Author: Ilgar VELIZADE
Virtual summit on the Eastern Partnership (EaP) program held on June 18 was a significant milestone. Along with discussions on the implementation of the Strategy 2020, it also determined the main contours of the agenda for the future summit, which is due to take place at the beginning of 2021.
EU integration: a program of different speeds
The EU's Eastern Partnership program launched in May 2009 has actually reached its fourth phase of implementation, which in general shows its high adaptability and great prospects.
Only Belarus did not show an interest in EaP since the implementation of the program. The rest of participating states joined the process more energetically. Moreover, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia openly acknowledged that the opportunity to participate in EaP is a key to intensifying the integration into the EU in the near future. Armenia also hoped for closer relations with the EU within the framework of the program to create a necessary base for integration with the EU in the future.
During the first stage of the program, the participants focused on specific areas of development such as cross-border cooperation, increasing the role of municipalities, etc. This continued until approximately May 2012, when the EaP roadmap for 2012-2013 was adopted. It was approved at the summit of foreign ministers of participating countries in Brussels in July 2012. According to the plan, all negotiations on association agreements with Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (except Belarus) had to be completed in November 2013 at the summit in Vilnius. The documents noted that progress has been made in economic integration. Negotiations were launched on a deep and comprehensive free trade zone with Moldova and Georgia, and in the near future - with Armenia.
However, the situation began to change dramatically from the beginning of 2013. As a result of increased tensions between Russia and Ukraine, as well as Moscow’s discontent with the excessive rapprochement of Brussels and Yerevan, in the fall of 2013 Armenia refused to sign an association agreement with the EU. Kiev asked to postpone the signing time on conditions adapted to the needs of Ukraine, but was refused. Azerbaijan stated that the association agreement does not fully reflect the interests of Baku, and proposed to prepare and sign a strategic agreement that fully takes into account the interests of both parties.
After the 2014 Ukrainian conflict, Russia began to act in a more articulated manner regarding the program. Thus, the second phase of the program began. The signatory states (Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine), actually found themselves at the forefront of the EU influence on the western flank of the post-Soviet space. At the same time, Armenia, Azerbaijan and, potentially, Belarus became states with "special status" in the partnership program. For Baku, EaP has become a tool of continuing the European vector of its foreign policy under new conditions. For Minsk - an attempt to build its own policy based on a more solid balance of interests. Armenia often regarded the agreement with the EU as a bargaining chip in its games with Russia. On the one hand, this greatly irritated the Kremlin, and on the other hand, it did not contribute to strengthening Yerevan’s position within the EaP.
Azerbaijan has always underlined its special relationships with Brussels based on a pragmatic approach to advance its interests in bilateral politics. For the Azerbaijani leadership, the issue of EU membership was not a priority. Baku makes it clear that it does not intend to sacrifice its own interests. At the same time, the European energy market and the development of transport corridors to Europe are of fundamental importance for Azerbaijan. In this matter, Baku considers the EU to be one of its most important partners.
The adoption of Priorities 2020 at the Eastern Partnership Summit in 2017 was Brussels' response to the multidirectional nature of relations with program participants and the desire for unity of goals and objectives of the partnership in the new environment. It can be considered as the beginning of the third stage of the EaP implementation, which lasted until 2020.
Back in November 2019, at a summit dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, the EU leadership introduced the concept of 20 deliverables for 2020 for open discussion. It aims to bring results to each of the four priority areas identified at the Riga Summit, including strengthening institutions and good governance, mobility and people-to-people contacts, market opportunities, interconnectedness. In fact, it is about bringing to a common denominator a program that has ceased to have common parameters and common goals. At the same time, the EU does not abandon plans to perceive the Eastern Partnership countries as a whole and is trying to ensure their interaction among themselves.
By the way, this approach of the EU encourages the new dynamics of the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) cooperation format, including four of six states of the Eastern Partnership.
The fourth stage, or Priorities of Azerbaijan
In 2019, as a result of elections to the European Parliament the entire top leadership of the EU changed. Of course, this does not mean that the main priorities and strategic goals of the Eastern Partnership have changed. The new EU leadership tried to amend its current program priorities and adapt them to current conditions. Back in March 2020, the High Representative of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, announced new program priorities, including environmental and digital transformation, as well as creating an economy that works for everyone.
