Vol. 4, No. 5 (March 01, 2011)

The Eastern Partnership and EU-Azerbaijan relations

Licínia Simão
Assistant Professor
University of Beira Interior, Portugal

From the early days of preparations for the European Union 2004/07 “big bang” enlargement, relations between the EU and the states in its Eastern borders have been problematic.  Not only did the expansion of EU borders and governance models to Central and Eastern Europe affect the long established relations of these countries with their immediate neighbors who were left out; but a new and broader security reality arising after September 11th also heightened concerns within the EU about possible security threats from outside the organization.  The European Union’s response was the establishment of the European Neighborhood Policy in 2003. 

The main goal behind the initiative was to create an institutional framework for deeper and closer relations with countries neighboring the enlarged Union.  Trade and visa facilitation immediately became two central areas of interest to the countries in the periphery of the EU; some countries such as Ukraine and Georgia even ventured into accession hopes, whereas for the EU there was a clear security agenda, as expressed in the European Security Strategy of 2004.  The EU’s interest in engaging closely with its neighbors, however, was explicitly linked to concerns about the possible impact of protracted conflicts in Moldova and in the South Caucasus, as well as broader security threats like smuggling of nuclear materials, terrorism, and illegal immigration.  All these issues demanded a closer partnership, through which the EU could nourish democratic reforms, mediate regional tensions, and gradually improve the economic and social conditions in its neighborhood and thus stabilize its periphery. 

The EU’s relations with its Eastern neighbors can therefore be approached from two complementary perspectives.  The first relates to the organization’s increased strategic interest in entering the Caspian energy game.  This has become a major issue for the EU and for some of its member states’ individual foreign policies toward the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the broader Black Sea area.  The goal has been to diversify oil and gas supplies while also investing in new clean and renewable energy.  Relations with Russia and Turkey have been central in this respect, but Azerbaijan stands out as a leading partner for many western companies involved with the extraction and transportation of oil and gas in the region.  As one German publication noted, “[Azerbaijan] is the 6th major oil supplier to Germany today, and also the biggest recipient of German FDI that flows into the South Caucasus” (Meister 2010).  Azerbaijan has also been a committed partner in the EU’s policy of energy diversification, one meant to decrease the EU’s dependence on Russian exports. 

The second perspective through which one could assess the EU’s relations with its Eastern neighbors concerns the EU’s role as a transformative power (Popescu 2009).  The Union acted to promote what some have called the “lite-version of enlargement” (Popescu & Wilson 2009), one in which limited integration and increased political dialogue were meant to promote political, economic and social reforms, with clear security outcomes.  The EU invested a great deal of political and financial capital in promoting dialogue between Georgia and Abkhazia, for instance, hoping to set in motion long-term transformative dynamics (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 2007), but as far as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is concerned, the EU has been conspicuously absent and has taken a backseat role to the OSCE’s Minsk Group, while refraining from developing confidence building measures between the parties of the conflict.  

The EU has also built on the ENP’s potential for reforms, pushing for new legislation to be adopted, for the development of civil society and the rightful conduct of elections, in line with the commitments undertaken by its neighbors in different fora, such as the ENP, the OSCE and the Council of Europe.  The track record, so far, has been very poor, across all the EU’s neighborhood.  Overall, the balance of the EU’s engagement has been fairly modest, at best, and counterproductive, at worst.  Perceived competition for influence in the former Soviet space deteriorated relations with Russia and left countries in their shared neighborhood vulnerable to power displacements.  The brief war in Georgia, in 2008, illustrates just that.  The competition, however, has also provided these countries with leverage over external influence and pressure, enabling them to bandwagon among powerful external players to their short-term advantage.  Azerbaijan managed to do just that, drawing Russia closer, by committing increased energy sales to Russian pipelines, and simultaneously putting pressure on the EU to overcome its internal divisions and seriously commit to the Nabucco and other Southern Corridor projects.

Given this track record, what can Azerbaijan and its neighbors expect from the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program (EaP)?  That project, launched in 2009, was intended to clearly differentiate between the southern neighbors and the eastern ones and was meant as a response to the French initiative of creating the Union of the Mediterranean.  It has focused on increased economic integration and visa facilitation to be negotiated in the framework of new Association Agreements set to replace the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreements.  These new agreements will also promote an expansion of the institutional capacity of the neighbors, including through the Twinning and TAIEX instruments, and simultaneously facilitate the monitoring of the implementation of reforms.  The initiative’s multilateral dimension, on the other hand, is based on four platforms, ones dealing with democracy, economic development, energy security and people-to-people contacts.  To a large extent, the EU maintains its structural approach to regional stability, in that it seeks to develop efforts aimed at consolidating long-term relations with the countries in the Eastern neighborhood, guided by commonly agreed goals and methods (Simão and Freire 2008).

