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Caucasus: Is The EU Neglecting The Region's Strategic Importance?

The three independent states in the South Caucasus region -- Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- have a geostrategic importance that far outweighs their modest size. Yet the European Union has just excluded them from its Wider Europe initiative, which seeks to build the EU's ties with neighbor countries. Should the EU be paying more attention to the region?

Prague, 13 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The states of the South Caucasus lie on the neck of land dividing the Black and Caspian seas. To the immediate south lie Turkey and Iran, with Iraq nearby. To the north lie the Russian North Caucasus republics, a volatile region and home to the entrenched conflict in Chechnya. The broader area of the Caspian contains massive reserves of oil that are still largely untapped.

Given the world political situation, it's a location with much geostrategic importance. The international community, and Europe in particular, has an interest in maintaining stability in those three states.

Yet the European Commission has just issued a report on relations with neighboring countries that expressly excludes the South Caucasus states. In the report, the EU recognizes that it has a "duty" toward present and future neighbors to ensure continuing social cohesion and economic growth, to bring down trade barriers, to enhance political stability, and to support the emergence of the rule of law.

Explaining the omission, a spokesman for the European Commission in Brussels, Diego d'Ojeda, told RFE/RL the report deals only with those countries that will be "immediate neighbors" after the union's eastward expansion, like Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the states of the former Yugoslavia. The Caucasus region was simply considered too distant to include, d'Ojeda said.

The head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Alexander Rondeli, suggested that from a Caucasian perspective, the commission's logic is imperfect. "We see Europe as a bit late in understanding that this frontier land must finally be integrated into Europe because Europe is expanding, Europe is evolving. It is not something [that has been] perfected; it is [still] developing. So the sooner that Europe becomes active here, the better for us, and also the better in the long run, perhaps, for Europe," Rondeli said.

D'Ojeda is quick to point out that Brussels is not neglecting the region. He said the European Union "has recently been discussing ways and means to upgrade and develop further its policy" with the three Caucasus states at issue.

He noted that the EU already has partnership-and-cooperation agreements with the three, as well as a growing network of contacts.

But in Tbilisi, Rondeli said that actually achieving closer relations with the EU poses a bit of a dilemma. That's because Brussels wants to see reforms before it will reward a country by improving ties, but the Caucasus needs these stronger links first in order to nurture and support the reform process. "It's a kind of vicious circle," Rondeli said. "We need to develop. We have to Westernize, in the good sense -- I would call it 'Europeanization.' And it means our final goal is integration with European structures, with Euro-Atlantic structures. And the closer we are to the EU, the better it is for us, [but] at the same time, the EU wants us to be more prepared [through reform] accompanying this closeness," Rondeli said.

Rondeli said the solution lies in a "more practical, more intense exchange of efforts." But he acknowledged that the three countries will need to achieve greater self-sufficiency.

In London, analyst Kirsty Hughes of the Centre for European Policy Studies finds that the EU has done relatively well in the enlargement process. As a result of this experience, she said its policy is effective when dealing with countries to which it is offering eventual membership.

But Hughes said policy is less focused when it comes to those countries that could one day be members but that are not currently being offered membership, like the South Caucasus countries. "When [the EU] is not offering membership, then it is not quite sure what it is doing, and then it begins to flounder. And that is where it has to start developing a much more serious foreign policy -- what is it going to do as a regional power in these important but potentially or actually unstable areas," Hughes said.

D'Ojeda told RFE/RL the EU is in fact deeply concerned at the potential for renewed conflict in the South Caucasus region. He referred to the "frozen conflicts" involving Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, as well as the unresolved separatist conflicts in Georgia. He called for solutions to these long-running disputes, saying, "In all of these conflicts, we have not had substantial progress for too long, and we think that this is not only a great problem for the populations concerned -- both politically and economically -- but a source of threat to the international community, which the international community can no longer afford."

He said "determination" is required to resolve these disputes speedily.