Monday Commentary: Time to give regional co-operation in the South Caucasus another try
12 February 2018

Regional co-operation in the South Caucasus makes sense and will benefit all the people of the region. It is also essential for lasting peace and prosperity, and the EU is uniquely placed to push the process forward, says Dennis Sammut in this commentary.

The last two years have not been particularly good for regional co-operation and integration models in different parts of the world. In Europe, Brexit has rattled the European Union and dented its record of successful expansion. In the Middle East, the Gulf Co-operation Council, once hailed as a model, tattered on the brink of collapse as it dealt with an existential crisis resulting from the confrontation between some of its members and Qatar.

In the South Caucasus regional co-operation involving the three core countries has been non-existent. This has been largely, but not solely, due to the Karabakh conflict that has pitched Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other in a messy, and as yet unresolved, conflict. There are other reasons too.

The region has its fair share of historical baggage of past wars and conflicts, but then, which region hasn't. However, on top of that, there are failed attempts at forced co-operation as seen during the Soviet period - from the ill-conceived Transcaucasus Socialist Federative Soviet Republic of the period 1922-36, to the later softer versions of artificial "internationalism" seen in the 1970s and 1980s. They contributed to give regional co-operation a bad name, and for the concept to be seen with suspicion by many people in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

When the three countries regained their independence in 1991 a wave of nationalism encouraged a zero-sum game approach: all three countries wanted to be "the best", and saw their relationship with the other two as competitive at best.  Conflicting visions have emerged about what they wanted to achieve: Armenia has opted for close relations with Russia and membership of the Russia-led structures such as the CSTO and EAEU; Georgia seeks full membership of NATO and the EU, whilst Azerbaijan has declared itself a non-aligned country. In the meantime three territories have seceded and exist in quasi diplomatic limbo. The region has never seemed so divided and fragmented.

Yet this is only part of the story. There are many things that connect the countries of the region, and their people, together whether they like it or not. Even Armenia and Azerbaijan - two countries that are technically at war with each other - find that there are issues, such as civil aviation safety, where a minimum level of co-operation is necessary. People contacts are extensive due to inter-marriages, family connections, business relations and population distribution. Furthermore, in between the idyllic Soviet propaganda of the past, and the often vitriolic disinformation of the present, there lies a reality in which the people of the South Caucasus, whilst conscious of the differences between themselves and their neighbouring nations, also appreciate that there are many common factors. Occasionally this expresses itself in commendable acts of regional solidarity. An example of this was seen last summer when forest fires swept over the Borjomi national park in Georgia. Fire fighting teams from Armenia and Azerbaijan worked side by side with their colleagues from Georgia to extinguish the fires.

Much more can and should be done to promote regional co-operation in the South Caucasus. Many of the problems of the region are much better dealt with in a regional context. Areas such as environment, energy, transport and communication can hugely benefit from a regional approach. Even in the present difficult times people often are able to cut through government bureaucracies to maintain contact, and even develop modest forms of regional co-operation.

Taking regional co-operation forward will however not be easy. The current state of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan has poisoned the atmosphere, and neither of these two countries is likely to take the initiative to promote trilateral co-operation. The Georgians prefer to work with their two neighbours bilaterally, considering a trilateral approach as impossible for the moment. So somebody else needs to nudge the process forward. At the moment the only international player able to do that is the European Union.

The EU is in the unique position of having good relations with the three countries, and will shortly have very extensive contractual arrangements with them too, providing a solid legal framework for the relationship. The EU has an Association Agreement and a deep and comprehensive free trade area arrangement with Georgia. Last year it signed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with Armenia. This is now going through the process of ratification. Discussions are now in an advanced stage for an agreement to be signed with Azerbaijan soon. Last week's meeting of the EU - Azerbaijan Co-operation Council in Brussels was an example of how relations have improved following a low point in 2013-16.

On paper the European Union has the political will to engage with the issue of regional co-operation. The mandate of the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus says that one of the objectives of his mission is to "to encourage and to support further cooperation between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and, as appropriate, their neighbouring countries".

In practice very little is being done to push regional co-operation. This needs to change. Prospects of some breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue later this year make it necessary for the EU to have ready a number of plans for regional interaction which can act in support of the peace process.  There is a need for imaginative platforms that can offer opportunities for work together and interaction - starting modestly and expanding as soon as the circumstances permit. The newly appointed EUSR, Toivo Klaar, should give this part of his mandate particular attention.

A lot can be done even now at the level of citizens, even if the three governments will need to at least  acquiesce to this. The EU can provide the necessary framework and seed funding. Other international organisations can play a role too. No one is saying that this is going to be easy. There will be upsets and setbacks, but this should not be a reason from shying away from this endeavour.

Regional co-operation in the South Caucasus makes sense and will benefit all the people of the region. It is also essential for lasting peace and prosperity. It should be given another chance.

source: Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research). His Monday Commentary is published weekly on