The EU, Russia and the South Caucasus – Building Confidence
No. 1 2012 January/March
Peter Semneby

Peter Semneby is former EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus.


In the first half of the last decade, the European Union was slowly discovering that it had interests in the South Caucasus. The main interest was to sustain a stable, secure and prosperous neighborhood, and also to develop the region as an energy corridor and transport route to the Caspian and beyond. But it took the European Union some time to take a decision whether it was worthwhile engaging in this obscure region. Did the opportunities outweigh the risks? There were widespread fears that engagement in the South Caucasus would mean competition and confrontation with Russia, rather than opportunities for cooperation. Ultimately, the EU marked its interest and commitment in several ways: by highlighting the region in the European Security Strategy 2003, by inviting the South Caucasus countries to the new European Neighborhood Policy, and by creating the post of EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus. But it took a war for the EU to leave its doubts aside and make a strong commitment in the South Caucasus.

As I started my work as EU Special Representative in March 2006, I tried to identify priority areas for EU policy and my own work in the Caucasus. After five dramatic years, with the August 2008 war exactly at half-time, it may be useful to return to the list of priorities as it looked in 2006, to take stock, and to think about what could be done in the next five years, particularly what the EU could do together with Russia to promote security, stability and prosperity in this common neighboring region. Although there have been positive developments on several accounts, many tasks remain, sadly, unfulfilled. The five-day war was a serious setback, but paradoxically it also gave an impetus to some initiatives that might otherwise not have left the drawing board.


My first priority was that the EU should give an impetus to resolving the protracted conflicts. It seemed as obvious five years ago as it does today that the conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh hinder normal political and economic developments, constitute a security risk even far beyond the region, and are a liability for the EU in its relations with Russia and Turkey. I observed that the conflict resolution mechanisms that existed at that time did not involve the EU as a whole and had until then been largely ineffective. I took the position that the EU should take part in shaping the outcomes if – as was widely assumed – it was to eventually play a key role in implementing and supporting the settlements. For these reasons, I believed that the EU should be involved in one or more of the existing conflict resolution mechanisms. It could also use political and financial leverage to facilitate conflict resolution, coordinate with major partners (not least Russia), initiate planning for a possible EU role in implementing settlements, and highlight the interest and vision of the EU in public.

As this ambitious agenda was not feasible in the short term, I took the initiative to develop a set of confidence-building measures for the conflicts in Georgia. These initiatives were already underway as the tensions started to rise in the second half of 2007. The measures included deployment of police liaison officers in the conflict regions, technical assistance and advice to the Georgian State Ministry for Reintegration, rehabilitation assistance in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, civil society meetings on conflict resolution, conflict-related liaison functions for the EU’s Border Support Team already present in Georgia, advice on customs-related issues for traffic with and through the conflict regions, EU information centers in the conflict regions, Abkhaz and South Ossetian participation in regional anti-drug programs, support for elimination of landmines, programs to support refugees and displaced persons, education programs for students from the conflict regions, consultations on infrastructure rehabilitation, and discussions among stakeholders in the South Ossetian conflict to pinpoint the confidence-building contributions of the EU in addition to the South Ossetia rehabilitation program led by the OSCE.

Many of these initiatives were thwarted or delayed by the war, but a few initiatives could be continued afterwards with Abkhazia, where the de facto authorities remained interested, after a cooling-down period, in maintaining and developing diverse international contacts. But the post-war situation was different and involved new sensitivities, in particular following Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Therefore, it was necessary to discuss and formulate a policy for the involvement of the EU in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The work on the new policy was undertaken in parallel with the so-called Geneva discussions, which focused on the implementation of the cease-fire agreement after the August war, in particular security-related issues and the situation of displaced persons. The EU’s mediation to secure a ceasefire agreement was highly significant for the EU, because it gave the EU a role in conflict resolution, as I had advocated before the war. But it also became clear that the EU needed a more broad-based framework for its policy towards the conflict regions than the security and stabilization measures related to the ceasefire.

The EU’s Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy was adopted in December 2009, after a full year of efforts by myself and my team. It was built on two mutually supporting pillars: the EU’s commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, on the one hand, and the EU’s interest in engaging with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the other hand. This twin-pillar policy created the political and legal space within which the EU could relate to the separatist regions, and increase its footprint and leverage, without compromising the EU’s adherence to Georgia’s territorial integrity. It allowed many of the pre-war initiatives to be continued and developed further. This approach was welcomed by the de facto authorities in Abkhazia and individual political figures from South Ossetia.

The EU also continued to provide advice to the Georgian government on conflict resolution, encouraging it to take a more permissive approach to contacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The government produced a series of policy documents on Abkhazia and South Ossetia with varying degrees of input from external advisors. The first document, the State Strategy on the Occupied Territories, was problematic because of its focus on history and status issues, but the subsequent Action Plan was particularly welcomed by the EU as a pragmatic and forward-looking non-polemical set of policy initiatives.

At the same time, south of Georgia, there was an increasingly fragile stalemate around Nagorno-Karabakh that has continued to this day. The inherent logic and dynamic of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict points to considerable dangers, and there is a real risk of a precipitous escalation of tensions. The parties to the conflict are engaged in an unrelenting and destabilizing arms race. There is only a self-regulating and fragile ceasefire without separation of forces and monitored by only a handful of OSCE observers.

The EU has made it clear that it stands ready to make contributions to confidence-building in support of the Minsk Group negotiations. I initiated and took part in developing an EU program for working with media and public opinion in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The EU approach to Abkhazia and South Ossetia could be transposed to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in relevant parts, but the total lack of trust between the parties has so far prevented the EU from engaging systematically. The EU could also make practical and political contributions in support of conflict resolution and the Minsk Group beyond soft confidence-building measures. In particular, the ceasefire arrangements need to be strengthened.



The second important priority that I noted five years ago was that the EU should continue to support state-building and democratization in the countries of the South Caucasus. The rationale was obvious: good governance, democracy and human rights are important in their own right, but they are also prerequisites for a closer relation with the EU, based on shared values. I envisaged, among other things, advice on judicial reform, and programs for support to parliaments and political parties. I also believed that the EU could develop the role it was already playing on border management issues in Georgia, as a way of promoting state-building and state sovereignty.

The EU has made a contribution to political stability since then by promoting reform in the three countries. Yet the democratic development of the region remains a difficult one. An absence of good faith political dialogue and a lack of trust between governing parties and opposition in the three countries continue to have a negative impact on the domestic environment throughout the region. Also, the conflicts undermine efforts to promote political reform and economic development in the three countries.

I spent much time on domestic political affairs, but in a different way than I envisaged at the outset. I engaged in the facilitation of dialogue between government and opposition, in particular in Georgia in 2007 and 2009 and in Armenia in 2008. I was also deeply engaged in several concrete individual cases related to human rights and media freedom. This kind of time-consuming high-intensity involvement was indispensable in order to defuse several dangerous situations but also to resolve some of the more intractable individual cases.

The EU Border Support Team, which functioned in Georgia under my supervision until 2011, had a hybrid function. It was a good example of how support for good governance and state sovereignty can also help to prevent conflict. The Border Support Team took over some of the functions of the OSCE Border Monitoring Operation, which was closed in 2005. It successfully advised the government on a border management strategy and legislation for the Border Police, and helped the Border Police to elaborate standard operating procedures and to train and mentor its staff. Thanks to its intimate knowledge of the situation on the border, it had an important early warning function.

The EU also had to manage the expectations from the South Caucasus countries in order to be an effective partner. This was an important priority in its own right. There were two sides to this expectation gap. In the short term, it was mostly about the EU not responding quickly enough to real or perceived needs of the partners countries. For example, as long as the European Commission did not have delegations in two of the countries, the EU was bound to face justified criticism for not living up to expectations. But the expectations gap was also about making sure that the partners countries are realistic about what kind of relationship they can expect in the long run, and what kind of support they can expect in different kinds of disputes and conflicts.

