By Thomas de Waal in London (CRS No. 341, 25-May-06)
The new European Union special representative for the Caucasus, Peter Semneby, has suggested that the EU could in future lead a peacekeeping mission if a solution to the Nagorny Karabakh dispute is found.
Semneby, a Swedish diplomat who has just taken up the post, said in an interview with IWPR in London last week that he wants to use his mandate to work on the region's unresolved conflicts.
"It's no surprise that the main priority of my work is to engage as far as possible with conflict resolution," he said.
Semneby emphasised that the European Union has no formal role in the detailed negotiations over Abkhazia - where the United Nations plays a mediating role - and in South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh, where that role is played by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE.
However, the idea of an international peacekeeping force is known to be under discussion in the current Karabakh talks, and should there be a breakthrough, an international body will be asked to lead it. This is where the EU could step in.
"We will be expected to make a major contribution when a solution is found, and we are looking into the possibilities we have, both in terms of post-conflict rehabilitation and also - if the parties should so desire - in terms of contributing peacekeepers. And possibly even leading a peacekeeping operation," said Semneby. "I should mention that this is very hypothetical at this stage. This is only one of several options, but it's one that is being considered."
A recent report by the International Crisis Group entitled "Conflict Resolution in the South Caucasus: The EU's Role" was scathing about the low profile the European Union has adopted on conflict resolution in the Caucasus until now.
"[The EU] does not participate directly in negotiations on Nagorny Karabakh, Abkhazia or South Ossetia," said the report, published in March. "In and around Nagorny Karabakh, it has done little for conflict resolution. It has rarely raised the South Caucasus conflicts in its high-level discussions with partners and has employed few sanctions or incentives to advance peace."
A subtle change in language in the mandate assigned to Semneby, compared with that of his predecessor Heikki Talvitie, means the EU special representative is no longer asked to "assist the resolution of conflicts" but to "contribute to the resolution of conflicts".
Semneby said this linguistic change was small but important, calling it "a political signal that the conflicts are very high on the agenda".
The post of special representative was established in 2003 and has a broad mandate -but a small budget. Acknowledging that it would be impossible to "engage across the board", Semneby identified his major priorities as contributing to peace processes and supporting state-building in the region, through initiatives such as judicial reform.
Semneby, 46, has spent most of his career in Eastern Europe. As a Swedish diplomat he visited the Armenian earthquake zone in 1988, and he was a member of the first OSCE mission in Georgia in 1992. He also served as the last OSCE ambassador to Latvia and more recently was the organisation's ambassador in Croatia - another post he says gives him the right experience to engage with the conflict-riven Caucasus.
He confessed to a feeling of "déjà vu" in returning to the region after a long gap, "This is the most disappointing aspect of coming back to the Caucasus after so many years. Of course there have been changes for the better as well. But the conflicts are such an obstacle to the normal development of societies in the Caucasus."
Semneby will be called upon to tackle the image problem the EU has in the region, with lower visibility than the United States.
The special representative has to talk on behalf of 25 countries, many of which have their own individual interests in the region. He acknowledged that the failure to adopt an EU Union constitution, which would have led to the development of a more coherent foreign policy, had made his job harder.
However, with Bulgaria and Romania set to join the EU next year and Turkey beginning membership talks, the South Caucasus will inevitably begin to figure larger in Brussels.
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are all members of the EU's European Neighbourhood Policy, a development that Semneby said was deepening their relationship with Brussels and would also entitle them to increased aid. "We're talking about hundreds of millions of euros for each country. The EU will also step up its representation in the countries, which will mean there will be a larger degree of visibility in the South Caucasus."
"I will also spend some time trying to explain to the public in the South Caucasus what the EU is about. There is not a whole lot of knowledge to begin with. To the extent that the EU is known, there are still a lot of misunderstandings about what [it] is about."
"I think there is also lack of knowledge in the EU about the south Caucasus and its particular problems and about the importance of this region for the EU, and if possible this is something I would like to engage on."
Asked about the hopes of many people in the region who dream of joining the EU one day, the special representative was careful to reiterate that the European Neighbourhood Policy "does not contain a membership perspective".
"It does mean that the countries can achieve a lot of the benefits of EU membership by working on the implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy," he went on.
"There is a problem - and I am the first to admit that - that since the membership perspective is not there as a big carrot at the end, this deprives us of one of the most powerful levers we had in encouraging the countries of Central Europe to carry out painful reforms."
Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor.