With its simmering conflicts and deep economic problems, the South Caucasus poses perhaps the biggest local challenge to the European community. In an event hosted by Carnegie Europe, the German Marshall Fund’s Ronald Asmus, Carnegie’s Thomas de Waal, and Peter Semneby, EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, debated how the wider European community should respond to the problems facing this region. Jacqueline Hale of OSI-Brussels moderated the discussion.

A Complicated Region 

The South Caucasus is an unstable, unpredictable region, mired in a complex matrix of regional and local conflicts, Semneby argued. Tensions between Georgia and Russia, international uncertainty over the status of breakaway territories South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the growing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh all have international repercussions. As this region is in Europe’s immediate neighborhood, Semneby warned that conflict there would also affect Europe. The EU, therefore, cannot afford to become complacent with regard to the South Caucasus.

The South Caucasus in International Relations 

  • An Independent Region: South Caucasian countries have always been adept at ensuring control of their own affairs, despite the interest great powers have shown in the region, de Waal explained. In particular, Russia’s role in the region is often overemphasized by observers; Moscow is in strategic retreat from the South Caucasus and Russia’s small military presence buys it little real political clout.
  • Western Policy: Asmus identified three main issues affecting EU and U.S. policy in the South Caucasus:
    • European Enlargement: There is a split in the West between those people who wish to limit EU and NATO enlargement to the Balkans, and those who favor expanding Europe’s borders to include countries and regions such as the Ukraine and the Caucasus. This debate remains unresolved and influences EU relations with the region.
    • Ambivalence: A degree of ambivalence exists in Western policy circles toward the South Caucasus. Due to the region’s complexity, too often Western bureaucrats set low standards for policy success and seek to avoid responsibility for potential policy failures.
    • Coherent Policy: No consensus in the West exists on what a coherent policy toward the South Caucasus would look like. Nor is there agreement among Western nations on the most basic principles for dealing with the region, such as those enshrined in the Charter of Paris, the founding document of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
  • Military Blocs: It is counterproductive for countries in the region to belong to military blocs, de Waal argued. For example, Georgian membership in NATO would only exacerbate Georgia’s security problems in the long run and would fail to address the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Asmus disagreed, contending that some countries in the region, starting with Georgia, feel their very existence is threatened and they should have the right to choose their own foreign policy course accordingly.
  • Strategic Insignificance: The region would be best served if it were considered a zone of neutrality or of relative strategic insignificance, de Waal concluded. If the South Caucasus were no longer perceived as a region where great power politics are played out, it would allow more attention to be focused on local dynamics, such as bottom-up institution building.

The South Caucasus and the EU

The EU can play a positive role in the South Caucasus in a number of different areas, Semneby asserted:

  • Freedom of Movement: The people of the region are extremely interested in free movement of goods and services and unrestrictive travel between the South Caucasus and EU countries. Enabling this movement would bring the region closer to the EU.
  • Security: The EU can help provide security in the region. While this is already being done through such programs as the Monitoring Mission in Georgia, more can be done.
  • Institutional Relationship: A closer institutional relationship with the region would enable the EU to indirectly act as a security provider, by providing reassurance to countries in the region. Such a relationship would also give the EU a clearer understanding of the situations of the countries of the South Caucasus and therefore help the EU craft more targeted efforts to transform and resolve conflicts.
  • Regional Coherence: The EU can help promote greater regional coherence on three different levels:
    • Abstract: It can help to provide a new common identity by adding a European layer of identity to existing national identities.
    • Strategic: The EU can help countries in the region align their reform agendas and strategic objectives and can aid in facilitating contacts with regional neighbors.
    • Hands-On: It can also provide regional coherence by promoting measures that will improve communications between people in different countries in the region.

Regional Dynamics

  • Nagorny Karabakh: Tension over Nagorny Karabakh currently represents the greatest risk for the region, Semneby said. An escalating arms race is occurring between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region. The EU must take a more active role in resolving this conflict, Semneby warned. It should do more to influence local parties and public opinion, including engaging with the population in Karabakh itself, and should support a stronger ceasefire.
  • Georgia: The EU needs to develop a policy of engagement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia that goes beyond simply participating in the Geneva peace talks, Semneby said. Such a policy could use the EU’s soft power to move the conflict resolution process forward. This needs to be done within a framework that is acceptable to the Georgian government. The EU must maintain a two-track policy of engagement and non-recognition, to mitigate the Georgian leadership’s fears that engagement with these two breakaway regions is a de facto legitimization of the status quo.
  • Regional Approach: The South Caucasus is a small region that can only thrive if its countries are connected by economic ties, transportation routes, and communication grids. De Waal outlined two key factors that could contribute to this:
    • A Holistic Approach: Outside powers, particularly the United States, will need to adopt a holistic approach to the region instead of the current tendency to conduct a separate bilateral policy for each country in the region.
    • Rebuild the Railways: Rebuilding railway networks could be a very positive confidence building measure in the region. It would reconnect countries currently separated by conflict and facilitate regional economic restoration.