Efficient strategic communication has become necessary in the South Caucasus as the governments of the region and outside regional and global powers vie for influence in the current highly complex geo-political realities. In this op-ed for commonspace.eu Benyamin Poghosyan argues that one for the priorities for the Armenian government is to explain clearly to public opinion what the recently deployed EU Monitoring Mission is and is not about. Otherwise the same disappointment that emerged towards Russia earlier will surely appear as regards the European Union also.
The ups and downs in the Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations process after the end of the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war, the launch of the Russia – Ukraine war, and the complete rupture of Russia – West relations added complexity to the geopolitical realities of the South Caucasus. Too many actors have contradicting interests in region – Russia, the US, the EU, Iran, Turkey, and Israel. As the unipolar world order started to fade away, while clarity was lacking regarding the main features of the emerging world order, the dynamic changes at the global and regional level forced states to be both more active, and more accurate in their threat assessment and future scenarios.
The transformation of the global order has triggered new processes, such as an increased rivalry between regional players for regional hegemony, disruption of global supply chains, and the quest for new transportation and transport routes. The South Caucasus is one of the regions where all these trends are vividly present. There is a competition between Russia and the West to manage Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations, while Azerbaijan is becoming a hotspot for Iran – Israel rivalry. The political polarization in Georgia is rising as the West increases its criticism of the Georgian government for back sliding on its democratic reforms.
As ambiguity is rising and there is a lack of clarity in the current environment, regional players need to fine-tune their messages to local audiences and regional and global players: what they want, how they view the future of the South Caucasus, and what they are ready to do to reach that future. In this context, high-quality strategic communication and messaging are necessary, and Armenia must also rise to this challenge.
One of the vivid cases of the need for improved strategic communication from the Armenian government is related to developments around the deployment of a two-year-long EU civilian observer mission in Armenia to monitor the Armenia – Azerbaijan border. The necessity for such a mission emerged immediately after the September 2022 Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia. Official Yerevan applied to the CSTO, asking for military support as well as to the EU for the deployment of an observer mission. The CSTO sent its general secretary to Armenia along with a needs assessment mission. At the same time, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the EU agreed to establish a two-month-long EU mission in Armenia during the European Political Community's October 6, 2022, Prague summit.
The EU observers arrived in Armenia in late October 2022 while the CSTO prepared its offer to deploy a mission along Armenia – Azerbaijan border. The decision to deploy CSTO monitors to Armenia was supposed to be adopted during the November 23, 2022, CSTO head of states summit in Yerevan. However, the Armenian Prime Minister refused to approve that decision, stating that before deploying a mission into Armenia, CSTO should clearly confirm the fact that there was Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia, and occupation of Armenian territory by Azerbaijani troops.
Many members of the CSTO were not ready to make an overt hostile step against Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Organization of Turkic States. Azerbaijan also offers an alternative route for exporting Kazakh oil via the Baku – Tbilisi – Ceyhan and Baku – Supsa oil pipelines. For several reasons, Belarus also enjoys better relations with Azerbaijan than with Armenia. Armenia rejected CSTO's offer to deploy observers in Armenia and, in late December 2022, officially applied to the EU to deploy a new, longer and larger mission. The EU reacted surprisingly quickly, and decided to deploy a two-year mission in Armenia to monitor the Armenia – Azerbaijan border and support ongoing peace negotiations. The first observers arrived in Armenia in late February 2023, and the mission will be fully deployed by June.
Armenian society perceived the fact of the new EU mission positively. As disappointment in Russia was growing due to the lack of Russia's actions during May 2021, November 2021, and September 2022 Azerbaijani incursions into Armenia, the government’s decision to reject the CSTO mission and invite the EU mission had raised hopes that the presence of EU observers would play a role of solid deterrence against any new Azerbaijani attacks. The conventional wisdom among the Armenian general public was that if Russia could not act against Azerbaijan because of growing Azerbaijani and Turkish significance for Russia after February 2022, or because Russia was interested in putting pressure on the Armenian government, the EU had no such constraints. Another view, argued that if Armenia rejected the CSTO mission because Yerevan was not sure that CSTO might deter further Azerbaijani aggression, then by inviting the European mission, the Armenian government should be sure that they would play a role of solid deterrence.
Thus, the deployment of the EU mission was perceived by many in Armenia as a decision by the collective West to support Armenia and to send a clear signal to Azerbaijan that any new attacks against Armenia would trigger economic and other sanctions. Watching how the collective West punishes Russia, many in Armenia were sure that European presence in Armenia would force Azerbaijan to forget about military escalation tactics. However, this view is far from reality, and the escalation near Tegh village proved this. It appeared that the presence of European observers had no deterrence role for Azerbaijan, and Baku can continue to use military pressure as often as it wants, while observers are able to do only one thing, to observe the incidents and include them in their reports sent to Brussels.
As the potential of new escalations remains high, especially in the context of the recent Azerbaijani decision to establish a checkpoint on the Lachin corridor, the Armenian government needs to improve its strategic communication tactics both inside and outside Armenia, to clearly articulate its position on the EU mission capacities and capabilities, as well as explain to the population in Armenia, that the EU observers deployed in Armenia have nothing to do with prevention of Azerbaijani aggression or punishment of Azerbaijan if attacks occur. It is a non-executive, unarmed civilian Common Security and Defense Policy mission to observe and report on the security situation along the Armenian side of the international border with Azerbaijan. Other goals of the mission are to contribute to human security in conflict-affected areas in Armenia and contribute to build confidence between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Without these clarifications and explanations to the Armenian public, the disappointment and anger over Russia, which is widespread in Armenia, will soon be replaced by the disappointment and anger over the EU.