EU Takes Further Steps in Caucasus – Amid Risks

A Unique Context

The Caucasus presents a unique challenge due to its lack of direct borders with the European continent, aside from the European part of the Russian Federation. Moreover, the absence of clear border delineation among the three post-Soviet states, and with Iran and Turkey, has created a “grey zone” since 1992. This area not only sits between Russia and the West but also amidst emerging blocs that include China, Iran, Turkey, and even the Gulf states. All are key investors, trade partners and security providers. Consequently, the three Caucasian states have pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy, striving to balance relations with various partners.

Recent geopolitical shifts, including the conflict in Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, and turmoil in the Middle East, have heightened tensions between the West and Russia. Russia’s assertiveness has reinforced Western beliefs dating back to the 1990s that post-Soviet states require Western support to safeguard their independence. However, the challenge remains: how to intervene effectively without exacerbating the situation. The Caucasus, historically a fault line between Byzantine and Persian civilizations, grapples with unresolved border issues and a populace desiring amicable relations with both the West and neighbouring states.

Challenges and Divisions

Recent events have exposed divisions within both Georgia and Armenia. In Georgia, public protests erupted over a controversial bill proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which would classify NGOs and civil organisations receiving over 20% of their funding from abroad as “foreign agents.” Many fear this move aims to stifle dissent and derail Georgia’s path towards EU accession, drawing comparisons to restrictive measures seen in Russia. The EU flag is now waged by the opposition, and not anymore as in November by thousands ordinary citizens celebrating their country becoming a candidate to join the EU. The private dialogue between Brussels and Georgian president Salome Zurabishvili, above the head of the elected government, does not appease the situation.

Similarly, in Armenia, the EU’s role has become divisive, particularly following accusations of inaction during the expulsion of Armenians from Karabakh. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has faced criticism for perceived concessions to Azerbaijan, leading to violent demonstrations and calls for his resignation. Acknowledging the loss of Karabakh and feeling abandoned by Russia, Pashinian seeks support from the EU to navigate the political landscape and soften agreements with Azerbaijan. At a trilateral meeting held in Brussels on 5 April with the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Pashinian was promised a quarter of a billion euros. But violence continues on the streets and on 25 April demonstrators started a blockade of roads leading to Iran and Georgia.

Azerbaijan’s Advantage

In contrast, Azerbaijan emerges as a victor, having regained control of Karabakh. President Aliyev’s firm grip on power, coupled with a military victory, has marginalised nationalist opposition forces who were backed by veterans of the lost wars and refugees. The withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Karabakh further consolidates Azerbaijan’s position, while energy contracts with the EU, signed in July 2022 to reduce its reliance on Russian energy sources, came as a shock to democratic circles. Aliev didn’t mince his words about the 5 April trilateral meeting, warning that Baku ‘can not just sit and wait’ when “France, India and Greece are weaponising Armenia against us”. He urged other unnamed countries not to “meddle in the region” and added that Baku’s relations with Moscow will be strengthened, as well as those with the Eurasian Economic Union except Armenia. Russia spoke of Armenia taking the risk of helping the West “destructive influence in the region; and Iran of the risk of Western anti-Iranian manoeuvres.

But Aliev’s most unexpected proposal is for signing a ceasefire agreement during the COP20 climate summit in Baku on 11-12 November. It suggests a willingness to engage in diplomatic efforts, potentially easing tensions and garnering Western support without conceding much at national level.

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