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EU: Caucasus Visit Highlights More Active Interest In Region

A high-level EU delegation is touring the southern Caucasus states of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. It is the first time EU representatives have visited the three in the so-called troika format, indicating heightened EU interest in the region. Analysts say no real progress in EU-Caucasus relations can be expected before the region manages to resolve its simmering conflicts. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 21 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For the second week running, Sweden's Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, the EU's foreign policy High Representative Javier Solana, and its External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten are touring the EU's far eastern borderlands.

The three this week are visiting Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. They are delivering much the same message as they did in Ukraine and Moldova last week: the EU is interested, but only up to a point.

The countries are being told that they remain outside the EU's zone of immediate interests, at least until the EU has managed to absorb the Balkans.

However, the EU appears to be balancing this message with the more positive one that it is now ready to play a more active role in regional security.

Michael Emerson, a senior analyst at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), says the shift in the EU's thinking is due to a number of factors.

"[There are] several reasons. One is that now that [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic has gone, the absolute priority of solving that one is relieved, so energies for other affairs are to a degree released. Secondly, it's the EU enlargement process which gathers momentum and includes Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, which represent half the Black Sea area leading right up to the Caucasus. So the EU now begins to think more seriously about [its] future borders."

Another factor Emerson mentions is the EU's growing concern with its long-term energy security. The southern Caucasus straddles important transit routes for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea area and Central Asia.

The three Caucasian countries also play an increasingly important role in what Emerson describes as the EU's evolving "triangular" relationships with Russia and Turkey. Both are regional powers and especially in Russia's case, the Caucasus is emerging as something of a litmus test for the strategic partnership Moscow has said it would like to set up with the EU.

Emerson and the CEPS have long argued for a fully fledged stability pact for the Caucasus, involving all regional powers, as well as the United States and the EU. He says the current troika visit has revived enthusiasm for the idea in Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku. Last week, representatives from the three, as well as observers from the EU and the United States, met in Istanbul to discuss cooperation. Emerson, who attended the meeting, said it was agreed to continue discussions in successive meetings.

Emerson says a stability pact presupposes first resolving the region's many simmering conflicts. This is also a precondition for the EU's longer-term involvement.

"The number one [EU expectation] is a real willingness to try to settle the conflicts ... [Nagorno] Karabakh, where [the Armenian President Robert] Kocharian and [Azerbaijan's President Heidar] Aliyev are speaking together at great length. They are not there yet, but if they're speaking for five hours with each other every other month, that is promising. On the Georgian-Abkhazian-Ossetian front, this is actually more difficult because Georgia is a very weak state indeed and the Abkhazians' position is extraordinarily uncompromising."

In an article published in the 19 February "Financial Times," Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh and the EU's External Affairs Commissioner Patten said any breakthrough in the Caucasus cannot come from outside. But they said the EU is willing to raise the issue with other interested countries, notably Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the United States.

According to Emerson, Turkey and Russia will be the key players in any peace deal. He says Turkey is the biggest external presence in the Caucasus in commercial and economic terms, while Russia still wields the biggest political and military influence.

Emerson says Russian foreign policy thinking appears to be at a crossroads with regard to the Caucasus. He says decisions in Moscow are shaped by an uneasy dialogue between a more old-fashioned line of thought advocating continued military presence as the key to influence in the region, and a more modern approach recognizing that Russia needs a stable and prosperous Caucasus.