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Friday, February 16, 2007

EU's new Black Sea policy faces Russian misgivings

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The European Commission is drafting a new EU policy for trade and security cooperation among Black Sea states, but Russia - a major regional player with a naval force in the Crimean peninsula - has already begun sniping at the scheme.

The document - entitled "Black Sea Synergy" - will be presented to member states' diplomats in late April or early May in time for formal approval by the June EU summit, with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria and the German EU presidency's eastern foreign policy focus spurring things on.

The draft text of the "synergy" envisages regular meetings between foreign ministers of Black Sea zone states Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova as well as the EU "trojka" of the EU presidency, the office of EU foreign policy envoy Javier Solana and the external relations commissioner.

The ministers will aim to agree new projects for bringing in fresh supplies of gas and oil from the Caspian Sea basin, soothing separatist tensions, curbing illegal immigration and smuggling, promoting human rights NGOs, fighting environmental crimes and building new transport links.

The EU-led club will not have its own building or secretariat but will try to galvanise political agreement for actions to be implemented by existing institutions, such as the Black Sea Economic Cooperation group (BSEC) or the Black Sea Forum (BSF) and co-funded from the EU's "neighbourhood policy" budget.

"The area is a very important transit region for hydrocarbons [from the Caspian Sea basin]," an EU official said. "We would not try to substitute existing frameworks for conflict resolution on the so-called frozen conflicts, but we hope very much regional cooperation might create a better understanding."

The Black Sea region is home to a patchwork of separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and Transdniestria in Moldova, with regular exchanges of fire in Georgia and with military spending soaring in all the South Caucasus states.

On top of this, Moldova and Georgia accuse Russia of aiding the Russia-friendly separatist entities, which are widely seen as conduits for fake currency, illegal immigrants, drugs and guns into Europe. Georgia's plan to join NATO in 2009 could see relations with Russia deteriorate further.

Early stage
EU member states' thinking on the new policy is still at an early stage. But some differences are already emerging, with Poland keen to pull non-regional players such as Belarus into the ministerial meetings and to make sure Russia plays second-fiddle to the EU in agenda-setting terms, while Romania sees Russia as an "equal partner."

"We want to have the Russians on board, but this is different to the Northern Dimension," the European Commission official said, referring to another forum for Baltic Sea projects where Brussels is on equal footing with Moscow. "The Black Sea Synergy is an EU initiative, so Russia will play a different role."

President Vladimir Putin's Russia is not inclined to take a back seat in sensitive territories in its near-abroad these days however, with senior Russian diplomats already warning that the Black Sea project will fail unless Moscow is given a more prominent part to play.

'Frankly, I don't see the need'
"We don't want to see this become EU-dominated," Russian EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov told EUobserver last week. "The Northern Dimension should be kept in mind: when it was launched as an EU-dominated initiative it didn't work, so it was reconfigured to be a quadri-partite undertaking of the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland and now it's up and running."

Mr Chizhov compared the Black Sea Synergy to a previous project of the 1999 German EU presidency, the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe, saying it was "very loudly launched" but "sort of scaled down afterward" getting bogged down in bureaucracy and squabbles over history textbooks on the Ottoman Empire.

"OK, I understand that the physical presence of the EU in the Black Sea has increased with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria. But these two countries are members of both the BSEC and the Black Sea Forum," he said. "Frankly I don't see the need for any additional structure."
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