What are perspectives of the EU’s contribution to confidence-building and peacebuilding measures in the South Caucasus? - Expert comments | Eurasia Diary - ednews.net

25 September, Saturday

What are perspectives of the EU’s contribution to confidence-building and peacebuilding measures in the South Caucasus? - Expert comments

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On 25-26 June, the Foreign Ministers of three EU member states – Austria, Romania and Lithuania, paid an official visit to the countries of the South Caucasus under the mandate of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

During two days of visit, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and Delegation of the European Union held meetings with leaders and government officials of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

The main aim of the agenda in their official visit is to indicate that the EU is still seriously interested in contributing to the strengthening of the long-term peace, prosperity and stability in the region of the South Caucasus.

Before their official visit to the region, Foreign Ministers of Austria, Romania and Lithuania Alexander Schallenberg, Bogdan Aurescu and Gabrielius Landsbergis informed about their agenda what issues they will talk about with the governments of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

In their speech, they stressed the necessity of facilitating comprehensive settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the arrangement of confidence-building measures and peacebuilding processes between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Further clarifying the perspectives of the EU’s contribution to the restoration of peace and stability in the South Caucasus, Eurasia Diary conducted an exclusive interview with Beyrak Hajiyev, expert on European Studies at the Topchubashov center, Baku-based think-tank.

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- Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said in the press conference before their visit to the South Caucasus that we cannot and should not leave the South Caucasus to other actors, please tell us what actors did he mean?

- The statement of Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg might be better understood if we look at the long-term patterns of engagements of different regional and major actors with South Caucasian countries since the collapse of USRR. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the EU and in general the West was the major source of attraction for South Caucasian countries. Short lasted unipolar moment evolved after the end of the USSR and its neo-liberal approach provided the EU with normative cover to take a lead in deciding the direction of the flows of commodities, services, labor, entrepreneurship, and knowledge in the region. About 15 years since the end of the Cold War, the EU enjoyed the growing influence in the region thanks to its different territorializing endeavors (TRACECA, TACIS, TAIEX, INOGATE, PCA, ENP, and EaP). Then, all three South Caucasian countries took the course of integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions, including the EU membership as their strategic priorities.  

Nowadays the things are different. A glance is enough to detect how the politico-economic map of the region has changed over the last 30 years and what is the trajectory of the shift. The region is more colourful and complex now and the EU is not only and major actor deciding on the course of things in the South Caucasus, but side-lined.

Russia, Turkey, and China play an active role in the region at a different level. The EU’s ‘systemic rival’ China’s investments in different sectors in the South Caucasus are on the rise. China is interested in attaching the region to its multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. To this end, China has invested in logistical infrastructures primarily in Georgia and Azerbaijan as these countries hold the potential of providing China with alternative routes to trade with Europe. After 44-days of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh Russia and Turkey’s influence are growing in the South Caucasus. In this regard, Russia has managed to station its army in Azerbaijan after the 44-Day War and Azerbaijan’s membership in Russian led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) sounds more feasible nowadays. Russia’s role in deciding the foreign policy course of Armenia is still high, although it remained relatively neutral during the 44- day war. Turkey and Azerbaijan have recently signed the “Shusha declaration” which includes a mutual defence clause taking their strategic cooperation to a next level. These days, the parties are planning to build an alternative railway line passing through Zangazur to connect Azerbaijan with Turkey and latter with Central Asia. Turkey and Georgia’s relations continue to have positive dynamics. Besides, Turkish authorities appear more interested in the relaxation of relations with Armenia.

The EU’s stance toward China and Russia's growing influence in the South Caucasus is somehow clear. What is interesting is how the EU sees Turkey’s role in the region who is in a customs union with the EU and a candidate for the EU membership. Although Turkey is not a direct threat to the EU for the time being and any time soon as Turkey is one of the major players of EU’s defence shield- NATO, it is obvious that the EU is worried about Turkey's uncontrolled solo performance in the region. Against these backdrops, the EU remains relatively passive.

The fact is the geopolitical shifts created a new structural reality in the South Caucasus and forced the regional countries to take three different foreign policy courses, which is not good news for the EU. Different from the 1900s and early 2000s, nowadays integration with Eur-Atlantic structures is not a foreign policy priority for all regional countries, as it lacks the promise of stability and prosperity that it used to have before. And it appears that time works against the EU in the South Caucasus. Thus, The EU urgently needs to revaluate its priorities in the region to keep up with the pace of the changes.

- Austrian FM also noted that the EU wants to contribute to building trust and launching a political process that will lead to a continuous and lasting solution to the Karabakh conflict. Do you think that the EU has the intention to take responsibility for finding the long-lasting solution of Armenian-Azerbaijan through constructive dialogue?

