By Hrach Melkumian in Prague, Ahto Lobjakas in Brussels and Artur Terian in Moscow
The European Parliament refused on Monday to back its chief South Caucasus rapporteur’s calls for the return of Armenian-controlled territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for the lifting of Azerbaijan’s economic blockade of Armenia.
The calls were contained in a draft report on the European Union’s policy on the region drafted by Swedish lawmaker Per Gahrton. Gahrton said that the Armenian side has carried out an "ethnic cleansing" operation around Nagorno-Karabakh, displacing about one million Azerbaijanis. He suggested that Armenian forces withdraw from five of the seven districts in Azerbaijan proper occupied during the 1991-94 war in return for the restoration of the Baku-Yerevan railway link.
The wording, strongly opposed by Armenia, was removed from the final version of the report adopted by the European Parliament at the insistence of its Christian Democrat and Social Democrat factions. The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan was quick to welcome the move.
“The EU has once again refused to take a one-sided decision on Nagorno-Karabakh and create additional complications in the [conflict resolution] process,” a ministry statement said.
The last-minute change followed weeks of heavy lobbying by the European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy, an increasingly influential Brussels-based group. The Federation chairwoman, Hilda Tchoboyan, said 11 of its 13 amendments were accepted by the EU lawmakers.
“We consider this a success,” Tchoboyan told RFE/RL. “The original version of this report was quite pro-Azeri. We have managed to rectify that and get a much more balanced report.”
The report also reaffirms the European Union’s 1987 recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and urges Ankara to normalize relations with Yerevan without any preconditions. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul indicated on Thursday that his government continues to link that to a resolution of the Karabakh conflict that would uphold Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
“Resolute steps by Armenia in the settlement of the Karabakh conflict would create conditions for the establishment of diplomatic relations with Armenia,” Gul told reporters during a visit to Moscow. He said Turkey is ready to “make joint efforts” with Russia to break the deadlock in the long-running dispute.
The overall focus of the European Parliament resolution is the EU’s relations with all three South Caucasus states. It welcomes on the EU member states’ apparent intention to include Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the bloc's "Wider Europe" program for closer economic and political integration.
The report asks the EU to contribute more aid, take steps to establish free trade, better coordinate its involvement in the region, and extend the powers of its special representative to the South Caucasus. It also says the EU must bring pressure to bear on Russia and Turkey to help resolve conflicts involving the three countries.
When it comes to foreign policy, however, the European Parliament can only act in an advisory capacity. This was evident in the address to the European Parliament by Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external relations. Reflecting widespread skepticism among EU member states -- with which most decision-making powers in foreign policy rest -- Patten put the onus on Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to first pursue reforms themselves.
"The European Union is closely monitoring developments in all three countries, to see whether there is continued progress towards democracy and continued progress in the economic sphere,” he said. “We want to see a credible and a sustained commitment to reform, clearly reflected in concrete steps forward -- for example, in fighting corruption."
Although the European Parliament would like to see greater EU involvement in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus, this appears to be a long way off. Patten indicated the bloc is not prepared to play an active mediating role.
Gahrton describes the situation in the South Caucasus in an accompanying explanatory note as resembling a "powder keg." He lists internal divisions, a "democratic deficit," poverty and corruption, as well as the so-called "frozen conflicts," to support the point. But he goes on to note that the EU "does not appear to view either its security interests in relation to the South Caucasus, or the benefits of deeper economic relations, as important enough to motivate its greater commitment."
The Parliament's report repeats earlier calls by deputies to sponsor a comprehensive "stability pact" for the South Caucasus. But Patten said the idea is premature: “I have to say when the issue was first raised a couple of years ago, there didn't seem to be all that much support for the idea. I'm not yet wholly convinced that the time is ripe yet to return to it.”
Of the three countries, Azerbaijan comes in for the sharpest criticism, with the report expressing concerns over the human rights situation and curbs on media freedom in the country.