Vol. 2, No. 13 (July 01, 2009)

The European Union’s Eastern Partnership: What does it offer Azerbaijan?

Tahir Taghizade, Amb.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary 
Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the Czech Republic

Azerbaijan has sought to integrate itself into European structures since the recovery of its independence in 1991.  Consequently, Baku has always been interested in EU efforts to reach out to countries to the east of the Union in the hopes that such efforts will ultimately lead to EU membership for Azerbaijan.  Given that history, Azerbaijan is extremely interested in the possibilities the new EU Eastern Partnership offers, but Baku has many questions about the meaning of this new program.

Announced at the end of 2008, the Eastern Partnership has been declared to be a further step in the development of relations between the EU, on the one hand, and six former Soviet republics – Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia – on the other.  But because the program is so new and so many aspects of it are as yet not precisely defined, there are mixed feelings about it in many capitals, including Baku, with some seeing it as a consolation prize offered to countries that will not ever be offered membership and others arguing that it represents a logical next step toward the inclusion of these countries in the EU.

That debate was also fuelled by the way in which discussions about this program have been taking place within the EU.  Former Eastern European countries now in the European Union have been enthusiastic about the program and want to develop relations with all or some of the six as quickly as possible.  But the older members of the EU, either because they are concerned about the impact of any further enlargement on their prerogatives or because they would prefer to see the Union move forward in other directions, including the Southern Dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy, are reluctant to move forward in this direction.

The EU and its member countries have also complicated the situation by being explicit that relations between them and each of the six will be nationally specific, something that inevitably reduces the importance of the overall Eastern Partnership idea.  But it is also the case that each of the six has pursued its own distinctive approach to the EU and to the Eastern Partnership.

Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have been in varying degrees suspicious about this program, fearful that they are being offered a consolation prize in place of the membership they seek.  Armenia and Belarus, in contrast, have viewed the Partnership idea as an opportunity to escape from regional isolation.  And Azerbaijan while continuing to want closer ties with the EU put its participation in a multilateral component of the Eastern Partnership at risk by making it very clear that it would not engage in any cooperative measures with Armenia as long as Yerevan remains in occupation of Azerbaijani territory.

These various positions and tensions were not resolved before the EU and the six Eastern “partners” signed their joint declaration in Prague in May, and they have not been resolved since that time either.  But several things have become clear over the last two months.  Two of the Eastern Partnership countries, Georgia and Ukraine, were eager to move forward with EU ties as quickly as possible.  Azerbaijan in contrast was more restrained because of the Armenian issue, and, consequently, Azerbaijan’s understanding of the Eastern Partnership can be said to include the following elements.  First, the EP represents a continuation of the EU’s regional approach.  Second, it reflects a repacking of existing programs rather than the development of something completely new.  And third, it leaves open both the question of the way in which the six can interact with the EU – each has enormous discretion – and the possibilities that each of them has for eventually being invited to join the EU.

From Azerbaijan’s perspective, that means that Baku welcomes the country-specific thrust of the Eastern Partnership but won’t get involved in multilateral arrangements within it alongside Armenia, as long as the latter remains in occupation of Azerbaijan territory.  Further, it means that Baku will seek to push the EP in the direction of addressing the political problems member states face.  And last but not least, the Eastern Partnership offers Azerbaijan yet another opportunity to advance its own interests, political and economic, with important EU countries and to demonstrate that it too is a good and reliable partner for them.