- The stability and security of the neighborhood have always been a key interest of the EU, as the practice shows instability in the neighborhood is a threat to the prosperity of the Union itself. The Balkan crisis of the 1990s, and the recent escalation around the Mediterranean, and ensued migrant crisis afterward allows us to draw this conclusion. Instability in the neighborhood has the potential to damage the Union not only from the politico-economic and material-wise but also from the cultural, macro-sociological, and ideological aspects.

The EU approaches the protracted conflicts in its eastern neighborhood from the same angle, including peaceful resettlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Besides, the stability of the South Caucasus is important for the EU in terms of having secure alternative energy sources and transport routes to Central Asia and China. In this respect, the EU always mentioned its intention to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the different frameworks that the EU engaged with Azerbaijan and Armenia and highlighted its readiness to contribute to a dialogue.

PCAs signed with Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 1990s empathize with the importance of dialogue on a regional basis, intending to contribute towards the resolution of regional conflicts and tensions. Action plans signed with Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 2000s in the framework of the ENP put contributing to a peaceful solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as the number one priority for the Union.  Similarly, the EU carried out different projects to build confidence between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the margins of the Eastern Partnership initiative through the “people to people contacts’ platform.  

Although the EU had a key interest in the resettlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it gave the primacy to the OSCE Minsk Group’s conflict settlement efforts and resources invested in the resettlement of the NK conflict was relatively less compared to that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now there is a ripe condition in the South Caucasus that might potentially allow the EU to take responsibility and play a more active role to realize its intentions on finding long-lasting peace in the region.

- How can you assess the potential of the EU, along with other international organizations, in the further activities for the promotion of confidence-building measures between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and the establishment of the peaceful co-existence between two communities?  Do you see a possibility that the EU could further contribute to the strengthening of long-term peace and stability in the region of the South Caucasus?

- The EU has great potential and expertise in the strengthening of long-term peace and stability in the region of the South Caucasus. The EU itself is a peace project. The history of the EU’s integration is rich with positive facts about the resettlement of the differences. One great example is the rapprochement of France and Germany after the Second World War. Another exemplary role played by the EU is in the Balkan region. The EU operations deployed in the Western Balkans (EUPM, EUFOR/Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina CONCORDIA/fYROM, EUPAT, and EUPOL Proxima in North Macedonia and EULEX in Kosovo) are contributing to the same course.  Besides, the European Union has undertaken many overseas operations, using civilian and military instruments in several countries in Africa and Asia, as part of its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

Athough the EU could not prevent the escalation of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia through the variety of neighborhood instruments and exhibited a passive stance to a great extent during the 44-Day Karabakh War, the new geopolitical situation offers the EU opportunities to reinsert itself into the region via participating in the establishment of the post-conflict regional order and strengthening of long-term peace and stability in the South Caucasus. Besides, the post-conflict situation requires the EU to manifest a more proactive position to realize its goals assigned to the EU in its Global Strategy that includes the establishment of cooperative regional orders ‘to better manage security concerns, reap the economic gains of globalization, express more fully cultures and identify and project influence in regional affairs.’

The EU has an advantageous role as a relatively neutral peace broker compared to Turkey and Russia. In Azerbaijan, few have a belief in the sincerity of Russian’s so-called peacekeeping operation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, as until today Russia is identified as the main troublemaker in the region. The same is true with Turkey’s role in peacebuilding as in Armenia many are skeptical about Turkey’s intentions. The majority in Amenia still comprehend Turkey from the perspective of ontological security which simply is a stable mental state derived from a sense of continuity concerning the events that happened in the early twentieth century between Ottoman Turkey and Armenian People.  

Besides, both Azerbaijan and Armenia desire the EU to play an active role in peacebuilding in the region. Before the 44-days Azerbaijan was reluctant to participate in peacebuilding endeavors put forward by the EU at the community level, as the participation was meant to legitimize the occupation of its territories. The EU’s reluctance to exhibit a clear position instead of employing twisted language to support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan when it comes to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was also among the issues that contributed to Azerbaijan negative stance vis-à-vis community-level dialogues. After the liberation of the territories, Azerbaijan appears more interested in inviting third parties to build confidence with Armenia. For both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the participation of the EU in the peacebuilding also means to balance the growing Russian influence in the region. In similar regard, the EU not only might play an active role in the long-term peace and stability of the Sou Caucasus and might also potentially contribute to the reproaching of Armenia and Turkey.

After a 44-day war, the EU has already pledged about 17 million euros as part of its efforts to strengthen resilience and peacebuilding in the South Caucasus. It seems the EU is trying to build on this pattern. In this respect, the recent visit by the foreign ministers of Romania, Austria, and Lithuania might be analysed as a part of the EU and NATO’s endeavour to evaluate the current situation existing on the ground in the region via direct communication with regional leaders to develop better strategies toward the region. What will be the outcome of the visit is yet to be seen.

by Yunis Abdullayev

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