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Interview: MEP Sees Stronger EU Role In South Caucasus

Should the European Union take a more active role in the South Caucasus?

Evgeni Kirilov thinks so. The Bulgarian member of the European Parliament (MEP) is a member of the parliament's delegation dealing with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. He just presented his draft report "An EU Strategy for the South Caucasus" at a special parliamentary hearing dedicated to the frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus.

Anna Zamejc of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service spoke to Kirilov about relations between the EU and Azerbaijan and how Brussels could contribute to peace talks over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

RFE/RL: How was your report received?

Evgeni Kirilov:
I think that colleagues from all political groups accepted it as a basis. Of course, as it usually happens, there will be some amendments to it and that will be discussed at the end of February.

RFE/RL: What could be improved in the relations between the EU and Azerbaijan?

As far as Azerbaijan is concerned, we advocate progress in these relations and of course bigger engagement as far as the effectiveness of these relations is concerned. It is quite important that we develop it in a parallel way in all the different areas.

What is important here and what could be quite effective is to facilitate people-to-people contacts. I have put as a recommendation that we try to make some effective steps as far as visa liberalization is concerned, or institution building in the country is concerned.

[So] helping with democratic institutions is one of the roles we are playing. But we also focus on economic developments, we focus on the Traseca transport lines, we focus also on energy cooperation.

By all means, of course the main thing that is important for Azerbaijani people is [a] more effective role [of the EU] as far as the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is concerned. I think the EU will play a stronger role there in the future.

RFE/RL: What does a stronger role mean? We have the Minsk Group of the OSCE -- involving France, Russia, and the United States -- that is trying to mediate a solution to the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. How could the EU contribute more to advance peace in the region?

For the first time we have produced a political signal, with regard to the Lisbon Treaty, that the EU should formulate a mandate as far as our participation, through France, in the Minsk Group is concerned, so that there is a higher profile of the EU and [so that we] try to work with both sides in the conflict so it doesn't stay any more like this. This situation is being prolonged for a very long time.

I'm sure if due consideration and focus is done that we can produce some results together with both sides of the conflict.

In the report we also speak about [the] internally displaced persons [being] able to return to Nagorno-Karabakh and the neighboring regions.

RFE/RL: If a peaceful settlement of the conflict is achieved, what could the EU do to help rebuild the countries, what aid could Brussels provide? Is that ever discussed? Is the EU thinking ahead?

Generally, a bigger presence is recommended and of course there are enough programs through which the EU could help the development. We simply need to progress and to conclude in the near future new agreements. As far as Azerbaijan is concerned, there will be some help from the EU to the future membership of Azerbaijan in the World Trade Organization, for instance.

RFE/RL: Recently the European Parliament issued a fairly critical resolution on Azerbaijan. Could it affect relations between Azerbaijan and the EU, if the former does not make progress towards democratization, including improvement in the area of media freedom?

These values the EU of course puts a strong emphasis on, and all the colleagues, members of the European Parliament, follow developments in each country.

What is important is to see progress as far as democratic standards are concerned. In the case of these two bloggers there was a lot of worry that they might be certain irregularities in the judicial process, this is why the resolution was voted for.

On the other hand, of course, this is sometimes a contradictory process. We heard the news that there was [a] presidential pardon, unfortunately not for the bloggers but for some other detainees.

The main thing is to engage in a good dialogue and to help also the judicial process so that the judicial authorities have a more effective system and are able to distinguish between political and criminal activities.

In my opinion what is important is that we see progress in these countries. Of course, we are realistically looking at things, sometimes it is not as good as far as the EU standards are concerned.