Three Eastern Partnership neighbours in the South Caucasus

The EU’s Eastern Partnership policy, inaugurated in 2009, covers six post-Soviet states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It was created to support political, social and economic reform efforts in these countries with the aim of increasing democratisation and good governance, energy security, environmental protection, and economic and social development. All the members except Belarus are part of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly.

The European Parliament has a South Caucasus Delegation, which oversees the Parliamentary Cooperation Committees (PCCs) for Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Parliamentary Association Committee (PAC) with Georgia, and monitors the work of the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia.

Georgia

Georgia’s presidential election in 2013 and parliamentary elections in 2016 saw the victory of the ‘Georgian Dream Coalition’ (GD) and the confirmation of the country’s Euro-Atlantic orientation. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), based on the 2014 Association Agreement, entered into force in July 2016. Georgia has made major efforts in terms of aligning its legislation with EU standards, including in the case of visa liberalisation. However, the economy is facing serious problems and internal reforms are needed.

After a lengthy process, the Commission proposal on visa liberalisation was adopted on 27 February 2017 and signed by EU and Georgian officials on 1 March in Brussels. Georgian citizens with a biometric passport who travel to the EU for up to 90 days for business, tourism or family purposes, will no longer need a visa.

Georgian democracy is still experiencing a major polarisation of politics, with persistent tensions between the GD coalition and the United National Movement founded by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, amid recurrent accusations of selective justice and politically motivated anti-corruption campaigns. The October 2016 parliamentary elections were assessed as broadly democratic and fair, despite some procedural irregularities and allegations of intimidation. The GD won, reaching the ‘constitutional majority’ (75% of the MPs) required to pass a revision of the constitution. The EU hopes that the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission will be able to play a guiding and moderating role in this reform process, and that the government remains as inclusive as possible.

Relations with Russia remain a challenge, despite some easing of tension in trade relations. Repeated ‘borderisation’ activities along the boundaries with the two breakaway regions, as well as the ratification of the two so-called treaties between Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are fuelling tensions.

a.The European Parliament’s position

The EU has stressed the importance of peacefully resolving the impasse in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity. The EU-Georgia strategic dialogue on conflict-related issues, held in Brussels in 2015, is a sign of trust in the relations between the two sides, despite some differences over operational conclusions.

b.Interparliamentary cooperation

The fourth meeting of the EU-Georgia Parliamentary Association Committee took place in Strasbourg on 15 and 16 February 2017. A final statement and recommendations text was adopted at the meeting, highlighting not only positive developments, such as electoral standards, a pro-business agenda, an innovative e-procurement system, the political will to push for reforms in a bi-partisan way, but also the need for efforts to ensure the necessary independence of the judiciary, the transparency of proceedings, and the ‘depoliticisation’ of the Office of the Prosecutor. The text also reiterated the European Parliament’s support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, while calling on the EU to step up efforts to reach out to civil society in the occupied territories, making use of the Association Agreement/DCFTA tools.

c.Election observation

Georgia has hosted delegations from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR), including Members of the European Parliament, as part of the OSCE’s monitoring of the country’s parliamentary, presidential and local elections. Georgia’s most recent parliamentary and presidential elections were judged ‘broadly’ satisfactory. The European Parliament sent an election observation team to Tbilisi as part of the wider OSCE ODIHR election observation operation set up for the 8 October 2016 parliamentary elections. Despite a few incidents identified by international and national civil society organisations, most observers reported a peaceful campaign and efforts by the government to hold exemplary elections.

Armenia

Armenia’s relations with the EU are ambivalent, but the time for a new start may have come.

On the one hand, Armenia’s president declared in September 2013 that the country would join the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. Armenia signed its treaty of accession to the EAEU on 10 October 2014, shortly before that Union came into effect on 1 January 2015.

On the other hand, the launch in December 2015 of negotiations on a new EU-Armenia agreement marked a turning point after the pro-Moscow U-turn in September 2013. The pragmatism shown so far by both sides led to the swift conclusion, on 28 February 2017, of a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) based on EU values but compatible with Yerevan’s new obligations vis-à-vis the EAEU.

The already polarised political situation became even more tense in 2015 in the context of the constitutional reform launched by the government. Despite a number of long-awaited improvements in the area of human rights and the rule of law, welcomed by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the debate had been dominated by the proposal to turn the presidential system into a parliamentary one. After the first changes were implemented, a reform of the electoral code was carried out in 2016 following an inclusive process involving the opposition and civil society. Armenia has been involved in a ‘protracted conflict’ with Azerbaijan over the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region for over 20 years, with tensions reaching their highest point since 1994 during the ‘four-day war’ in April 2016. Relations with Turkey are distant.

a.The European Parliament’s position

A protocol to the EU-Armenia PAC on a framework agreement establishing the general principles for Armenian institutions to participate in EU programmes was concluded in December 2012. Negotiations on a new EU-Armenia framework agreement were launched in December 2015, and concluded on 21 March 2017 with the initialising of the CEPA. It is expected to be signed at the Eastern Partnership summit in November 2017.

