CHALLENGES AND DILEMMAS OF THE EUROPEAN NEIGHBORHOOD POLICY IN THE SOUTH CAUCASUS

By Daniel Linotte (09/19/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) is more than two years old. A recent report published by a Brussels think-tank indicates that a new ENP concept – labeled “ENP plus” – may emerge. In the “ENP-plus” context, the South Caucasus is losing weight from enlargement perspectives. In addition, the “ENP plus” political dimensions in terms of democracy, human rights and freedoms seems to be weakening, which could reflect tensions on energy markets and, as a result, better accommodate some EU partner governments, resulting in a policy that would be detrimental to values the West is eager to promote.

BACKGROUND: The Centre for European Policy Studies, CEPS, a Brussels-based think-tank, recently published a document on the “European Neighborhood Policy Two Years on: Time indeed for an ‘ENP plus’”. That paper analyzes and comments official ENP documents. Fifteen “ENP plus” policies are listed. Considering membership, the paper refers to EU documents underscoring that ENP is definitely distinct from enlargement and does not entail accession prospects. The only country mentioned in the enlargement section is Ukraine. There is no reference at all to the South Caucasus countries, i.e. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The divisions within the EU about Ukrainian membership – with Poland and Sweden seen as the supportive constituency – are stressed as well as issues related to the absorptive capacity of the EU, and the need for in-house institutional reforms for which concrete progress cannot be guaranteed. In addition, the CEPS paper underlines that new EU documents give a seemingly diminishing importance to democratic rules and human rights in EU partner countries.

The political conditions and ambitions of EU partner countries are presented in the annex. A line is drawn between “willing” and “passive” countries with respect to EU membership, and participation in ENP – in addition, Russia is categorized as “reluctant”, and requires special treatment, not as a normal neighbor but as a strategic partner; Belarus remains totally excluded from ENP because of its repressive political regime. Considering the South Caucasus, Georgian authorities are seen as very eager to join the EU and transatlantic structures, and were apparently expecting much more from the EU in terms of aid, trade and conflict resolution – fatigue could emerge because of growing disappointment. In the CEPS report, Armenia is perceived as showing a great interest in EU matters, but the country has made too little progress in the political and judicial spheres to envisage much closer relations, and is in maintaining strong ties with Russia – recent information also shows that Armenia might in fact become less interested in a strengthening of ties with the EU (and NATO). Azerbaijan is seen as passive regarding the EU. The Azerbaijani official position might reflect rich energy resource endowments, which do permit more options in terms of domestic and foreign policies.

IMPLICATIONS: The reference to Ukraine only, and the exclusion of the South Caucasus countries from the discussion on membership could indicate a new orientation that would be confusing for EU partner countries. The lower importance that seems to be given to fundamental values could also prove counterproductive in the long-term. Considering enlargement per se, Ukrainian domestic political prospects remain unpredictable, whereas in the case of Georgia at least, there is more political unity within the ruling bodies of the country. Following the eviction of President Shevardnadze, Freedom House indicates significant progress in the fight against corruption at all levels and the transparency of the electoral process; such outcomes reflect the more active role of civil society and the pro-Western orientation of President Saakashvili’s policies, that have at the same time weakened the role of the Parliament and the independence of the media, and strained further relations with the two separatist regions of Abkhazia and south Ossetia. The case of Armenia is less promising, as little progress on democracy, the rule of law and the quality of national and local governance is reported. Relations between the ruling political leaders and the opposition remains tense, which creates uncertainties in a country that should attract more investors and businesses. One may assume that stronger linkages with the EU, including more financial aid, technical assistance and preferential treatment for trade in goods and services, would have enhanced democratic rules, the quality of governance and economic performances in both Armenia and Georgia, and stimulated a much higher interest on EU matters in Armenia.

The Azerbaijani case creates real dilemmas: the lack of an EU vision for that country may weaken civil society, and the quest for a genuine democracy and open society. On the other hand, the opposite policy – too high and clear ambitions for Azerbaijan on the EU side – could stimulate negative reactions from the government, with more pressures and controls on the media, NGOs and political opponents. In that respect, little progress is observed on most dimensions – violence against journalists is common and political opponents are often intimidated, contradicting the standards of the Council of Europe to which the country belongs. Corruption remains a significant problem at all levels. Furthermore, a growing competition between the West, Russia and China in unfolding over access to the abundant energy resources in the Caspian Sea region, and control over strategic transit routes, which implies that Azerbaijani rulers might have an effective leverage on their partners when bargaining the political opening and advance of the country, and the supply of oil and gas. In addition, the proximity of Iran reinforces the strategic position of Azerbaijan while also subjecting it to challenges from the South.

CONCLUSIONS: The deliberations on an “ENP plus” reflects the difficulties of including, under the same label, countries that belong to quite diverse and different regions in terms of political and economic development – namely North Africa, the Middle East, the South Caucasus and the Western CIS. It underscores the EU’s internal challenges about the deepening of the integration process and the need for a new Constitution after the last two eastward enlargements. Nevertheless, further disappointments in the “willing” countries of the South Caucasus should be avoided. Considering the EU absorptive capacity, one may wonder if it is relevant for small-size countries like Armenia and Georgia. Whenever possible, the EU and the Council of Europe should support Azerbaijan to move ahead with the democratization process of the country and the protection of the rights of all citizens; Azerbaijani civil society must also continue to receive attention. In conclusion, the future ENP should be expected to integrate growing tensions on energy markets and the need to better secure energy supply, and the willingness of the EU to promote key values in terms of democracy, human rights, fundamental freedoms, good governance and transparency.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Daniel Linotte is an international consultant in the field of applied economics, trade and security. He holds a doctorate from Oxford university. He was senior adviser to governments in the Balkans and the South Caucasus, and to the OSCE secretariat.