Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Cold Light of Day

COMMENT. What is the Council of Europe's political agenda in the South Caucasus now that all three states have been granted member status?
By Gayane Movsesian

Now that the initial euphoria has passed, observers in Armenia and Azerbaijan are beginning to suspect that Council of Europe membership may be a double-edged sword.

Acceptance into the Council last month was hailed by both former Soviet republics as a major diplomatic victory and a chance to make a political debut on the international stage.

But the Council has made it clear that it expects a great deal in return. At the official ceremony which welcomed Armenia and Azerbaijan into the council's ranks, secretary general Walter Schwimmer stressed that the members' first task was to bring the political systems of both countries in line with European criteria.

From now on, Yerevan and Baku will have to show a willingness to promote democratic values, observe human rights issues and freedom of speech. Both governments will also be expected to adopt programmes for fighting corruption and to address the problems of clan monopolies in both politics and economics.

The existing status quo makes it hard for the West to realise its geopolitical goals in the South Caucasus which are ultimately focused on economic cooperation. However, cooperation is manifestly impossible as long as unresolved military conflicts hang over the region.

It is no coincidence that the Council of Europe has devoted such considerable efforts to bringing the South Caucasian states into the fold. Very different standards have been applied to their membership bids and, in almost all spheres, the former Soviet republics fail to conform to the required criteria. Even the Council's own experts agree, for example, that Armenia is far ahead of Azerbaijan in terms of democratic development.

Alexander Grigorian, an expert on the Caucasus region for the Novoe Vremya newspaper in Yerevan, commented, "If the South Caucasus did not boast oil reserves in the Caspian Sea and did not have Iran as a neighbour, it is hardly likely that Europe would be so eager to extend its borders out to the Apsheronsky peninsula."

Grigorian believes that the acceptance of the three Caucasian states reflects the West's desire to "use the South Caucasus as a buffer zone between Russia and Iran as well as a geopolitical corridor between the West and Central Asia".

However, the Council of Europe clearly has little intention of becoming what Armenian president Robert Kocharian called "a gladiators' arena" for the Nagorny Karabakh dispute. The issue will remain the remit of the OSCE's Minsk Group and will be monitored through the organisation's representative offices in Yerevan and Baku.

But at the same time Baku is devoting considerable efforts to ensuring that the Council of Europe is transformed into a bullring where the council members will play the role of toreadors to Armenia's bull.

There can be no doubt that Baku will stubbornly resist any attempts by the international community to encourage mutual cooperation with Armenia as long as the Nagorny Karabakh conflict remains unresolved. Azerbaijan lost around 20 per cent of its territory during the six-year war and is committed to recovering these losses.

Meanwhile, policy makers in Strasbourg are inclined to look at the Nagorny Karabakh dispute in the context of the need for democratic change in the region as a whole.

Russell Johnston, the chairman of PACE, told IWPR that the parliamentary assembly would continue to work with both sides in a bid to find a peaceful solution.

He said, "Until March 1999 when I met with the speakers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, there had been no contact whatsoever between the two sides. After the March visit, several bilateral meetings were held and continue to be held.

"I intend to meet with the speakers of the Armenian and Azeri parliaments in the near future. We don't believe that we can solve the Nagorny Karabakh conflict through these meetings alone but we hope that the contacts will help to create an atmosphere of mutual trust so that a solution can eventually be found under the aegis of the OSCE's Minsk Group."

He added, "Nevertheless, I have no illusions on this score and I realise there is no easy way to solve the conflict."

Johnston is adamant that the Council of Europe will impose severe sanctions - including exclusion - on Armenia or Azerbaijan should either choose to ignore their new obligations.

"I believe that this is very possible, especially if one of the two countries decides to attack the other," said Johnston.

And, as long as Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh continue to assimilate democratic values far quicker than the totalitarian Azerbajian, Baku will find it hard to convince the international community that Nagorny Karabakh should come under its jurisdiction.

Consequently, there are few people in Azerbaijan who believe that the breakaway enclave will ever be returned by peaceful means and the vast majority are increasingly convinced that armed conflict is the only real means of restoring their territorial integrity.

Gayane Movsesian is a political observer based in Yerevan

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