Angela Merkel concludes visits to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan

OC Media
Aug 28 2018

Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze and German Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel (Facebook)

German Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel has concluded a three-day long tour to the South Caucasus. During her trip Merkel faced questions about Georgia’s Western ambitions, her position on the region’s conflicts, and human rights abuses in Azer­bai­jan, and also suggested Georgians may soon be able to work in Germany.

Merkel kicked off her South Caucasus tour in Georgia. During her visit to Tbilisi State Uni­ver­si­ty, Merkel said Germany would introduce ‘work quotas for Georgia and West Balkan countries’ that would allow workers from certain fields to work legally in Germany.

At a press-con­fer­ence following her meeting with Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, the German Chan­cel­lor said the number of Georgian asylum seekers in Germany had increased after visa lib­er­al­i­sa­tion. The new visa regime, which came into effect for Georgia in March 2017, allowed Georgians to travel without visas to 26 Schengen Area countries for up to three months.

She noted that Prime Minister Bakhtadze had promised ‘the numbers will go down further’, and said the issue was not a ‘big problem’, adding that Germany now con­sid­ered Georgia a ‘safe’ country of origin — something that would simplify depor­ta­tion pro­ce­dures.

Bakhtadze said the number of Georgians seeking asylum in Germany had already decreased by 70% from January.

This, in addition to Georgian organised crime syn­di­cates in Germany and other European countries, led some officials in Tbilisi to speculate that the EU could invoke visa sus­pen­sion mechanism. The mechanism is a part of the visa-free deal and can be activated if the EU faces large numbers of illegal overstays, if it is affecting the security situation, or if a sig­nif­i­cant number legally seek to stay beyond 90 days.

Merkel abstained from making ‘hasty promises’ on Georgia’s inte­gra­tion into the EU, saying that Georgia was not being con­sid­ered an active mem­ber­ship candidate country, as currently only the Western Balkans were on the EU’s enlarge­ment agenda.

Her comments echoed messages from the 5th Eastern Part­ner­ship summit dec­la­ra­tion in November, which left Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the EU’s three ‘asso­ci­at­ed’, Eastern partners that aspire for mem­ber­ship, with little promises for EU enlarge­ment beyond the Western Balkans.

Of Georgia’s NATO mem­ber­ship ambitions, Merkel said during a meeting with students that given the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Germany’s position was not to support a fast-tracked mem­ber­ship for Georgia. The Chan­cel­lor confirmed her support for Georgia’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al integrity and called the situation regarding the conflict zones a ‘great injustice’.

Merkel visited the village Odzisi, on the South Ossetian border, along with the EU Mon­i­tor­ing Mission.

During her two day visit to Georgia, the Chan­cel­lor also met with political oppo­si­tion parties European Georgia and the United National Movement (UNM). After the meeting, Davit Bakradze, pres­i­den­tial candidate from European Georgia, said Merkel had ‘promised’ German support in imple­ment­ing an EU res­o­lu­tion on Georgia’s Otkho­zo­ria-Tatu­nashvili sanctions list.

Merkel started her visit to Armenia on 24 August by paying tribute to victims of the Armenian Genocide at the Tsit­ser­nakabert Memorial in Yerevan. The Chan­cel­lor referred to the 1915–1917 atroc­i­ties against ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as ‘heinous crimes’ but avoided using the term ‘genocide’. However, she made reference to a 2016 Bundestag res­o­lu­tion recog­nis­ing the Armenian Genocide.

Holding separate meetings with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Armen Sarkiss­ian, Merkel vowed her country’s support for the peaceful res­o­lu­tion of conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, express­ing Germany’s readiness to play a more active role in the peace process.

Merkel also promised to help Armenia implement its ‘Com­pre­hen­sive and Enhanced Part­ner­ship Agreement’ with the EU, and com­ple­ment­ed Armenia as exemplary in balancing relations with Russia and the EU.

German Chan­cel­lor walked with Pashinyan and Sarkiss­ian on the pedes­tri­an North Avenue in Yerevan (Facebook)

‘It is unlikely that the EU and Eurasian Economic Union will hold talks in the nearest future, but I think the Armenian example shows that such an oppor­tu­ni­ty might appear in the future’, Merkel said at the press-con­fer­ence.

The EU–Armenia agreement is an alter­na­tive to more com­pre­hen­sive ‘asso­ci­a­tion agree­ments’ between the EU and Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Merkel said she would ‘do every­thing […] to achieve progress’ in visa lib­er­al­i­sa­tion for Armenians wishing to travel to the EU, but also noted that the issue was ‘closely related to migration policy’.

At the end of her visit, the German Chan­cel­lor walked with Pashinyan and Sarkiss­ian on the pedes­tri­an North Avenue in Yerevan, taking selfies with Armenians.

