By Zaur Shiriyev | 29 December 2010


 

Hungary assumes the European Union presidency in a troubled period, as all of Europe struggles under the economic crisis. As a new member of the EU, Hungary wants to prove its capacity to take on the challenging role of improving the capabilities of the partnership program for the EU’s Eastern European neighbors.

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Due to the economic crisis and the different approaches of the program participants, though, it is hard to realize all Eastern Partnership countries’ aspirations.

In this regard, there was an interesting discussion in Budapest from Dec. 17-18 between Eastern Partnership, or EaP, program experts under the conference with the theme “EU Eastern Partnership – Experience, Efforts and Expectations” held by the World Economics Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Interestingly, most conference participants expressed their attitudes toward the Eastern Partnership in line with a “more money, more success” vision.

Experts from the South Caucasus consider the EU to be an important player in developing a credible regional approach alongside its bilateral partnerships in the region. The size and geopolitical location and the complex, existing problems of the three South Caucasus countries suggest they cannot realize their best potential as a region.

The Eastern Partnership not only creates a valuable framework for enhanced cooperation with the EU but also aims to develop the regional cooperation and multilateral dialogue that is so needed in the South Caucasus.

In this regard, an economically rich and politically stable country such as Azerbaijan generally has a different agenda for the EaP, particularly from the Hungarian presidency. For example, “more responsibility, more engagement,” as opposed to “more money, more success.”

From the Azerbaijani perspective, the EU and its member states should stick to the political commitments made in Prague in May 2009 to show that they give importance to the EaP. One area that could be possible and plausible for concrete practical results in the short-term is visa facilitation with the partner countries.

The EaP should be visible not only to the governments, but also to ordinary people in the partner countries; the facilitation of visas would be an instrument that could have a positive impact on these people.

In a period when the EU is aiming to build closer ties with its partners in fields such as trade, education, culture and youth, artificial barriers such as visas should not be an obstacle. No double standards should be applied in the relations of the EU with the partner countries, especially on political matters and conflict resolution. The EU should have a clear position on the settlement of all the conflicts in the EaP area based on the norms and principles of international law and relevant adopted international documents. A differentiated approach on these conflicts does not serve the image of the EU as a credible and reliable partner, which would damage the very idea of partnership.

For that matter, it becomes more and more evident that the EU’s ambitions and policies cannot be fully realized due to the big shadow over the region – the shadow of the unresolved conflicts in Georgia and in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This is the biggest obstacle for achieving political stability, democratization and sustainable socioeconomic development. In the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the EU is the only international actor whose presence does not raise controversy and is accepted by both sides. Despite this fact, the EU has not thus far played a role in the conflict’s resolution. Its resolution is a crucial precondition for the start of dialogue and cooperation between Azerbaijan and Armenia. If this cooperation does not become a reality soon, the prospects for the region will not be very bright. Azerbaijan will continue to bear the humanitarian costs of the status quo and Armenia will continue to suffer from its regional isolation. Both countries will continue to spend large amounts on rearmament instead of development.

Therefore, at this stage, it is not enough for the EU simply to declare its support for the Minsk Group’s work. It has to find a way to engage adequately before it is too late. As a co-chair of the group, France – to its credit – has expended a lot of effort and positive energy. But if the EU takes seriously its new foreign-policy role entrusted to it by the Lisbon Treaty, it needs to give France a European mandate within the Minsk group.

As a participant in this event, I will put forward some ideas for the Hungarian presidency:

First, I suggest the launch of a “Forum of Scholars and Experts on Eastern Partnership Countries.” Its format could be similar to EaP’s ongoing Civil Society Forum. If it is realized, it would boost more exchange of experience between EaP countries. Importantly, over the years, Azerbaijan has hosted many international debates, and in regard to future intellectual discussion, could be a catalyst for new ideas, especially between Armenian-Azerbaijan experts. In fact, Armenia must adopt a constructive attitude toward the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and must take steps in this regard. After this, the chances of intellectual debates between both sides in the conflict could be realized more easily.

Secondly, the situation of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh war remains a serious problem as well. The EU needs to participate actively and even lead the international community’s efforts to rehabilitate and develop the conflict zones by initiating income-generating projects, projects for social-economic integration and projects that encourage reconciliation.

Despite the launch of some programs for the integration of IDPs, Azerbaijan still faces a number of difficulties in this respect. Of course, the best and most adequate solution would be for these people to go back to their homes, where they belong. Therefore this objective should continue to be part of the comprehensive solution of the conflict. The current status quo is a result of years of inefficient diplomatic and political actions, which are in no one’s interest. The biggest “losers” are the people living in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and all of the internally displaced people who have had to leave their homes without hope, and without a past. These people are doomed to isolation, poverty and a lack of prospects for a decent peaceful life.

Thirdly, it is necessary to reconsider facilitating the decision of sending an EU special representative to the South Caucasus. This idea is also supported by Armenian experts. An EU special representative takes on a role to represent the EU as a global power. Otherwise, regional representatives have no influence to represent the whole EU in the wider Caucasus.

In sum, the EU has the experience and capabilities to contribute to the creation of a more tolerant atmosphere in the South Caucasus and to show the people in this region that they can live together again in peace and prosperity, and can restore the good relations and mutual trust that existed in the past. After all, the big historical lesson the EU has learned is the lesson of integration. Integration is the only weapon with which lasting conciliation with the past and an investment in a better future can be achieved. Without a solution to existing conflicts, it is impossible to apply an integration model for all regional countries.

 

Zaur Shiriyev is a foreign-policy analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Baku, Azerbaijan.