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EU Cements Arms-Length Partnership In South Caucasus

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, and Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian (left to right) at EU headquarters on December 9
BRUSSELS (RFE/RL) -- A regular meeting of the three South Caucasus ministers with EU foreign-policy chiefs in Brussels brought no breakthroughs, and instead served to strengthen the impression, gaining ground in Brussels recently, that the EU has reached a high-water mark in its relations with the region.

The foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were in Brussels for their annual working lunch with EU counterparts, which was focused mainly on the details of the EU's new 'Eastern Partnership' initiative.

Apprehensive of Russian anger and facing domestic publics deeply wary of further enlargement, most EU member states appear to have no desire to move beyond the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in their relations with the bloc's eastern neighbors. The ENP, in place since 2004, was touched up last week with the addition of an 'eastern' dimension, but it failed to open the path to EU membership.

The EU publicly snubbed Georgia at the December 9 meeting, effectively telling the self-styled South Caucasus frontrunner that it has done everything it can to mitigate the aftereffects of the Georgian-Russian war in August.

Giorgi Baramidze, Georgia's state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration who sat in for newly appointed Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, appealed to the EU to expand the scope of its monitoring mission in Georgia to Russian-occupied areas and upgrade its status.

"We expressed our willingness to further consult with our European colleagues in order to further strengthen the European monitoring mission and eventually transform it to a full-fledged [European Security and Defense Policy] peacekeeping or police mission," Baramidze said.

Baramidze said such a move would be "very important" for the security of both Georgia and the entire South Caucasus region. He also said it would help solve the "human rights crisis" in Akhalgori and the Liakhvi Gorge, Georgian-populated areas in the contested regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, respectively.

However, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana curtly rebuffed the Georgian appeal.

"We have a full-fledged monitoring mission now, the monitoring mission, which is on the ground," Solana said. "That is the agreement we had at [the level] of [the] 27 [EU member states]; that is the agreement we had with Russia at the beginning and with Georgia always, and we don't have in mind for the moment to move beyond that level."

Solana said the EU has "good relations" with both the Georgian government and the Russian forces on the ground, having secured the latter's withdrawal from undisputed Georgian territory in October.

He indicated the EU would continue to fine-tune its presence in Georgia while respecting limits set by Russia.

Solana also expressed the hope that the upcoming third round of the Russian-Georgian talks in Geneva on South Ossetia and Abkhazia "will be better than the second round." The two sides remain deadlocked over the status of the two breakaway provinces, which Moscow has recognized as independent states.

The Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers both praised the leadership of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who last month signed a declaration jointly with the two countries' presidents committing them to a peaceful resolution of the frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia's Eduard Nalbandian and Azerbaijan's Elmar Mammadyarov both said they see no need for a greater EU role beyond the current limited reconciliation efforts spearheaded by the bloc's special representative, Peter Semneby, and the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group.

Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan appear to attach particular importance to the EU's 'Eastern Partnership' offer made last week, and neither asked for a membership prospect.

Queried about his country's ambitions relating to Brussels, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Mammadyarov deflected the issue, saying it was "a very good question, but probably should be addressed to the European Union, how they are addressing us."

"It is not a one-way street," Mammadyarov said.

Georgian Minister Baramidze said Georgia would "sooner or later" become an EU member.

This time, it was EU External-Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner who poured cold water on Georgian enthusiasm, saying the ENP only amounts to a "stepwise" integration of EU neighbors, adding that "membership is not part of our policy."