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Summit Exposes Strains in EU Eastern Policy

The party to celebrate 10 years of the Eastern Partnership ended on a low note.

by Ky Krauthamer 16 May 2019

The European Union’s top officials hosted the six Eastern Partnership members in Brussels this week in what was meant to be a feel-good event on the 10th anniversary of the union’s eastern outreach project.


In the end, a statement intended to be signed by the foreign ministers of all six member states was released 13 May with just the signature of European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.


The statement was downgraded because Azerbaijan was unhappy that it did not mention the issue of territorial integrity, sources told RFE/RL. Azerbaijan has practically no contact with fellow partnership member Armenia because of the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


Georgia and Ukraine also had issues with the statement, earlier expressing dissatisfaction that it did not acknowledge the “European aspirations” of some partners.


The partnership, the EU’s outreach program for its eastern neighbors, was conceived as a transformational project. Instead, it is looking obsolete at a time when national sovereignty rather than regional solidarity is the buzzword in many EU countries, writes James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at London’s Chatham House think tank.


Beyond some technical programs, most promised benefits from the partnership, such as infrastructure investment, remain in the planning stages, Nixey says.


Any local bridge-building progress is largely due to bilateral steps outside of the partnership format, Nixey states. The initiative has done little if anything to smooth Western Europe’s eternally strained relationship with Belarus or help settle the Karabakh dispute.


The EU’s inability or lack of interest to get involved in the South Caucasus is underlined by a minor, yet telling quarrel between Azerbaijan and Georgia over a cultural gem of the region.


Friction on the Frontier


Years of squabbling over the Davit Gareja monastery complex broke out again last month, after Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili’s visit to the area, which straddles a section of border that has yet to be fully demarcated.


She reiterated an earlier call to move the border demarcation process ahead and said, “The question of defining the border brooks no delay,” reportedly while standing in territory Azerbaijan regards as its own, reports.


On 25 April, just ahead of Orthodox Easter, Azerbaijani border guards blocked access to part of the complex, “prompting outrage from Georgian monks, worshippers, and tour guides,” Eurasianet says.


Davit Gareja. Image via Image via ZiYouXunLu/Wikimedia Commons.


The two sides have an informal agreement to allow Georgian pilgrims and tourists to visit all parts of the large complex of rock monasteries and hermits’ cells.


Some on the Azerbaijani side took umbrage that Zurabishvili posed with Georgian border guards and a delegation from Europa Nostra, a cultural heritage protection group, according to Baku-based analyst Fuad Chiragov, writing for the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.


Europa Nostra recently listed Davit Gareja as one of Europe’s seven “most endangered heritage sites” (joined, among others, by central Vienna). The main threats to the site are degradation of the soft limestone rocks they monasteries are built from, along with vandalism and graffiti, an expert report commissioned by the group found.


The confrontation soon ended when Azerbaijan restored access to the area, known as Keshkichidag in Azeri, but not before what Chiragov calls “some nationalist, marginal and populist politicians in Georgia” seized on the incident as a pretext to whip up feeling against Azerbaijan and Turkey.


Azerbaijani officials have interfered in Georgian local elections by supporting candidates of  the ruling Georgian Dream party in areas of Georgia where the Azeri minority is most numerous, Georgian activists and journalists claim, according to another report on Eurasianet.


Deputy foreign ministers from each country discussed border demarcation this week. A decision was taken to continue the talks next week, Azerbaijan’s state news agency Azertag reports.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL.
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