Azerbaijan and Eastern Partnership: partnership through empowerment

By Leila Alieva

The Eastern Partnership was only recently given a start, so it would be pre-mature to give prognosis of its future development. However, it seems that to make EaP effective, Azerbaijani civil society should be included into official negotiations at the bilateral level. Otherwise, the Eastern Partnership may transform into a purely Baku-Brussels elites’ interests based enterprise, leaving the needs of the wider population aside. In dealing with Azerbaijan, the EU should also take into account the abundant oil and gas resources which constitute a structural obstacle to democratization in Azerbaijan and contribute to a great alienation of the elite from population. The EU should also get more involved in the resolution of the Karabagh conflict to speed up regional integration in the South Caucasus.

 
 
Importance of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan has been a key player in the post- cold war “reshaping” of the South Caucasus and the Caspian and creating conditions for the Europe’s and the US presence in the region. First among 15 republics, it made Soviet troops to withdraw completely from its territory as early as in 1993 Then in 1994 it signed the contract on the development of its natural resources with predominantly Western companies, thus breaking 70 year Russian monopoly on the Caspian resources. Azerbaijan’s commitment, both political and in terms of resources, to Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline made the West less dependent on oil supplies from Russia. Azerbaijan’s current commitment to the Nabucco gas pipeline is another factor explaining its significance for the EU interests. Moreover, Azerbaijan is consistent in its policy directed to the energy supply and transportation diversification – actively cooperates with Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan – to make South Corridor energy transportation projects possible.

Azerbaijan is also located on the strategic crossroads and borders Russia, Iran and Turkey – all major states influencing the EU interests in the region. So far, Azerbaijan managed to escape direct confrontation with any of those actors, and develop balanced policy in the South Caucasus. Unresolved conflicts is another reason why the EU is keeping an eye on the country and the region in general. Resumption of military actions over the breakaway regions and following war of Russia and Georgia, made the European observers more alert regarding the challenges emanating from the current status quo in Karabagh conflict.

Azerbaijan has been closely cooperating with the US and NATO on the issues of fight with terrorism, actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This circumstance, however, has had an ambivalent impact on the Azerbaijan – EU relations and in particular on the capacity of the EU to influence and promote reform process in the country, as strategic importance of the country in the context of the European energy security clashed with the objective of reform promotion.
 
 
Eastern Partnership: advantages and problems

New policy was perceived with enthusiasm by the civil society of Azerbaijan, while the officials stated, that Azerbaijan does not have a goal of becoming a member, but rather desires to raise living and other standards up to the level of European. (Elmar Mammadyarov: Azerbaijan is not going to join European Union and NATO, avciya.az, 5 July, 2010, http://avciya.az/eng/2010/07/05/elmar-mammadyarov-azerbaijan-is-not.html) For the civil actors, distinguishing the FSU states in a separate mode of relations with the EU was a sign, that EU recognizes these countries’ potential to Europeanize and may be, one day even to become members of the EU.

The Eastern Partnership contained a few inspiring novelties, as compared to the European Neighborhood.

First, it suggested a deeper level of integration for the 5 selected states. It would be reflected in signing of the Association Agreement, Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, and significant progress in free movement of people. Second, it raised the status of civil society through suggestion of creation of the Civil Society Forum, a structure, comprising representatives of all 5 states which would develop recommendations and participate in the realization of the program and monitor its implementation. Thirdly, it introduces an “individual” approach, which would allow to “ refine” the set of mutual interests in the relations with individual states and allow the countries with greater progress to move forward.

While first two novelties is unambiguously a progress, the third one – an individual approach is not free from controversy in application to Azerbaijan.
  

> Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia
 
Azerbaijan has already experienced the consequences of” individual approach” in international aid. Azerbaijan and its civil society in particular has never received Western financial support - grants etc.- which would be proportionate to its size and needs, as compared to the neighboring states of the South Caucasus. In fact, the limited funding which was directed to Azerbaijan civil society, grass roots movement or institution building was justified by the donors by the fact, that the country is rich with its own resources and does not need external aid. In reality, the oil based economy under conditions of state ownership of oil quickly created a significant misbalance in relative power of state versus society. Against the background of multibillion investments in the state sector and elites, which represented the state, the civil society was getting disproportionally small funding from the international and Western foundations. This contributed to the lack of political dynamism in the country and deeper entrenchment of the ruling elites in the economic and political power structures. In the Eastern Partnership, programmed amount for Azerbaijan in 2010 was reduced from EUR 26 to EUR 7 mln due to lack of absorption. (Implementation of the Eastren Patnesrhip:Report to the meeting of Foreign Affaisr Ministers, December 13, 2010. MD 335/10 REV 1.)

By the time of ENP and Eastern Partnership were set up, official Baku had already received oil revenues, which effectively undermined the attractiveness of the ENP financial instrument. This, however, did not mean that the oil revenues were distributed fairly, or were spent on intensive reforms in economy and politics.

The government did open the fund of the State Support for NGOs, but the practice showed that it was mainly used as a tool of a political patronage and control over the activities of the civil society. Thus the civil society of Azerbaijan appeared to be in even greater need of external aid and grants to fulfill its functions.
 
 
Azerbaijan’s civil society and the Civil Society Forum

In 2006 near 40 influential personalities of the country – public opinion makers, NGO leaders, intellectuals, MPs, media editors - united to create an Azerbaijan National Committee on European Integration (ANCEI) to promote Azerbaijan’s speedy integration in the EU and to support and monitor implementation of the European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan, which was signed by the EU with Azerbaijan government in 2006. This is a non-profit non-governmental association which is led by the rotating every 4 months chairmanship of elected “troikas” and has a number of thematic committees to monitor and evaluate implementation of the priorities indicated in the Action Plan. Since its creation, the number of ANCEI members exceeded 50. It has produced a few annual reports – results of monitoring of the ENP AP implementation, conducted numerous conferences, round tables, press-conferences, meetings with the society, government and the EU delegation on topics covering major priorities and various aspects of Azerbaijan’s relations with the EU.

One of the early achievements of the ANCEI was a national campaign which resulted in inclusion of the provision of “European Aspiration” in the text of the ENP National Action Plan. ANCEI played an important role in raising awareness of the EU-Azerbaijan relations, promotion of knowledge and understanding of the European Union and its programs, as well as played a role of the ‘watchdog’ through publication of its annual monitoring reports on implementation of the ENP Action Plan by the government of Azerbaijan.

Eastern Partnership and the idea of the Civil Society Forum opened new opportunities for the country’s civil society to increase its role in the EU new programme. Azerbaijan was one of the top states by the number of NGO applications to join the civil society forum. However, management of the working groups, based on the 4 national platforms, is a challenge due to the contradictions between the GONGOs (government NGOs) and real NGOs.
 
 
Multilateral track

Since 90s EU was promoting regional cooperation in the South Caucasus, which it saw like trilateral cooperation between all three states – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia. While in general the idea was very attractive, it in effect ignored the fact, that two states of the region are still in the state of war, although since 1994 the fragile ceasefire was supported without international peacekeeping forces. The ceasefire agreement was signed in the situation of the few regions of Azerbaijan proper being occupied by Armenia, which supported militarily the secessionist movement of largely Armenian population in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno Karabagh autonomous region. Unlike later during the Russia-Georgia war, the EU did not play a role in the resolution or a ceasefire. The official negotiations started and were conducted since then under the aegis of so called Minsk group of OSCE (CSCE at that time) with mediation institute of co-chairmanship of three states – Russia, France and the USA. Partly due to the composition of the co-chairmanship ( states are either involved directly – Russia – on the side of Armenia, or have strong pro-Armenian lobby – France and the USA), partly due to the “consensus” based decision making mechanism the 17 year old negotiation process so far has not led to any substantial results.

Thus, because of the EU accepting the leading role of the OSCE Minsk process in resolution of the Karabagh conflict, as reflected in its major documents and official statements, it had little leverage either over the conflict resolution, or the desired trilateral cooperation. This controversy has been transferred first to the content of the ENP Action Plans (See Leila Alieva “EU and the South Caucasus”, Discussion paper   Berthelsmann Foundation/CAP, December 2006, http://ecologic-events.eu/hertie-school-2008/reading_lists/download/ali…), and then to the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership. Azerbaijani officials repeatedly stated, that unless Armenia withdraws its troops from the occupied territory, it will not cooperate with Armenia, and that Armenia should liberate the Azerbaijani territories as a gesture of confidence building. As one Azerbaijani official wrote “Baku welcomes the country-specific thrust of the Eastern Partnership but won’t get involved in multilateral arrangements within it alongside Armenia, as long as the latter remains in occupation of Azerbaijan territory” (Tahir Taghizade The European Union’s Eastern Partnership: what does it offer Azerbaijan? Azerbaijan in the world ADA biweekly newsletter, Vol2, NO13, July1, 2009.).

The Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 demonstrated some successful ways in which the EU can play a role in the conflict resolution in the South Caucasus. This inspired both Azerbaijan officials and civil society to promote greater EU involvement in resolution of the Karabagh conflict so to move it from the current deadlock. Nevertheless, against this unfavourable background of the unresolved conflict, 2010 witnessed a few international and regional events, hosted and attended by Azerbaijan with participation of Armenia.
 
 
Cooperation or integration?

With the EU-Azerbaijani cooperation unfolding the concern in the society was growing over the substance of these relations. It was obvious, that a temptation to reduce them to the “pragmatic” energy interests based cooperation is too strong, when the elites of the partner country do not express too much passion to the reform agenda in these relations. The suspicion grew with the growing importance of Azerbaijan for the EU energy interests: after the series of political crises resulting in interruption of the gas supplies to Europe,  the project Nabucco was supposed to diversify the gas supply to EU, in which Azerbaijan as both the producer and the transit state played a key role. The first report of the Implementation of the Eastern Partnership (Implementation of the Eastren Patnesrhip:Report to the meeting of Foreign Affaisr Ministers, December 13, 2010. MD 335/10 REV 1.) captured the trend of developing lack of incentive to reform and to reduce the agenda of EU-Azerbaijan relations to cooperation rather than integration. The report states successfully developing cooperation in the energy area, in particular on the project of South Corridor, trans Caspian link and the project Nabucco. Although it informs, that Association agreement negotiations have started with Azerbaijan, there is very little known about the content and substance of these negotiations, which raises doubts about the “upgraded” status of the civil society in the new programme. 
 
 
Conclusions & Recommendations

The Eastern Partnership was only recently given a start. Although it would be pre-mature to give prognosis of its development and effectiveness, certain conclusions can already be made at this stage.

The Eastern Partnership opens new opportunities for the partner countries. The programme covers major key areas of cooperation: political association, economic integration and visa liberalization. It also upgrades the civil society’s status in the new programme through Civil Society Forum.

The individual approach to the relations is justified by the diversity of the partner-countries’ characteristics.

However, as the civil society is usually excluded from the official negotiations at the bilateral level, the Eastern Partnership may transform into a purely Baku-Brussels elites’ interests based enterprise, leaving the needs of the wider population aside. 

The civil society of Azerbaijan is anticipating with high concern the outcome of the negotiations in each of the three areas of cooperation. There is little indication, that the EU takes into account the abundant oil and gas resources as a structural obstacle of democratization in Azerbaijan, and that it leads to a great alienation of the elite from population (Terry Lynn Karl “ The Paradox Of Plenty).

The EaP opens up new opportunities for the EU too. Through greater involvement in the resolution of the Karabagh conflict it may eventually speed up regional South Caucasus integration, as well as promote the Black Sea Synergy policy and to consolidate regional and European security. Through promotion of reforms, it will provide itself by the belt of stable, democratic and prosperous states.
 
 

Recommendations:

1. There should be greater EU investment and involvement in the resolution of the Karabagh conflict in order to make multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership work.

2.The EaP should serve a vehicle for promotion of WTO accession and reforms in case of Azerbaijan.

3.  The EU should re-direct its financial assistance from the state budget beefed up by oil revenues  to the civil society to address structural imbalance between the state and society.

4. The “lack of absorption” of the EU funds by the partner country should not simply mean reduction of the grants to the country, but rather redirection of these funds directly to the civil society to address the imbalances caused by the oil based economy.

5. At the bilateral level – the EU should promote transparency of negotiations and participation of the civil society at all stages and in all areas.

This is a revised version of a speech delivered by the author at the Institute for World Economics, Conference Series on the Hungarian EU Presidency  ’Eastern Partnership – experience, efforts, expectations’ held in Budapest, December 17-18, 2010.
 
Leila Alieva. PhD, Leila Alieva is the President of the Center for National and International Studies in Baku, Azerbaijan
 
 
EaPCommunity
 
 
31.01.2011
 
 

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