Interview with Mr Lars Patrick Berg MEP
Q: Mr Berg, you have recently been paying particular attention to the South Caucasus, especially to Armenia. What is the reason for this special attention?
Berg: South Caucasus is a strategic region for Europe. The European Conservatives and Reformists Party –as also myself – expresses its concern over the dangerous escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such an escalation risks the fragile stability in this strategic region. Today, the boundaries between the three states—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—and the eastern Mediterranean and wider Middle East are shifting. The EU’s long-standing declaratory policies about the region’s centrality in the West’s foreign policy are becoming less and less credible. It’s one thing for Brussels to promote closer security ties with the South Caucasus. But it is another thing entirely to match the South Caucasus states’ expanding web of relationships with the countries to their south, west, and east.
It is these relationships that show the greatest dynamism in terms of increased trade and economic ties, changes in energy markets, and the prospects for new infrastructure projects. Regrettably, these regions—just like the South Caucasus—have more than their fair share of common challenges arising from regional and sectarian conflicts, migration, and poverty.
Q: You claim that the European Union, apart from calling on the opposing parties, by which I mean above all the Armenian-Azerbaijani military conflict, to find a peaceful solution to the conflict between them, does not intervene much in the region. Given the geographical importance of the region, what kind of forces t are currently shaping the policies of the countries in the region and which way?
Berg: Given their geographic proximity and historic connections, interactions between the Caucasus and the broader Middle East should come as no surprise. Before the Soviet era, the Caucasus was where the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian empires converged and competed for territory and influence. Each of the three empires once ruled the region, creating a key meeting ground of cultures along an important transit route.
During the bulk of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union enjoyed firm control over the region and tried to project power and influence into Iran and Turkey from the Caucasus. The Soviet Union’s collapse weakened Moscow’s position in the region but defied initial speculation that Iranian-Russian-Turkish competition would lead to the carving of respective spheres of influence across the Caucasus.
The 1990s proved to be a difficult time for all three powers. Russia focused largely on managing waves of domestic instability and fighting the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Moscow’s highly reactive policies in the South Caucasus were shaped primarily by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as instability in Georgia.
Q: Beside this Turkey is also a major player in the region. In what way?
Berg: Turkey, till the recent years refocused on integrating with Europe than on engaging with its eastern neighbors. Lately Ankara’s efforts to promote a broad pan-Turkic agenda across Eurasia initially appeared promising but amounted to little except in Azerbaijan. However, the diplomatic and security ties that took root between Ankara and Baku during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war reinforced Armenian perceptions of pan-Turkic threats leading to frigid Armenian-Turkish relations and an economic blockade that continues to the present day.
However, I would like to draw attention to another country that, alongside Turkey, is having a growing impact on the region. Although geographically distant, China has pursued various opportunities, eyeing infrastructure projects across the South Caucasus. Ports, roads, and rail all fall under the purview of its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese companies have shown interest in infrastructure projects on the Georgian and Azerbaijani coasts and in regional road and rail construction across all three South Caucasus countries.
Q: Why do you give Armenia a prominent role in the region?
Berg: Despite the serious conflict Armenia has with Azerbajdsan, I find that Armenia stands out in the region as a young state with improving systems of governance and representation. Besides, Armenia has tried to act as in-between state, increasing economic and societal ties with the Western countries while remaining in a security relationship with Moscow. Just to give some examples: Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Armenia has an Individual Partership Action Plan with NATO and recently has contributed troops to two of NATO’s missions, as KFOR and ISAFArmenia also a member of the Eurasian Econimic Union, but also seeks deeper ties with the European Union.
Q: How does the European Union view Armenia’s rapprochement?
Berg: On 1 March 2021, the European Union-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) entered into force. It has now been ratified by the Republic of Armenia, all EU Member States and the European Parliament. This represents an important milestone for EU-Armenia relations.
According to the present leaders of the European Union, this Agreement provides a framework for the EU and Armenia to work together in a wide range of areas: strengthening democracy, the rule of law and human rights; creating more jobs and business opportunities, improving legislation, public safety, a cleaner environment, as well as better education and opportunities for research. This bilateral agenda also contributes to overall aim of the EU to deepen and strengthen its relations with the countries of its Eastern neighbourhood through the Eastern Partnership framework.
Q: All this sounds very nice, and it contradicts what you said at the beginning of the report, that the European Union is paying very little attention to the region.
Berg: The devil is in the geopolitical details. Armenia’s EU accession could be a “question for the people”. This is what Tigran Avinyan, deputy Prime Minister of Armenia, said in one of his statement which reveals that the new government of Armenia is more pro-European than previous administrations. It is for sure, like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, Armenia is trying to strengthen its bilateral relationship with the EU, but the rationale behind Armenia’s membership to the Eurasian Union makes this geopolitically complex.
The Nagorno-Karabagh conflict with Baku considerably restricted Armenia’s geopolitical options. Besides, Yerevan is militarily and energetically basicly dependent on Russia. In May 2017, though, a paper published by the review Eurasian Geography and Economics came to the conclusion that the Eurasian Union “has not been able to contribute to Armenia’s economy – quite the contrary, it has significantly slowed economic performance. This is the main reason why Armenia turned his interest towards the EU.
As we can see, Armenia is trying to create a geopolitical balance between the European Union and Russia, and wishes to collaborate with both, especially on trade and security matters.
(Lars Patrick Berg is a German MEP who studied Eastern European history in Tübingen, Heidelberg and Munich from 1989-1996. He worked in Herrenberg, Stuttgart and Frankfurt and studied international energy in Leipzig and Moscow from 2007 to 2009. 2016-2019 : Member of the Baden-Württemberg Parliament and subsequently elected to the European Parliament. In Germany he is a member of the Germany-Liberal-Conservative Reformist party.)