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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Membership Prospects in the South Caucasus

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Azerbaijan says its economy grew by 34.5 percent last year, the highest rate in the world. It might be true, but even if it is a trifle exaggerated, no one doubts that it is doing well and is giving new importance to the South Caucasus, a region that until recently was considered more of a liability for Europe than an asset.

The European Union includes in its European Neighbourhood Policy the three countries of the South Caucasus: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The new neighbors have been offered a number of opportunities but little hope in terms of accession. Nevertheless, it is gradually dawning on some in the EU that if it is to achieve its goals in the South Caucasus, it should keep hopes of accession alive.

The wealth of Caspian oil and the accompanying transit routes through the region are obvious attractions. The Caucasus straddles the European-Asian energy corridor between the Black and Caspian seas and is becoming a major transportation hub between Central Asia and the West.

The South Caucasus sits between traditional rivals, pro-Western Turkey and an assertive Russia. Iran, increasingly a source of concern because of its nuclear ambitions, lies to the south. Conflicts, coups and civil strife are part of the history of this crossroad of civilizations, in which orderly change of political leadership is rare.

All three South Caucasus states suffer from the Soviet legacy of authoritarian governance and nationality policies. Nationalism and ethnic conflicts exploded as the Soviet empire fell apart. Despite some achievements in nation building, attempted reforms have been hindered by weak institutions, poor governance and political volatility.

Russia dominates peacekeeping negotiations, though some perceive it as more a party to conflicts than a neutral mediator. It seeks to block the region's pro-Western aspirations and Western access to Central Asia's oil and gas reserves. Russia is intent on reversing its waning influence and is keen on punishing states such as Georgia that have openly pro-Western orientations. Russia stations peacekeepers (or peace-blockers) in the break-away Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russian passports have been issued en masse to create a pretext for future "protection" of its new citizens. In January 2006, President Vladimir Putin portentously asked, "If someone believes that Kosovo can be granted full state independence, then why should we refuse the same to the Abkhaz or the South Ossetians?"

Turkey is the other important power in the region. Since the start of the war in Iraq, it has pursued what looks like a dual foreign policy. In seeking influence in South Caucasus it wants to establish common interests with Russia in the Black Sea region, fears losing control over the Turkish straits, and is increasingly dependent on Russian gas. Turkey's traditional policy in the region, however, has been to weaken Russian influence and to represent Western interests. About one-seventh of Turkey's population originates from the Caucasus, which strongly influences Turkey's Caucasus policy.

The three small countries of the South Caucasus may seem more divided than united in their relationships, but a shared ambition now drives them in a single direction: Europe.

Geographic proximity, strategic significance, security concerns, the need for energy and challenges posed by developments in the Middle East make the South Caucasus of immediate relevance to the EU. But the EU's political engagement in the region has been minimal, even if about 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) has been provided in assistance during recent years. Many European policymakers continue to see Russian interests as a reason not to engage too strongly in the region, and the EU has not even held observer status in three forums set up to deal with its conflicts.

The EU lacks a comprehensive policy for the region. When plans for a stability pact for the South Caucasus were floated at the beginning of the year, EU officials responded that the European Neighbourhood Policy would render it redundant. It is the United States and Russia that determine the pace and direction of political processes in South Caucasus. The EU relies on its aid, moral authority and "honest broker" image, which appear less effective without the strongest component of its "soft power" -- the prospect of EU accession.

The EU needs a vision for the region that would reflect geopolitical realities and be in line with its policy toward Russia and Turkey (and perhaps the United States too). The introduction of conflict resolution and diplomatic mediation, combined with a more comprehensive strategy toward the Black Sea region and Middle East, are matters of importance that go far beyond the South Caucasus.

Resolving conflicts has to be a key EU priority in the South Caucasus. Without it, durable development and political stability stand no chance.

With Russian soldiers stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the majority of the population holding Russian citizenship, it would be virtually impossible to resolve this conflict without first persuading Russia that this would be in its own best interest, or by persuading the local populations that remaining in Georgia offers a brighter future. Neither the EU nor any other Western power, however, has sufficient influence over Georgia's conflicts. While proceeding with a piecemeal approach, the EU should concentrate on the more tractable conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan lost Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mostly by Armenians, in a secessionist conflict. The conflict is frozen, although Azerbaijan regularly threatens to take the region back by force. Russia is only indirectly involved but provides military support to Armenia. Some modest initial steps toward restarting deadlocked negotiations are still possible, something that would boost the EU's authority in the region. But the European Neighbourhood Policy alone does not have sufficient instruments to influence the process significantly. A much stronger commitment on the part of the EU is now needed.

Cooperation between the EU and the United States is crucial on this and other matters in South Caucasus. The two have many common interests in the region: democratization and rule of law; stable energy supply and transit; concerns over security, organized crime, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking and terrorism; and regulating migration and borders. Such cooperation could, among other things, be a factor in influencing Armenia and Turkey to improve relations, which broke down partly as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where Turkey supported Azerbaijan.

The South Caucasus has the potential to become a great success story, as Azerbaijan's economic performance seems to demonstrate and as the people of the region share the ambition of wanting to join the EU. The states of the South Caucasus need to be assured that this door is not closed to them, and that the European Neighbourhood Policy is not an alternative to EU membership. Only the eventual prospect of accession could provide them with a real incentive to move more quickly to adopt European standards of democracy, and at the same time provide the EU with the levers of influence it needs to achieve its strategic objectives.

George Tarkhan-Mouravi is co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Tbilisi, Georgia. This comment appeared in the summer issue of Europe's World (