As a specialist in EU-Russia relations and security issues in Russia and the former USSR, Dov Lynch works at the Institute for Security Studies of the European Union (ISS-EU), an independent European think tank created in 2001 in the context of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). In analysing what’s at stake in the region, he salutes the EU’s efforts to promote the democratisation process in the South Caucasus.
Why is the South Caucasus of interest for the European Union?
The interests must be distinguished from the stakes. As far as direct interests are concerned, the region offers an alternative to the oil resources in the OPEC [Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] zone. The Caspian Sea contains important ‘black gold’ reserves, and many European companies have established a foothold there. Nevertheless, the extent of these reserves must not be exaggerated. From a geopolitical viewpoint, a resumption of the frozen conflicts could have an immediate effect on Europe, especially as its borders have shifted eastwards since EU enlargement [in May 2004]. In Austria in 2004, for example, the resurrection of the Chechen conflict resulted in a wave of asylum seekers coming from [the Chechen capital] Grozny. For the first time since the 1990s, all the regions of the former USSR are on the move. With the ‘Rose Revolution’ [Georgia], the ‘Orange Revolution’ [Ukraine] and the ‘Tulip Revolution’ [March 2005 coup in Kyrgyzstan], we are witnessing the emergence of national leaders in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldavia, etc., who are very pro-European. The EU therefore has an interest in seeing this democratisation process succeed in order to stabilise the region. What is at stake is the very future of EU-Russia relations, as well as the future of the security structures following the example of the OSCE [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe]. And what is the future of the transatlantic link? During the ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia, Washington cooperated very closely with the EU, and Brussels wishes to encourage this spirit of partnership in the region.
What is the current European policy implemented in the Southern Caucasus?
It is not really possible to speak of an EU Caucasian strategy. Since the fall of the former USSR and until the end of the 1990s, it was principally a question of humanitarian aid, and then technical aid programmes multiplied. In 1999, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan ratified partnership and cooperation agreements. The eastward expansion of the EU and the ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003 made it clear to the 25 EU member states that a real foreign policy is needed with regard to these countries, so close to its new borders. Today, a certain number of instruments have been implemented at the initiative of the Irish EU presidency in 2003. A special representative of the European Council, Heikki Talvitie, was designated in July 2003 to assist in the resolution of conflicts. Even if he played only a minor role during the escalation of the conflict between South Ossetia and Georgia, he succeeded in eliminating the distrust among the local players and instilled a European presence. Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have been included within the new European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). This is an initiative which implies more politically intense short-term action plans, notably with more dialogue and more money, demonstrating the commitment of the EU. The horizon for membership of the EU remains open. In addition, Brussels has a very active role as regards development, and is even the principal provider of aid money in the region. For example, it is financing rehabilitation programmes in conflict zones such as Abkhazia.
What role must the EU assume towards the American and Russian powers which have a very strong presence in the region?
The Caucasus is a difficult terrain. Particularly in the North: population explosion, lack of jobs, educational system in tatters, presence of Islamic radicals, not to mention a Russian policy of force in Chechnya…There are also complicated latent conflicts to be resolved (High Karabakh, Abkhazia, etc.). In the whole region, the Russians are practising a strategy of an emotional and national nature. Likewise, the US has seen its political and military role grow since September 11. If their presence in the region is beneficial, it also plays a role in the militarisation of the region. As a buffer zone between the EU and Russia, the Southern Caucasus is marked by uncertainties and bad communication: the cocktail is volatile. But the EU has its cards on the table and may bring humanitarian and economic tools to help with the reforms, without insisting on any geopolitical leadership whatsoever. The advances of the EU in terms of aid and development programmes will permit a link of trust to be established which is liable to have an influence on the political thaw.