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Roundtable: Is EU Choosing Stability Over Democracy In The South Caucasus?

French members of an EU observer contingent near the village of Karaleti, Georgia
French members of an EU observer contingent near the village of Karaleti, Georgia
It's been a rocky year in the South Caucasus. Questionable elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan ended with bloodshed in one and a dynasty digging in deeper in the other. Georgia, meanwhile, is still reeling from a devastating war with Russia in August. In a season when the region is looking west for guidance, what role has the European Union played through all this?

As part of RFE/RL's "Caucasus Crossroad" program, Russian Service broadcaster Yefim Fistein spoke to Leyla Yunus, the director of the Baku-based Peace and Democracy Institute, David Shahnazaryan of the Concord center for political and legal studies in Yerevan, and Giorgi Gogsadze, a professor of social and political studies at Tbilisi State University. The roundtable was conducted on November 12.

Giorgi, how satisfied are most Georgians with the role that the EU, and especially French President Nicolas Sarkozy, played in ending the Russia-Georgia war?

Giorgi Gogsadze:
Overall, you can say that the Georgian public reacted fairly positively to the way the EU and particularly Sarkozy reacted to the events in Georgia. More time needs to pass before we can draw definite conclusions about how the EU acted, or how it should be acting. But everything that's taken place so far has gone according to plan.

The first stage is complete; Russian forces have withdrawn from the buffer zone. The second stage will be sending in EU and OSCE observers onto the territory of the conflict zone. It seems to me that this second stage may become a drawn-out process, and this may cause a certain amount of frustrations among Georgians. But I'm hopeful that the EU will play a very important role and will be an active organization in this process. That would be something we didn't see before the conflict.

EU's South Caucasus Policy

Leyla, how have you seen the EU's policy evolve on the South Caucasus, and Azerbaijan specifically?

Leyla Yunus: In August, we were all left with the distinct impression that we were defenseless against aggression from the north. It was easy to predict that there was going to be a war of aggression by Russia against Georgia. All the same, there was no system of defense prepared whatsoever. And after Russia unilaterally recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the system of international security collapsed. We had the feeling that any state could force its way over your border and legally occupy your territory. I think the European Union should summon the political will it needs to create a system of defense for the countries of the South Caucasus, and perhaps not only our countries, from Russian aggression.

Azerbaijan, like Georgia and Armenia, is a member of the European Neighborhood Policy aimed at EU integration. Before August, we could feel at least a little movement on this -- a little pressure on Azerbaijan to implement the plan's requirements. Now it's perfectly plain that the European Commission and the EU members states are simply avoiding making any demands on the leadership of Azerbaijan regarding democracy, human rights, or the rule of law. They're just steering clear of it. So our president, Ilham Aliyev, has completely reoriented himself back toward Moscow. Energy interests come first. This is very, very dangerous for our region.

RFE/RL: You said that the EU is acting as though its indifference to the suppression of human rights will ensure them good ties with Aliyev. But are there really those who believe the practice of suppressing human rights really guarantee stable relations?

Yunus: That kind of system has existed in countries like Azerbaijan for many years already. Azerbaijan has been a member of the Council of Europe since 2001; in 2006, it signed an action plan for the European Neighborhood Policy. This action plan is not being fulfilled. In April of this year, the European Commission published its first report on what steps, if any, Azerbaijan had taken toward fulfilling the plan. In the period it covered, the year 2007, there were a record number of court cases against members of the media -- 103. Ten journalists serving jail sentences were named prisoners of conscience. There were 95 physical attacks on journalists. Not a single one of these numbers was mentioned in the report.

Thousands protested Armenian election results in February 2008
In the chapter where they talked about things like freedom of assembly and a free press and judiciary, they speak only in generalities. We haven't had the right to free assembly -- like our neighbors in Georgia have, for example -- since 2005. But there's been absolutely no harsh criticism of Azerbaijan of any kind from either the EU or the Council of Europe. It's a very nearsighted position. The authoritarian regime that we have in Azerbaijan doesn't guarantee stability. It doesn't guarantee democratic development if the political opposition is destroyed and there are no free democratic elections. The society is becoming radicalized. Radical viewpoints are developing regarding the Karabakh conflict.

RFE/RL: David, has the EU position on Armenia remained more or less the same? Thousands protested Armenian election results in February 2008David Shahnazaryan: I'd put it more bluntly. EU policy toward our region -- all three countries -- clings to a formula: stability over all. Stability is far more important than democracy. There are a lot of facts to support this. Some have already been mentioned; I'll mention some that relate to my country. Armenia currently has 75 political prisoners. The EU, in the form of the presidency, twice spoke out after the [February 19] presidential elections. One of their demands was the immediate release of all political prisoners. The leadership, the illegitimate leadership in Armenia, simply ignored this. And the EU -- pardon the expression -- simply swallowed it clean, as though nothing had happened.

