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FPC Briefing – Assessing successes and shortcomings in the EU’s approach to conflict resolution in the Eastern Partnership region

Article by Craig Oliphant

May 21, 2018

FPC Briefing – Assessing successes and shortcomings in the EU’s approach to conflict resolution in the Eastern Partnership region

The next Geneva International Discussions (GID) meeting focused on conflict in Georgia is due to take place on 19-20th June 2018, the 44th round in a process running since 2008 and co-chaired by the EU, OSCE, and UN. Nearly 10 years on from the five-day Georgia-Russia war in summer 2008 it might be a timely moment to take stock of the EU’s approach towards unresolved conflicts in Georgia and in the other Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries similarly affected.

From a British perspective too, and in the current context of Brexit, a consideration of these particular issues should be accompanied with a degree of concern at what a possible departure from collective efforts in this sphere might mean. Unresolved conflicts in Europe’s east beset 5 out of 6 EU neighbourhood partner countries (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine, with Belarus as the notable exception). Most of these conflicts go back to eruptions over 25 years ago, as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Nagorny Karabakh, and Transnistria. The situation in Donbas in eastern Ukraine, for its part, has now rumbled on for over 4 years – a period which, particularly since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, has marked a paradigm shift in European capitals’ relations with Moscow.

As in all conflicts, there are different levels at which these standoffs play out – the local, the inter-state, and the geopolitical level. Today, geopolitics is squeezing everything, and strategic challenges trump local concerns, reducing the space for dialogue and other initiatives at the local level. That said, the geopolitical dimension of challenges does not fully, and cannot be allowed to, derail efforts for what can be done locally. The local is strategic – and what happens at the lower level can at times have strategic significance.

Stability and security in the neighbourhood region are crucial and depend on a number of factors which, self-evidently, go beyond the protracted conflicts themselves.  They are not least about what kind of Russia, what kind of Europe we are looking for. In the countries where unresolved conflicts persist there is a need, by the same token, for the international community to stay the course and guard against tendencies in western capitals towards ‘Ukraine fatigue’ or ‘Georgia fatigue’.

In terms of the EU’s approach, and in a situation where the challenges have grown, and the long-haul nature of the standoffs underscored,  there needs to be a realistic and sober assessment of what can (and cannot) be achieved in conflict resolution terms.  Indeed, it is probably more appropriate to speak of ‘conflict management’.  For years, in fairness, many EU diplomats and NGO practitioners have been focused and careful on managing expectations, while trying to work within the ‘art of the possible’.  Most on the policy and practitioner side, reflecting also what is known in and on the region, would say there is unlikely to be any clear resolution, and certainly not any time soon.  The modus operandi has been shaped by working within the confines and constraints of trying to ‘nudge’ things – and in a context where local partners are routinely being squeezed and pressured.  The civil society sector (CSO), on the one hand, is a key motor for engagement – but that is also in conditions wherein a number of countries  CSO representatives can be extremely vulnerable and subject to harassment.

Faced with these problems, the EU is hampered by a persistent reality: It is not the sum of its parts.   And that applies in particular to its approach towards conflict management & resolution in the neighbourhood, which could well explore more scope for ‘synergies’ of different mechanisms, opportunities (where these occur) for leverage and conditionality, and including through effective multilateralism.

Any assessment of ‘successes’ and ‘shortcomings’ on EU policies in this sphere needs to factor in that the pros and cons are heavily qualified, and involve many grey areas,  which are covered briefly below.

Conflict dynamics

Firstly, a word or two about conflict dynamics.  Differentiation here is important. Each conflict is unique. The lapse of years has tended to widen that differentiation – and each conflict is ‘stuck in its own way’, and at different levels.  A truism that pertains is that the ‘status quo’ is not static but is evolving all the time. It is not helped either by the fact that one side or the other tries to focus only on one level and play down (‘airbrush’ out) other layers of the standoff. There are palpably different narratives across the divides about what has happened in the region. And none of that should at all mask some of the generic features of these situations (‘all conflicts are conflicts’) and there are lessons to learn and share from different contexts and different layers.