In a curious way, the August war played a useful role in reducing the expectations gap. It clarified the degree of international support in a serious crisis situation: forceful engagement to end the conflict; support on issues of principle, not least on Georgia’s territorial integrity; and, at the same time, a more hands-off attitude on secondary conflict-related issues, such as the demand that the negotiation and peacekeeping formats should be changed immediately. But the war also created a sense of urgency in the EU, leading to the launching of a new regional imitative, the Eastern Partnership, which promised Association Agreements, free trade, and freer travel. This initiative would have faced a much more difficult treatment in the Council if there had been no war. It responded to many long-standing expectations of the partner countries.



I was convinced already as I started my work that an understanding with Russia on issues of common interest and concern was a key prerequisite for achieving long-term stability in the South Caucasus. In order to be as effective as possible in the dialogue with Russia, a country with exceptionally strong historical ties with the region, the EU should be active and present in the region, and it should make the South Caucasus a regular feature of its contacts with Russia. I thought the EU should seek to develop common interests with Russia, such as security, stability, energy and transport, in order to weaken the rationale for a kind of “managed instability”, while maintaining the option of directly raising more serious concerns. I was convinced at the time that it would be necessary to develop these themes both bilaterally with Russia, and within larger regional frameworks.

Some aspects of Russian policy have made it more difficult to pursue joint initiatives on security in the short run, for example the pursuit of a privileged sphere of interest in the neighborhood, Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence, as well as its interpretation of the ceasefire 2008 agreement. The EU will continue to expect full Russian implementation of the troop withdrawal commitments in the six-point plan that ended the Georgia war. This should not, however, preclude the exploration of some of the long-term visions and joint interests already now. In particular, it should be possible to open communications routes even while disagreements on status persist.

Most importantly, the transformation of the South Caucasus into the crossroads of communications routes that its geography warrants, would give the EU and Russia a significant stake in the stability of the region. Russia would be most interested in north-south routes, and the EU in east-west routes, none of it at the detriment of the other side. Such an approach would also make it easier to address the protracted conflicts, since the economic benefits of opening up the strategic communications routes that run through each one of the conflict areas, would become much more tangible to all actors. For example, the opening of the railway through Abkhazia would have a huge positive impact even far away. Rather than entrenching the status quo, initiatives of this kind would provide new openings.

I noted in 2006 that it was imperative to help establish good relations between Turkey, the other historical great power in the region, and the countries of the South Caucasus. The importance of Turkey was obvious: all three countries share borders with Turkey, and Turkey is an important economic partner thanks to energy transit, trade and assistance. The Turkish blockade of Armenia provided a way for Turkey to indirectly insert itself in the sensitive negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh. I saw several ways that the EU could engage with Turkey on the South Caucasus: by raising it in the context of Turkey’s multifaceted bilateral contacts with the EU, and by exploring joint assistance programs in the region.

The period coincided with the emergence of a more proactive and assertive Turkish foreign policy. Turkey took various initiatives to reassert its role in the South Caucasus, including a Pact for Security and Stability in the Caucasus, which was launched with Russian participation shortly after the August war. Yet this initiative faltered, largely because it failed to include the EU, which had by then become an indispensable actor in the region and, after the membership of Bulgaria and Romania, a direct neighbor.

Turkey remains constrained in the South Caucasus because it is so closely affected by the conflicts in the region. The Armenian question is still fraught with emotion, the popular support for Azerbaijan is very high, and the large Abkhaz-Circassian population within Turkey makes its voice heard. Yet I took pains to maintain a close policy dialogue with Turkey throughout my work as Special Representative, because Turkey will always have to be an important part of any regional arrangement in the South Caucasus.

