By Ahto Lobjakas in Brussels
The foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were in Brussels on Tuesday to hold talks with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and other officials.
After the meetings, Solana displayed unusual willingness to explore ways in which the EU could get more involved in resolving the “frozen conflicts” that badly impede the development of the South Caucasus. The discussions also touched on progress in ongoing talks on EU neighborhood “action plans” that outline the bloc's support for the three countries over the coming years.
“There are some [conflicts] which are frozen, some others which are less frozen. But in any case, we would like very much -- being the type of conflict that exists there -- to [offer] help from the European Union as much as possible,” Solana said, standing alongside the region's three foreign ministers.
Solana was particularly optimistic with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh, where he said a “solution may begin to move” as early as next year. He also praised recent “progress” between Georgia and separatist South Ossetia.
Solana did not elaborate about what shape the promised greater EU involvement might take. He stressed the fact that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) remains the main mediator in the conflicts, but said if the EU “is asked to get more involved, we will.”
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian indicated his country prefers that the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group continue mediating. He said EU offers are appreciated, but said Armenia is not looking for “direct EU involvement in conflict resolution,” but rather in the post-conflict situation. “We believe as we continue to make progress in our talks, [that the] EU’s involvement will become necessary for the post-conflict rehabilitation part of this process,” he said.
Oskanian said that if next year sees a breakthrough on Nagorno-Karabakh, EU aid will be crucial for the quick development of the areas affected by the conflict.
Solana said “important meetings” taking place in the coming days will determine the nature and extent of EU involvement.
Oskanian said Solana is referring to the current visit of the Minsk Group co-chairs to the region. They are due to meet the Armenian president on Thursday. The mediators will then proceed to Baku. According to Oskanian, they will discuss “some of the elements of the content of the talks,” and will try to agree a venue and time for the next meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Oskanian said the meeting could take place as early as January.
Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said Solana had told him the EU supports the Georgian peace plan for South Ossetia. Solana welcomed the plan's acceptance by South Ossetia, which he said was communicated to the Georgian government today. Bezhuashvili told RFE/RL that Georgia is looking into “concrete mechanisms” for involving the EU in the peace plan.
All three ministers said their countries want closer ties with the EU, but none mentioned ambitions to join the bloc. The three countries’ "action plans” outlining EU support over the next five years are being delayed by Cyprus, which objects to commercial air links between Azerbaijan and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
As a result, Tuesday’s meetings were also formally downgraded to “informal” talks from the intended Cooperation Council format.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said his country is seeking a solution to the dispute.
Oskanian stressed that despite the change of format, the content of the meetings had not suffered. He said his earlier concerns that the spat could hamper Armenia’s action plan talks were laid to rest by the European Commission, which has already dispatched teams of experts to the region to discuss the plan.
However, EU officials have told RFE/RL that Cyprus could still block final agreement. Oskanian said he hopes that will not be the case.