BRUSSELS, March 27, 2014 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission on Thursday is due to present updates on the progress made by the countries in its Eastern Partnership program.
The report outlines what was accomplished by its six eastern neighbors -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine -- as well as highlighting policy areas were improvements are needed.
Our correspondent in Brussels says the report provides key clues as to the European Commission's future moves and will help determine where some of the 15.4 billion euros the EU will spend in its eastern and southern neighborhoods in the next seven years will end up.
The report on Azerbaijan underlines key developments and reform efforts in 2013 and makes recommendations for the year to come.
Baku is negotiating an Association Agreement with the EU without its trade components and has also signed a visa-facilitation agreement, but the report notes that "very little progress was seen" on democratic governance and human rights reform. The texts says that despite the adoption of a National Human Rights Action Plan two years ago, "a number of its stipulations remained on paper only."
Brussels also slams the recent presidential election in the country, noting that "significant problems were identified, including limitations in the freedom of expression, assembly, and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates." The document notes that the preelection climate was marred by the tightening of political freedom and pressure on journalists and activists.
Just as in the case of Armenia, the text urges Azerbaijan to ensure unimpeded access for representatives of the EU to Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions and to stop actions and statements that could heighten tension.
In February, EU states discussed a so-called "European Package" of incentives for the six nations that would go beyond the current prize of Association Agreements.
Georgia and Moldova initialed Association Agreements at an EU summit in Vilnius in November and could sign them as early as this year.
READ FULL REPORT ON AZERBAIJAN
2013 was a decisive year in EU-Azerbaijani bilateral relations. Azerbaijan's participation in the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, which coincided with the signing of the Visa Facilitation Agreement and the Mobility Partnership, underlined the potential to further develop EU/Azerbaijani relations. Negotiations continued on the Association Agreement and on a Strategic Modernisation Partnership. On energy issues, the cooperation continued. The Strategic Energy Partnership with Azerbaijan was strengthened; steps were taken in view of the construction of the Southern Gas Corridor which should reinforce the European energy security.
However, in contrast very little progress was seen on democratic governance and human rights reform. The organisation of presidential elections raised serious concerns. Significant problems were identified, including limitations in the freedom of expression, assembly and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates.
Azerbaijan partly addressed its public financial management issues and took measures to fight corruption, following recommendations from the 2012 ENP Action Plan. However, it did not address key recommendations to bring its electoral legislation into line with OSCE/ODIHR recommendations to ensure full freedom of expression and assembly and full functioning of a civil society, nor did it amend laws on defamation and competition. On the basis of this year’s report, and with a view to the sustained implementation of the ENP Action Plan in 2014, Azerbaijan is invited to:
· ensure effective and comprehensive implementation of the January 2013 resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the honouring of obligations and commitments by Azerbaijan;
· continue implementation of the human rights action plan adopted in December 2011;
· bring electoral legislation into line with OSCE/ODIHR recommendations and ensure effective implementation before the forthcoming municipal and parliamentary elections;
· continue the reform of the judiciary and adopt the Judiciary Reform Programme 2014-2020. Ensure full independence of the judiciary by inter alia enacting a law on the role of the Judicial Legal Council, establishing a fixed retirement age applicable to all judges, conducting an analysis of shortcomings in judicial practice, and giving full consideration to reports of alleged shortcomings resulting in unfair trials with a view to addressing these;
· adopt a law on defamation with the aim of decriminalizing libel;
· step up efforts to investigate cases of harassment and murder of journalists and activists;
· implement the National Anti-Corruption Action Plan (NACAP) 2012-2015;
· carry out and publish a public expenditure and financial accountability assessment and ensure the comprehensive public finance management policy reforms on the basis of the findings;
· continue the policy of economic diversification and development of the regions, in particular adopting and implementing a law on competition to create more predictability and transparency in the market and a level playing field for investors;
· implement the actions scheduled for 2013-2014 under the Memorandum of Understanding in the field of energy;
· align policy, legislative and institutional frameworks for local self-governance in Azerbaijan to the European Charter for Local Self-Government;
· step up efforts towards agreement on the Madrid Principles, as a basis for peace, in accordance with the commitments undertaken by the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia within the Minsk Group; refrain from actions and statements that could heighten tension and undermine the peace process;
· promote an environment conducive to progress in the conflict settlement, encourage and support related peace-building activities;
· ensure unimpeded access for representatives of the EU to Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions in support of conflict transformation activities in full complementarity with the efforts of the Minsk Group.
Reforms initiated, carried out or delayed during 2013 in the different areas of cooperation between the EU and Azerbaijan are described in the annual country report. Some of the issues reported deserve special attention.
Despite the adoption of a National Human Rights Action Plan in 2011, a number of its stipulations remained on paper only. The pre-election climate was marked by a significant tightening of political freedoms in almost all areas: deterioration of freedom of expression, pressure against journalists and activists, restrictions on the freedom of assembly, restrictive legislation on NGOs. The fight against corruption lacked a systematic approach proportional to its perceived pervasiveness in many sectors. The lack of judicial independence persisted in 2013.
There was no significant progress in Azerbaijan’s WTO accession which is a pre-condition for DCFTA negotiations.
EU-Azerbaijan negotiations on Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements were concluded in March 2013 and the two agreements were initialled in July. The Visa Facilitation Agreement was signed at the Vilnius EaP Summit in November. The EU-Azerbaijan Mobility Partnership was signed on 5 December.
The stalemate in the Minsk Process aiming at settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continued for most of 2013. However, the Presidents of the two countries reconvened in November 2013 for the first time since January 2012 in a summit in Vienna, mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, at which they agreed to advance negotiations towards a peaceful settlement and to meet again in the months ahead. . An upsurge of violence along the line of contact was nevertheless witnessed early 2014. The EU continued to give its full support to the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs in their work to facilitate a lasting settlement.