The European Union is undertaking initial exploratory steps following Romania’s proposals to support the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries affected by protracted (“frozen”) conflicts (see Parts One and Two in EDM, July 29 and August 4). At Bucharest’s initiative, co-sponsored by ten like-minded EU member states, the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell mandated a Romanian-led visit by three foreign ministers of EU member states to the South Caucasus (June 24–26). These were followed by visits by EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Olivér Várhelyi (July 8–9, also under Borrell’s overall authority) and by European Council President Charles Michel (July 17–18, under the European Council’s own line of authority as distinct from the Commission’s) to Yerevan, Baku and Tbilisi (see EDM, August 4).
Romania’s Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu led the first visit, accompanied by his Lithuanian and Austrian counterparts, Gabrielius Landsbergis and Alexander Schallenberg (Austria is not known to have joined the Romania+10 co-sponsor countries). The delegation conferred with the top leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in that order (Armenpress, Azertag, Civil.ge, June 24–26). According to Aurescu, this visit was designed generally “to demonstrate the EU’s comeback to this region” and specifically to explore how the EU could become more active and more influential in promoting solutions to the protracted conflicts and post-conflict reconstruction. His suggestions, seconded by the accompanying ministers and pre-coordinated with Borrell in Brussels, included:
- The European Union is ready to facilitate security and political confidence-building measures between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as societal reconciliation between them. Georgia could also play a significant role as facilitator at the state level between Yerevan and Baku.
- Georgia should make itself more attractive economically to the secessionist regions and should engage with their authorities, albeit without prejudice to the non-recognition policy. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili parried, asking the EU to “keep the Russia-Georgia conflict at the top of the EU’s agenda” (Civil.ge, June 26), although the visiting ministerial trio carefully avoided any mention of Russia. Under Aurescu’s proposals pending in Brussels, the bilateral Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTA) between the EU and Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, respectively, should also apply to the secessionist regions, so as to stimulate their reintegration in the future.
- Armenia’s reforms and its modernization should become the country’s top priority (implying a de-emphasis on the conflict with Azerbaijan).
- The European Union is ready to facilitate and create a regional cooperation format with the three states in the South Caucasus, with emphasis on inter-connectivity “throughout the region.”
- The EU proposes to include the three countries in the security dimension that the EU plans to add to its Eastern Partnership policy. The security dimension would focus on enhancing the partner countries’ national resilience (vis-à-vis Russia, as seems to be implied).
All those suggestions were couched in preliminary terms, had been pre-coordinated in Brussels with Borrell, and reflected the gist of Bucharest’s proposals currently under consideration by the EU (see EDM, July 29, August 4).
On his visit to the South Caucasus, Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Várhelyi outlined what looks like a massive EU plan for investments and assistance dedicated to the EaP countries. The plan is contingent, however, partly on the countries’ domestic reforms and partly on attaining a certain level of post-conflict stabilization (Armenpress, Azertag, Civil.ge, July 8, 9). The total value is “up to” €17 billion ($20 billion) for the five partner countries (Belarus being left out). Armenia, declared eligible for “up to” €2.5 billion ($3 billion), looks like a come-lately attempt to woo Yerevan away from full dependence on Russia.
The European Council’s president, Charles Michel, also offered himself as a facilitator between Yerevan and Baku. This role would include technical assistance for the delimitation of borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and potentially a border patrolling mission by the EU “if the parties wish this.” Michel differentiated clearly between these two countries: “We wish to raise the EU-Azerbaijan partnership to the level of a strategic partnership,” given Azerbaijan’s importance as energy supplier to the EU and transit corridor between the EU and Asia (Armenpress, Azertag, July 17, 18).