The EU and some other international organizations also ignored the fact that the results of the Armenian elections were completely falsified. And after the vote, the authorities shot and killed innocent people. On March 1, 10 people were killed in Yerevan. The European community -- first and foremost the EU -- closed their eyes to all that. We demanded that an international investigation be conducted into those events, but that met with no understanding in Brussels or the other European capitals.

In Armenia today, there's this kind of ingrained conviction that European values may be one thing, but that actual European structures are something completely different. And we understand perfectly well that we will have to establish these European values without any help or support from the European structures.

Czech EU Presidency

Many commentators say that Moscow wants to complete the talks before the next EU presidency begins on January 1. Moscow believes the current EU leadership under Sarkozy will be more accommodating than the Czech leadership that will follow. Giorgi, what's your opinion on this? In particular, about the cease-fire agreement. A lot of people say problems were caused because Sarkozy didn't have a good understanding of the situation on the ground. He didn't understand the difference between the territory of the two autonomous regions and that of the rest of Georgia. As a result, Russian forces sometimes ended up on Georgian territory. Now in the Western press you sometimes see the idea of Russian forces pulling back to the territory of the two republics being confused with calls for Russian forces to leave Georgia entirely. That is, they are setting up the status quo before the war as the final status quo of the cease-fire. Questions about changes to that status quo are not discussed.
The war in Georgia was a considerable challenge for EU policymakers

Gogsadze: I don't agree with those experts. The point is that in the agreement between Sarkozy and Medvedev it is clearly written that Russia must return to those points that existed before August 7, before the beginning of the conflict. This concerns the number of forces and the location of the so-called peacekeepers. But this is where things got stuck. Russia now insists that there is a new reality, that now that South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been recognized, they must decide themselves who will be where and in what numbers. And these republics now say they have agreed with Russia about the opening of military bases on the territories of these republics. So now Russia is already manipulating a completely different reality. And, naturally, Russia does not want to return to the status quo that existed before August 7. The European Union must stick firmly to its principles, and it must pressure the Russian government to comply with all the points of the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement.

RFE/RL: But is it realistic to expect that? Won't the EU give in to the pressure of the fait accompli that Russia is presenting?

Gogsadze: Of course they'll give in. Some are saying the slogan is stability versus democracy. I think it's actually a case of energy versus democracy, or even versus state sovereignty. I'm afraid that Old Europe will be on the side of stability -- that is, on the side of Russia. But New Europe -- meaning the former socialist bloc countries -- they have been acting in a very principled way. So it is no surprise that Russia is afraid of the Czech presidency of the EU.

RFE/RL: David, how do people in Armenia feel about the efforts of several EU countries to ratify the Lisbon agreement and create a foreign minister's post for the bloc? Would that make your relations easier or more difficult?

Shahnazaryan: I think this would definitely help, because today most experts view the European Union as merely an economic formation that has no coherent foreign policy or security policy. This is a common opinion, and, I think, a justifiable one. I think the creation of a foreign minister would help the EU work out a common foreign policy and a common security policy. And I also really hope it will help turn attention away from the mistaken policy that stability trumps democracy. Because we are already seeing the results of this policy in the South Caucasus, where we have neither democracy nor stability.

EU Divisions

But isn't it likely that creating this post in the absence of a real united bloc will just mean that this person will be unable to make independent decisions? Wouldn't such a system mean we'd stop hearing the voices of the new members and hear only the voices of those who don't want to place principles and values above pragmatic concerns?

Yunus: Here the best hope lies in the Polish-Swedish Eastern Partnership initiative. If the Poles alone had put forth this initiative -- which is a new project for the EU's work with the countries of the South Caucasus plus Moldova and Ukraine and possibly Belarus -- maybe it would have seemed like, well, just the Poles. But it is a Polish-Swedish initiative, and Germany has since moved to support it. Now it's already being discussed as an adopted project, and it's possible that in December a structure to implement the project will be created. This all indicates that a door -- or at least a small window -- has been opened a bit, and it's possible to put forward initiatives.

I agree with my colleagues from Georgia and Armenia that the current policies of the European Union are not only ineffective, but also very shortsighted. How can we talk about stability in the South Caucasus after August? How can we talk about stability when the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is on the edge of erupting? Today we have no protection from outside aggression or from terrorist acts. And the main thing is that in the countries of the South Caucasus -- and I'm talking first of all about my country, Azerbaijan -- an Asian-type despotism has been established. Our citizens have lost the ability to elect their leaders in a peaceful, political process -- legislative, executive, etc. Our last elections were basically a rebirth of the Soviet Union.

