The South Caucasus region is still far from stability and peace a year after the Second Karabakh war. The changed regional balance of power indicates the increased role of Russia, the emerging presence of Turkey and persistence of Iran. The inability of the West to respond adequately during the war has pushed it to the margins. Besides, continuing statements of ‘concerns’ from the West threatens to deteriorate the perception of the West in general and that of the EU in particular within the Armenian domestic discourse.
So, given the ongoing post-war realities, how can the EU contribute to the conflict resolution at this stage?
In their active search of new approaches and strategies, European officials should keep in mind that antagonizing Russia would result in unexpected developments in the region. Instead, stabilization of the situation requires cooperation with Moscow. Russia has many problems when it comes to its new role as a peacekeeper in NK. The Kremlin finds itself in trouble when it comes to the whole burden of the peacekeeping mission, which not only lacks international legitimacy but also lacks necessary legislative approval from the Azerbaijani parliament. Being in-between Turkish and Iranian evolving ambitions, Azerbaijani unsatisfied mood and the Western intensifying pressure on restoring the Minsk Group, Russia seeks burden sharing, thus allowing for acceptable, even if limited, room for foreign presence in the conflict zone. This is an opportunity for the EU especially in the light of the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Zakharova’s recent statement that Russia isn’t interested in a monopoly of relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Given the EU’s renewed approach towards the South Caucasus and determination to contribute to the stability of the region, three possible dimensions of involvement can be identified: the enhancement of the institutional capacity and the direct engagement of the EU with NK; increasing Armenia’s economic resilience; civil society enhancement in both countries.
First of all, the EU supports the OSCE Minsk Group as an acceptable platform for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. The EU’s support to the OSCE process is a support to a political and security dialogue in wider Europe, which unfortunately faces huge problems nowadays. The EU can promote the internal redesign of the Minsk Group in order to build up its internal institutional capacity, creating working groups on demining, cultural heritage preservation, monitoring, humanitarian aid, prisoners of war and internally displaced people.
Besides, Brussels should develop a customised trilateral platform adapted to the needs for the trialogue with Armenia and Azerbaijan. The upcoming meeting of Pashinyan and Aliyev in the framework of the Eastern Partnership summit can be an important cornerstone for this reason. The EU can assist both sides by providing necessary technical advice, tools, supporting mechanisms and a constructive atmosphere for building trust.
The EU’s direct presence in the conflict zone is another important aspect, which is the most missing part of the Brussels’ Nagorno-Karabakh puzzle. Demining and humanitarian assistance can open a space for the EU engagement especially when the Russian side also calls for external humanitarian initiatives.
The second dimension is economic assistance. To put it simply, the second war started because of a big gap between military spending of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan being an oil-rich country was able to monetize its revenues in order to change the regional balance by power. This economic advantage wasn’t only due to oil exports, but first of all, because of excluding Armenia from the regional projects, pushing it out, which as history shows always results in the Armenian increased dependence on Russia. Therefore the EU needs to continue assisting Armenia to build up resilient institutions and increase its economic security. It’s not a secret that the so-called ‘Zangezur corridor’ actively promoted by Azerbaijan and Turkey aims to establish control over the Syunik region of Armenia leading to domestic instability and anxiety in Armenia. This corridor will definitely play a crucial role for the Middle Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative. Given this, the EU needs to advocate a reasonable balance between competing projects of the East-West and the Nord-South. The latter is especially important in the context of the recently signed Indo-European Connectivity Partnership. The restoration of a balance will increase not only the economic interdependence between all three regional countries but also will increase the geopolitical and geo-economic costs of the war.
The last and the most important aspect is the civil society engagement. The freedom of speech in Armenia, and the problems with that in Azerbaijan, makes this a very tough topic. Any conflict has two sides and if there is no dialogue, then no kind of monologue can be helpful. So, the EU needs to use the leverage which it has with Azerbaijan in order to push forward democratic agenda. The "democratic peace" theory, once very popular and successfully tested in Europe, can also be applicable for this case as well. Because, without focusing on major issues, the achievement of minor milestones will be fragile and won’t have long-lasting effects.
source: Alexander Petrosyan is an independent Brussels based analyst focusing on the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe. This op-ed is a summary of a paper originally presented to the Conference “The EU and its Eastern Neighbourhood” organised by LINKS Europe in The Hague on 23 November 2021.