Germany’s Ballasting Mission to the South Caucasus
Germany this week took its turn to appease and assure the South Caucasus about the European Union’s integration intentions by sending its top diplomat to the topsy-turvy region. Given Germany’s standing within the European Union and its structures, Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to the region not just as German foreign minister, but also as a key decision-maker for EU-South Caucasus ties.
As is par for the course with high-profile Western visitors to the region, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit was a triple-header. He zigzagged from Yerevan to Baku, and from Baku to Tbilisi on June 29, 30 and July 1, respectively. As also is usually the case with visiting Western diplomats, Steinmeier urged restraint on warring Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and patience on Euro-Atlantic-community hopeful Georgia.
On both of these counts, Germany holds a special role. Germany’s imprimatur is seen as decisive for granting Georgians much-desired visa-free access to the EU. Germany now holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent’s top security and democracy-assurance body involved in negotiations and the monitoring of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Steinmeier urged a greater role for the OSCE in the conflict-resolution effort, which Russia has pretty much dominated in the wake of April’s Four Day War, the deadliest flare-up of Armenian-Azerbaijani hostilities since the 1994 ceasefire.
“Following the April developments, we don’t need any more compromises or proposals;” rather, a constructive solution, Steinmeier was quoted by Azerbaijan’s APA newswire as saying. The status quo in Karabakh is not sustainable, he added -- a message Baku has been making for years in its bid to regain control of Armenian-occupied areas adjacent to Karabakh.
Steinmeier’s Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov, said that the sides are working on yet another new plan for peace, but did not dwell on the details.
What’s known is that part of the plan is to let the OSCE investigate ceasefire violations. Steinmeier pushed for a greater OSCE role in both Yerevan and Baku. The German diplomat also went out on a limb and met the de-facto leader of breakaway, ethnic Armenian-dominated Karabakh, Bako Sahakian.
Steinmeier’s job was arguably easier in Yerevan, which is grateful for the German parliament's recent recognition of the Ottoman Empire’s World-War-I-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide. Unlike Baku, Yerevan also has little reason to oppose the proposed expansion of OSCE monitoring and less incentive to change the status quo in Karabakh.
In Tbilisi, less controversy awaited. Steinmeier provided the tentative time -- late September -- for cancelling Georgia’s EU visa requirements; a move meant to take ties between the EU and Georgia to a whole new level.
Fearing a fresh onslaught of immigrants and immigrant crime, Berlin reportedly earlier had taken the lead to postpone visa-liberalization for Georgia and other countries. Steinmeier reiterated that Georgia will get its visa- free access once the EU puts in place a mechanism to suspend visa- liberalization in case of an immigrant crisis.
The timer has been set in Georgia, where a whole slew of pro-West and pro-Europe forces, as well as mushrooming new parties with obscure foreign- policy positions, will be contending in October’s parliamentary election. Visa-liberalization is meant to solidify pro-Western politicians’ position and is part of the current ruling coalition’s platform.
Steinmeier’s July 1 visit was timed to coincide with the day when Georgia’s landmark Association Agreement with the EU formally came into effect and with the start of an OSCE Parliamentary Assembly session in Georgia.
On another key goal for tying Georgia conclusively to the West, North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership, Steinmeier had little news to break. He said that Germany supports Georgia’s “long-term” commitment to join the Alliance.