For Azerbaijan, which has always considered cooperation with the EU in the economic, transport and humanitarian spheres as a priority, the new vision of the Eastern Partnership opens up new horizons for cooperation with the EU. At present, when work on a new agreement on strategic partnership between the parties is nearing completion, the utmost importance is attached to cooperation in the economic sphere.
The ongoing cooperation between Azerbaijan and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) plays an instrumental role in this context. EBRD has invested about 27 billion euros in more than 1,200 projects in six countries of the Eastern Partnership.
Azerbaijan has been a member of EBRD since 1992. As of August 31, 2019, EBRD funded 168 projects in Azerbaijan, investing a total of 3.43 billion euros to the country. The bank currently implements 37 projects in Azerbaijan and has an active portfolio of 1.4 billion euros. The private sector accounts for 23% of the bank’s portfolio, capital investments - 1%.
At a recent video conference of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev with Suma Chakrabarti of EBRD, the bank confirmed its desire to invest more than $250 million in various projects in Azerbaijan in 2020, which is quite a broad program, including the launch of the Green City project in Azerbaijan, in which the bank is ready to invest $150 million. In addition, there is a desire to invest 100-200 million euros in projects to improve the electricity network, privatization of state-owned companies engaged in renewable energy development. EBRD is ready to carry out a pilot project also in the field of irrigation, provide technical assistance to commercial banks in Azerbaijan, work with small and medium-sized businesses to diversify the economy.
Despite the pandemic
The Eastern Partnership Summit held on June 18 via a video conference showed that the main priorities of the program as a whole remain unchanged. It is, first of all, about fundamental issues. In particular, on supporting the principle of territorial integrity. Thus, the President of the European People’s Party, Donald Tusk, said that his most influential party in the EU “reaffirms support for territorial integrity within internationally recognised borders.” And in this context, it provides "comprehensive support to the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict."
In general, the meeting participants reaffirmed the strategic importance of the Eastern Partnership. They also noted the relevance of state solidarity during the COVID-19 crisis and strong EU support to reduce the impact of the epidemic in the Eastern Partnership countries. Short-term political goals and the development of results after 2020 were also discussed, which are expected to be confirmed at the summit in early 2021.
Naturally, each of the program participants had their own expectations from the summit. For example, the majority of Ukraine’s proposals for cooperation with the EU were based on the principle of “more for more” and cover the issues such as the development of trade, energy cooperation, digital transformation and progress in other areas of relations between the EU and its Eastern partners.
For Azerbaijan, it was fundamentally important to confirm its territorial integrity. The priorities in the field of trade and economic cooperation, cooperation in transport, energy and investment sectors also were important.
On June 17, President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, had a telephone conversation. The parties discussed the progress of the new partnership agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU, the implementation of the Southern Gas Corridor project, the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, as well as regional security issues and measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic. All these issues were thoroughly discussed and reflected in the text of the final document of the summit.
EaP has its own history and prospects. The summit reaffirmed the desire of the parties to develop comprehensive cooperation on the basis of various approaches. Of course, the lockdown and the pandemic made adjustments to this cooperation. At the same time, the relatively short history of the program shows that, despite all the difficulties, hopes and plans associated with the future will be successfully implemented.
The EaP summit was an important moment for Azerbaijan. The address of President Ilham Aliyev to the summit participants once again demonstrated to the whole world the fair position of Azerbaijan on the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.
The summit confirmed the priorities of EaP, including the support of sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states. Unfortunately, not all participating states share these principles. Armenia is an aggressor country and grossly violates not only international laws and principles but also ignores the basic principles of the Eastern Partnership itself. The speech of Armenian Prime Minister N. Pashinyan demonstrated the above clearly.
Surprisingly, speaking about the prospects of Armenia’s cooperation with the EU, Mr. Pashinyan indicated that Armenia supported the basic principles of EaP and even made ridiculous arguments to counter the fair accusations of the Azerbaijani side. However, the debate between President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan once again clearly demonstrated the advantage of the Azerbaijani position and the inferiority of the Armenian one. Not only did Mr. Pashinyan learn the recent lessons of Munich but also received a new one from Azerbaijan.
Unfortunately, we do not hope that at least this time Armenia will learn from this lesson. However, we believe that the position of Yerevan in the Eastern Partnership remains incomprehensible and unacceptable. The recent success of Azerbaijani diplomacy will bring the day of the liberation of the occupied territories closer.