It is worth reminding ourselves, in more detail, of timescales across a calibrated spectrum of developments. 2008 was a watershed year, on Georgia; and 2013/2014 a big wake-up call for EU on Ukraine. And there are many lessons – good and bad – to draw out from that on EU policy and practice. It is probably true to speak of a partial success for EU in a crisis management role in 2008 – and there has been notably no further major eruption on the ground since then. Elsewhere in the South Caucasus, on Nagorno Karabakh, it has been a different story, as seen in April 2016 with, what became known as the ‘4-day war’.

The Non-Recognition but Engagement policy (NREP) was adopted in Brussels as long ago as December 2009, which itself was 15-16 years on from the ‘hot phase’ of the conflicts, in Georgia/Abkhazia, Georgia/South Ossetia, and elsewhere in the eastern neighbourhood).  And 2019, in its own way, will mark a decade since NREP was introduced, and over a quarter of century since the initial ceasefires from the early 1990s. That reflection on timescales prompts a question: Is it valid still to say that time is of the essence – or is time no longer on the side of those trying to work for resolution? During that period, and over the past 10 years in particular, the drift and absorption of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the Russian Federation has been happening incrementally, and not least through securitisation, and ‘borderisation’ – the installation of barbed-wire and other impediments to mark off boundary lines of separation.


Non-Recognition but Engagement consists of 2 parts – ‘non-recognition’ and ‘engagement’ – which are mutually re-inforceable and inseparable.  The two key pillars of, firstly, a firm commitment to Georgian territorial integrity and non-Recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence; and secondly to the need to engage with the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. NREP itself begs a question:  ‘Engage, yes, but engage with whom?’ There are no easy answers in disparate situations, and with context-specific approaches. In the Georgian/Abkhaz context, the engagement the EU is talking about in the region has different strands: There is the engagement the EU has directly with the Abkhaz – civil society AND the authorities; (and there is the task of convincing the Georgians that that is in their interests too). There is also the engagement the EU tries to facilitate between the Georgians and Abkhaz; (and the EU needs to convince the Abkhaz that that is in their interests).    And overall the EU needs to reassure the Georgians that the more engagement there is does not erode the principle of non-recognition. A valid further question, though, comes to the fore: Should there be more scope for direct and structured dialogue with Sukhumi?

The EU has shown through its track-record of involvement it can engage but not recognise.  Indeed, it gets full marks for non-recognition; but ‘barely satisfactory’ – or certainly on the low side – for engagement. The main constraint has been the ‘red lines’ set out in the metropolitan capitals in the region, and notably in Baku and Tbilisi. In the latter case, and over 8 years on from the inception of NREP, and given the empirical evidence on the EU’s approach, there is still an argument to be won:   To what extent, can the Georgian government be persuaded to cut some slack and allow for flexibility and creative approaches?  Do they understand that NREP – and status-neutral options – are not slippery slopes towards ‘creeping recognition’ or designed to sell Georgia down the river. It is crucially an issue of trust. If engagement is to be allowed to happen and take root it does not need to be smothered by non-recognition at every turn. The Georgian stance is, of course,  shared by other governments embroiled in separatist disputes e.g. Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine that international engagement in Abkhazia could lead to ‘creeping recognition’ or ‘de facto sovereignty’ in which a territory builds up a kind of state capacity that somehow makes it eligible for de jure recognition].

Freedom of movement & travel are important, and particularly for young people, for study opportunities abroad. Flexible and pragmatic approaches are required, to help on de-isolation, and indeed a more concerted policy from EU member states, around mobility for people from the unrecognised entities. And there needs to be some fresh thinking on information policy to promote EU messages to local people, and in the quest to help shift attitudes and mind-set.

