The European Union and future with the South Caucasus

The European Union and future with the South Caucasus

The European Union (EU) has eyed the South Caucasus for the past two decades, and after the successful union expansion to parts of Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus could be next.

The European Union’s relationship with the South Caucasus has been gaining traction ever since the initiation of the “Eastern Partnership” programme. Although the EU has no borders with the South Caucasus, the EU believes that it has a responsibility to play a role in the political and economic development of the region, ever since the region gained independence from the Soviets. The European Union’s expansion plan has been continuously legitimised with platitudes regarding “peace”, “security”, “democracy” and “human rights”.

The South Caucasus states’ transitions to market economies naturally bring them closer to the European Union due to trade interests. Despite the platitudes, what is the reality behind the relationship between the EU and the South Caucasian states? It is essential to look at this relationship with the basis that the South Caucasian states have historically been unable to create their own alternatives and have felt obligated to choose between the great powers around them.

Georgia

Georgia is the closest to integration with the EU out of the 3 South Caucasian states. This is largely down to the tenuous relationship that Georgia has with Russia. Due to Russia’s involvement in the separatist-inclined states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, since the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. Georgia has been keen to express its “European” identity since the “Rose Revolution”.

The pro-European direction set by former President Mikheil Saakashvili made future EU membership appear realistic. Recent developments show the EU implemented a visa-free travel regime for Georgia.

Georgia is the closest, in the South Caucasus, to a “liberal democracy” exercising the “rule of law”. Georgian social values are closer to the “liberal”-leaning social values of Europe.

Armenia

Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union in 2014, hurling a blow, to its relationship with the EU, as the country pivoted to Russian political and economic influence. The EU continues to play a significant role in Armenia.

An Association Agreement, a treaty between the EU and a non-member with the aim of improving cooperation, was in negotiations in 2013, but never implemented. A new plan for better cooperation is in negotiations and due to be implemented in 2017.

The EU plans to provide 7 million euros worth of financial support of electoral reform. The EU expressed its desire for a peaceful solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, that has indirect geopolitical consequences, for the EU and expanding capabilities.

Armenia’s reliance on Russia for security, its participation in the Eurasian Economic Union and lack of “liberal democratic” credentials makes the country a weak candidate when compared to the “values” of the EU. Significantly, Armenia’s geopolitical position as a “gateway” to the Middle East and Iran makes it a point of interest for the European Union.

Azerbaijan

Due to the huge revenues from oil reserves, Azerbaijan is the least-likely state to integrate with the EU. It is also the state with the least amount of “liberal democratic” values. This is due to a heavily oligopolistic economy, nepotistic political rule and mass human rights violations. However, Azerbaijan is an attractive ally for the EU because of its mineral riches.

Azerbaijan is sensitive in regards to its independence and sovereignty due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its human rights violations. This has evinced the caution with which the Azerbaijani state approaches the European Union. And, to a certain extent, explains the rejection of Azerbaijan signing an Association Agreement with the EU.

The future

When the UK voted in favor of Brexit, the EU has been in a state of turmoil and in somewhat of an existential crisis. It is up to the EU whether to concentrate on solving its internal problems, especially with the rise of populistic and nationalistic sentiments across the continent, or to keep its eye expanding eastwards.

One of the main reasons for Brexit, is the issue of immigration and the influx of migrants from the eastern reaches of the EU, per the additions of Romania and Bulgaria. It is quite possible that further expansion eastwards could result in more unrest within the current borders of the EU.

The institutional pressures that membership expansions puts on the EU and its members are well documented, however the EU continues to entrench its influence on neighbouring non-member states in terms of spreading liberal ideology and interest in economic growth. Further expansion will irritate Russia, as it has done with the teasing of Ukraine and Georgia memberships.

Georgia is the most likely candidate from the South Caucasus to join the EU due to the domestic will, development of “liberal” values and fear of Russian political influence within the country. The political elites of Armenia and Azerbaijan are not as keen or politically inclined to join the EU. Armenia has its own geopolitical commitments already and Azerbaijan is able to stand on its own two feet economically, despite inequalities and political repression.

The European Union continues its activities within the South Caucasus, however, whether integration is possible in the future is dependent on the will of the EU to expand, taking into account its domestic problems, and the internal and geopolitical situations of the South Caucasian states.

 

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Leon Aslanov

Leon Aslanov holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London. He is a researcher and political analyst with an in-depth knowledge on the languages, societies and politics of the South Caucasus, Turkey, Iran and the surrounding region. His specific research interests lie in conflict resolution, divided societies and history of the aforementioned regions.