Seminar highlights grounds for cautious optimism in the South Caucasus, stresses lessons to learn from past year of crises

29 June 2021

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Lawmakers of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) took stock on Monday of the significant developments which the South Caucasus region has experienced in the past year, including the fallout of the Azerbaijani-Armenian war and the political crisis in Georgia. Policymakers were urged to build on the truce between Yerevan and Baku and to give a new momentum to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

Congressman Gerald E. Connolly (United States), President of the NATO PA, stressed the importance of bolstering the democratic values dimension in NATO’s engagement with partner countries, including in the South Caucasus. “These values must be a key driver in our partnerships – an agenda which our Assembly is particularly well placed to support and promote,” the President said.

President Connolly also reaffirmed the Assembly’s unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic path, adding that “to advance on the path to NATO membership, Georgia must continue to work to consolidate democracy and the rule of law and to reduce political polarisation.”

The online seminar, part of the NATO PA’s Rose-Roth programme, brought together some 118 participants including 41 parliamentarians from 20 NATO member and partner countries as well as a number of experts, diplomats and civil society representatives. 

Representing NATO, Rosaria Puglisi, Head of the NATO Liaison Office (NLO) for the South Caucasus/NLO Georgia, stressed that NATO’s approach to the region is demand-driven and tailor-made. “While with Georgia we are on a solid path that will eventually lead to membership, as firmly asserted at every NATO Summit since Bucharest in 2008, we have also received indications that Armenia and Azerbaijan remain interested in working with NATO,” said Ms Puglisi, who also moderated the panel of experts.

The keynote speaker Thomas De Waal, Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe, compared the 2020 war to an ‘earthquake’ that should prompt more strategic thinking in the West about how to shape the future of the region. He stressed that there is a major security vacuum in the South Caucasus which the OSCE and Russia would not address and which NATO cannot address. He suggested that opportunities existed to strengthen regional economic cooperation. “Hopefully an economic agenda can help build a peace in this region,” Mr De Waal said. 

Tengiz Pkhaladze, Senior Fellow at the European Centre for International Political Economy, discussed Georgia’s perspective on regional security and political challenges which are primarily caused by Russia’s unwillingness to accept the European and democratic choices of its neighbours. He argued that NATO enlargement is a pathway to stabilising the region. He emphasised that while Georgian democracy is young and not without problems, Georgian society is united in their support for membership in NATO and the EU and determined to continue necessary reforms. Mr Pkhaladze also called for a more coherent international strategy to address cases of violation of sovereignty. According to the speaker, “we have so many ceasefire agreements, but no peace treaties; we have mechanisms to freeze conflicts but not resolve them”.

Taline Papazian, Lecturer at the University of Aix-Marseille and director of the Armenia Peace Initiative, agreed with Thomas de Waal that the key to stability is the transformation of the South Caucasus from a geographic to a political concept through enhanced regional cooperation and facilitation of people-to-people contacts. She warned that after the 2020 war, the South Caucasus is now at higher risk of becoming an arena of great power competition. “The absence of war is not peace,” Ms Papazian pointed out.

Kavus Abushov, Associate Professor at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, presented a more optimistic assessment of the prospects for stabilising the region. He argued that the military phase of the confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan is over and a new war seems very unlikely. He was hopeful that further steps towards the normalisation of relations between the two countries would follow, potentially leading to a comprehensive peace agreement. He emphasised the central role of diplomacy and lamented that it was underutilised prior to the 2020 war. “This war was a particular tragedy because its end result might have been achieved without any sacrifices of human life,” Mr Abushov said.

The Assembly’s flagship Rose-Roth programme, initiated back in 1991 by US Congressman Charlie Rose and Senator Bill Roth, is a unique platform bringing together lawmakers from NATO and partner countries, experts, government officials and civil society representatives to promote dialogue, support the development of democratic parliamentary oversight, enhance parliamentary awareness and share experience and expertise. The programme is also supported by the Swiss government. Ambassador Philippe Brandt, Head of the Swiss Mission to NATO, addressed the participants of the webinar, highlighting the importance of the parliamentary oversight of the security sector.

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