Nagorno-Karabakh and Eastern Partnership – is there a role for the EU?
Abstract: Where reconciliation does not take place, conflict does not freeze - in the worst case, one war is followed by another. A cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mediated by the OSCE’s Minsk group, was agreed in 1994, but no lasting peace was achieved. Violence flared up again and again in and around the so-called "Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh," which is considered part of Azerbaijan under international law but remained under Armenian control along with seven surrounding districts. Once again, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh proved not to be “frozen” in the autumn of 2020, when a renewed armed conflict broke out in which Azerbaijan prevailed militarily. While the EU is linked with both Armenia and Azerbaijan through its Eastern Partnership, it did not play any role in mediating the ceasefire signed in November 2020. This article explores whether there is a role for the EU in the immediate post-conflict era. It concludes that a stronger focus on humanitarian issues and on common goals would not only create trust in an EU that takes the concerns of either side seriously, but could also build trust along the front lines, especially if the EU sticks to an inclusive peace-approach. Connectivity is key, and the EU should thus press for the implementation of the respective point in the agreement that provides for the restoration of transport and economic links. Additionally, in order to finally find its role in Nagorno-Karabakh - and hopefully contribute positively to a lasting reconciliation process -, the EU certainly needs a clearer vision on how relations with Russia and Turkey should look like in the future.
Bottom-line-up-front: With regard to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the EU focuses on supporting existing UN and OSCE frameworks. Multilateralism was, however, further marginalized when Russia unilaterally brokered the ceasefire. If the EU wants to raise its profile, it should do so quickly, focus on humanitarian issues and connectivity - and find a consistent modus vivendi in its relations with Russia and Turkey.
Problem statement: The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh proved not to be “frozen” in 2020. While the EU is linked with both Armenia and Azerbaijan through its Eastern Partnership, it did not play any role in mediating the ceasefire. Is there a role for the EU in post-conflict care?
So what?: The EU member states have to agree on a clear vision of what EU relations with Russia and Turkey shall look like in future, as there can be no strategy for lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh without the involvement of regional players. The EU should direct its financial support under the EaP more specifically towards providing humanitarian assistance and implement projects in which the parties to the conflict work towards common goals, thus contributing to trust building on a more subliminal level.
[corrected republication of the article: Anna Steiner, Nagorno-Karabakh and Eastern Partnership. Is there a Role for the EU?, in: Matthias Wasinger (Ed.), TDHJ Special Edition Nr. 01/21, Geopolitics, Vienna 2021, 22-25.]
Armenian – Azeri War in 2020
With regard to the long-lasting conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the EU focuses on supporting existing UN and OSCE frameworks. Multilateralism was, however, further marginalized in November of 2020 when Russia unilaterally brokered the ceasefire after a renewed armed conflict in autumn 2020. If the EU wants to raise its profile, it should take action quickly.
Multilateralism was, however, further marginalized in November of 2020 when Russia unilaterally brokered the ceasefire after a renewed armed conflict in autumn 2020.
Many of those who went to war in the fall of 2020 were not yet born when the last full-scale war over Nagorno-Karabakh raged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As part of the former Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, Nagorno-Karabakh, inhabited mainly by (Karabakh) Armenians, remained de jure part of Azerbaijan, while Armenia exercised de facto control over it. Without reconciliation efforts on both sides, the conflict has neither been transformed, nor “frozen”.
The OSCE’s Minsk group has been negotiating basic principles for peaceful conflict resolution. The Madrid principles presented by the Co-Chairs in 2007 and updated in 2009 address six key elements for the settlement of the conflict. They include a return of territories to Azerbaijan, a corridor for Armenia and a rigorous right to return for IDPs and refugees, an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance and future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will. Although these principles had been key to negotiations, the latter got stuck on the status issue.
Additionally, the OSCE has installed a Personal Representative of the Chairperson-in-Office on the Conflict Dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference, Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk. Kasprzyk has been actively and overall successfully engaged in managing the conflict. He and his teams have been assigned to keep watch along the line of contact, and they can perform rapid interventions at all levels to immediately contain ceasefire violations.
Nonetheless, instead of building on multilateralism, Azerbaijan created facts by military means in the fall of 2020 , taking back control of the seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh (Fuzuli, Jabrayil, Zangilan, Qubadli, Agdam, Kalbajar, Lachin) that had been occupied by Armenia since 1994. Not least, the Corona crisis contributed to this hostile environment. As late as January 2020, the Co-Chairs were relatively optimistic after their meetings with the foreign ministers, as substantial negotiations (sequencing the steps defined in the Madrid Principles) had been agreed upon in a retreat. COVID-19 greatly undermined these efforts. Although the Co-Chairs continued to hold online meetings with ministers, they were unable to sustain their positive momentum. Serious ceasefire violations already occurred in July, most likely triggered by Armenia. By contrast, the majority of analysts agree that the aggression in autumn came from Azerbaijan, with the aim of bringing the territory back under its own control.