For Azerbaijan, the benefits of this program have not been immediately clear.  Baku’s deputy foreign minister, Araz Azimov, has suggested that the EaP is inadequate from Azerbaijan’s perspective since it fails to provide a framework for the discussion of strategic issues like energy and transportation infrastructure.  These issues remain within the prerogative of EU member states, thus leaving the EaP a soft-policy framework.  Even more troubling from Baku’s perspective, the new program’s multilateral dimension has consistently remained underdeveloped and, therefore, energy security can only be discussed at the bilateral level, leaving the regional challenges unaddressed.  While the issue of the Southern Corridor, for example, could certainly be facilitated through a swift and consistent dialogue among consumer, transit and producing states—within the EaP—neither Russia nor Turkey, two fundamental partners in EU energy security, are included in the EaP, a fact that renders the EaP framework inefficient in terms of addressing these issues.  Furthermore, neither Baku nor its neighbors see any near-term prospect for establishing a comprehensive free trade area between the EU and its eastern neighbors, given the costs involved, regional conflicts, and the fact that a few of the neighbors—including Azerbaijan—are not members of the World Trade Organization (Boonstra & Shapovalova 2010). 

These shortcomings notwithstanding, the EaP has come up with a number of parallel initiatives, such as the Civil Society Forum, one meant to bring together civil society organizations (CSOs) from the EU and the Eastern neighborhood to develop a network of partnerships, which could assist these countries in reforms and could contribute to capacity-building among CSOs in the East.  The Forum has also assumed responsibility for monitoring reforms and providing feedback to the European Commission.  Despite the dynamic role of the Forum, the situation in the region remains problematic, as regards democracy and human rights.  All in all, the challenges for the EaP remain as high in the political and human dimensions as they are in the security and strategic ones. 

One way or the other, EU-Azerbaijan relations rest on a common understanding of the relevance each has in the strategic interests of the other.  Azerbaijan is proceeding along a path of economic development and political activism that could have important regional implications, both for its neighbors in the Caucasus and for the broader Eastern dimension of the EU’s regional relations.  New business opportunities are emerging throughout the region, providing an opportunity for greater integration and dialogue.  Nevertheless, the obstacles to such successful partnership are evident and go well beyond the institutional fragilities of the EaP.  The current financial crisis is making the European economy less competitive and the political and institutional reforms that need to accompany economic growth have been missing in the South Caucasus.  

A final area of contention, which the EaP fails to properly address, is represented by the protracted conflicts.  The current period of transition of the EU’s external relations toward the Lisbon Treaty institutional arrangements has already dealt the first blow to the EU’s policy toward the conflicts in the South Caucasus.  The likely extinction of the post of EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus will make the coherence of an EU action in this regard even harder to achieve, when the three EU Delegations in Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku are to coordinate their actions on the conflicts.  Moreover, the visibility of the EU will be much reduced in this respect.  The EaP does not provide for a forum in which to address the potential role of the EU as a conflict mediator, nor is there a conflict-aware approach to either bilateral or regional relations.  Confidence-building mechanisms have remained complementary ideas to the broader development of closer relations, rather than the backbone of the EU’s approach to the South Caucasus.  All the expectations of development will certainly be frustrated if war erupts again in this region.

Azerbaijan’s interest in the EaP has been tempered by the EU’s lack of effective tools and political will to advance a clearer role for itself in conflict resolution, as well as in the commitment to the Southern Corridor.  Naturally, Baku’s leadership have an interest in deepening relations with the EU, but these limitations could prove important set-backs in the fast-developing partnership with the EU and some of its individual member-states.  For the Azerbaijani civil society, on the other hand, the EaP represents, undoubtedly, an important qualitative change as compared with the previous EU engagement in democracy and human rights, representing a real opportunity for diversification of voices and views regarding Azerbaijan’s future.


Boonstra, Jos & Natalia Shapovalova (2010) “The EU's Eastern Partnership: One Year Backwards”, FRIDE, 17 May, available at: http://www.fride.org/publication/764/the-eu%27-s-eastern-partnership:-one-year-backwards (accessed 23 January 2011).

Meister, Stefan (2010) “Recalibrating Germany’s and EU’s Policy in the South Caucasus”, DGAP Analyse 2, July. 

Popescu, Nicu (2009) “The Limits of EU’s Transformative Power”, EUobserver.com, 23 July, available at: http://blogs.euobserver.com/popescu/2009/07/23/on-eus-transformative-power/ (accessed 23 January 2011). 

Popescu, Nicu & Andrew Wilson (2009) “The Limits of Enlargement-lite: European and Russian Power in the Troubled Neighborhood”, European Council on Foreign Relations, June, available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/documents/ECFR_ENP_report.pdf (accessed 23 January 2011).

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2007) “Georgia: EU's 'Transformational Power' May Help Frozen Conflicts”, Interview with Peter Semneby, RFE/RL, 2 February, available at: http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1074463.html (accessed 23 January 2011). 

Simão, Licínia and Freire, M. Raquel (2008) “The EU’s Neighborhood Policy and the South Caucasus: Unfolding new patterns of cooperation” Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 2(4): 47-61.