In such circumstances, when people hear various commissars who come in from Brussels talk about partnership, they are extremely skeptical. As a result, the authority of liberal values is in decline among the population of the country. And this is very dangerous. In this situation, I think that it is vital to demonstrate political will and a unified policy on the part of all the countries of the European Union in relation to the geopolitically important region of the South Caucasus.

RFE/RL: I personally wonder just how important stability in the South Caucasus is for the countries of Western Europe, and to what extent their perception of the South Caucasus is skewed by their energy dependence on Russia. Unlike Azerbaijan, Georgia has no oil, but perhaps for Georgia economic cooperation with Europe is of vital significance and could help overcome the economic boycott imposed by Russia. Is this aspect taken into account during discussions of the role the EU could play in Georgia?

Gogsadze: Georgia has not suffered seriously from the impact of the economic blockade Russia imposed several years ago, but has nonetheless managed to move forward despite those restrictions. Perhaps the reason for Russia's aggression toward Georgia is that since economic pressure had no effect, Russia switched to military means. Relations with Europe, and in particular economic cooperation, are without doubt a key priority for Georgia, but as of today the primary question is that of stability and state sovereignty. I don't mean territorial integrity, but sovereignty, and this sovereignty either exists or it doesn't. For that reason, the Europeans and the Americans and the entire international community should adopt an absolutely principled stand on defending the sovereignty of independent states in order to prevent the emergence of new hotspots and regions of instability.

RFE/RL: The recording of this discussion coincides with the EU-Russia summit in Nice (eds. held November 14). The EU wants that summit to focus on the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while Russia wants to discuss a new strategic partnership agreement with the EU. Poland and Lithuania wanted to make discussion of the second contingent on discussion of the first, while the countries of Western Europe for the most part tried so to speak to twist the Lithuanians' arm and dissuade them from taking that approach. How do the prospects for its success appear from the vantage point of the South Caucasus?

To be frank, I very much fear that despite that pressure from the new EU member states, Old Europe will prevail and Lithuania and the other countries will not succeed in defending, not their own interests, but a system of values and democracy. As for Russia's role and its influence in the South Caucasus, it is my firm conviction that after the August events Russia is now irrevocably withdrawing from the South Caucasus. This withdrawal creates an extremely explosive situation for us in the sense that the old world is receding, and whenever Russia withdraws it leaves nothing but ruins behind.

I think all three South Caucasus states should work together to ensure that this Russian retreat should be as painless as possible. After what happened in Georgia, this is the beginning of the end of the Russian presence in the South Caucasus, because Russia retains a foothold in the region only thanks to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the fact that Armenian-Turkish relations are closed. As a result of what happened in August a new era has begun, an era which I would call that of Russia's withdrawal from the South Caucasus.

RFE/RL: I would agree with you that sometimes national leaders seek to portray a withdrawal as the beginning of a new era. The question here is whether Russia has the means at its disposal to implement President Dmitry Medvedev's new doctrine that affirms Russia's privileged interests, including in the South Caucasus. But how has the global economic crisis, which has impacted on Europe no less than on Russia, affected Azerbaijan?

Yunus: I would say that after August, we have the impression that Russia is not retreating from the South Caucasus, but returning. You may not have noticed, but the Azerbaijani leadership maintained constant contact with Moscow, and after Dick Cheney's visit to Baku [in early September] Ilham Aliyev immediately traveled to Moscow. Azerbaijan's political elite is economically tied to Russia. The money we receive for Azerbaijan's oil goes to the ruling family, while the population at large subsists on money sent by Azerbaijani migrant workers in Russia. So that if the entire economy goes into decline as happened in 1998, and the flow of cash from Russia to families in Azerbaijan decreases, the Azerbaijani economy will face major difficulties, no two ways about it.

At present, Azerbaijan is Europe's only alternative supplier of energy. If Azerbaijan were to become closely integrated with the EU and the EU in turn guaranteed Azerbaijan's security and integrated not only Azerbaijan but the entire South Caucasus, and if the process of trying to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict took place within the framework of that process of integration with the EU, and if we were safe from aggression from the north, then Azerbaijan would really have an interest in channeling its energy resources to Europe via Georgia or Armenia. But as things are today I think that the EU is dragging its feet, and therefore it's possible Azerbaijan may orient itself totally toward Russia.

RFE/RL: I suspect the EU is suffering from enlargement fatigue and dreads the prospect of Turkey and possibly also the South Caucasus states becoming members.

Yunus: I'm not talking about EU membership, but about whether it's more expensive to drop bombs than to provide economic assistance to develop civil society.

Georgia is dead set on joining NATO. Why is it not devoting the same energy to integration with the EU?

Gogsadze: Georgia is indeed active on that front, even though the Europeans have made it clear to us that for the next 15 years or so Europe's doors will remain closed not only to Georgia but to the other South Caucasus states. I think this was the biggest mistake on the part of the EU because any alliance or any country that does not dream of extending [its territory] is doomed to perish.