The Wider Black Sea Region: Cooperation and Security Building
By Shakeh Badalyan
Shakeh Badalyan is a member of the Atlantic Council's Young Atlanticist Working Group..
The wider Black Sea is a region in transition. All of the countries situated in the area are engaged in ambitious transformation and reform efforts. Like the Baltic Sea in the North, the Black Sea was an artificial barrier during the Cold War. There are enormous opportunities for making this region a model of cooperation and an engine of growth and prosperity. However, the road towards this goal is still thorny, and full of difficulties. But also, at the same time the Black Sea region serves to be a very large market tremendously benefiting from regional integration. It is also of enormous importance for energy supply and transit, a factor indicating that there are also risks. Another important if not primary implication is that the region has been and remains to be an arena of several conflicts searching for peaceful resolution for years.

This region has enormous importance for European and transatlantic security as it is an interface towards the Greater Middle East. Yet the countries are still searching for ways to interact, are still defining relations between themselves and to Europe and to the transatlantic community.

The countries of wider Black Sea region are going through different stages of transformation to democracy and market economy, while sharing a problematic history of mutual coexistence. In addition to its economic problems, the region has the potential for significant conflicts. The Black Sea region has a great number of different ethnic and religious groups. Historic enmities between and within the existing countries hinder cooperation and represent one of the most important destabilizing factors. Ethnic conflicts and territorial secessionism have already led to bloody armed conflicts in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Chechnya, and Turkey (Kurdish separatism). Most of these conflicts remain to be frozen. Unsolved problems of border and territorial disputes among others have been the distinguishing features of the wider region.

Romania and Bulgaria are members of the European Union (EU), having also joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) before. Turkey has started accession talks with EU which has a strategic partnership with Russia. Ukraine, Moldova and the countries of South Caucasus have joined the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which provides deep and wide-ranging relationships tailored to the specific challenges of each country. Georgia's membership to the NATO has been discussed during the recent NATO Summits.

Russia and Turkey are Black Sea countries, and their role shall not be underestimated as without full Russian and Turkish participation the Black Sea region will be incomplete. As one of the most significant countries in the Black Sea region Turkey's policies matter and require better understanding. Turkey's approach to further NATO enlargement in the region is conditioned by the fundamental premise that enlargement should not lead to an aggravation of the security situation. The membership of Georgia has already been discussed during the recent NATO Summits. Using NATO membership and ENP as tools to push domestic reform in the region's countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, could help them to become more transparent, stable and even security-producing actors in the region. The challenge for Turkey remains to manage support for Georgian NATO aspirations, while maintaining close relationships with Russia.

The wider Black Sea region is increasingly important to Europe and the United States as a major east-west energy supply bridge and as a barrier against many transnational threats. The European Union undoubtedly has an important role to play here. It could bring the countries together by ensuring that their reform agendas proceed on the basis of the same values. The focus of potential NATO enlargement in the region should, therefore, be less on hard-core security issues, than on anchoring aspirant countries in Western political structures.

In the development of the Black Sea Strategy the following three factors need to be taken into consideration:
  • while the Black Sea lacks any real "regional identity" still there are already some institutions which can support the cooperation;
  • the so-called frozen conflicts in the region remain a major stumbling block for cooperation;
  • any regional cooperation must be, or at least, must be seen to be "locally developed and owned" and not imposed from the outside.
The region situated on the crossroads of Europe and Asia has been a region of strategic confrontations for long time. The European Union can offer a conclusive framework anchoring the countries of the Wider Black Sea Region to the West. But the U.S., NATO, and other organizations can play complementary and supporting roles. The alternative is to leave the wider Black Sea suspended between a prosperous EU, a largely authoritarian Eurasia, and a turbulent Middle East. Such "in-between lands" are often the cockpits for violence, conflict and geopolitical competition. If the process of engagement fails now, it will have dramatic results in the near future.

© Armenian Atlantic Association