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EU Goes Back To Drawing Board In South Caucasus

EU monitors near the cease-fire line between Georgia and Russian forces in South Ossetia. Georgian attempts to raise its profile in the EU are seen to have failed.
BRUSSELS -- The European Union is mulling a new strategy for the South Caucasus. When they meet in Brussels on September 14, EU foreign ministers are expected to launch a debate on how to bring the bloc's outreach to the region up to date.

Implicit in the new strategy debate on the South Caucasus is an admission by the EU that both the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and Eastern Partnership (EP) outreach schemes have failed to provide a clear and durable blueprint for the EU's relations with its neighbors.

EU officials familiar with recent debates within the bloc say its current Swedish presidency has been asked to draw up a guidance document for an in-depth review of the aims of EU cooperation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

The first outlines that have emerged suggest the new strategy will not represent a radical departure from the existing thrust of main EU policies. The EU's goal will remain bringing the three countries as closely in line with its laws and policies as possible.

The EU recognizes that the South Caucasus is gaining in importance in terms of regional stability, energy, and trade. All three countries are being offered association agreements which could lead to free trade and visa liberalization. EU membership, as before, is not on offer.

The three principles that officials in Brussels say will underlie future relations between the EU and the South Caucasus -- inclusiveness, differentiation, and conditionality -- are similarly modest in scope. Every country interested in cooperation must be given the chance, no one can hold anyone else back, and progress will depend on results.

Georgia Falls Back

What is new is the EU's return to a regional focus in its thinking. The goals of EU outreach and the offer it makes must be the same for all three countries, officials say.

This spells a quiet end to Georgia's ambitions to elevate itself to a status on par with Ukraine. Instead, it's placed firmly in the same bracket with Armenia and Azerbaijan, neither of which countries has any aspirations to join the EU -- or NATO -- in the foreseeable future. The two latter countries are primarily interested in the EU as a counterweight to Russia, whose interests in the region both recognise.

The dry language of EU diplomats confirms a shift of mood more than a few months old. Georgia's demotion to just another state in the Caucasus does not represent so much a failure of the EU -- which has always pursued a highly cautious "wait and see" policy toward Georgia. It is more a reflection of a failure by Tbilisi to convince the EU that the risks inherent in recognizing its ambitions are worth taking.

The war with Russia in August 2008 and the violent standoffs with the opposition that preceded and followed the conflict have seen President Mikheil Saakashvili's political stock plummet drastically within the EU. Diplomats say the Georgian leader now struggles to secure invitations to visit even the friendliest of EU capitals.

One indirect, but doubtless painfully felt, indication of the change in Georgia's fortunes is the reported insistence by the European Commission ahead of the ministers' debate on September 14 that the South Caucasus countries must "earn" closer ties with the EU by showing sufficient political will.

Rewarding them with quick, unearned advances, the commission warned, would "devalue" the achievements of the other Eastern Partnership countries.