EU gives glimmer of enlargement hope for South Caucasus states

EU Observer, Belgium
July 28, 2006

EU gives glimmer of enlargement hope for South Caucasus states
28.07.2006 – 14:34 CET | By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – EU member states have agreed to insert subtle
pro-enlargement wording into so-called action plans governing future
relations with South Caucasus countries Georgia and Armenia, as
regional tensions simmer over Georgian police action in the breakaway
region of Abkhazia.

The EU action plans – set to be adopted in October – are now likely
to carry the phrase that "The EU takes note that [these countries]
have expressed their European aspirations" with member states’
ambassadors finally coming to agreement after "some discussion" on
Thursday (27 July).

The meaning of the wording is open to debate, with a Finnish EU
presidency official saying "It’s not that sensitive. I mean we are
not talking about enlargement. It’s semantics. You can ponder whether
the aspirations refer to EU membership or European values in the
metaphysical sense."

But diplomats from the South Caucasus states are reading the text as
a step toward ever-closer EU integration with a potential target of
membership 10 to 15 years from now. "This simply means that Armenia
respects European values in the political and economic sphere," an
Armenian diplomat said. "But membership is our ultimate goal."

Western European public opinion has turned against enlargement,
especially in the Netherlands and France, following the no-votes on
the EU constitution last year.

Ukraine is currently battling to get the phrase "the EU recognises
the European aspirations" of Kiev into its draft partnership
agreement with the EU for 2007 and beyond. Commenting on the South
Caucasus wording, an EU diplomat said "That’s not any commitment, but
it’s the minimum the EU could do."

The draft action plans also allow Georgia and Armenia the option to
formally "align themselves" with "some" future EU statements on
common foreign and security policy topics, despite objections from
the French ambassador that this could lead to cherry-picking and loss
of coherence on EU foreign policy issues.

Azerbaijan – the third South Caucasus country currently negotiating
an action plan with the EU – was not included in the "aspirations"
and foreign policy alignment discussion because it did not request to
have either clause in its action plan text.

The South Caucasus is an important energy route for future gas and
oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea basin to the EU, with a so-called
"trojka" of high-level European Commission and EU presidency
officials planning to go to the region to conclude the action plan
deal in October.

Abkhazia shooting stops
Meanwhile, the Georgian ambassador in Brussels – Salome Samadashvili
– said shooting has stopped in the Kodori Gorge in the breakaway
Georgian region of Abkhazia, but added Georgian police officers on
Friday captured five more rebel fighters and will stay in the area
"for some time."

Georgian police entered the gorge on Tuesday to unseat local militant
leader Emzar Kvitsiani and reinstall Abkhazian local government
officials after their 12-year long exile in Tbilisi. "Kvitsiani was
running the gorge as a personal fiefdom, extorting money and goods
from local people," the Georgian ambassador said.

Tbilisi has pledged it remains committed to a peaceful resolution of
the Abkhazia conflict, but separatist leaders in the Abkhazian
capital of Sukhumi broke off talks with Georgia on Friday while
Russian general Valery Yevnevich – who has "peacekeeping" troops in
the zone – has warned his soldiers will fire back if attacked.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are monitoring the situation, with Baku giving
full support to Tbilisi’s "anti-terrorist operations" on its own
"sovereign territory." The EU has not so far officially reacted to
the Kodori operation – which left one woman dead – but Brussels is
"concerned" about potentially worsening instability in its Black Sea
neighbourhood.

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