During the six weeks of bloodshed, Turkey provided military support to Baku, including the aid of drone technology. Russia, Yerevan’s protecting power, had supplied arms to both parties in the past. The renewed flare-up of the conflict put the OSCE in danger of being marginalized. Its Minsk group has not played a role in bringing about the ceasefire agreement, which was mediated by Russia in coordination with Turkey and signed on 9 November. Nevertheless, it must be noted that large parts of the truce are actually based on negotiations within the OSCE framework. For example, the return of the seven districts to Azerbaijani control or the establishment of a connecting corridor between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh as laid down in the truce was – in theory – already provided for in the Madrid Principles. A final peace settlement would most likely be guided by these principles, too. Russia is very aware of this fact. It is therefore likely that Moscow will soon pass the ball to the Minsk Co-Chairs again.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that large parts of the truce are actually based on negotiations within the OSCE framework.
Furthermore, the contacts and deep understanding of the situation on the ground which the Personal Representative Kasprzyk has been able to build up in his 24 years of service could now be of inestimable value for achieving a peace settlement.
EU’s absence at the negotiations table
The current marginalization of the OSCE further weakens the position of the EU, which has confined itself to supporting existing UN and OSCE frameworks. Accordingly, the mandate of the EU’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia is limited to supporting UN and OSCE mechanisms. Calls for stronger EU involvement within the Minsk group, for example by converting the French into an EU co-chairmanship, have not prevailed. Although desirable, an EU co-chair seems improbable today, as France has repeatedly made clear that it will not vacate its seat for, or act as, a contemplated EU co-chair.
It would be all the more important now to return to the negotiating table to hammer out a peace agreement based on the Madrid principles. External negotiators must continue to advocate for a multinational OSCE (instead of purely Russian) peacekeeping force. In this context, one can point to the fact that the OSCE's High-Level Planning Group (HLPG), a small number of seconded military officers, was established in 1994 for this very purpose and was reassigned in the 2009 Madrid Package to prepare the planning of a multinational OSCE peacekeeping force.
Sandwiched between EaP partners and regional actors
The EU’s Neighborhood Policy is an attempt to bring the EU’s neighborhood closer to the EU framework with regard to political, institutional, legal and economic aspects. It is no coincidence that this policy was just launched in 2004, when after the EU’s Eastern enlargement, not only the external borders of the Union, but also its interests shifted eastwards. After the Georgian-Russian War, this policy was complemented with a line specifically aimed at the Eastern neighborhood: the Eastern Partnership (EaP).
Within the EaP, political cooperation and economic association are offered to partner countries. The more political will and commitment towards reforms the individual countries show, both in the joint programming process and in implementing the planned measures, the more the EU enhances its relationship. For the states of the South Caucasus, however, enhancing relations with the EU means a balancing act, if not a tightrope, with Russia. Admittedly, it is also difficult for the EU to find the right balance between necessary flexibility and justified toughness toward its partners.
For the states of the South Caucasus, however, enhancing relations with the EU means a balancing act, if not a tightrope, with Russia.
All in all, the EU member states must agree on a clear vision of what EU relations with Russia and Turkey shall look like in future, as there can be no strategy for lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh without the involvement of regional players. Especially as long as Russia does not perceive the EU as a partner, the EU will not have a role to play.
The latest briefing by the International Crisis Group Europe also points in this direction. The ICG points out that Western actors – while understandably critical – cannot ignore the fact that Russia's leading role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is in fact based on a long tradition: Moscow played a central role in the 1994 agreements and has been the most active mediator since then. Thus, transforming the conflict without Moscow is unrealistic. At the same time, success will probably only be achieved if Europe, the U.S. and multilateral institutions seize (and vehemently demand) the opportunity to become more actively involved.
Confidence building versus humanitarian aid?
In line with the bilateral ENP Action Plans, confidence building measures are a central part of the EU’s agenda. The implementation of such measures in Nagorno-Karabakh was however not desired by the Azerbaijani side. In general, using “confidence-building” as the catchphrase among societies that deeply distrust each other most likely does nothing to encourage participation in EU activities. This was also seen in Abkhazia, a breakaway region from Georgia, where the EU's engagement has been better received since it has shifted the focus away from measures aimed at building trust between Georgians and Abkhazians and instead has taken the approach of supporting work on common humanitarian problems. Even more in the context of Nagorno-Karabakh, where weapons have just been silenced, a sole confidence building approach might give the impression of the EU firstly neglecting the conflict context and secondly exerting an anticipatory influence on the status issue over Nagorno-Karabakh. A focus on humanitarian issues therefore has better chances of creating trust in an EU that takes the concerns of either side seriously. In the long run, building trust between (Karabakh) Armenians and Azeris is, of course, the goal of collaboration— be it activities directly related to the conflict (exchange of prisoners of war, search for missing persons, etc.) or projects in the fields of environment or agriculture along the front lines and beyond.
