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South Caucasus: Foreign Ministers Look To EU To Stabilize The Region

Foreign ministers from the three South Caucasus countries -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia -- called for greater European Union involvement in the region in Brussels yesterday. Shrugging off the disappointment of not having been included in the EU's preferential treatment program for its new neighbors, all three countries told EU officials they want to pursue the closest possible ties with the bloc. Although ministers seemed to differ slightly about what exactly is being sought from the EU, all agreed that resolving the region's "frozen conflicts" is an important precondition for future cooperation.

Brussels, 1 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At the news conference following their successive meetings with European Union officials in Brussels yesterday, the foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia made good work of hiding what must amount to bitter disappointment.

All three made a point of praising the bloc's upcoming enlargement, noting that it serves to extend a zone of stability and prosperity on the continent.

All three said they have taken note of the "Wider Europe" project for the bloc's new post-enlargement neighbors.

But none criticized the EU for not having included the Southern Caucasus in that plan. Instead, the three countries praised the appointment in July of the first EU envoy to the region, the Finnish diplomat Heikki Talvitie.

What exactly is expected from Talvitie appears to differ from country to country.

Irakli Menagarashvili, foreign minister of Western-oriented Georgia, seemed to welcome a full and direct EU role in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus: "We made very clear today that we expect that the European Union will play a really substantial role in all aspects of the peaceful resolution of those so-called 'frozen conflicts.' I mean political influence, as well as economic resources, which are so badly needed for these areas. We would like also to see as soon as possible the EU's high representation in all those formats which [have been] formed to deal with these conflicts."

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliyev welcomed the nomination of Talvitie, praising the envoy's personal qualities and experience: "In this context, we believe that via the offices of Ambassador Talvitie, the EU will take a more active part in resolving the conflict. We hope to be able to inform the EU via him of the steps taken, and the plans of the parties to the conflict."

Talvitie was head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group for Nagorno-Karabakh in 1995 and 1996.

Guliyev said the EU as a whole should first and foremost back "economic and humanitarian" progress in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia appears to attach the greatest hopes to a more active EU role in the region. Vartan Oskanian, Armenia's foreign minister, outlined a practical short-term vision for EU involvement: "The short-term [vision] is the engagement of the three Caucasus republics in regional cooperation. TRASECA [the EU's transport cooperation program], INOGATE [the EU's energy cooperation program] -- these are two very good examples to engage the countries, despite the existing conflicts within an EU framework of regional cooperation. We believe this will greatly contribute to the improvement of the overall environment in our region, which will in its turn contribute to a better understanding and eventual resolution of the conflict."

The long-term vision, Oskanian said, could prove "more elusive" for the region unless the EU chooses to send a signal acknowledging that all three countries ultimately could attain full EU membership.

This, in a sense, asks a difficult question of the EU. In its "Wider Europe" plan, the European Commission notes that the prospect of accession has proven to be the most effective foreign policy instrument the bloc currently possesses.

Taking his cue from the commission's thinking, Oskanian offered a bold vision of what he believes full EU engagement could achieve: "If we get the right signal that eventually that might happen, if we truly -- and our people -- believe that eventually we will live in a union where borders are irrelevant, I think this will make us think differently when it comes to the resolution of the conflicts. We will be less demanding. We will be less aggressive. And that will put the whole conflict resolution in a totally different context, and that will be the appropriate context within which to resolve the conflict[s]."

The commission's top official dealing with the "new neighbors," Michael Leigh, tried to inject a note of caution, indicating all three countries have a long way to go before EU membership can even in theory be considered.

"This is a priority region for the European Union," Leigh said, "and the intensity of our cooperation and our intentions to further develop it in the period ahead are witnesses to the importance we attach."

However, Leigh noted, what the South Caucasus first needs is fundamental democratic reforms, assistance in good governance, the rule of law, economic reforms, and border controls.

One of the key problems remains the fight against poverty. Leigh said more than 50 percent of the population in the region lives below the poverty line.

Leigh particularly stressed the importance of democratic developments, saying they will help attract investment -- crucial in diversifying the three countries' economies and developing their natural resources.

Ambassador Talvitie noted in this context that the EU had yesterday examined the electoral legislation of the three countries with their ministers. In June, EU member states noted that parliamentary elections in Armenia had not met international standards in a "number of key aspects."

Azerbaijan will hold presidential elections in two weeks, and parliamentary elections in Georgia will follow shortly.