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WILL THE EU SHAKE OFF ITS LETHARGY OVER THE PROTRACTED CONFLICTS IN THE BLACK SEA REGION?

Romania’s minister of foreign affairs, Bogdan Aurescu, is spearheading an initiative within the European Union to involve the EU in the management and eventual resolution of the protracted conflicts in the wider Black Sea region. Ten other EU member states (Portugal, Sweden and eight Central-Eastern European countries) co-sponsored Romania’s initiative. The objects of this initiative are defined as the conflicts ongoing in Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Azerbaijan (Karabakh) and Ukraine (Donbas). Nowhere is Russia’s involvement mentioned explicitly in the.

(Part One)

 

Vladimir Socor

The Jamestown Foundation

July 29, 20211

 

Romania’s minister of foreign affairs, Bogdan Aurescu, is spearheading

an initiative within the European Union to involve the EU in the

management and eventual resolution of the protracted conflicts in the

wider Black Sea region. Ten other EU member states (Portugal, Sweden and

eight Central-Eastern European countries) co-sponsored Romania’s

initiative. The objects of this initiative are defined as the conflicts

ongoing in Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia),

Azerbaijan (Karabakh) and Ukraine (Donbas).

 

Nowhere is Russia’s involvement mentioned explicitly in the public

documents emanating from Romania’s diplomatic initiative. The omission

is not an oversight of Russia’s destructive role in these conflicts

(with a partial exception in Karabakh, where Western default makes

Russia’s current role look partially constructive). Omitting

Russia’s involvement in all these conflicts is a necessary tactical

move, aiming to defuse possible obstructions from those EU member states

that prioritize their own relations with Russia over the EU’s taking

up its responsibilities in its eastern neighborhood. Moreover, some

states that prioritize Russia also prioritize the EU’s southern

neighborhood over its eastern neighborhood in terms of political

attention and resource allocation.

 

The initiative of Romania and the ten like-minded states must,

therefore, aim (as is often the case in the EU) for consensus on the

lowest common denominator among the EU’s 27 member states. For the

same reasons, the Romania+10 initiative must and does proceed in slow,

incremental steps, looking almost like tinkering with the problem at its

margins, rather than proposing a breakthrough. Such a cautious approach

is inevitable in the EU’s existing configuration and must not become a

source of cynicism or resignation on the part of those who may well

expect more and faster.

 

The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (foreign ministers, chaired by the

EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy) has twice

discussed this initiative at its meetings. According to Aurescu, the

mere fact that the EU has taken up this topic at the foreign

ministers’ level constitutes progress (Mae.ro, May 27, July 12).

Indeed, the EU has never developed a policy regarding the protracted

(“frozen”) conflicts in the Black Sea region for three decades.

 

That failure is hardly attributable to a lack of EU “instruments”

(in the EU’s acceptance of what would constitute instruments). The EU

possesses a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP, under the high

representative) since the 1990s; a European Neighborhood Policy (ENP,

with the corresponding EU commissioner) including an eastern and a

southern dimension, in force since 2004; an Eastern Partnership (EaP) to

strengthen the ENP’s Eastern dimension since 2009; an acquis of

aspirational documents that could, in principle, authorize EU actions;

and, since 2014 (at which point the conflicts had been ongoing for more

than two decades), the EU resorts to the instrument of economic

sanctions against Russia in response to its land grabs in Ukraine (but

not in Georgia or Moldova).

 

Yet for all its instruments and the potential resources to enable their

use, the EU has not been able to play a role in managing the protracted

conflicts in the wider Black Sea region, nor in outlining the terms of

their eventual resolution.

 

Among the manifold reasons behind this state of affairs, three factors

stand out. First is Russia’s seemingly unchallengeable faits

accomplis in the conflict theaters since the 1990s, long before the EU

began manifesting its own interests in its eastern neighborhood. Second

are the divergent priorities among the EU’s member states, as the most

influential states proved reluctant to jeopardize their own relations

with Russia on account of the conflicts in the wider Black Sea region.

This deference amounted to an oblique acknowledgment of Russia’s

participation in those conflicts, even as those same states (and the EU

collectively) stopped short of acknowledging that fact. A third factor

that inhibited the EU from taking up its responsibilities is the

unilateral action of Germany and France, which arrogated those

responsibilities to themselves, occupying seats that ought to have

belonged to the EU in the negotiation formats. All this helps explain

the EU’s marginalization in, or even exclusion from, the negotiation

formats and other conflict-management processes in the wider Black Sea

region.

 

The EU’s one salient achievement is the European Union Monitoring

Mission (EUMM, since 2008), a civilian patrol operation along the

demarcation line (“administrative boundary line”) between

Georgia’s Russian-controlled territory of South Ossetia and the rest

of Georgia. The EUMM (although civilian) amounts, in fact, to a tripwire

against possible Russian military incursions across the demarcation line

into Georgia’s interior; this de facto role alone makes this mission

indispensable. However, Russia blocks the EUMM from carrying out its

mandate in full, namely to also patrol the Russian-controlled side of

the demarcation line. Moreover, the EUMM has not been able to prevent

the “borderization” process, whereby Russian troops move the

demarcation line bit by bit into Georgian-controlled territory (see EDM,

October 2, 2013 [2], October 6, 2017 [3], March 6, 2018 [4]).

 

In the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, France (alongside Russia and the

United States) is one of three co-chairs of the Organization for

Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, tasked since

the mid-1990s to mediate a resolution to Baku and Yerevan’s conflict

over Karabakh. France has all along been acting in its national name,

refusing to turn its co-chair’s seat to the European Union. France’s

overt partiality for the Armenian side under President Emanuel Macron

has contributed to the discreditation of the Minsk Group and the

co-chairmanship institution, which has become defunct after the 44-day

Second Karabakh War in 2020 (see EDM, November 25, 2020 [5], December 1,

2020 [6], December 3, 2020 [7]).

 

In Moldova, the EU is merely an observer (as is the United States) in

the 5+2 format of negotiations on the Transnistria conflict since 2005.

Ironically, Ukraine is a full member alongside Russia and the OSCE, as

arranged by Moscow in 1997. The observers in this format cannot take

initiatives but only express their views about the initiatives of the

full members and “the parties to the conflict” (Chisinau and

Tiraspol). The Russian side has successfully blocked the EU and the

United States from becoming full members of the 5+2 negotiation process.

 

In Ukraine, meanwhile, Germany has used its disproportionate influence

in the EU to keep the latter out of the negotiations in the Normandy

format dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas since

2014. Instead, Germany has handled the Normandy process to some extent

as a bilateral Russian-German process. French participation in the

Normandy process has lent only a semblance of European veneer to

Germany’s own role. President Emmanuel Macron has attempted to raise

France’s own profile after 2018, but his moves have only highlighted

the EU’s absence from the negotiations. The EU remains important,

however, in terms of approving the semi-annual rollover of the EU’s

economic sanctions on Russia.