The EU's role in the South Caucasus

8 December 2011

“The South Caucasus is a region of wonderful cultural diversity and an important bridge between two continental masses. Potentially it is a zone of growth, but it is beset by deep-rooted conflicts and geopolitical struggles,” said Philippe Lefort, the EU’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia.

The EU is a driving force in Georgia’s conflict resolution process and can potentially be a big player in Nagorno-Karabakh, Lefort argued, describing Georgia as the EU’s first attempt at drawing up a collective strategy to address a high-intensity conflict.

Since 2008 the EU’s priorities have been stopping war and providing a framework for discussion, Lefort said. But he admitted that progress had been limited. “Russian forces are still in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the nature of the situation doesn’t appear to have changed,” he conceded.

“No Georgian leader will accept the independence of either territory, and Russia won’t leave them. But the EU has succeeded in making Georgia a normal country again, and the borders are calm,” Lefort said.  

However, he lamented that the situation was much more volatile in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the absence of success was creating “a growing feeling of dissatisfaction”. The decision-making structures that could stabilise both entities are not yet in place, he admitted.

“The EU must act. Nobody wants trouble. Russia doesn’t want a war there, and neither does Turkey. For the EU and the US, the area is a key oil region. All the players have a strong interest in peace,” the EU official said.

Until recently, the EU didn’t have a Special Representative or much of a strategy for the South Caucasus. Now it’s starting to act, said Bulgarian MEP Evgeni Kirilov (Socialists & Democrats group), who drafted a European Parliament report on the South Caucasus.

“The EU has always been the region’s Sleeping Beauty. That’s not to say there was no strategy whatsoever, but now it’s getting better. The South Caucasus definitely needs an EU Special Representative, because it’s a region of conflict. We need to be a steady and active presence there, pushing for peace and democracy,” Kirilov said.

He described the South Caucasus as the EU’s “eastern neighbourhood”. He claimed that its governments and peoples would like to see deeper relations with Brussels, citing the Energy Corridor as an area of common interest on which cooperation was “developing quite well”.

“Russia needs to understand that the EU has a legitimate right to source its gas from wherever it wants. Pipelines should be built. Russian jealously would go away if there were more cooperation with the EU to boost the region’s stability and fight terrorism,” he claimed.

“The EU hasn’t always moved quickly enough when opportunities arise to boost democracy and resolve conflicts. But now it’s much better placed to be a meaningful player in the South Caucasus,” said Dennis Sammut, executive director of the London Information Network on Conflicts and State-Building (LINKS). 

He pointed to the creation of Catherine Ashton’s position as EU foreign affairs chief, the Energy Strategy, and the Association Agreement process as positive developments. “But don’t mistake positioning for action,” he warned, asking: “We’ve got the tools, but are they effective?”

“We need to fill the vacuum between processes at the high-level, ‘strategic vision’ level and day-to-day activities. We’re not living in easy times, so over-ambition is not advisable,” Sammut cautioned.

He singled out conflict resolution, political reform and economic reform as three areas of action for the EU to concentrate on.