For the European Parliament, the consolidation of democracy in Armenia is a priority. In April 2015, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the centenary of the Armenian genocide.

b.Interparliamentary cooperation

The most recent EU-Armenia inter-parliamentary meeting of the PCC took place in January 2017 in Strasbourg and ended with a joint statement and recommendations focusing in particular on EU support for the reform process in Armenia and on the importance of the role civil society can play in this context.

c.Election observation

Armenia has hosted Members of the European Parliament — as part of OSCE ODIHR electoral observation missions — five times, and will do so again during the country’s 2017 parliamentary elections. The organisation of elections in Armenia has gradually improved, although some problems persist. Most of the recommendations made by the OSCE ODIHR following its 2013 monitoring mission have now been implemented, as indicated in the OSCE ODIHR’s latest interim report ahead of the 2 April vote.

Azerbaijan

Negotiations on an Association Agreement were launched in 2010, and Azerbaijan signed a visa facilitation agreement with the EU in November 2013. While Azerbaijan and the EU have recently strengthened their cooperation in the energy sector, further economic cooperation between the two partners will depend on Azerbaijan’s progress in building democratic institutions and joining the World Trade Organization.

The past two years have seen disagreements over the upgraded agreement, a crackdown on civil society and criticism by the EU. However, visits to Baku in 2016 by senior EU officials and the release of some Azerbaijani human rights activists created an opening for gradual re-engagement. The Council of the European Union adopted a mandate for a ‘comprehensive agreement’ between the EU and Azerbaijan, and negotiations were launched on 7 February 2017. On 2 and 27 January 2017, the EU-Azerbaijan Subcommittee on Energy, Transport and the Environment met in Baku (the first such meeting in three years). Azerbaijan has been involved in a ‘protracted conflict’ with Armenia over the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region for over 20 years, with tensions currently reaching their highest point since 1994 during the ‘four-day war’ in April 2016.

a.The European Parliament’s position

On 10 September 2015, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing its serious concern over the continuing deterioration of the human rights situation in the country and calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to immediately end their crackdown on civil society and human rights work.

This led the Azerbaijani Parliament (Milli Majlis) to pass a resolution in which it condemned the ‘biased’ nature of the European Parliament resolution of 10 September 2015, called for the European Parliament to adopt a constructive position on Azerbaijan and listed a number of tough retaliatory measures, including its withdrawal from the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly. The decision would have taken effect one year after its formal notification, i.e. on 5 October 2016, but following a PCC meeting held in Baku in September 2016, it was reversed by a decision of the Milli Majlis on 30 September.

Leyla Yunus, an Azerbaijani human rights activist imprisoned, together with her husband Arif, from July 2014 to April 2016 and released following intense EP lobbying and humanitarian/health support, was a finalist for Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2014.

Following high-level contacts between the EU and Azerbaijan in early 2016, the parliamentary cooperation committee (PCC) was able to hold its first meeting since 2012 from 19 to 21 September 2016. The co-chairs signed a joint statement after the meeting with recommendations, taken up by Euronest, for re-engagement based on ‘mutual respect, equality and understanding’. This contributed to Baku’s decision to maintain its participation in Euronest.

b.Election observation

Azerbaijan has hosted Members of the European Parliament as part of OSCE ODIHR electoral missions. All the country’s elections for the period of those missions were deemed to fall short of international requirements, and recommendations still have to be implemented. Owing to the lack of an agreement with the Azerbaijani authorities, the OSCE ODIHR did not observe the 1 November 2015 parliamentary elections.

Azerbaijan did however allow the deployment of an election observation mission by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which was much more limited in scope and length. The PACE mission concluded that ‘the significant increase in voter turnout and the transparency of voting and counting procedures demonstrate[d] another step forward taken by the Republic of Azerbaijan towards free, fair and democratic elections’ and, despite observing ‘minor ballot stuffing’, was of the opinion that the result of this vote expressed the will of the Azerbaijani people[1].

In July 2016, President Aliyev called a referendum for September 2016 with a view to changing the constitution. The referendum on 29 amendments to the constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan was held on 26 September 2016 in a peaceful and ‘transparent’ voting context, according to a PACE assessment mission. It is nevertheless seen by many observers as an attempt by the president to further reinforce his powers by: increasing the president’s term from five to seven years, transferring some of the prime minister’s current powers to a newly created post of vice-president, enabling the president to dissolve the parliament and abolishing the minimum age limit of 35 for running for the presidency. Although Baku did not seek the advice of experts, the Bureau of the PACE requested the Venice Commission’s opinion on the planned changes. The preliminary opinion, issued on 20 September 2016, raised a number of concerns, in particular on the process leading to the referendum and on the reinforcement of the president’s powers and the weakening of the parliament. The EU released a statement noting the shortcomings identified in the process leading to the referendum and inviting Baku to take into account the Venice Commission’s findings while implementing the constitutional amendments voted for by a majority of Azerbaijanis.

[1]Election observation report on the observation of the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, 20 November 2015, doc. 13923, p. 7 (Rapporteur: Mr Jorde XUCLÀ, Spain, ALDE).

Jérôme Legrand

06/2017