By Syuzanna Vasilyan
When the EU started propagating regional cooperation even in “regions” where this could be considered at worst ridiculous and at best immature, neither the EU member-state representatives nor the Eurocrats had any form or substance in mind. Thus, “regional cooperation” was an empty phrase devoid of flesh and blood. The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) Action Plans seem to have gone a step further by trying to achieve this and, thus, clarify what essence “regional cooperation” in the South Caucasus should have. As a result, the Action Plans for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia mention particular schemes. By doing so, however, they do not ease the task of understanding what “regional cooperation” in the South Caucasus entails. Instead, they hint at the EU’s modesty (lack of traditional power grievances and the inclusive game it is playing) combined with high-flying ambitions. In the meantime, “regional cooperation” can be disentangled into various strata.
The first stratum of “regional cooperation” is the trilateral one. This has been pursued not only via the encouragement of cooperation among the South Caucasian states, but also with the help of inclusion of the separatist entities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia (de jure in Georgia) and Nagorno-Karabakh (de jure in Azerbaijan). The EU/Armenia and the EU/Azerbaijan Action Plans refer to ‘people-to-people contacts’ within the South Caucasus as well as ‘confidence building’ between the titular state and the breakaway de facto entities to facilitate improved dialogue. Numerous projects undertaken by the EU on a lower programmatic level in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh have aimed at achieving generating regionalism.
Cooperation among Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia is at the core of attaining the objectives set by the ENP in the spheres of environment, water management, energy, education, border management, transport and transport communication, as well as inter-parliamentary dialogue. It seems as if the only omitted aspect of cooperation is the overarching governmental dialogue. But would that matter so much if the rest is achieved? In other words, once flesh and blood are there, giving a name would not be difficult. This is a cunning step, indeed, on the part of the EU. But there is more to that: the EU not only wants to see a trio, it aspires to create a Euroregion cooperation model in the South Caucasus, as stated in the EU/Armenia Action Plan. This is a sort of an artificial insemination. But the outcome can still be a full-fledged being!
The other stratum of “regional cooperation” is the multilateral one with the mentioned areas being geographic rather than political (even that of the EU itself with the pending candidatures of Turkey, Croatia, etc.). The EU/Armenia, EU/Azerbaijan and the EU/Georgia Action Plans insist on cooperation in the energy and transport fields in the context of the EU/Black Sea/Caspian littoral states and neighbouring countries. Such cooperation would not only give flesh and blood to the skeletons of the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRASECA) and the Interstate Oil and Gas Europe (INOGATE) projects but it would make the partners in the South Caucasus blow breath onto them and, thus, revitalize.
The multilateral stratum also comprises institutionalized and non-institutionalized political dimensions. The Action Plans refer to strengthened regional economic cooperation through continued engagement with the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization (BSEC) and between the Black Sea/Caspian Sea/Baltic Sea regions. The reference to the Baltic “region”, which has been absorbed by the EU and institutionalized through the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) reinforces the support for the South Caucasian trio laid out in the first trilateral stratum. Apart from this, the clause pinpoints to cooperation between the South Caucasus and the Baltic regions. It additionally confirms the academic and political claims that the EU strives for creating regions and entering into dialogue with those alike, i.e. regions, rather than those different from itself, i.e. states. In these circumstances the EU would cherish a pioneering role amidst the players of its own creation.
The framework signified by the BSEC also pleads for attention. An organization the membership was which comprises Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Serbia, Albania, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, the BSEC is a Turkish initiative. Interestingly enough, Greece seems to have been pulling the rest and/or the member-states seem to have been bandwagoning to Greece as an EU member-state. While the issue of the efficiency of the BSEC is questionable, it remains the only internally-generated “regional” organization where Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia have cooperated with Turkey and Russia on various issues of mutual concern. Thus, the BSEC remains the most inclusive multilateral bloc of cooperation.
The trilateral stratum still has to be bred from scratch, given the tension surrounding the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with both parties, namely, Armenia and Azerbaijan not being eager to achieve a compromise. The multilateral geographic stratum seems to have been partially materialized as a result of the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and Baku-Tbilisi Erzrum gas pipelines. The fact that they bypass Armenia, however, impinges on the complementary of the logic of “regional cooperation”. In the politically charged institutionalized multilateral stratum, it is evident that the BSEC has been given leverage and, thus, shown to be preferable to the existing competing regional groupings of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Georgia/Ukraine/Uzbekistan/Azerbaijan/Moldova (GUUAM), and Countries for Democratic Choice (CDC) where not all the South Caucasian states in question, namely, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, are represented. While Georgia had called for the BSEC framework to be given a boost by the EU, it must have done so given its energy and transport interests, as well as its desire to reconcile with Russia. The BSEC could, thus, represent a platform on which the strained relations between Armenia and Turkey (given the closed border between the two, the issue of recognition of the Armenian genocide by Turkey, as well as the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict), as well as between Georgia and Russia, provided the alleged interference by the latter in the affairs of the former can be constructively discussed. Thus, for the EU, the BSEC is a perfect format because of a) the pioneering role played by Greece and the simultaneous adherence on the part of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and b) the membership of Russia, which is marginalized by an EU member-state Greece and a potential candidate Turkey. While the Caspian has not been institutionally branded, hardly any inter-institutional relations have been developed between the Baltic Sea qua the Council of the CBSS and the Black Sea (via the BSEC) regions. Rather the relations have been on an impromptu and bilateral level. In a nutshell, the EU acts as an ambitious proponent of incremental “regional cooperation”.
Meanwhile, one may question whether there are any guarantees that the Union’s attempts will be successful given the lack of membership perspective to the South Caucasian countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia within the frames of the ENP. Most importantly, while penetrating covertly through many priorities for action in the Action Plans for the concerned countries, “regional cooperation” remains devoid of conditionality and is not mainstreamed. Ultimately, there is no reinforcement of a regional approach whereby Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as the representatives of the de facto entities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh might be able to sit together and, consequently, conceive either of a common future within the EU or a separate future without. This state of affairs renders the incommensurability between the EU’s ambitions, on the one hand, and the lack of its resolve to take more determined actions, on the other.
Undoubtedly, the Union is aiming far with promoting “regional cooperation” in the South Caucasus. The myriad of the ways and means through which it seeks to foster regionalism testify to the fact. The EU intentionally or unintentionally does not market its actions but it subtly and gradually advances its ambitions stemming from its own understanding of engendering a more prosperous and secure Neighbourhood in the farthest eastern part of the European continent. It is true that the Union’s policy towards the South Caucasus – an appendix in the East, which from now and then causes ‘blood circulation’ problems given its low democratic maturity level - is still in the making as is “regional cooperation”. However, this does not mean that making small advances will not lead to big results. However, for the latter to become materialized proportionality should be ensured between the EU’s ambitions and efforts directed at reaching them, as witnessed by the project of European integration per se.
A longer academic version of this essay will be published in P. De Lombaerde and M. Schulz (eds) (2008). The ‘Makability’ of Regions: An Evaluation of EU Monitoring and Support to Regional Integration Worldwide. London: Ashgate (forthcoming)
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