The fight for influence in the South Caucasus - What role for the EU?

14 December 2011

Gunnar Wiegand, director for Russia, the Eastern Partnership and Central Asia in the European External Action Service (EEAS), said adopting EU norms and standards could improve the prospects of South Caucasus countries.

Cooperation with Brussels also focuses on mobility (via visa liberalisation), trade and investment, he added.

EU action in the region is bearing fruit in that European companies are already the largest trading partners of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. "This is the reality. We do not always work in headlines," the EEAS official said.

Zaur Shiriyev, a research fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, suggested that the EU did not have a clear vision for the South Caucasus region.

The European Neighbourhood Policy, for instance, contained provisions on conflict resolution, but these were absent from the Eastern Partnership, Shiriyev said. The EU sometimes treats the South Caucasus as part of the Black Sea and sometimes as part of the Caspian area, he added.

Ketevan Vashakidze, country director for Georgia at the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, said the Georgian population’s three biggest concerns were jobs, security and poverty.

The country strongly supports closer ties with the EU. If there were a referendum tomorrow, four-fifths of the electorate would vote ‘yes’, while 59% believe EU membership would increase national security, raise educational standards and strengthen democracy, Vashakidze said.

But there is also a sense of realism, and people acknowledge that the country is not yet ready for EU accession, the analyst claimed.

Boris Navasardyn, president of the Yerevan Press Club in Armenia, noted that in contrast to Georgia (which ultimately envisages joining the EU) and Azerbaijan (which supports closer energy cooperation), Armenia has a more ambiguous relationship with the EU and there are serious obstacles to closer integration.

Peter Semneby, a former EU Special Representative to the South Caucasus, suggested encouraging the development of some kind of common identity among the peoples of the South Caucasus. Nevertheless, he was quick to stress that this would not replace individual nationalities, but rather provide a degree of commonality.

James Nixey, head of the Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, stated that Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus was in relative decline, but that did not stop it from trying to remain the key multidimensional actor in the region.

Sabine Freizer, director of the Europe Programme at the International Crisis Group, noted that Turkey’s foreign policy was based on economic integration, support for the democratic process, engagement with all political actors, and fostering cultural, religious and people-to-people contacts.

Economic links are Turkey’s biggest influence in the region, particularly with Azerbaijan, and it invests in the education and training of new generations across the South Caucasus, she said.

Amanda Paul, policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, pointed out that Iran had historically enjoyed considerable influence in the South Caucasus.

Iran has always looked to be a leader in the region and dislikes the involvement of other external powers. It wishes to increase its regional role through economic and cultural expansion but due to sanctions has limited opportunities to do so. Teheran has embassies in all three countries, something that neither Turkey nor Russia has. The South Caucasus gives Iran a window to the rest of the world, she explained.

Pierre Dybman, political officer for Eastern Partnership countries in the European External Action Service, said the real question was not what the EU could do for the region, but what the countries themselves should do to get closer to Brussels.