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 whose membership is suspended) are part of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly.

Georgia  

Georgia’s presidential election in 2013 and parliamentary elections in 2016 saw the victory of the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition 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, which led inter alia to the waiver of visas for short stays in the Schengen area as of March 2017. Georgia’s accession to the Energy Community Treaty as a full contracting party in July 2017 is another milestone on its European path. However, the economy is facing serious problems and internal reforms are needed.

Georgian democracy is still experiencing a major polarisation of politics (which is also reflected in the media landscape), with persistent tensions between the GD coalition and the opposition, 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. GD won, securing the ‘constitutional majority’ (75% of the MPs) required to pass an amendment to the constitution.

Georgia is steadily pursuing reforms, with far-reaching changes to the constitution. Sadly, however, the constitutional reform process led to a major battle between the ruling party, the opposition and the main civil society organisations. The adoption of reforms by GD parliamentarians alone could damage Georgia’s positive image and the population’s confidence in the political class, along with the legitimacy of the new constitution. The EU is supporting institutional reforms to improve governance and democracy based on the Council of Europe’s recommendations, but success depends on the degree of implementation.

Faced with Russia’s slow but continuing annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgians have pinned their hope on moving closer to the EU and NATO. Yet the kidnapping of Azeri journalist Afgan Mukhtarli is an ominous reminder of Georgia’s vulnerability to its neighbours.

A. The European Parliament’s position and interparliamentary cooperation

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 supports the conflict resolution efforts made through the work of the EUSR, the EU Monitoring Mission and the EU Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace, thus complementing the Geneva International Discussions. The EU-Georgia strategic dialogue on conflict-related issues is a sign of trust in relations between the two sides, despite regular differences over operational conclusions.

The fifth meeting of the EU-Georgia PAC took place in Tbilisi in September 2017. A final statement and recommendations text was unanimously adopted at the meeting. This highlighted positive developments, such as amendments to the Law on Common Courts, the Civil Service Law and amendments to the Imprisonment Code, but also the need to improve the independence and efficiency of the judiciary and the public finance management system, as well as policies on equality between men and women, efforts to ensure diversity and pluralism in the media, a transparent and fair selection process for the next Ombudsman and an effective and thorough investigation into the abduction of Afgan Mukhtarli. The text also reiterated the EP’s support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders.

B. Election observation

Georgia has hosted delegations from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE ODIHR), which includes members of the European Parliament and monitors the country’s parliamentary, presidential and local elections. Georgia’s most recent parliamentary and presidential elections were judged ‘broadly’ satisfactory, and government efforts were reported. The OSCE ODHIR’s preliminary findings on the 2017 local elections — which were won by GD — concluded with a positive assessment despite possible cases of intimidation and pressure on voters and a lack of coverage by public broadcasters.

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 2013. The pragmatism shown so far by both sides led to the swift conclusion, and signature in November 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, in particular in the commercial sphere.

The polarised political situation grew tenser in 2015 and 2016 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, the debate was dominated by the proposal to turn the presidential system into a parliamentary one, which was eventually adopted. In spring 2018, following weeks of protests against his nomination and subsequent appointment as prime minister in the new parliamentary system, former president Serzh Sargsyan resigned. Civil Contract party leader Nikol Pashinyan – also co-leader of the Way Out (Yelk in Armenian) political alliance – who had led the peaceful protests in the streets, was elected prime minister by the parliament on 8 May 2018 (with 59 votes out of 105, including votes from the Republican Party). Congratulated by world leaders, the new prime minister and his government face several challenges, including implementing the CEPA, holding (and surviving) snap elections, and delivering on anti-corruption and social justice promises.

Armenia has been involved in a ‘protracted conflict’ with Azerbaijan over the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region for over 30 years, with tensions reaching their highest point since 1994 during the ‘four-day war’ in April 2016. Relations with Turkey are distant, as the latter makes the re-opening of its border with Armenia conditional on progress in resolving the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

A. The European Parliament’s position and interparliamentary cooperation

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. In the context of the EU reshaping its relationship with Armenia in a new agreement, the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) is preparing a consent procedure report to be issued in early 2018. 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.