Track I engagement

On Georgia, the EU has been an important player, as mentioned, at the level of the Geneva International Discussions (GID). Together with the other two co-chairs (OSCE and UN) the EU has done a virtuous job since autumn 2008, and in a process that will mark its tenth anniversary later this year. The regional nature of the format, however, leaves the various sides in their ‘comfort zone.’ Furthermore, it is difficult to see how any breakthrough can be achieved under current arrangements. As already alluded, the GID process is a conflict management (crisis management) mechanism rather than a conflict resolution one. There are limitations on what the EU can do, but the humanitarian working group has managed to address some issues pragmatically. And the two IPRM formats (Incident Prevention and Reduction Mechanism), meeting in Ergneti and Gali respectively since Feb 2009 (the latter underwent an enforced 4-year hiatus, until 2016), have each been useful for facilitated, and ostensibly ‘status-neutral’, interaction across the divides on local, practical issues (e.g. detention, kidnapping, missing persons, ecology, irrigation).

On Nagorny Karabakh, the EU is involved mainly at the civil society level.  The EU has funded the European Partnership on NK (I, II & III) – and with a mixed track-record.  What more could the EU do on NK, when it does not participate in the Track I process, unless one includes the role of France as a co-chair, and ‘wearing an EU hat? Recent political changes in Yerevan have underlined once again the fluidity of developments in the region. For its part, Nagorny Karabakh – alongside the situation in Ukraine- is the most dangerous of the conflicts in the ENP region. If scope emerges for the EU to play a more active part, one way might be to not get too hung up around format. The key issue, as ever, is one of political will- and also the role and stance of regional players.

So how do things stand on relative successes and shortcomings on EU policy in this area – or is it more appropriate to talk of ‘grey areas’?

‘Qualified Pluses’

In general, the EU ‘brand’ remains a genuine long-term pole of attraction for people in the neighbourhood (although with different perceptions in the breakaway areas).  Most want to integrate with the EU in some form or other, however imperfectly, or at least have access to what it offers and stands for. Integration with the EU has proceeded patchily at best, but has still been a powerful impetus for internal governance reform, rule of law, and the mobilisation of civil societies.  But, overall, something of a mixed success.

On Moldova and Transnistria, there has been some modest success. The EU is to be commended for seeing a window of opportunity and doing the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) deal.  And the OSCE got it right by plugging away at a few achievable things, which have now created a much better climate. This is a rare but decent example, in current circumstances, of some effective multilateralism at work. It is worth noting that there is a big difference on DCFTA incentive for Transnistria, as opposed to the situation in Abkhazia. Tiraspol has a lot of ‘trade’ with the EU, whereas the Abkhaz do not. In short,  the EUBAM/Association Agreement package has helped to stabilise the (Moldova/Transnistria) divide, by breaking down barriers and establishing common interests, despite the fact that it has not (yet) reconciled the sides.

The EUSR envoy role, with the network of advisers, has provided useful and practical focus of efforts.  That has been seen, not least, in collaboration with other co-chairs in the GID process, and albeit working on seemingly intractable situations.  And one lesson has been that the humanitarian agenda is always very close to the security agenda. The EUMM (EU Monitoring Mission) and EUBAM (European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine) in another context, have been relatively effective, within the confines of their respective mandates.  And these provide some evidence that ‘small can be beautiful’.

Funding:  Since 2008 alone, the EU has funded projects worth over €42m in Abkhazia and on projects involving Abkhaz partners. But the visibility of the EU has remained low, as these projects have been implemented by other partners, and notably UNDP.

On NREP, important to note that the Georgian Law on Occupied Territories (LOOT) copied quite a lot of the ideas – and albeit inserted a number of key red lines. The LOOT reflected a debate between the Georgian leadership at the time of its adoption (October 2009) – and it is legislation still in place and untouched today. That in itself posed a challenge. Yes, the EU should respect the principles of the Georgian strategy; but also be distinct from it.

