As the world struggled to come to terms with the changes brought about to the international system by the Russian annexation of Crimea, the situation in the nearby region of the Caspian was the topic of a discussion held in Brussels on Tuesday, 25 March 2014, hosted by the European Policy Centre and the Black Sea-Caspian Sea International Foundation. LINKS Director, Dennis Sammut joined a panel including Svante Cornell (Director, Central-Asia-Caucasus Institute at John Hopkins University) Dennis Daniilidis, (European Union Charge d’Affairs in Turkmenistan), Danila Bochkarev (Fellow at the East-West Institute), and Nigar Goksel, (Editor-in-Chief of the Turkish Policy Quarterly). Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre chaired the well attended Policy Dialogue which had the theme “Defining the Caspian: Aspirations, opportunities and challenges”.
In his remarks Dennis Sammut said that in the new situation post Crimea the European Union was faced with a situation whereby it had a complicated relationship with two of the five littoral states of the Caspian, Russia and Iran, whilst Kazakhstan closely aligned itself with Russia. The EU’s most developed relationship was with Azerbaijan with whom there was already advanced level of co-operation in various fields. Developing this relationship needs to be the cornerstone of EU policy towards the region. EU-Azerbaijan relations were however not without their problems and it was up to the two sides to make a bigger effort to overcome these problems. The concerns of the EU regarding the situation with human rights, elections and democratic governance in general were some of these obstacles and they needed to be addressed, but legitimate Azerbaijani concerns had to be looked into also.
Dennis Sammut said that more needs to be done to reach out to Turkmenistan. There was a desire in Turkmenistan for better relations with the EU and a lot can still be done to reach out to Turkmen society without compromising on the EU’s values and norms. A higher awareness of Turkmen society, and of the priorities of the government of Turkmenistan was necessary.
Dennis Sammut emphasised that whilst relations with the Caspian States would probably develop furthest first in the fields of economy, energy, trade and commerce there needs to be a clear understanding that these depended on the political context. In this regard the new Russian doctrine, as expressed by President Putin in his speech of 18 March constituted a major obstacle for both the countries of the Caspian Sea and for the EU’s wishes to develop relations with them. Dennis Sammut said that it would be a good idea if Catherine Ashton made sure that the members of the European External Action Service who deal with Eurasia read President Putin’s speech every morning before they go to work since this will make them aware of the political reality which they had to deal with, and perhaps help avoid some of the mistakes made in the last year or two with regards to the Eastern Partnership.