The EU must get involved in the Karabakh situation - visibly, comprehensively and urgently

 "The most serious and dangerous crisis to face the South Caucasus in the last twenty five years is currently unfolding in front of our eyes", writes Dennis Sammut in this opinion.

The most serious and dangerous crisis to face the South Caucasus in the last twenty five years is currently unfolding in front of our eyes. Armenian and Azerbaijani forces battle each other in and around Nagorno-Karabakh amid claims that external powers are getting entangled in the conflict, and with both sides claiming their rival is using mercenaries. A ceasefire brokered by Russia last week has largely been ignored by the sides.

The situation is very serious and is likely to get worse. In their most recent statement, the co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, who are mandated by the international community to help resolve the conflict, warned of a catastrophic situation in the region if fighting does not stop.  

This conflict was both predictable and predicated. Regardless of the final outcome, the impact on the South Caucasus will be enormous and a new reality is emerging with deep long-term consequences. We must wake up to the fact that some of the certainties of the past have now gone, and a new set of realities may be emerging - some pretty worrying and disturbing.

For the European Union, this war in its Eastern neighbourhood presents it with serious challenges and dilemmas. Everyone agrees that the South Caucasus is a region of great strategic importance for the EU - an interconnector with Eurasia, Central Asia and the Middle East. The countries of the region have different partnership arrangements with the EU, and the EU has invested substantially in the economy, infrastructure and human capital of the three countries. Yet for too long the EU has chosen the path of constructive ambiguity as a policy of dealing with the Karabakh conflict and the South Caucasus Region in general. That may have worked for some time, but it is not going to work going forward. A clear strategy and plan of engagement is necessary. But first the EU needs to deal with the immediate crisis.

The ceasefire is the most urgent priority. However, a ceasefire is proving difficult because the two sides have a different vision of what they want from it. It is also difficult to manage given that there is now no longer a clearly identifiable line of contact. The best we can hope for is a significant lull in the violence. Winter in the Caucasus is harsh, and not conducive to warfare. The weather therefore will play a part, doing perhaps in the next weeks what the politicians and diplomats may fail to do. A fragile ceasefire and inclement weather may therefore give diplomacy a window between now and March before another escalation - next time, perhaps, even more serious - occurs.

The path for peaceful diplomacy - at all levels and in all its forms, from the formal negotiating process at the track 1 level, to track 2 initiatives involving the wider society - should follow four stages. It must reconnect, reassess, reconfigure and reconstruct.

Reconnection is necessary because most of the channels for dialogue are either irreparably damaged or, at best, not functioning. A lot of blood has been spilt, which makes all contact extremely sensitive. Together and separately the sides need to be assisted to properly reassess the situation. So does the international community. Based on this assessment, and taking into account the reality, a process of reconfiguration of present arrangements will likely be necessary. In the past this has proven extremely difficult, but the new realities, and risks ahead, may help focus minds. Finally, at the fourth stage a process of re-construction must start across the board: from the formal negotiating process to people's diplomacy; from rebuilding damaged houses and infrastructure, to rebuilding the spirit of broken communities.

In all this the European Union needs to be centre stage, not relegated to the status of observer. The South Caucasus is a region of strategic importance to the EU and doing nothing will be tantamount to abandoning the region to other, perhaps not so benign players. Every space that the EU does not fill, others will.

There are five things the EU can and must do, starting now and going forward across a wide spectrum of areas.

(1)   It should initiate an independent and credible assessment of what has been happening in the last weeks, highlighting particularly any transgressions of international humanitarian law, and unlawful targeting of civilians; and the use of disinformation. Both sides have been trying to convince Europe and European public opinion of their just cause. Europe cannot rely on the propaganda coming out from the sides for its decision making. It needs to make its own assessment based on a solid body of evidence as soon as the dust of war starts to settle down.

(2)   The EU now needs to push for a structured engagement with the peace process. It cannot just simply be happy being informed, it needs to be able to influence the process in its own right. One way in which this can be done within the current diplomatic parameters is for the EU to join OSCE Minsk Group in its own right, as a member and not necessarily immediately as a co-Chair. Given the OSCE procedures this can be done through the rotating chairmanship, a procedure already used by the EU in other OSCE fora.

(3)   There must be a clear commitment to mobilise and deploy a European contingent for any eventual peacekeeping force that is likely to be needed to stabilise the situation. The Russians and the Turks cannot be the ones providing the main element of such a peacekeeping force. The EU needs to get involved quickly with the work of the High-Level Military Planning Group - a unit within the OSCE that has operated in Vienna since 1995 with the specific purpose of planning for such a peacekeeping force in support of a Karabakh peace settlement.

(4)   The EU needs to have a proper mechanism to support contacts beyond the official negotiating process - across a wide range of actors from parliamentarians to civil society groups, from professional bodies to war veterans. The EU has tried this before with varying levels of success. This effort must now be intensified. A rapid interim response is required to cover the period between now and spring, with the capacity to expand and adapt as things develop.

(5)   Finally, the EU must lead, and must be seen leading a new international effort towards addressing the humanitarian aspects of the conflict, which would address the process of reconstruction in its different dimensions. The EU should convene as soon as possible, and within the next six months, a Humanitarian conference that would galvanise the support of the international community and work in tandem with the track 1 peace process.

In most of these initiatives the EU will depend on the acquiescence of the sides, and of the international community. Yet the argument, often used in the past, that "we cannot because we have not been invited to" no longer holds. If it is going to require a bit of pushing and shoving to get the EU in the right position, then the ladies and gentlemen of the EEAS should, for a moment, put aside their good manners and do so.

The EUs involvement with the Karabakh conflict and conflict resolution process in the past often appeared patchy and lacking a sense of urgency. This was often interpreted as lack of interest. That may or may not have been the case but certainly now the urgency of the situation is clear, and the response must be effective and timely. Not doing so will be tantamount to abandoning the South Caucasus to Turkey and Russia, and the region is simply too close and too important for the EU to do so.

source: Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS Europe (office@links-europe.eu)

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