Tbilisi: Evaluating EU Policies In South Caucasus


Civil Georgia, Georgia
March 13 2015

Jos Boonstra and Laure Delcour / 13 Mar.’15 / 16:47

The European Union (EU) is reviewing its European Neighbourhood Policy
(ENP), launched in 2003 and last reviewed in 2011. The Arab spring
and continued unrest in several of Europe’s southern neighbours, plus
recent EU-Russia tensions over Ukraine, demand a serious overhaul of EU
policies in its neighbourhood. Even though a complete change of course
is unlikely, through a recent ‘green paper’ the European Commission
has launched a consultation – both in-house and externally – about
the ENP, including its policy for the six East European and Caucasus
countries – the Eastern Partnership (EaP) – with a view to reviewing
‘the principles on which the policy is based as well as its scope and
how its instruments should be used’. This article will focus on the
EU’s relations with the three South Caucasus countries of Armenia,
Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Time for a Reality Check

Launched in 2009, the EaP has offered new opportunities for South
Caucasus countries to develop their relationship with the EU. On a
bilateral basis, the main accomplishment of the EaP in the region has
been the conclusion of an Association Agreement (AA) including a Deep
and Comprehensive Free-Trade Areas (DCFTA) with Georgia. Moreover,
all three countries are aiming for (albeit at different speeds) visa
liberalisation, which also requires substantial reforms in key areas
such as migration management or the fight against corruption.

With the EaP, the EU has emerged in the South Caucasus as an agent
for domestic change (at least in Georgia, to some degree in Armenia
and to a much lesser extent in Azerbaijan). But EU-inspired change
has its limits, as the EU is only as influential as South Caucasus
states allow it to be. Reforms often remain shallow and local elites
carefully calculate the high short-term costs against longer-term (and
vaguer) benefits. At the same time, by making its AA/DCFTA offer the
main bilateral ‘take-it-or leave-it’ package, the EU has put itself
in a difficult situation. So far, no plan B has been developed for
countries that seek deeper relations with the EU but not AA or DCFTA.

The EaP’s multilateral track is also in need of revision as it is
incapable of handling the growing differences between South Caucasus
countries in their relationships with the EU. At the political level,
the work of the multilateral track is affected by regional tensions and
conflicts. For instance, the work of the EaP’s parliamentary dimension
(Euronest) has often been paralysed by divergences between Armenia and
Azerbaijan. Standard bilateral European Parliament Delegations with
South Caucasus (or East European) countries would be more practical
as is already the case with Moldova, Ukraine and soon Georgia.

At the technical level, thematic ‘platforms’ are mainly EU-driven
and their content primarily reflects EU concerns. The platform on
economic integration is a blatant example of this. The emphasis
on approximation with EU trade regulations is relevant to Georgia,
but less so to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Other platforms (for example,
on democracy, good governance, and stability) also inspire uneven
interest among the three partners.

However, the multilateral track does offer a useful framework for
representatives of the three EU partners to meet. Regional tensions
and conflicts feed into high-level meetings, but thematic platforms
and panels provide fora where officials from Armenia, Azerbaijan,
Georgia and East European states can discuss their respective reform
experiences. In addition, the non-governmental formats (the Civil
Society Forum, the Business Forum) have fostered contacts between
South Caucasian societies. Meanwhile, the EaP’s six flagship projects
– from integrated border management to environmental governance –
need careful evaluation. Fruitful projects should be continued and
strengthened, while those that have not produced results after five
years should be either reformed or scrapped.

The Way Ahead

It is in the EU’s interest that the Caucasus becomes a stable and
democratic region. But the EU has little influence to make this happen
without two currently missing ingredients: a much more substantial
engagement on security challenges and a clear finalite for its Eastern
partners. The Russian authoritarian model will keep traction as it
pretends to solve the short-term worries of some of these states
and to safeguard the incumbent regimes. At the very least, the EU
should be ready to fully support those countries that do opt for
in-depth political and economic reforms. Such an approach would not
prevent the EU from setting democracy and human rights benchmarks
with authoritarian states such as Azerbaijan.

The EU should also increasingly focus on linking EU member-state
societies to those of the South Caucasus. This requires shifting
its policy paradigm from narrow legal and technical approximation to
broader societal integration, for instance through people-to-people
contacts. Europe’s attractiveness remains high – also in Armenia
and Azerbaijan – and in the long run will be more influential than
short-sighted Russian propaganda. Civil society cooperation, visa
liberalisation policies, and support to educational exchanges have
been overshadowed by the EU’s focus on AA/DCFTA negotiations. However,
societal links should be turned into both a key priority in current
relations and a basis for a deeper long-term partnership.

The EaP sought to help stabilise the EU’s South Caucasus neighbours
but lacked a security component from the outset. Neither a harder
security posture from the EU, nor success in settling protracted
conflicts in the South Caucasus (without Russian involvement and
agreement), are on the table. The current EU engagement in security
matters is largely confined to the Common Security and Defence
Policy (CSDP) border monitoring mission in Georgia (EUMM) and the
participation of an EU Special Representative in the Geneva talks
between Georgia and Russia. Besides stepping up EU engagement through
NATO and the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
at the Minsk talks concerning Nagorno-Karabakh, there is little more
the EU can do. Specific Caucasus security strategies by the EU would
seem overambitious since member states – for a variety of reasons –
will likely not support heavier involvement in the region’s security.

Nonetheless, the region’s protracted conflicts remain volatile and

However, the EU could more strongly support the reform of the
security sectors of those countries willing to engage, for instance
by assisting in reforming partners’ police, border guards, judicial
systems, and democratic oversight mechanisms. This should be possible
in Georgia (and already undertaken to some degree), and it could be
worthwhile to investigate such options with Armenia and Azerbaijan,
perhaps by linking it to confidence building measures between both
adversaries. Furthermore, there are elements of security sector
reform (SSR) in the EU’s visa liberalisation policies with Caucasus
countries as these affect some aspects of the police, border guards
and judicial systems; this can potentially be an entry point for
broader SSR engagement.

The EU cannot fix the Caucasus region, but it can have a positive
bearing on its development, provided that it can design a clearer and
firmer long-term vision. The EU should seek to play a responsible and
more active security role in the South Caucasus by being prepared
for further problematic relations with Russia, and being ready to
cope with a shifting, complex, and uncertain domestic and regional
environment. Also, the EU will need to adopt a more flexible bilateral
approach complemented by renewed multilateral cooperation formats
via the EaP. Last but certainly not least, given its attractiveness
to South Caucasus societies, the EU should place societies and
people-to-people contacts at the core of its policies in all three

This article is based on a longer document entitled ‘A broken region:
Evaluating EU policies in the South Caucasus’, FRIDE Policy Brief 193
(28 January 2015), published under the Cascade project.

About the authors: Jos Boonstra is head of the Eastern Europe,
Caucasus and Central Asia programme at FRIDE Laure Delcour is
scientific coordinator and research fellow of the EU FP7 Cascade
project at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme


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