Monday

21st Jan 2019

Opinion

Europe needs a policy for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh

  • The village of Nor Erkesh. After two decades, Nagorno-Karabakh still has no partner with which it can try to build trust or explore paths to peace. (Photo: AGBU Europe)

War is brewing on the fringes of Europe. Earlier this month, there was more fighting on the contact line between the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) and Azerbaijan.

Some 23 years after the end of a bloody war between the Armenians of NK and the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan, peace remains out of sight.

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There have long been regular skirmishes and sniper fire on the contact line, and there are now occasional large-scale offensives on the border as well, involving artillery and tanks.

In spite of the numerous casualties, fighting remains contained for now, but the risk of military escalation is high. Should it materialise, an all-out war would certainly devastate Armenia and Azerbaijan, and it could also spill over to involve Russia, Iran or Turkey.

The situation is worrying, to say the least, and the EU urgently needs to decide how it wants to contribute to peace in the region.

The Minsk Group

The EU’s current policy on the conflict over NK is to express verbal support for the “Minsk Group” of French, Russian and US diplomats mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan under OSCE auspices.

Additionally, whenever serious fighting occurs on the border, the EU occasionally reacts with a call for restraint, in purposefully vague and brief statements. For the rest, the EU is pointedly doing nothing.

Unfortunately, there is quite simply no chance at all that the Minsk Group, as it is currently set up, might achieve peace without outside help. The Republic of Azerbaijan has long refused to talk with the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh, which it views as a puppet state, and only accepts negotiating with the Republic of Armenia.

The resulting configuration – bilateral negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan – was designed for failure, however.

If the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an interstate conflict, as Azerbaijan would have it, then Armenia must be an invader; Azerbaijan therefore demands Armenia’s unconditional withdrawal.

Armenia, for its part, is unable to explore solutions or take risks on behalf of NK (its government tried in the late 1990’s and paid a heavy price for it). It nevertheless accepts to remain in the talks, for fear that their collapse would be worse than the current deadlock.

After two decades, NK still has no partner with which it can try to build trust or explore paths to peace. Nor can it speak out in the wider world to promote or explore solutions to the conflict – it has instead opted to hunker down and, quite literally, hold the fort.

Rising frustration

In frustration at the lack of progress, Azerbaijan is now trying to intensify pressure on NK and Armenia in the hope of forcing them to yield. It is exercising pressure through more frequent military offensives, more intense harassment on the frontline, and by seeking to further isolate NK.

Excluding the population of NK from any external contact has thus helped ensure that the peace talks fail, and it is increasing the likelihood of war.

In spite of this, the EU seems happy to go along with the NK’s exclusion from any discussion on its own future. It currently forbids EU representatives from entering the territory of NK or officially meeting NK representatives, and it supports no activities on the territory.

It is well understood that resolving protracted conflicts involving non-recognised entities ought to involve engaging with their local population and with their de-facto authorities.

In fact, the EU already implements a policy of “engagement without recognition” in the other non-recognised entities on its periphery, such as Abkhazia, Transnistria and Northern Cyprus. NK is the exception.

Peace is possible – and the EU can and must help. If not Europe, then who? Putin’s Russia? Trump’s America? Erdogan’s Turkey?

It will take more than ritual support for the Minsk Group to achieve it, however.

“Engagement without recognition” would make sense in NK to help prepare the ground for peace. In NK, as everywhere else, the EU should talk to all parties, build trust, reduce tensions and put people first.

Nicolas Tavitian is the director of AGBU Europe, the European branch of AGBU, the largest Armenian organisation worldwide. AGBU Europe is conducting a campaign called "We Want Europe in Nagorno-Karabakh", featuring a public appeal signed by more than 60 (non-Armenian) opinion leaders around Europe.

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