdom come" while "featherbedding" them with aid.

Assessing the present state of ethnic conflicts in the three republics, the commission official said that the only regional conflict with a possible solution in sight at present is the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Presidents Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia have held a series of face-to-face meetings on the 10-year-long dispute, the most recent of which was last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

At the time, both leaders suggested that they were ready to compromise for peace, with Aliyev saying the settlement of the Karabakh issue is of "vital importance" to all. Kocharian said military activity in the region must be "frozen," and that neighbors must work with one another, and with Central Asian countries, to develop their economies.

One continuing problem between Armenia and the EU is the future of the Medzamor nuclear power station, which lies in a known earthquake area about 40 kilometers from the capital Yerevan. The plant was decommissioned years ago because of the risk of earthquake-induced accident, but was re-opened in the 1990s to help Armenia meet new energy needs.

The EU wants Medzamor closed permanently, preferably by 2004, but Brussels alone does not have the resources to replace it with reliable conventional sources of energy. A joint EU-Armenian working group is now formulating the basis of an international appeal for funds. The panel is said to be moving slowly and may not finish its work until next year. On EU enlargement, the commission official says there is no "philosophical" bar to the south Caucasus republics joining the union eventually. He notes Georgia's particular interest in pushing in this direction.

But looked at "realistically," the official says, all three states will have to wait until the 13 present candidate members are properly absorbed into the union -- a process which will take quite some years.

In any event, says the official, the Caucasian states have much work to do to get their institutions of state, in his words, "even remotely compatible" with what would be expected of EU member-states.