The European Union has eyed the South Caucasus for the past two decades. After the successful expansion to parts of Eastern Europe, GRI asks: could the South Caucasus could be next?
The European Union’s relationship with the South Caucasus – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – 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. The South Caucasus’ transition to market economies also naturally bring them closer to the European Union due to trade interests.
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”.
Georgia is the closest, in the South Caucasus, to a liberal democracy exercising the rule of law. Georgian social values are also closer to the liberal-leaning social values of Europe.
Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union in 2014, as the country pivoted towards Russian political and economic influence. Nonetheless, 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 greater cooperation is in negotiations and due to be implemented in 2017.
The EU intends 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.
Due to huge revenues from oil reserves, Azerbaijan is the least likely state to integrate with the EU, as it has no economic motivation to do so. It is also the state furthest from “liberal democratic” values. This is due to a heavily oligopolistic economy, nepotistic political rule and human rights violations. However, Azerbaijan is an attractive trading partner for the EU because of its mineral riches.
Azerbaijan is sensitive to external interference, due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, and moreover the government’s human rights violations. This underlies the caution with which the Azerbaijani state approaches the European Union. It also, to a certain extent, explains the rejection of and Association Agreement with the EU.
Obstacles to expansion: Brexit and Russia
The UK’s Brexit vote has thrown the EU into an internal crisis. One of the main arguments given by pro-Brexit campaigners was to stem the influx of migrants from the eastern reaches of the EU. It is quite possible that further expansion eastwards could result in more unrest within the current borders of the EU. Further attempted expansion will irritate Russia, as has been ample demonstrated in the case of Ukraine.
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. Meanwhile, the EU will continue to project its values and influence on neighbouring non-member states.