The Eastern Partnership: Driving change in the South Caucasus

With the volatile political conditions in Armenia, Europe must be more proactive in its Eastern Partnership, says Andrey Kovatchev
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By Andrey Kovatchev

Andrey Kovatchev (BG, EPP) is the European Parliament’s Standing Rapporteur on Armenia

08 Feb 2022

More than 12 years after the launch of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the European Union remains the main driver of transformative reforms in the South Caucasus. The EU’s economical and reformist commitment has been clear: it has invested in modernising economies, trade flows and strengthening civil societies.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU also assisted with timely help for the region’s vaccination programmes. The recently unveiled Economic and Investment Plan for the EaP is expected to mobilise up to €2.3 billion in support of the post-pandemic recovery and to transform the economies of the Eastern partners to make them more sustainable, resilient and integrated.

Yet the political situation in the EaP continues to be volatile with the significant foreign influences. When it comes to security, providing concrete steps in negotiating peace in the regional conflicts or offering a clear membership perspective, the EU either has no instruments or its Member States lack the political will to offer more. While the EaP was never designed to solve such problems, this weakness of the Union has been exploited by others who have filled the geopolitical vacuum and shaped it to their advantage. 

“Facilitating a meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders at the EaP summit in Brussels in 2021 was a positive step in the displaying EU’s political commitment to the two countries, but more must be done”

The latest striking example is the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The EU was not one of the official mediators in this conflict. Its reluctance to be proactive, to speak with one voice, has led to it being sidelined by Russia. However, for all the talk of the geopolitical Europe, of respect for our founding principles, we should not have remained silent observers to the use of force and the violation of international humanitarian and human rights laws. 

To demonstrate its commitment toward Baku and Yerevan, the EU needs to offer concrete financial and diplomatic support, contribute to reopening the transport routes between the two countries, provide greater opportunities for people-to-people contacts in the post-war realities.

Facilitating a meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders at the EaP summit in Brussels in 2021 was a positive step in displaying the EU’s political commitment to the two countries, but there must be more. Meanwhile, in its May 2020 resolution, the European Parliament expressed its clear position on the recent violations of Armenia’s sovereign territory and called for the release of all prisoners of war and civilian detainees. 

Meanwhile, Armenia has proven itself a trustworthy partner throughout the years. Despite the recent challenging times, it has continued to implement crucial reforms aimed at strengthening its democratic institutions and rule of law. The EU is its primary partner in promoting in institution-building and supporting the reform agenda and the results are promising.

Yerevan has advanced to the top of the 2021 Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum 2020-21 Index in Democracy and Good Governance. He also leads on Democratic Rights and Elections, the Fight against Corruption and Independent Media, Assembly and Association, and Independent Judiciary.

Armenia’s decades-long successful cooperation with the EU was reinforced by the signing of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), entering into force on 1 March 2021. The expectations are high on both sides that the CEPA will build further on the positive cooperation between the EU and Armenia in a wide range of areas. In 2021, three other specific agreements on sectoral cooperation were signed - on aviation, on cooperation with Europol, and on association of Armenia to Horizon Europe.

Armenia’s association to the “Creative Europe” programme is still in the pipeline. These agreements are expected to benefit societies, businesses and citizens on both sides. Finally, ahead of the 2017 EaP summit, the European Parliament recommended opening Visa Liberalisation Dialogue with Armenia. This could significantly widen people-to-people contact, and I hope that a positive decision can be reached as soon as possible. 

“We should apply the same attitude to the EaP as we do to the Western Balkans, where there are smaller groupings of states and calls to assess each country individually”

While the EU is committed to the EaP, this level of commitment varies significantly from one Member State to another. To deepen the existing engagements, the EaP should be recognised as an EU-wide priority. It is a dynamic area, which needs frequent adjustments in response to the developments on the ground.

In addition, since the EaP launched, the region has split into two blocs: the Associated Trio - Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia - and the other three countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. A lot has changed in each of these countries since 2009; it is time for the EU to recognise this and to reflect it in the grouping of the countries.

We should apply the same attitude to the EaP as we do to the Western Balkans, where there are smaller groupings of states and calls to assess each country individually. Such a renewed approach will provide the impetus for each country to continue its reforms, and we will be able to see - in full - the standing of Armenia in comparison to its peers – a country with democratic institutions and free elections, freedom of speech and rule of law.

In addition, the Union could adopt a more hands-on approach to reforms to the judiciary and the fight against corruption in the region. It could invest much more in protecting and empowering local actors of change, who work daily to transform EaP societies from within. 

Read the most recent articles written by Andrey Kovatchev - What the civilian EU Mission in Armenia can achieve