The difficulties faced by Turkey in defining and asserting its role in the Caucasus were epitomized by the failure to complete the normalization with Armenia, in spite of this being a prerequisite for Turkey to re-establish a regional role. The EU gave strong support to the Turkish-Armenian normalization process, since the EU member states shared the conviction that the normalization of relations and opening of the border would unleash a positive dynamic that would also facilitate the resolution of other conflicts in the region. High Representative Javier Solana and myself were present to mark support and commitment at the signing of the Turkish-Armenian protocols in Zurich in October 2009, together with several foreign ministers, including Sergey Lavrov. The failure of the ratification process was a huge disappointment, but joint efforts of the EU and other partners have at least ensured that the process has merely been suspended and not given up altogether.

Related to the point above, it seemed appropriate as I started my work to promote regional cooperation in the Black Sea area with the purpose of stabilizing the South Caucasus. The three South Caucasus countries are too heterogeneous and vulnerable to profit from a regional framework comprising only the three countries. By contrast, it could be of benefit to both the EU and the South Caucasus countries to enhance cooperation around the Black Sea, involving other countries in a similar situation (Moldova, Ukraine) as well as countries that were then still waiting to become EU members (Bulgaria, Romania). An enlarged regional cooperation framework could also benefit a resolution of Russian-Georgian and Turkish-Armenian disagreements.

The EU has indeed made serious efforts in the last few years to promote regional cooperation and to put the South Caucasus countries in a larger context, but every initiative has had its shortcomings. One of the initiatives, Black Sea Synergy, is linked to the regional organization Black Sea Economic Cooperation, but has fallen short of expectations. The Eastern Partnership, which also involves Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, has achieved results in enhancing the bilateral relationship with each country, but the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has prevented it from reaching its full potential in terms of regional cooperation. The Eastern Partnership also envisages participation by Russia and Turkey in individual regional projects, but again, this has been difficult because of the problematic relationship that those countries have with Georgia and Armenia, respectively. The creation of these frameworks for regional cooperation was important, but their patchy utilization demonstrates, again, the paramount importance of addressing the unresolved conflicts.

I also observed when I started my work that it was essential to develop a Transatlantic vision for the South Caucasus. This common vision would first and foremost be based on a bilateral EU dialogue with the U.S. on a wide range of issues of common concern, arising from the growing strategic importance of the region. Most elements of a Transatlantic vision for the South Caucasus had been present already for a long time: democratic governance, economic reform, peaceful resolution of conflicts, regional cooperation, development of energy links.

The need to develop a common Transatlantic vision was also motivated by the possibility of a NATO opening towards the region. Although the causality may be disputed, the decision of the NATO summit in Bucharest in March 2008 to give Georgia and Ukraine a distant membership perspective, was followed by increasing tensions in the region, culminating in the August war. Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations were sidetracked after the August war. In parallel, the EU found itself, for the first time, shouldering a share of responsibility for security around the conflict regions.


Finally, I pointed already in 2006 to a need for the EU to monitor potential conflict areas and to take measures to prevent new conflicts from emerging. The conflict potential emerges from the fact that the South Caucasus countries remain fragile and poor, and, particularly in the case of Georgia, ethnically diverse. It seemed obvious that the conflict potential would remain high in peripheral and depressed minority areas as long as prosperity had not been distributed more evenly.

The 2008 war was, among other things, a failure of conflict prevention. There were clear signs of an escalatory spiral for at least a year before the outbreak of the war. Many attempts were made by myself and other EU representatives to calm down the situation and urge greater international involvement in conflict prevention, but ultimately these efforts were not sufficient to galvanize the international community. The EU was not prepared at the time to push for a role in the conflict resolution formats, or to deploy a sufficient number of police or other personnel on the ground to have a deterrent influence. It is not certain whether an EU presence of this kind would have prevented the start of the war, anyway, but a greater degree of EU involvement and presence could have mitigated the consequences of the conflict.