On Ukraine, the 2014-18 period is the focus of another forthcoming essay. This brief overview will leave aside the handling of EU policy on Ukraine in the build-up to the EU Summit in November 2013. It is worth stressing, though, that in 2004 the EU with others played an important mediating role that helped to defuse the political crisis in Ukraine at that time. We tend to overlook the extent to which that could easily have ended up in a bloodbath. The Association Agreement (AA) has since been a reform anchor, even if reforms have advanced with difficulty.  [On the debit side, and a broader fallout point:  what unfolded in Ukraine in 2014 has naturally prompted very serious concerns, as viewed from the perspective of other conflict contexts in the region. While it is seen as a sui generis situation, there is the tacit acknowledgement in most quarters that the conflict in Ukraine has added a further layer of complexity to resolving other, already fairly intractable, conflict situations].

Relative Minuses

There is no getting away from the fact that there are divergent views within the EU about the significance of the Eastern Neighbourhood. Some member states have tended to prioritise relations with Russia; others prioritise the southern neighbourhood; and there are those who attach primary importance to Ukraine but give less consideration to other parts of the region. That has undermined some of the focus.

A self-evident point – and a crucial problem and constraint – is that the EU’s Russia policy has consistently been all over the place — variously, unrealistic, excessively sanguine and deeply divided. It is perhaps true to say that in the past year or more there has been more cohesion than before.  But certainly, without a clear, coherent and consistent view of Russia, its policy towards the region and the fundamental incompatibility of core Russian/EU interests in the region, the EU will continue to struggle to deal with the Kremlin as effectively as it should.

Geopolitics, as mentioned, are squeezing the space even further against practical peacebuilding efforts. So, despite what we are trying to promote, the factors conspire to edge things towards entrenched separation and increased reliance on the ‘patron’ states. It also has the effect of increasing the consolidation of the entity.

The Association Agreement template is extraordinarily ambitious yet it, firstly, does not offer the carrot of membership and, secondly, makes available only limited financial/technical assistance relative to the scale of the reform task facing signatory-countries. Also, the EU continues to be singularly ineffective in selling the AA concept to local constituencies-government, business, society.

Given the complexities, the assessment overall is necessarily a blurred one and there are many ‘Grey Areas’. Here, in conclusion, are just two of many:

  • The EUSRs who inherited NREP had their work cut out for them in trying as practitioners to implement NREP.  It can lead to the conundrum (‘going in circles’) where a EUSR has to ask permission of Abkhaz before the (EUSR) does something. Then there are Georgian constraints. And, on the latter, a health initiative from EU side ran up against familiar objections in Tbilisi, along with the lines of ‘No way,  that is tantamount to capacity-building, you can’t do that’. And indeed the Georgian stance has been that they do not want to see health-care enhanced in Abkhazia – as that will lessen dependency on coming to Georgia).     From the other perspective, in Sukhumi, a similarly dispiriting approach has been noted:   The education initiative promoted by the EU was depicted as attempts at ‘brainwashing’ or trying to prompt a ‘brain-drain’. These issues are supposed to be finessed partly by adopting a ‘status neutral’ approach, which can be a useful tool. However, the term also prompts a key question whether status neutrality can really exist. It can only happen if sides are willing to set aside the issue of status.
  • On the de-isolation issue, there is still a siege mentality that grips people. But many of these issues (e.g. freedom of movement) should be seen as a humanitarian issue rather than through the human rights lens, as such. It requires pragmatic, political approaches – and the EU should use all the tools it has available to promote flexible approaches with the authorities concerned.

Finally, and on a broader point in conclusion, the EU is well positioned  to promote sharing of experience and expertise, through more effective multilateralism. That includes better co-ordination among EU member states themselves and within & between EU structures, bilateral dialogue with key regional actors and engagement with other multilateral and intergovernmental organisations.  The EU should focus on what it already does well rather than get drawn into areas where it risks treading on others’ toes. The UK should think long and hard, not least, about ways it will seek to support collective efforts in this important sphere post-Brexit, and (where it can) to help to build synergies for these efforts from the outside, and partly through continued funding of CSO (Track II and Track III) initiatives. That is not to suggest there will be anything less than concerted British backing for a coordinated approach.  But it needs to be given due priority at a time of many other (self-inflicted) competing demands.

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