Panel discussion: The EU’s relations with Azerbaijan — Issues, Trends and Prospects

v.l.n.r. Nargiz Gurbanova, Eduard Lintner, Katrin Böttger, Chingiz Askarov, Udo Steinbach

On 16 November 2009 the Institut für Europäische Politik (IEP) and the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan hosted a panel discussion on “The EU’s relations with Azerbaijan: Issues, Trends and Prospects”. More than 60 partic­i­pants gathered at the Berlin Repre­sen­tation of the European Commission to follow the discussion between government officials and experts from Azerbaijan and Germany. The conference took place in the framework of IEP’s Study Programme on European Security (SPES) and was chaired by Dr. des. Katrin Böttger (Research Associate, Institut für Europäische Politik, Berlin).
In his welcome speech the Ambas­sador of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Germany, H.E. Parviz Shahbazov stressed that Azerbaijan regards the European Union (EU) as a good model for regional integration. In his opinion, however, the EU has been rather passive in bringing peace and security to the South Caucasus so far, and much remains to be done in the future. Never­theless, the integration into European and transat­lantic struc­tures is at the top of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy agenda.

In her presen­tation Nargiz Gurbanova (Head of Division for cooper­ation with the EU, Department for Economic Cooper­ation and Devel­opment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan) assessed the current state of affairs of EU-Azerbaijan relations and outlined expec­ta­tions for the future. Gurbanova started by claiming that the EU-Azerbaijan relations underwent a signif­icant trans­for­mation: in almost 20 years of cooper­ation, an assis­tance-based relationship developed into an inter­active partnership.
However, the cooper­ation between Azerbaijan and the EU in the framework of the European Neigh­bourhood Policy (ENP) has not always been without diffi­culties. For instance, the setting up of the progress reports by the European Commission is not a smooth process. Gurbanova argued that the progress reports and the criticism expressed in them ought to be constructive, as both parties are respon­sible for success or failure.
Concerning the Eastern Partnership launched in May 2009, Gurbanova explained that Azerbaijan especially welcomes the bilateral dimension because each partner country has its specific prior­ities and stage of devel­opment. The multi­lateral framework of the Eastern Partnership is seen with more reluc­tance given the fact that Azerbaijan’s commitment is constrained by its strained relationship towards Armenia.
One of Gurbanova’s expec­ta­tions towards future EU assis­tance related to the promotion of knowledge and expertise. She advocated the strength­ening of the secondment of civil servants from ENP countries to the European Commission and to EU member states.

Eduart Lintner (Parl. State Secretary (ret.); Chairman of the Society for the promotion of German-Azerbaijani relations, Berlin) focused his speech on ambigu­ities of the EU’s approach towards the South Caucasus. According to Lintner, there are new trends in the Russian diplo­matic discourse that should be atten­tively followed by the EU and Germany. For instance, in his annual speech on the state of the nation on 12 November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev claimed that Russia has to overcome its “chronic backwardness” by launching — with the help of the EU and foreign investors — major political and economic reforms. As Lintner put it, the EU — and Germany in particular — should make advantage of the fact that Russia is currently dependent on solid relations with the EU and confi­dently step up their efforts towards the Southern Caucasus in the framework of the ENP.
Lintner outlined three main incon­sis­tencies in the discourse of the EU that mainly arise from disagreement among EU member states and prevent the EU from being perceived as a credible actor. First, neither the EU nor Germany artic­ulate a clear position towards the Nabucco project fearing the opposition of Russia. Second, while several EU documents charac­terize the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh as contrary to inter­na­tional law, no conclu­sions are drawn from this, not to speak of any concrete claims towards Armenia. Without the resolution of the conflict, however, many goals of ENP and the Eastern Partnership are unachievable. Third, there has not been a clear European (or German) position towards the ‘right of inter­vention’ which Russia employed in the Russia-Georgia conflict to protect its citizens abroad.

In his speech Chingiz Askarov (Head of the Human Rights Protection Unit, Admin­is­tration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan) presented his view on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. He first pointed to the improved human rights situation of his country today as well as to ongoing reforms of the Azerbaijani government. Yet, the human rights situation in Azerbaijan is more than complex. According to Askarov, a major obstacle towards a truly satis­factory human rights situation and a “heavy burden” for Azerbaijan is the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent regions. Also, the complexity of the human rights situation is increased through religious extremist groups and terrorist activ­ities. Finally, Askarov advocated a more active involvement of the European Commission Delegation in Baku, especially when it comes to engaging civil society actors. Against the background of the recent impris­onment of two Azerbaijani bloggers, the evalu­ation of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan gave rise to a vivid discussion between partic­i­pants and speakers.

Prof. Udo Steinbach (Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies, Phillips-Univer­sität Marburg) embedded the previous contri­bu­tions into general, historical and geopo­litical reflec­tions on the South Caucasus. According to Steinbach there is one basic contra­diction that has consid­erable effects on the current and future situation of the region. On the one hand, the South Caucasus is made up of very old countries and cultures. On the other hand, it has — for many centuries — been at the cross­roads of competing powers that enforced a certain type of modern­ization upon them. Both arguments remained very signif­icant after the indepen­dence of the three countries in 1991.
Steinbach summa­rized four conclu­sions for the current situation that can be drawn from this contra­diction. First, the South Caucasus is far from being a homogenous region, given notable differ­ences on an ethnical, societal and religious level. Second, there is no regional ‘South Caucasus identity’. Quite the contrary, the search for identity is taking place in each of the three countries. Each state is living on its own, and even against the other. Third, the combi­nation of the modern­ization process offered by the EU and the ongoing search for identity consti­tutes a challenge for the three countries. Fourth, each South Caucasian state is faced with the challenge to find its own place in a wider environment with regional and inter­na­tional players such as Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States and the EU.
As Steinbach put it, the EU has to take these obser­va­tions into account when dealing with the Southern Caucasus. For the future, several lessons can be drawn: The EU’s approach towards the South Caucasian countries has to be sensitive and flexible. Moreover, both bilateral and multi­lateral relations should be maintained; the Nagorno Karabakh conflict for example cannot be resolved without Russia and Turkey. Finally, according to Steinbach, the EU should end its asymmet­rical thinking. The claim “Azerbaijan has to come closer to the EU” is one-sided and inappro­priate. Like Azerbaijan, the EU must do its homework, too, inter alia making greater efforts in the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the main impetus for trans­for­mation cannot be exported by the EU but must come from within the Southern Caucasian societies.

By: Mariella Falkenhain