Will the EU Shake off Its Lethargy Over the Protracted Conflicts in the Black Sea Region? (Part Five)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 127

Foreign Ministers of Austria, Alexander Schallenberg, of Lithuania, Gabrielius Landsbergis, and of Romania, Bogdan Aurescu's, visit to the Administrative Boundary with South Ossetia, June 2021 (Source: EPA)

*To read Part One, please click here.

*To read Part Two, please click here.

*To read Part Three, please click here.

*To read Part Four, please click here.

Romania’s proposals, seconded by ten European Union member states, regarding the protracted conflicts in the Black Sea region (see Parts One through Four in EDM, July 29, August 4, 5, 9), encourage Brussels to play a more active role in the South Caucasus, including regarding the post-conflict situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The European Union was never involved in mediating a solution to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh. Instead, France appropriated what could have been the EU’s seat on the Minsk Group’s triple co-chairmanship (Russia, the United States, France). Each co-chairing country played its own part in discrediting the Minsk Group’s mediation, French President Emmanuel Macron’s contribution being his vocal pro-Armenian partisanship before, during and after the 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani war (see EDM, November 25, December 1, 3, 7, 2020 and January 28, February 1, 2021).

The Minsk Group’s demise has helped (inter alia) lift the taboo on international organizations stepping onto each other’s turf. The European Union had for 25 years mechanically endorsed the Minsk Group from outside the process, thereby deferring to the Minsk Group’s progenitor and mandate-giver, namely the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Visiting the region recently, however, European Council President Charles Michel offered the EU’s own services as mediator. “The EU is ready to play an honest broker’s role between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in addition to the Minsk Group’s efforts,” Michel announced, later adding, “We respect the Minsk Group, but this does not mean that the EU cannot contribute its own ideas, assistance and experts” (Armenpress, July 17; Azertag, July 18; EurActiv, July 19). The Minsk Group, however, will never play its former role again, leaving that role vacant for the European Union to step into.

Following its successful defensive war, Azerbaijan takes the position that the former “[Nagorno]-Karabakh autonomous region of Azerbaijan” no longer exists as a political-territorial entity, but is simply an Armenian-populated part of sovereign Azerbaijan; and any “special status” is out of question for it. Explicitly ruling out the “special status” is a major landmark in the 30-year diplomatic processes around the post-Soviet conflicts—and helpful to Ukraine and Moldova. It was Russia that devised the “special status” as a solution to the protracted conflicts in order to create states-within-states under its control. Western diplomacy deferred to Russia on this, enshrining the “special status” as the official goal of conflict-resolution processes. Moldova supinely accepted it in the 1990s, Ukraine is evading or resisting it since 2014, and Azerbaijan has now officially rejected it. This move is a useful precedent for Ukraine and Moldova to invoke.

Some European diplomats, meanwhile, suggest that the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreements between the EU and each Association Agreement partner (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova) should apply also to their respective secessionist regions. This should render those three countries more attractive to the secessionist authorities and potentially facilitate those countries’ territorial reintegration in the future. Romania’s Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu, on his EU-mandated visit to the South Caucasus, suggested that Georgia could, in its own interest, allow Abkhazia and South Ossetia to benefit from the EU-Georgia DCFTA, and without prejudice to the non-recognition policy (see EDM, August 4, 5).

Transnistria enjoys the EU-Moldova DCFTA’s benefits with Moldova’s consent since at least 2015 (prior to which Transnistria had enjoyed the benefits of the EU-Moldova asymmetrical trade preferences agreement). As a result, Transnistria has largely reoriented its exports toward the nearby EU, instead of the distant Russia. The political payoff to Moldova, however, has been nil. This is hardly surprising since the EU and Moldova have apparently not attached political or other conditionalities to their generosity. Transnistria’s Russian-installed leadership draws the economic benefits but remains brazenly intransigent in the 5+2 negotiations, as per Moscow’s instructions. And Transnistria’s export revenue correspondingly diminishes Russia’s burden of keeping Transnistria afloat economically.

Offering the DCFTA’s benefits to Abkhazia and South Ossetia would undoubtedly be a controversial proposition in Georgia’s domestic politics. The idea could gain some traction provided that the EU and Tbilisi attach specific conditionalities for Abkhazia and South Ossetia to fulfill. Meanwhile, any such offer to the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” would be an absolute no go in Ukraine’s domestic politics, even in the highly unlikely event of Kyiv offering to apply the EU-Ukraine DCFTA to the Russian-controlled part of Donbas. Given that Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine received their DCFTAs only after fulfilling the EU’s conditions, the EU should consider imposing political conditions for allowing secessionist territories to enjoy those benefits.

The Romania+10 informal group of countries may be expected to enlarge and refine their proposals in the upcoming debates within the EU. One indispensable task is to change the vocabulary of the 30-year-old debates over these protracted conflicts. For example, routine verbal endorsements of Ukraine’s, Georgia’s and Moldova’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity within their internationally recognized borders” are of limited value in the cases of Ukraine and Moldova, and they are only symbolic to Georgia. In practice, the respect for Ukraine’s and Moldova’s sovereignty, integrity and borders, as well as the withdrawal of Russian forces from those territories are conditional on these countries’ changing their constitutions to create states-within-states (“special status”) by negotiation with Russia’s proxies. Russia has imposed those preconditions, preventing those countries from exercising the sovereignty and controlling the borders that Russia claims to respect. Western diplomacy has been going along with this Russian charade in the existing negotiating forums.

The Romania+10 group could certainly propose that the EU should call for unconditional observance of the EU partners’ sovereignty, integrity and control of borders, respect for the sovereign countries’ constitutions, and the unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops without reference to “special status.” The same group of countries can introduce the term “territorial unity” alongside “territorial integrity” in the EU’s vocabulary, so as to emphasize the indivisibility of the EU partner countries that Russia is partitioning de facto. It is also necessary to de-legitimize Russia’s “peacekeeping” monopoly in this region, instead of passive acceptance. Russia’s “peacekeeping” monopoly is a foundation to sphere-of-influence building. The Romania+10 group of countries needs to bring up possible alternatives to Russian “peacekeeping” for the EU to debate.

Turkey can be a valuable partner to the EU’s own partner countries regarding the protracted conflicts. Turkey practically guarantees Azerbaijan’s security (see EDM, June 23, 2021), is a major supporter of Georgia (see EDM, June 7, 2017), has become Ukraine’s security partner (see EDM, November 16, 2020), and helps stabilize Moldova’s fragile Gagauz region (see EDM, August 5, 2021). Differences between the EU and Turkey on other issues notwithstanding, the EU might practice with Turkey the art of diplomatic compartmentalization.