A European Strategy for the Southern Caucasus

This is an archived article

November 25, 2008
See also the Agenda Paper by Iris Kempe.

Since the five day war between Russian and Georgia in August 2008 the Southern Caucasus became a strategic hot spot. Entrenching by far more than simply bringing devastation and loss of territories and human lives for Georgia, the 2008 War arguably changed the rules of the games established since the end of Cold War in early 1990s. It posed new challenges to the West. Now, European countries, experiencing the shrinkage of their economies, decline in foreign trade, rapidly deteriorating rate of Euro, tighter dependency on energy resources, and last but not least, an "enlargement fatigue" has to deal with the "New Old Russia" that is Russia aggressively asserting the role of the subject, not an object in European politics.

Georgia – a country aspiring to EU and NATO membership and a country providing alternative Asian energy routes to Europe, bypassing Russia and Iran – had building of itself as safeguarding democratic values on the far Eastern borders of Europe and rapidly developing economy since the Rose Revolution 2003. Beyond the high expectations Georgia was badly shaken by the violent crackdown of peaceful demonstration and free media in November, 2007.

To address the threefold agenda of the international consequences of the War, the impact of domestic transition and to identify the strategic challenges the South Caucasus Regional Office of Heinrich Boell Foundation and Bertelsmann Foundation, Gütersloh, Germany on November 6-7, 2008 organized a joint conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. Experts and decision makers from Eastern and Western Europe, Russia and Southern Caucasian Countries discussed a need for “A European Strategy for the Southern Caucasus – Towards Identifying an agenda” to look for, far, and beyond the limitations of European-South Caucasian cooperation currently imposed by the ENP framework.

The meeting introduced a strategic cooperation dedicated to identify a new European agenda.

Thinking in democratic terms

While not perfectly reliable, the general tendency of more democracy meaning less war continues to hold. The stronger the respective democratic cultures in the countries in and around the Southern Caucasus, the less likely they are to escalate conflicts.

Unfortunately, the countries of the Southern Caucasus are lagging in their democratic transitions. There is no clear-cut reform agenda to drive the transition. Lack of clear prospects for membership in the European Union limits the leverage of the EU and makes it easier for countries to backslide in their commitments.

As a result, foreign aid should be made conditional on transition progress. Donors and recipients should have clear expectations, and donors should refrain from issuing blank checks.

Thinking in terms of changes in the global framework

The Southern Caucasus is generating pressure and impact, but not strategic thinking and proposals. At present, the region enjoys attention from the international community; that is a time to strengthen engagement and build sustainable ties so that progress can continue when global attention moves on. The governments in the Southern Caucasus need to develop an even wider circle of partners, overcoming the limits of mere regional interest.

The EU has become an important player on the ground. But questions remain: What to do with Russia? Can the EU speak with one voice? How will the Eastern partnership development? How are these issues related to the outcome of the Mediterranean Union, with linkage building to the ENP and in particular special cooperation?

What impact will the new US administration have? Disengagement from Iraq, changing engagement in Afghanistan, and even potential re-establishment of relations with Iran are all on the incoming Obama administration’s agenda. Each of these changes will have ripple effects in a region that borders both Central Asia and the Middle East.

Thinking in inclusive – exclusive terms

A strategy for the Southern Caucasus has to include all the three countries and the disputed regions. Frozen conflicts do not necessarily stay frozen, and all efforts toward solutions must include all of the parties involved.

A European strategy for the Southern Caucasus requires that Europe adjust its relations towards Russia. Today’s Russia is not the one with which the EU negotiated its last PCA, and European policy needs to adapt to changed conditions. European governments and institutions working with the Southern Caucasus should align their Russian and regional approaches.