What role for the EU in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Recent events in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh have marked an important shift in geopolitics of the South Caucasus. On 27 September, one of the world’s most bitter conflicts erupted into a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh. The war ended on 10 November, after Russia brokered a ceasefire. Under this deal, Azerbaijan secured significant gains,recovering control of some 80 percent of the enclave.

The turning point came when the town of Shusha was taken by the Azeri forces on November 8. This was significant, given that the city of Shusha – or Shushi as it is known to Armenians -is less than ten milesfrom Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and along the main road linking the territory of Armenia.

Naturally, the tripartite agreement has sparked anger, fear and sorrow among the ethnic Armenian habitants of the Nagorno-Karabakh. Having forged their livelihoods in the enclave for decades, the agreement sparked a mass exodus of civilians,taking what property they could manage, while burning down their homes rather than handing it over to Azerbaijan.

Although the tripartite agreement has been perceived as a diplomatic triumph by the Kremlin, Turkey’s strong military support for Azerbaijan has enabled Ankara to gain a foothold in the region. Having strongly supported Baku with several hundred Syrian mercenaries and armed drones, Turkey’s strong military support was a reality the Kremlin could not ignore. As a result, both Russian and Turkish defence ministers signed a memorandum to create a joint control centre in Azerbaijan,to monitor the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The relatively short-lived flare-up between Azerbaijan and Armeniaalso highlighted the notable absence of Western powers. With Donald Trump more concerned about his failed November election campaign,and with the European Union grappled with its own issues, in particular a second wave of coronavirus infections, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were fully aware of how unlikely it would be for the West to get involved in this old Caucasian quarrel.

However, with the most pertinent issues of the conflict still unresolved, the European Commission still has the opportunity to play a role in bringing peace and reconciliation to the South Caucasus.

Address the key issues.

President Putin’s agreement to end the conflict promises to guarantee neither peace nor stability. The central bone of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan: the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and its Armenian population have not even been considered in thenegotiations.The lack of political status for the disputed enclave is a blow to the self-governing aspirations of the entity’s ethnic Armenian population. The omission of the need to address the political status of the entity, coupled with the return of Azerbaijanis to Nagorno-Karabakh, will create impossible conditions for communal existence and prevent the development oflasting peace in the disputed enclave.

Many of the displaced still prefer to stay in refugee camps scattered across Armenia’s main cities, fearing for their lives if they return to the Azerbaijan-controlled territories of the entity. For the thousands displaced, too much has been lost, especially for those who lost their loved ones in combat.

The Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s animosity towards Armenians and his tendency to instrumentalise the conflict with grand nationalist declarations havesignificantly contributed to the fear and anxiety of the displaced inhabitants. In his address to the nation during the midst of the bloodshed, Aliyev notablylabelledethnic Armenians ‘dogs’, with the clear intention of mobilising Azeri nationalism.Under international law, speech that incites hatred towards a specific ethnic group, particularly when spoken by individuals holding office, is prohibited by a number of international instruments, among them: Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Tensions are likely to escalate given Baku’s intention to prosecute Armenian prisoners of war (POWs), captured during the recent conflict. International rights groups, most notably Human Rights Watch, reported last month that some Armenian troops have been physically abused by Azerbaijani forces, captured on videos widely distributed on social media. This is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, which requires that POWs be treated humanely and then released at the end of hostilities.

Engage in multilateralism.

The European Commission, under the helm of its President Ursula von der Leyen, espouses to be much more strategic,particularlywith regard to the dynamics of its neighbourhood.The unresolved contentious issues in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict offers Brussels the opportunity to invest in diplomacy to bring lasting peace in the region. Europeans have the privilege of being able to position themselves as dynamic and influential players. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are members of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, which aims to deepen and strengthen relations between the EU, its Member States and six post-Soviet states.

This is important given that the Russian brokered peace deal has not managed to put an end to the sporadic violence in the enclave.

To strengthen the prospects for lasting peace in the region, Brussels should consider building an internationally supported peace process. A multilateral and multi-level peace process could produce long-term peace dividends in the form of unblocking closed borders and moving the South Caucasus toward greater regional connectivity. In light ofMoscow’sincreased leverage over Baku and Yerevan, notably through the deployment of 1,960 peacekeepers to the disputed territory, the Kremlin will have to be considered in any peace-building effort. The involvement of the United States in peace-building in the South Caucasus should also be considered, given their respective political influence in achieving international peace. This was recently demonstrated by the White House negotiating peace between Riyadh and Doha, ending the 43-month blockade against Qatar. With newly elected US President Joe Biden having expressed his intention to work more closely with the EU to bring lasting peace in its neighbourhood, this bodes well for European peace-building efforts in the South Caucasus.

Likewise, the EU should also consider involving civil society actors in the peacebuilding process.This could be the key to alleviating the most persistent problems of the conflict. The EU need only recall the central role international organisations, NGOs and bilateral donors played in the reconstruction and reconciliation of post-war Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

For this to be successful Brussels will need to move swiftly.Europe cannot afford to be side-lined in post-conflict settlements, aswas madeexplicit in 2017by Russia, Turkey and Iraninthe Astana talks, aimed at ending the Syrian conflict. It is interesting to note that this process has yet to bring about lasting peace inSyria, as contentious issues, notablyregarding the future of Syria’s political system and the return of refugees, have remained unresolved. In this sense, the EU has every interest in playing a leading role through diplomacy to achieve peace and stability in the South Caucasus.

Author: Kareem Salem

Kareem Salem holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of New South Wales. He is bilingual in English and French and has written for a number of international bodies. His main interests lie in transatlantic relations, the European Union’s Neighbourhood Policy and international trade and cooperation within the international system. Kareem firmly believes in multilateralism and considers it an important mechanism to support international peace and cooperation between nations.

January 18, 2021