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EU Frustrated By South Caucasus Divisions

Officials and politicians in Brussels feel much of the EU's "soft power" is blunted by the crisscrossing tensions between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
BRUSSELS -- The three South Caucasus countries represent a particularly frustrating challenge for the EU's Neighborhood Policy. The compact region is of great strategic interest for the bloc and as such forms a natural target for its considerable potential for aid and assistance.

But the EU finds much of its ambition thwarted by the rivalry and outright conflict between Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

A debate on April 7 at the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on a draft report advocating the need for a comprehensive EU strategy for the region underscored the frustration felt in Brussels.

The author of the report and the European Parliament's rapporteur for the South Caucasus, Evgeni Kirilov, a socialist deputy from Bulgaria, highlighted the importance of regional cooperation.

"I am absolutely convinced that regional cooperation is vitally needed in order not just to enhance economic development, but to create the necessary climate, stability, to activate people-to-people contacts and so on," Kirilov said.

Benefits Of Closer Ties

Elmar Brok, an influential German conservative, noted that the South Caucasus countries suffer from insufficient mutual relations. Economic development requires political stability, Brok said, and stability in turn requires good relations between neighbors. Brok said managing regional discord is a strategic EU interest, "or the countries will look to Russia."

Deputies offered ample anecdotal evidence of regional divisions. Kirilov said even Georgia, which has no open conflicts with either Armenia or Azerbaijan, appears to value cooperation with the EU over that with its two South Caucasian neighbors.

Hannes Swoboda, an Austrian socialist, said governments in the region often complain that the EU is trying to force regional cooperation on them. Swoboda said the three countries need to be told there will be no improvement in their living standards without cooperation. Promoting regional cooperation, Swoboda said, should also be a determining factor in EU support.

The European Parliament has no direct role in formulating EU foreign policy. But its debate reflects broader concerns. Officials say every EU visit to the region provokes fierce infighting among Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku for primacy and privileged treatment.

The EU enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, Stefan Fule, who is in the South Caucasus this week, follows a painstakingly assembled itinerary, traveling first to Armenia, then Georgia, and finally to Azerbaijan -- as direct travel between Baku and Yerevan remains a diplomatic impossibility.

Brussels Can Do More

There was also criticism of the EU's own relative timidity during the debate. Kirilov said the EU only became involved in Georgia after the August 2008 war with Russia. The bloc now has a monitoring mission patrolling conflict zones on the Georgian side of its administrative borders with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Austrian Green deputy Ulrike Lunacek, who recently visited the EU mission, held it out as a possible blueprint for further EU involvement in the region.

"I was in Georgia last week with [a European Parliament] delegation and am still quite impressed by what I saw there going to the administrative border [with] South Ossetia, and talking with IDPs [internally displaced people], etc.," Lunacek said. "So, I think, the EU has there [an important role] -- and that's only for Georgia, but it applies to Azerbaijan and Armenia as well -- of really trying to break up frozen conflicts, or other conflicts where the situation is stuck."

Kirilov seconded the idea, arguing for a greater EU role in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, mediated by the OSCE, where the EU has no direct role. An EU presence there "could be accepted by all sides," Kirilov said.

But, Kirilov noted, the EU would only be in a position to make a significant difference in the case of an "initial breakthrough" in the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks.

"Then we'll have another climate, [one] which could really enhance a very vigorous cooperation," Kirilov said. "And here we can step in, of course, as a union and create a [very] different situation in this region."

Many deputies urged the EU to make bolder use of its new Lisbon Treaty, which is intended to give its foreign policy greater coherence and clout. They also underlined the fact that the bloc is vitally interested in the South Caucasus as an energy corridor linking it to Central Asia.