The EU and the elusive quest for freedom of speech in the South Caucasus: Keep the message simple and consistent.

The European Union has few tools at its disposal when responding to threats to freedom of speech in the South Caucasus, except for its moral authority. The institution and its member states are not perfect by far, but together they represent the best practise on issues related to human rights and democratic traditions. Governments and people in the South Caucasus recognise this even if they do not always admit it.

eu flagThe events of the last few days in the three South Caucasus countries caused concern. None was serious enough to trigger a crisis but all were serious enough to raise alarm bells and to highlight the question as to what is the end game of the EU with regards to the region on this issue. The soul searching has started and it will continue, probably until November or thereabouts when the EU expects either to welcome Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia closer to it through Association Agreements, or relegate all or some of them to the status of trade partners.

Activists in the region are becoming increasing impatient with the diplomatically worded statements issued by Brussels and Strasbourg. Yet for the moment the best option for the EU is to keep the message simple, clear and consistent: Issues of freedom of speech are central to the way that the relations will develop, and countries that violate the rights of their citizens to freedom of speech should not expect to have good, let alone privileged, relations with the EU.

The EU needs also to act more united and boldly in the two continent-wide institutions that are entrusted with the protection of human rights and democratic values. The 27 member states of the EU constitute nearly half the member states of the OSCE and nearly three-fifth of the member states of the Council of Europe, yet the EU punches well below its weight in both institutions. It is time for this to change. These two bodies need to act much more robustly and decisively vis-à-vis shortcomings in the three countries and the EU needs to be on the vanguard of this process.

The EU must keep freedom of speech and democratic rights at the top of its agenda in its relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It needs to be ready to downgrade political relations in case of persistent shortcomings. Its message to Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi needs to be short and crude, in order that it is not lost in the diplomatic parlance. In November it must than act in a resolute and consistent manner for the sake of both the people of the South Caucasus and of its own credibility.

This commentary was prepared by the editorial team of Caucasus Elections Watch