The danger of renewed hostility around Abkhazia and South Ossetia may have receded, but it has not disappeared. Around Nagorno-Karabakh, the threshold for military confrontation is gradually disappearing as the parties continue to arm themselves. The precarious balance that has kept the conflict relatively manageable and prevented it from spiraling out of control for more than 15 years is threatened. In the long-term, a renewed confrontation in all conflict areas can only be excluded if the core causes of the conflict are addressed instead of once again being put in a freeze. Freezing the conflicts means running the risk that tensions may again develop under the surface, unnoticed until they suddenly cause another eruption. Until that time, it will not be possible to develop the full economic potential of the region for the benefit of the countries in the region and their neighbors.

There are many potential flashpoints in the South Caucasus: minority areas, where unemployment and social problems could acquire an ethnic conflict dimension if not handled correctly; religious extremism; the danger of spill-over to or from the tenuous situation in parts of the ethnically diverse Russian North Caucasus, etc. Many EU programs are geared towards regional development in depressed minority areas, and the EU is also working on legislation, institution-building, education, and other rights issues together with the OSCE. But it is essential to raise awareness of the risks to be really effective, and to be able to act early whenever the situation threatens to get out of control.

Conflict prevention therefore remains an indispensable priority alongside the handling of the existing protracted conflicts. Conflict prevention and mitigation require a human security approach in addition to the political approach of official negotiations and security related deployments. The focus on the role of individuals requires a different set of instruments by the international community, such as support to civil society to allow for a strengthened civic culture and community dialogue. This brings us back to the importance of good governance and its relation to the conflicts. I remain convinced that the EU is particularly well equipped for this kind of work, together with the OSCE.


The conflicts of the South Caucasus are not likely to be resolved in the near future. There are different levels of conflict that are linked to each other and will have to be addressed and resolved in parallel. The Georgian conflicts clearly consist of both an inter-state level and an inter-community level, none of which should be ignored or denied. The conflicts will only be resolved when all parties consider them resolved. This will only happen when the primary needs of the parties have been satisfied: physical security, human security, right of return for displaced persons. Status is a secondary issue. The conflict parties will look differently at the status issues once the primary needs have been satisfied. This being said, there is also the strategic level, where the South Caucasus is one of several playing fields in a larger game.

The foundations for a solution can be laid already now. It is important to make further efforts and progress in the Geneva talks on security – not least the 2008 troop withdrawal commitments – and displaced persons. This, however, is only part of the conflict-related agenda. Since it is inconceivable that the conflict areas will continue to shut themselves off in the long run from important parts of their historical and economic environment, the main stakeholders – governments as well as people and de facto authorities in the conflict regions – should be encouraged to explore enhanced contacts. As soon as the enhanced contacts grow into joint economic interests, the dynamics of the core conflict issues will change as well.

The potential for economic interaction and joint economic interests exists not only at the local grassroots level, but also at the regional level. Closed borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey, as well as the absence of functional relations between Russia and Georgia, severely hamper the full potential of the region. All three unresolved conflicts block some of the most strategic communications links through the region. This is of profound importance in a region that is historically an intersection of strategic communications links running both from north to south and from east to west. If regional integration was to be pursued more forcefully, the potential benefits in economic terms from solving the conflicts might become apparent to the stakeholders.

In addition, people living in the region have to develop a common identity in order to get on with each other. Today there is very little of such an identity. The EU can add a layer of European identity to the narrow national identities that came to the fore after the independence of the countries in the South Caucasus, and were reinforced by the wars in the 1990s. This layer of common identity would help the different peoples of the South Caucasus pursue joint aspirations instead of engaging in zero-sum conflicts. But it requires that the EU is committed and forthcoming in responding to needs and aspirations of people in the region. And it requires that Russia acknowledges the benefits of the EU playing this role. If this is the case, the forecast for the next five years is good. A lot of the groundwork has already been laid.