As the Commission reviews the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), and in advance of country progress reports due out at the end of May, reports from civil society groups from the South Caucasus demonstrate that the policy has yet to produce impacts in terms of sustained policy reform.
Four years since the EU signed Action Plans with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, independent civil society organizations from the region describe the different paths taken by each of the three countries, but share the assessment that the process of democratic development is stagnating in the South Caucasus due to the concentration of political and economic power among elite groups which translates to a lack of political will and poor implementation of reforms.
In all three countries, to varying degrees, a lack of judicial independence and failure to ensure transfer of power through free and fair elections has marred transition prospects.
- Georgia is conventionally acknowledged to be a forerunner of democratisation in the region and the country most dedicated to European integration. A report by leading Georgian civil society organisations finds that the year 2010 was marked by stability and reforms, notably the constitutional reform which Parliament adopted after a wide consultative process. Despite some progress, problems persist regarding media pluralism and transparency of ownership, judicial independence and the situation of minorities in the country, including punitive measures taken against internally displaced people with regard to their housing (IDPs). It remains unclear whether efforts to shift the balance of power from the president to the parliament will ensure greater political pluralism in future elections. Meanwhile, high level corruption continues to undermine prospects for further democratic development and restrictions on freedom of assembly remain a concern. Given its leverage in Georgia, the EU could afford to be more vocal about the direction and pace of political reform, as well as apply stricter, benchmarked conditionality so that the country is rewarded for genuine structural reforms where those are made.
- Armenia’s reforms look better on paper than they do in practice. A detailed monitoring report by a number of civil society organisations describes how the country tends to have good legislation, such as the criminal code, adopted in 2010, but the government fails to implement existing provisions properly. The report details problems of lack of judicial independence at the highest level; increasing monopolisation by oligarchic elites of political and economic life; corruption; election fraud – relating to absentee voters – and restrictions on the mass-media through the use of libel laws and the reduction of licenses granted to independent channels. Civil society representatives visiting Brussels recently argued that the EU has leverage in Armenia and could ask more from the country in terms of political and economic reforms. They called for strengthening of political conditionality in calling the government to account for its Action Plan commitments. In particular, the EU could allow civil society to provide input into priority-setting under the second generation of Action Plans and grant access to information about the negotiations on Association Agreement.
- Azerbaijan has moved further from the European Union over 2010-2011 despite – or because of – converging interests between the Europe and this oil rich country. The Action Plan signed in November 2006 is still in force, yet a monitoring report by leading independent experts from the country attests to Azerbaijan’s patchy implementation of its ENP commitments. The crackdown on journalists and human rights activists in the streets of Baku earlier this year defies the spirit and the letter of the ENP Action Plan and provides a clear example of the deteriorating situation in the country regarding freedom of expression and assembly. Autumn’s Parliamentary elections led to the further erosion of political pluralism, with the country effectively having a one-party parliament for the first time since the Soviet era. In addition to the ongoing persecution of individual activists and journalists, notably Jabbar Savalan and Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, there remain human rights black spots in Azerbaijan, particularly the Nakhchevan region, which is closed to the outside world and where activists report the practice of confining people who speak out against the leadership to psychiatric facilities. On a recent visit to Brussels civil society activists argued that the principal reason for the ENP being less successful in Azerbaijan is the oil-based economy, which leads to increasing government self-confidence and lack of political will to fulfil international obligations. Nevertheless, there is room for the EU to foster political reform by prioritising funding for civil society as well as supporting the monitoring of financing projects (including those by IFIs) by independent civic organisations. As a priority the EU should recall Azerbaijan’s ENP commitment to make it easier for NGOs to register at a time when the government is adding restrictions, and also support the adoption of a law on public financing of political parties.