Rather than being greeted by the head of a state like in Armenia and Georgia, in Azer­bai­jan Merkel was welcomed upon landing by the country’s First Deputy Prime Minister Yaqub Eyyubov and the Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov. After visiting the Alley of Martyrs to pay respect to Azer­bai­jani war heroes, Merkel met President Ilham Aliyev.

At a press-con­fer­ence following the meeting, Aliyev commented on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of adding Turk­menistan to the South Caucasus Corridor (SGC), an EU-supported pipeline project to transport natural gas from the Caspian Sea to the EU through Azer­bai­jan, Georgia, and Turkey.

Aliyev said it was up to the Central Asian republic to show the ini­tia­tive.

During the latest NATO summit in Brussels in July, US President Donald Trump called Germany a ‘captive of Russia’, referring to their reliance on Russian gas. The European Union receives about a quarter of its gas from Russia, mostly via Ukraine. This became a concern for some European countries after a series of price disputes over gas between Russia and Ukraine led to Russia cutting off the gas supply.

Worries about the EU’s energy depen­dence on Russia have been exac­er­bat­ed by Nord Stream 2 — a joint venture between Russia’s Gazprom and several European companies to transport Russian gas through an undersea pipeline in the Baltic Sea to Germany’s Greif­swald Bay. Critics have said it is aimed at sidelin­ing Ukraine as a transit country.

Merkel, who supports the Nord Stream 2 project was forced to comment on the issue in Tbilisi, where she reit­er­at­ed her position that Ukraine would remain an important gas transit country.

Angela Merkel and Ilham Aliyev (president.az)

During the press-con­fer­ence in Baku, Merkel called Azer­bai­jan ‘a big factor in the energy diver­si­fi­ca­tion of the EU’ and also hailed the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad.

She said a ‘very frank dis­cus­sion’ between her and Aliyev had also touched on the ‘domestic situation’ in Azer­bai­jan, including human rights. The German said she had argued that ‘a strong civil society must be part of an open, secular society’ and ‘made clear’ that Germany would like to see a ‘strong civil society’ in Azer­bai­jan.

Merkel also met with civil society and oppo­si­tion figures, as well as formerly jailed inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Khadija Ismay­ilo­va.

The Chancellor’s visit to Azer­bai­jan was marred by Baku’s earlier decision to deny a visa to a member of the German del­e­ga­tion, MP Albert Weiler, for violating Azer­bai­jani law in visiting Nagorno-Karabakh without Baku’s per­mis­sion. Weiler called the decision ‘unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic’, while Merkel vowed to raise the issue during the visit.

On 23 August, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Foreign Ministry slammed the decision, calling on the inter­na­tion­al community to condemn the practice of black­list­ing those who visit Nagorno-Karabakh, describ­ing it as a ‘gross violation of the rights to free movement’. Azer­bai­jani Foreign Ministry spokesper­son Hikmet Hajiyev stated that being a member of the German par­lia­ment was  ‘no ground to violate another country’s laws’.

While local press critical of the gov­ern­ment were report­ed­ly not allowed at the joint press-con­fer­ence, Aliyev was asked by Deutsche Welle to address the human rights situation in Azer­bai­jan. Aliyev claimed the country was ‘committed to demo­c­ra­t­ic values’ and ‘all freedoms, including freedom of speech and press’ were provided.

‘There are hundreds of press outlets func­tion­ing in Azer­bai­jan, among them are quite a few oppo­si­tion­al ones. That is, no one is per­se­cut­ed, no one is punished for criticism and different point of view in Azer­bai­jan’, stated Aliyev.

In her reply to a similar question, the German Chan­cel­lor noted that dis­cus­sions around demo­c­ra­t­ic standards in Azer­bai­jan were taking place both ‘on a bilateral level and also within the framework of Council of Europe’. ‘We discussed these issues in details’, said Merkel.

Two days prior to Merkel’s visit, Azer­bai­jani political dis­si­dents in Germany held a gathering in front of Merkel’s Berlin residence urging the Chan­cel­lor to raise issues of media and political freedoms, including political prisoners, during her meeting with the Azer­bai­jani leader.  

Merkel’s South Caucasus tour included several gaffes, with a jour­nal­ist from Deutsche Welle acci­den­tal­ly referring to Azer­bai­jan as ‘Afghanistan’ in her question to President Aliyev, the German gov­ern­ment website and official social media channels showing a road with Armenian state flags as footage of Merkel’s trip to Azer­bai­jan, and according to Sputnik Deutsch­land, her official Instagram story showing scenery in Yerevan with the text ‘Guten Morgen aus Aser­baid­schan’, which was report­ed­ly taken down later.

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