Vol. 3, No. 21 (November 01, 2010)

What role for the EU in resolving conflicts in the South Caucasus?

Hanna Shelest
Senior Researcher
National Institute for Strategic Studies, Odessa Branch, Ukraine 

The European Union is increasingly active in seeking solutions to the conflicts in the South Caucasus, its leaders recognizing that without such solutions, there is a very real risk that instability in that region will spreadbeyond the Black Sea region into what is now the European Union.  Moreover, there is a belief that in contrast to some of the other states involved in this process, the European Union is viewed postiviely by all parties as a more or less neutral actor.

This represents a major change because as recently as October 2008, French Foreign Minsiter Bernard Kouchner said that in the previous decade, the European Union had not paid enough attention to the South Caucasus and especially to the conflicts there (Корреспондент, 2008).  But the expansion of the EU in 2007 to the shores of the Black Sea, the impact of the West’s recognition of Kosovo, and the new geopolitics of the region after the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 have changed all that. 

The Russian-Georgian war was especially significant in changing the role of the EU.  If the United Nations and the OSCE must be listed among the losers in that conflict, the European Union was able to put itself forward as a peacemaker and thus gained new stature.  The French president played a key role in brokering an end to the conflict, and since August 2008, most EU institutional actors in the region have been based in Georgia (Merlingen & Ostrauskaite 2009, p.10) where they have promoted dialogue and, through the use of soft power, sought to change attitudes about negotiations (Merlingen & Ostrauskaite 2009, p.13).  

But at the same time, the war itself highlighted certain weaknesses in the European Union’s ability to prevent conflict.  Despite the funds it had expended over the previous decade, the EU had not managed to develop a political and security strategy that worked.  And the war called into question the notion that the kind of assistance the EU had offered was in any way adequate in the region (Popescu 2009).  That forced some in the European Union to rethink its policy toward other frozen conflicts there.

One step it did take was to organize a report on the outbreak of the conflict, a report that was the largest and most comprehensive of any offered by the international community.  Presented on September 30, 2009, after nine months of work under the chairmanship of Heidi Tagliavini, it had the virtue of drawing support from both sides.  On the one hand, the Russian side was pleased that the report identified Georgia as the immediate aggressor against South Ossetia.  But on the other, the report demonstrated that the actions of the Russian Federation had prompted Tbilisi to act as it did, something that pleased Georgians and their supporters (Cornell 2009), as did the report’s dismissal of Russian allegations against Georgia of genocide (European Union Council 2009).  This report, in fact, may become a model of EU activity in such cases, although, in the future it should be more clearly stated, so as not to provoke future disputes around, and manipulation of, its statements and conclusions. 

Despite the positive experience in resolving the Russian-Georgian crisis of August 2008, the EU faces continuous challenges to its activities as a mediator and peacekeeper.  National politics of the member states have been more influential on decision-making processes than general view of the necessity to resolve conflicts, and until 2008 the European Union was not able to speak with one voice.  Some countries, such as France, Germany and Italy, do not want any confrontation with Russia, while others, such as Poland, the United Kingdom and the Baltic states, advocate a harder line.  Moreover, these divisions limited the EU’s ability to take steps that would force either or both of the sides to take it entirely seriously.

For all these reasons and because each of the states in the EU has bilateral interests with each of the countries in the South Caucasus and with the Russian Federation, the European Union faces serious obstacles to becoming a major mediator in the region.  However, the situation has changed, and the change came not only from the external conditions which the EU found itself facing after the latest round of enlargement and consequences of the Russia–Georgia war, but also from an internal understanding of the changing role of the EU, necessity to take bigger responsibility in the world affairs and certain accommodation of the different national policies toward the crisis regions.  Rather general view existed that the practice of mediation is of added value to the EU in its role as a regional actor in conflict resolution.  Now it will depend on the internal will of the organization and its member-states, and on whether they will be able to change perceptions and attitudes toward them as mediators in other regional conflicts.


Cornell, Svante (2009) “Europe Exposes Russia’s Guilt in Georgia in an Invasion”, Wall Street Journal, 1 October, available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704471504574446582737784064.html (accessed 10 October 2010).

European Union Council (2009) Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia Report, 30 September, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/30_09_09_iiffmgc_report.pdf (accessed 10 October 2010). 

ICG (2006) “Conflict Resolution in the South Caucasus: the EU’s Role”, Europe Report, No. 173, 20 March. 

Merlingen, Michael & Rasa Ostrauskaite (2009) “EU Peacebuilding in Georgia: Limits and Achievements”, CLEER Working papers, No. 2009/6, Centre for the Law of EU External Relations.

Popescu, Nicu (2009) “The EU’s Conflict Prevention Failure in Georgia”, CACI Analyst, 14 October, available at http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/5198 (accessed 10 October 2010).   

Корреспондент (2008) “French Foreign Minister: EU has not paid enough attention to the conflict in the Caucasus”, in Russian, Корреспондент, available at http://korrespondent.net/world/629518 (accessed October 10, 2010).