A focus on humanitarian issues therefore has better chances of creating trust in an EU that takes the concerns of either side seriously.
Point 9 of the ceasefire agreement signed in November 2020 provides for the restoration of all transport and economic links. The EU, despite its limited current capabilities, should press for the implementation of this point in particular, as connectivity could be key in transforming the conflict. Should Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan actually be opened in the future, the EU could find its role in reconstruction and infrastructure programs and thus support mobility as well as the establishment of individual relationships and of economic links. It may prove helpful that Moscow also attaches particular importance to this point, as evidenced by the results of the summit meeting between Putin, Aliyev and Pashinyan on 11 January 2021. Putin was able to secure the signing of a joint declaration that not only cements the November agreement but also, among other things, provides for the creation of a trilateral working group on Point 9 that is to present concrete plans for the development of the region's transport infrastructure and economy.
To sum up, the EU should direct its financial support under the EaP more specifically towards providing humanitarian assistance and implementing projects in which the parties to the conflict work towards common goals, thus contributing to trust building on a more subliminal level.
At least a more coordinated approach
In both Armenia and Azerbaijan, nation-building has strongly been based on demarcation from the respective enemy. It will be crucial to develop projects that put the one-sided historical memory of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey into perspective. Support of independent media, one of the EaP’s “cross cutting issues,” is important in this respect, but no less attention should be paid to the prevention of disinformation.
Building sustainable peace requires broad social inclusion. Two years ago, the Council of the EU adopted a new strategic approach to women, peace and security (WPS). Not least in Nagorno-Karabakh, the EU could prove that it is ready to apply this approach comprehensively within the EaP.
Finally, if the EU were to upgrade its role in Nagorno-Karabakh from “payer” to “player,” it would need a more coordinated approach by all its member states (especially Germany and France) and a coherent diplomatic strategy towards Armenia, Azerbaijan and the regional actors involved.
A clearer vision of how the EU’s relations with Russia and Turkey are to be shaped in the future would be required.
Mag. Anna Steiner, MA, research associate at the University of Graz and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on Consequences of War, studied History, Russian and European Studies in Graz, Eisenstadt and Moscow. Research includes diplomatic history, Cold War, and EU’s Neighborhood policy. Author of “Enhanced Relations – Protracted Conflict(s)? The EU’s Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP) towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia” (Tectum, 2019).
 The author would like to express her sincere gratitude to Ambassador Thomas Greminger, Secretary General of the OSCE 2017-2020, for his critically important remarks and comments on the draft of this article.
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 This is why the term “frozen conflicts” is regarded to be inappropriate and hypocritical in a situation where the danger of a new escalation is neither frozen nor or put on hold, which is why „protracted conflict“ or „unresolved conflict“ better describes the actual situation. See for example: Thomas de Waal and Nikolaus von Twickel, Beyond Frozen Conflict. Scenarios for the Separatist Disputes of Eastern Europe (Brussels: CEPS 2020): 3. Stefan Meister, “Instabiler Frieden – Bergkarabach nach dem Waffenstillstandsabkommen,” Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, last modified November 18, 2020, accessed December 30, 2020, https://www.boell.de/de/2020/11/18/krieg-und-waffenstillstand-bergkarabach-10-konsequenzen-fuer-den-suedkaukasus-und-die-eu.
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 Thomas de Waal explains the timing of the attack very conclusively, although he does not emphasize enough the ceasefire violations in July as a reason for Azerbaijan to take action. See: Thomas de Waal, “The Caucasus Burns While Europe Struggles,” Carnegie Europe, last modified October 8, 2020, accessed December 31, 2020, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/82926.
 On the reasons for Azerbaijan’s military victory see: Franz-Stefan Gady and Alexander Stronell, “What the Nagorno-Karabakh conflct revealed about the future of warfighting,” World Politics Review, November 19, 2020, accessed December 30, 2020, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/29229/what-the-nagorno-karabakh-conflict-revealed-about-future-warfighting. Ö1 Europa-Journal, 11.11.2020, interview with Markus Reisner and Gustav Gressel.
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 On the establishment of EU relations with the South Caucasus countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Union see: Anna Steiner, Enhanced Relations, Protracted Conflict(s)? The EU’s Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP) towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia (Baden-Baden: Tectum, 2019): 54-60.
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 Since the EU shifted its approach towards Abkhazia in 2016 and most projects target humanitarian issues instead of confidence building as their main goal, the EU’s engagement has proven to be better received. See: Steiner, Enhanced Relations, 85.
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