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By Ahto Lobjakas in Brussels
With increasing confidence, European Union officials are singling out Georgia as deserving star treatment among the three South Caucasus countries.

It was Georgia's "Rose Revolution" that forced the EU to reverse its decision to exclude the region from its "New Neighborhood Program." The decision to include the South Caucasus was formally confirmed on Monday by EU foreign ministers. The move does not open the door to EU membership - officials studiously avoid speculation, saying simply membership is "not on the agenda." However, the new neighborhood initiative could over the next decades lead to free trade, substantial aid grants and extensive political dialogue with the EU.

The EU's special representative for the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, a Finnish diplomat, speaking in Brussels on Tuesday praised Georgia's pioneering role. “Basically, when I started [last July] we had on the agenda [the question] 'How to develop these relations [with the South Caucasus]?',” Talvitie said. “And then suddenly the 'Rose Revolution' happened in Georgia and this accelerated things a lot.

“Georgia became [a] focus [for] international politics; Georgia got the priority on the agenda of many countries - including the United States, Russia, Turkey, the European Union, among others, and our member states. This meant that there was a sort of a push to our relations with the South Caucasus.”

What is seen as president Mikheil Saakashvili's genuine desire for reform has propelled Georgia far ahead of its two neighbors in terms of EU attention. EU foreign ministers on Monday decided to launch a "rule of law" mission in Georgia to help the country improve its criminal justice system. Not only will it be the first EU mission of its kind, it also marks the first application of
the bloc's defense and security policy outside of the Balkans or Africa.

On Wednesday a World Bank-sponsored donors' conference for Georgia will take place in Brussels. The United States and Russia sit side by side with EU member states and the European Commission. Officials say the pledges are expected to total almost 500 million euros from 2004 to 2006. Speaking privately, EU officials say the bloc has no choice but to focus on Georgia. Saakashvili's anti-corruption drive is seen as particularly impressive.

The recent peaceful defusing of the stand-off with Ajar strongman Aslan Abashidze is another credit to Saakashvili's name. The EU, however, remains concerned over the possibility of conflict in another troubled Georgian region, South Ossetia. Another challenge Saakashvili is said to face is that of allowing a credible opposition to appear.

Armenia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, are in the back seat. Their main problem is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. One EU official tells RFE/RL that although the EU wants to help both countries, "we cannot do much with two armies facing each other." Sources also make clear that the bloc seeks no formal mediating role in the foreseeable future.

Talvitie said democratic reforms in both countries have also been slow. "Azerbaijan and Armenia naturally had been [in] focus earlier [with their] elections. And that has been a little bit negative development because we had expected quite a lot, especially in Armenia, concerning the elections, [as regards] the democratic process, fair and free elections,” he said.

“It was a little bit of a disappointment that the Armenians could not fulfill the expectations,” the diplomat added. “In Azerbaijan, the situation was the same, but basically we are now over this period and we are working with both Azerbaijan and Armenia on their constitutions and how to develop further respect for human rights, [the] rule of law and democratic process.”

Overall, EU officials say Armenia is in the least favorable situation of the three countries, having to rely heavily on its diaspora in Russia and elsewhere in the absence of significant natural resources. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has massive oil reserves, which will also benefit Georgia by means of a new pipeline to the Black Sea, which will be put into operation next year.

(Photolur photo: Heikki Talvitie.)
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