25 June 2022

Saturday, 11:26

FRAGMENTED PARTNERSHIP

Brussels in search for a common policy to please all of its post-Soviet neighbours

Author:

01.01.2022

On December 15, the 6th Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit took place in Brussels with the participation of the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev. Mr. Aliyev also visited the NATO headquarters to meet with the leadership of the alliance. Statements made during the both events clearly indicate their importance for Azerbaijan in terms of the implementation of Baku’s foreign policy and the West's policy in the South Caucasus. In parallel, amid the growing tension between the West and Russia, Azerbaijan refrains from being involved in the confrontation between these power centres and offers more relevant approaches to build relations with each of them.

 

Eastern Partnership without Minsk

It was the first time that the summit was held with extremely minimal participation of Belarus. In fact, Minsk's involvement in the Eastern Partnership has always been formal. Not only was the Belarus President denied invitation to the event, but also the country's involvement in various EaP programs now is questionable. Brussels made it clear that it expected a more articulate participation of other EaP members in the policy implemented by Brussels.

To encourage the development of partnerships between the EaP member states and the EU, Brussels announced in July 2021 a new investment and economic plan for the Eastern Partnership, including €2.3 billion as grants, blended funding, and guarantees. Subsequently, the EU proposed to mobilise up to €17 billion as public and private investments.

For most of the program participants who are chronically underfunded, this plan is a serious resource to solve their internal problems. Undoubtedly, the EU can use it as a tool to implement its own interests in the region. In particular, by strengthening joint institutions and NGOs through European grants, while increasing the effectiveness of the Neighbourhood Policy.

Amid serious fragmentation within the Eastern Partnership, Brussels is trying to generalise its policy implemented in the neighbouring post-Soviet states thanks to financial incentives too. If Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia aim at full membership in the EU, hence accelerating and deepening integration as much as possible through the practical tools of the EaP, Armenia pursues other goals, trying to get the most of its participation in the program, while drawing closer to Brussels and avoiding negative reaction of Moscow.

For Azerbaijan, the interaction model proposed by the European Union is less significant. Baku is more interested to see the EU focus on the resolution of security problems, intention to avoid military scenarios in the conflict resolution, as well as the mediation to build productive communications between the participating states.

Remarkably, although being one of the central themes of the summit, the Russian influence on the situation in Ukraine was not reflected in the text of the final document. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, openly warned Russia against the possibility of forceful interference in Ukrainian affairs, while the Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky called on the EU member states to impose stricter sanctions on Russia as a preventive measure. But again, this was not reflected in the final declaration of the EaP summit. Presumably, it was the reluctance of Azerbaijan and Armenia to sign the document with harsh wording regarding Russia that played an instrumental role.

At the same time, given its commitment to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, Baku did not agree with another paragraph of the declaration, which concerned the internal political situation in Belarus. The Belarus leadership highly appreciated Baku’s move and thanked Baku for its constructive approach on this issue based on the norms of the international law.

 

Paris perspectives of the Eastern Partnership

As to the general outcome of the summit, Brussels officially confirmed in the text of the declaration that it recognised the multi-level degree of integration within EaP. It is reported that the European Union "recognises the European aspirations and European choice" of some of the Eastern Partnership states (Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, which signed the Association Agreement). At the same time, EU leaders "agree with Ukraine's right to strive for more."

Furthermore, the Joint Declaration of the sixth Eastern Partnership Summit says: “We reaffirm the sovereign right of each partner to choose the level of ambition and the goals to which it aspires in its relations with the European Union.” At the same time, the participating countries once again confirmed that the goal of the Eastern Partnership was to deepen the ties of the six post-Soviet states with the European Union. The EaP is part of a common European neighbourhood policy, not an enlargement policy: the initiative does not imply an EU membership.

A remarkable feature of this summit was the activity of Paris, rather the French President Emmanuel Macron. In fact, France will take over the EU presidency for six months in 2022. In addition, with the upcoming presidential elections in France, Mr. Macron has a good chance to show the effectiveness of his policies.

Thus, many observers believe that the organisation of a successful meeting between the President of Azerbaijan and the Armenian Prime Minister will clearly improve Mr. Macron’s position. The more such successful cases in the Eastern Partnership format and European politics in general, the more positive will be the attitude of the French voters toward the French presidency in the EU and Macron's presidency.

The EU, and France in particular, is trying to get the maximum of political and economic preferences from participation in the post-conflict mediation process and to support the Azerbaijani-Armenian dialogue in the new conditions, as part of the Eastern Partnership policy. That is why the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders met again after some time thanks to the mediation of President Macron.

In general, the leaders appreciated the outcome of the meeting, which means they could reach verbal agreements on fundamental issues. These agreements are based on the goodwill of the parties demonstrated through the effectiveness of the talks.

To confirm its goodwill and as a gesture of approval of Brussel’s efforts, on December 19, through the mediation of the European Union, Azerbaijan released ten Armenian soldiers to Armenia. This step is viewed as support for Yerevan's position on unblocking transport links with Azerbaijan, as well as further normalisation of its relations with Baku. On the next day, Armenia returned to Azerbaijan two soldiers, who got lost near the Armenian border posts. This indicates the attitude of the Armenian side to continue a constructive dialogue with Baku. Both regional and non-regional centres of power are interested in this process.

 

Azerbaijan-NATO: partnership for stability

During his visit to Brussels, President Ilham Aliyev held another important meeting with the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to strengthen Azerbaijan's relations with the Western partners. The parties had a detailed conversation and reaffirmed their commitment to work together in all major areas of cooperation. At the same time, Azerbaijan underlined the instrumental role of special relations between Baku and Ankara in the context of military and political cooperation with the alliance. President Aliyev pointed to the importance of Turkey not only for Azerbaijan, but also for NATO, underlining the role of Ankara in realising the interests of the alliance in Azerbaijan. Illustrating this role, President Ilham Aliyev said that this year Azerbaijan held seven joint military exercises with Turkey, which is an active and leading NATO member. "This contributes to peace and stability in the region," Mr. Aliyev said.

Mr. Stoltenberg indicated that NATO was ready to assist Azerbaijan and Armenia in establishing lasting peace in the region. He also highly appreciated Baku's support to the implementation of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

“It is important to continue efforts to normalise relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. NATO supports the efforts for dialogue between these countries. We discussed this today in detail with Mr. President... The dialogue continues, it is going in the right direction,” Mr. Jens Stoltenberg said following the meeting with Mr. Ilham Aliyev. Thus, he supported the efforts of Azerbaijan to achieve a lasting and substantial peace in the region. In fact, he made it clear that NATO was against a return to the conflict past.

NATO remains interested in Azerbaijan as a partner in a strategically important region, including as a state making a significant contribution to the energy security of a number of NATO countries in Europe. Therefore, we can assume that NATO will continue its efforts in the implementation of joint military and political programs with Azerbaijan. This is beneficial to both Azerbaijan and NATO, and, most importantly, does not contradict the interests of our neighbours.



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