EU boosts Black Sea cooperation

BRUSSELS – The European Commission unveiled plans yesterday to boost cooperation among Black Sea neighbors Russia, Georgia, Turkey and Ukraine by bringing them together to discuss regional projects with the EU. «The region is an expanding market with great development potential and an important hub for energy and transport flows,» the European Union’s executive arm said in a report. It offered no new cash incentives but said the EU could support regional initiatives and exchange of best practice on its aid and cooperation projects. The EU executive – pressed by the bloc’s new members Romania and Bulgaria, both Black Sea neighbors – said joint projects on border control, transport and energy could help economic development, build confidence and reduce tensions. «I am also hopeful that the Black Sea synergy will contribute to creating a better climate for the solution of ‘frozen conflicts’ in the region,» EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said. It pointed to tensions over Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moldova’s Transdniestria region and between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh area. The EU executive called for a high-level political meeting to launch the new drive, possibly bringing together EU and Black Sea foreign ministers, to be followed by meetings of experts on the different areas of cooperation. «The time is ripe to focus political attention at the regional level and invigorate ongoing cooperation processes,» Ferrero-Waldner said. The Black Sea region has drawn attention in the EU and the NATO defence alliance because of its importance as a hub for transporting Russian and Caspian Basin oil and gas to Europe and its proximity to unstable Middle Eastern and Caucasus regions. But while the EU seeks to engage Russia in security talks on what Brussels regards as their «common neighborhood,» Moscow is reluctant to see the 27-nation bloc muscle in on what it regards as its «near abroad.» EU diplomats question whether Russian President Vladimir Putin actually wants to see the «frozen conflicts» resolved, since they give Moscow leverage over former Soviet republics that gained independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. South Ossetia broke away from Tbilisi’s control after a 1991-2 war that killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands to flee. It has no international recognition but is propped up by Moscow. Abkhazia, on the Black Sea, broke away from Georgia in 1993 when separatists, backed by mercenaries and arms from Russia’s northern Caucasus region, drove out Tbilisi’s troops. Armenia and Azerbaijan are officially in a state of war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory inhabited mostly by Armenians and captured by Armenia in a conflict that ended in 1994 but recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan.

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