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Poland's Push for Influence in the Caucasus

A Eurasianet partner post from Stratfor

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski began a six-day tour of the South Caucasus on July 25 that will take him to Azerbaijan from July 25 to 26, Georgia from July 26 to 27 and Armenia from July 27 to 29. The tour is meant to advance the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EP) program, which aims to boost the bloc’s cooperation with six former Soviet states (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) on the European Union’s eastern periphery.

Poland faces many challenges in wooing the southern Caucasus countries and Komorowski’s visit to the region will do little in pulling these countries closer to the European Union. The more tangible effect of the trip may be its domestic political significance ahead of general elections in October, demonstrating to the Polish public that the government is not soft on Russia . However, Warsaw hopes the trip will advance its own interests and serve as a small and symbolic step to weaken Russia’s grip over these countries.

Poland currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency and has put strengthening the EP — which to this point has been limited in terms of scope and resources — at the top of its agenda. In line with this mission, Warsaw has focused on courting the three eastern European countries in the EP program that are on Poland’s periphery, especially Belarus and Ukraine (both countries where Poland has historic cultural influence). In Belarus, Poland has supported political opposition groups , and in Ukraine, Warsaw has played a leading role in trying to broker an association agreement and free trade agreement between the EU and Kiev . These moves and others by Poland are intended to counter the Russian resurgence and Moscow’s growing influence in these countries.

The three Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia have also been subject to Russia’s resurgence, but until this point have not received as much attention from Poland as part of the EP effort compared to the eastern European countries. This is something which Warsaw hopes to address via Komorowski’s weeklong tour. However, the South Caucasus is in many ways a more difficult place for Poland to establish a significant foothold, and while each country has something it can offer the West through closer relations, each also has its share of obstacles.

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan represents the pivot of the South Caucasus and is therefore the key country in the region for the West. Azerbaijan’s importance comes from both its location — it borders Russia and Iran in strategic areas — as well as its significant energy wealth. The latter has caused Azerbaijan to be heavily courted by the West to participate in energy projects like the Nabucco pipeline as a means of diversification from Russia’s energy grip. For this reason, Moscow has worked to block such projects, which face significant financial and technological constraints in their own right, by exploiting the lack of political consensus between European countries involved in the projects. While talks have been ongoing for years on Nabucco and other energy projects, no actual movement has been made to enact the plans. Poland has recently demonstrated an interest in reviving these talks, brokering a deal for the European Commission to begin negotiations with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan (another potential supplier of Nabucco) on the energy project in September and, though this does not resolve the numerous challenges facing Nabucco, it does restart the discussion, which is itself important.

For Azerbaijan, Poland’s growing role in the EP also represents a unique opportunity. Azerbaijan is looking to diversify its military ties away from its traditional links to Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. It is in the process of attempting to build up its military, but the former Soviet military suppliers have capped what sort of equipment they are willing to supply. Baku is also interested in becoming more compliant to NATO standards. But in order to do this, Baku has to find a supplier willing to go against Russia’s wishes to supply weapons to the country. According to STRATFOR sources, Azerbaijan has been in discussions with Israel but is also looking for a NATO member to fill this role. Though Poland has not publicly stated any interest in this, it is the country that has been bold enough to stand up to Moscow in other areas, so they could potentially be the one Baku looks to in this matter.

Georgia

Georgia is the most pro-Western country in the Caucasus and hopes to eventually join Western institutions like the European Union and NATO. However, because of these commitments, it has been put squarely in the sights of Russia, as demonstrated by the August 2008 war . Georgia has been under a de facto arms embargo from the West and its traditional suppliers of Ukraine and Kazakhstan since the war and has felt ignored by its Western allies, particularly the United States. According to STRATFOR sources in Moscow, there have been rumors that the West — particularly the United States — wants to resume arms exports to Georgia, but Washington knows it would be too bold of a move against Moscow. Like the situation in Azerbaijan, there have been backchannel discussions that a third party could be such a supplier, such as Israel or Poland. Poland would likely be very careful in its consideration of such a move given the response from Russia, but Warsaw does want to show its support of Georgia in the security sphere in some way. Komorowski’s visit is therefore intended to show Georgia it has not lost its EU allies, and Poland’s regional presence and relationship with the United States could be a factor in making sure Tbilisi is on the European Union’s agenda.

Armenia

Armenia is the most difficult state for Poland and the West to woo, as it is essentially a Russian client state . Armenia hosts a Russian military base and Moscow owns much of Armenia’s energy and economic infrastructure. Therefore any cooperation between European Union and Armenia will be largely superficial, but economic deals could be a lever for Poland and the European Union to build a presence in the country over the long term.

Poland has a number of interests in increasing cooperation with the three Caucasus countries but also many significant challenges. Still, the EP is meant as an avenue for the European Union to build soft power and long-term influence in eastern states, and this is something Poland has seized as an avenue through which to advance its own interests, a goal which will face no shortage of opposition from Moscow.('yg604072',%20'http:>('wp678f9v',%20'http:>

A Eurasianet partner post from Stratfor

Poland's Push for Influence in the Caucasus

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