The 17th EU-Armenia interparliamentary meeting of the PCC took place in December 2017 in Yerevan and ended with a joint statement and recommendations. The discussions and resulting document focused in particular on the ratification and implementation of the CEPA, on EU support to reforms and in particular rule of law issues, on gender issues with the recent law on domestic violence, and on regional security challenges.

B. Election observation

Armenia has hosted Members of the European Parliament — as part of OSCE ODIHR electoral observation missions — on six occasions, including the country’s 2017 parliamentary elections. The organisation of elections in Armenia has gradually improved. Most of the recommendations made by the OSCE ODIHR in 2013 have now been implemented, as indicated in the OSCE ODIHR’s latest interim report ahead of the 2017 vote. However, while those elections were generally well-administered, persistent shortcomings were also identified, such as pressure and vote-buying practices and interference by party representatives or police officers in voting stations.

Azerbaijan  

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

2015 and 2016 saw 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. Negotiations for a ‘comprehensive agreement’ between the EU and Azerbaijan were launched on 7 February 2017. The new agreement will address political, trade, energy and other specific issues, including conditions for the possible establishment of a future visa-free regime. It should include provisions on common foreign and security policy (CFSP) and non-CFSP matters, including robust provisions on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. A cooperation committee meeting took place in Baku at the end of May 2017, and a cooperation council is to take place on 9 February 2018. On 26 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 30 years, with tensions reaching their highest point since 1994 during the ‘four-day war’ in April 2016. The EU gives unwavering support to the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and their 2009 Basic Principles, with the aim of resolving the conflict in a peaceful manner.

A. The European Parliament’s position and interparliamentary cooperation

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 Mailis) to pass a resolution listing retaliatory measures, including its withdrawal from the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly. The decision was, however, reversed following a PCC meeting held in Baku in September 2016.

Leyla Yunus, an Azerbaijani human rights activist imprisoned, together with her husband Arif, from July 2014 to April 2016 and released following intense European Parliament lobbying and humanitarian/health support, was a finalist for Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2014. On 15 June 2017, the EP issued a resolution on the case of Azeri journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, abducted from Georgia and imprisoned in Baku, and on the situation of media in Azerbaijan. On 15 January 2018, the Chair of the EP Delegation, Sajjad Karim, issued a statement on the sentencing of Afgan Mukhtarli to 6 years imprisonment.

Following high-level contacts, the parliamentary cooperation committee (PCC) was able to hold its first meeting since 2012 from 19 to 21 September 2016. The 14th EU-Azerbaijan PCC took place in Brussels on 2 and 3 May 2017 and was concluded by a joint declaration stressing in particular the potential for closer economic relations to be launched by the negotiations on a new agreement, the importance of the Southern Gas Corridor, the importance of progress in the areas of human rights and freedoms as well as democracy and the rule of law, and the need to find a peaceful and lasting settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as soon as possible.

In this context of the EU reshaping its relationship with Azerbaijan in a new agreement, AFET is preparing an interim report with recommendations for the negotiators, to be issued in early 2018.

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. As no agreement was reached with the Azerbaijani authorities, the 1 November 2015 parliamentary elections were not observed by the OSCE, but by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), with the scope and length being more limited. The PACE 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’, assessed that the vote expressed the will of the Azerbaijani people[1].

In July 2016, President Aliyev called a referendum for September 2016 on 29 amendments to the constitution; it was held 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 PACE Bureau requested the Venice Commission’s opinion on the planned changes. The preliminary opinion of September 2016 raised a number of concerns about the process leading to the referendum, the reinforcement of the president’s powers and the weakening of the parliament. The EU released a statement inviting Baku to take into account the VC’s findings while implementing the constitutional amendments. On 5 February 2018, President Aliyev issued a decree that brought forward the next presidential elections from the planned date of 17 October to 11 April. Azerbaijan’s election code had been amended in December 2017 to allow such snap elections if these were announced 60 days in advance.

 

[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