The South Caucasus is mostly known to a larger audience for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which will be hosted in Azerbaijan's capital Baku. Many people are unaware that the EU is increasingly involved in this region through the Eastern Partnership Initiative (EaP). This intensified involvement is based on cultural, political and economic reasons. To give one example, the prospective construction of the Nabucco pipeline, a project aiming to make use of the natural gas reserves of the Caspian Sea, may decisively change the energy situation of European Union member states. But how fragile is this project when major regional conflicts are still unsolved? Is it worth the risk that the EU might be drawn into a messy situation?

Democratization and integration

Photo: Anna Wozniak (CC-SA)
The first EU–Eastern Partnership forum in Tbilisi on the 22-24 March 2012.

Since 2008, the EU has strongly emphasised the strategic importance of developing a close partnership with the South Caucasus countries Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia by establishing the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative. About €310 million in funding was allocated to the three countries by the European Commission between 2007 and 2010. Primarily, this money is used to build up institutions aiming to enhance democracy, the rule of law and human rights. While democratic institutions in the Caucasus are less developed than in the former Central and Eastern European countries of the Eastern Bloc, ambition and efforts to strive for European standards in political and economic life certainly exist in this region on the edge of the European continent. There are however decisive differences among the partner countries. Georgia and Armenia are steadily ranked as "partly free" according to the Freedom House report Freedom in the World 2012 while Azerbaijan's commitment to implementing democratic reforms is considerably lower, which is reflected in its ranking as "not free." Besides these economic and political ties, the region is also connected to the EU on a cultural level. One obvious example for this cultural association is the countries' participation in the Eurovision Song Contest for the last few years. The fact that Azerbaijan is even hosting this year's contest should usually be a sign that European countries are taking part in a successful cultural exchange by peacefully competing against each other. Yet this particular event reveals one decisive regional obstacle among others that urgently demands solutions.

Unresolved conflicts

Armenia cancelled its participation in the song contest this year due to a major on-going political disagreement with its neighbour Azerbaijan. During an armed conflict from 1988 to 1994, the Armenian ethnic majority in Nagorno-Karabakh, which was part of the Azerbaijan SSR during the time of the Soviet Union, supported by the Republic of Armenia, tried to gain independence from Azerbaijan. After years of vast destruction, bloodshed and ethnic displacement, a ceasefire was established when Armenians gained the upper hand in the war.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons (PD)
A street sign on the way into the Nagorno-Karabakh territory as a sign of the unstable situation in the region: "Free Artsakh Welcomes You."

As a result, the internationally unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is de facto independent from the government in Baku. Since the highly unstable ceasefire in 1994, negotiations and talks led by the OSCE have not led to a solution that is acceptable to the parties involved. None of the questions in dispute, such as the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, the return of refugees and the settlement of borderlines, were solved. Moreover, violent incidents occurred along the border line in the recent years and antipathy between Armenia and Azerbaijan increased. The continuous armament in both countries demonstrates the explosive potential of this conflict. Similarly, in Georgia, the autonomous regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been demanding independence with Russian support. The war in August 2008 between Georgia and Russia showed that this supposedly frozen conflict can quickly turn into open hostility. As an outcome, both regions are more independent than they used to be before the war and Georgia struggles to maintain its full territorial integrity. Simultaneously, Georgia has undergone several years of cooperation with NATO, hereby aiming for full membership in order to solve its security dilemma. While membership in the next years is very unlikely, the involvement of the military alliance is also not able to solve the main problem of addressing the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a result, multilateral solutions that include all regional parties appear to be - comparable to the Nagorno-Karabakh case - far from achievable. The potential for an escalation of the conflicts in the Caucasus is obvious: why does the EU want to get involved?

IN -1131 DAYS