Thursday

17th Jan 2019

Opinion

EU and Nagorno-Karabakh: a 'better than nothing' approach

Earlier this month, the mandate of the EU's Special Representative (EUSR) for the south Caucasus, Peter Semneby, ended. While Georgia's South Ossetia and Abkhazia conflicts will still have full-fledged EU involvement (at least until August when Pierre Morel's mandate expires), the same cannot be said for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict which will, apparently, be left high and dry. This decision goes against numerous calls for the EU to have a greater role in the conflict, which currently represents the greatest security threat to the region.

Due to a number of conceptual and political limitations, the EU is seemingly unable to leave behind its ad-hoc approach and to start tackling the conflicts in this region in a coherent manner. While the new European External Action Service (EEAS) is struggling to find its feet and a clear modus operandi, in the region the lack of clarity on EU's willingness to contribute more to a resolution of the conflict around Karabakh only serves to increase the local population's disappointment and distrust in Brussels' real interest in a peaceful settlement.

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  • Nagorno-Karabakh mural: the conflict is 'the greatest security threat to the region' (Photo: wikipedia)

Last summer, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton decided the south Caucasus and Moldova/Transdniestria EUSR positions were superfluous to requirements under the EEAS. While ultimately Kalman Mizsei (former EUSR for Moldova/Transdniestria) has been replaced in the Transdniestria peace-process by the relevant EEAS managing director, Miroslav Lajcak, Armenia and Azerbaijan were informed that a strengthening of the mandates of the heads of delegations in Baku and Yerevan would be sufficient to replace Mr Semneby. Not surprisingly, this decision was perceived as the EU reducing its already miniscule role.

Looking at the situation from the point of view of Brussels, folding the two EUSR mandates into the new EEAS sounds sensible and budget-friendly. In fact, in the Moldova/Transdniestria case, the change could be an opportunity for the EU delegation in Chisinau to combine both political and operational capacities in order to continue to contribute substantially to a resolution of the Transniestria conflict.

If looked at from the point of view of the south Caucasus, the overall picture appears rather different. The EU delegations in Baku and Yerevan lack the resources to effectively deal with the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh. They are bilateral bodies that, capacity, staffing and co-ordination considerations aside, have limitations in dealing with regional matters. Even with an increased mandate, it is likely that the heads of the delegation will always prioritise bilateral relations over dealing with the intricate regional conflict resolution issues.

While Baroness Ashton seems to have taken on board this unease, it has not resulted in any concrete u-turn on her decision. There is talk of a so-called 'Special Representative for Protracted Conflicts' which is currently being discussed by EU foreign ministers. With such a broad manadate, sucn an appointment risks being seen as a step backwards vis-a-vis the involvement of the EU in the resolution of the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh, representing little more than a 'better than nothing approach' which is typical of EU foreign policy towards this particular case.

Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. The conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh is an extremely bitter one. The "Line of Contact" is heavily militarized. Exchanges of fire take place on a daily basis, often resulting in loss of life. There are no peacekeepers and snipers are not gender-, nationality- or age-sensitive. Ordinary people have limited possibilities of interaction with the minimal contact often facilitated by third parties in external locations. The isolation on all sides blocks any progress that is made at official level.

While France may be the co-chair of the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh, it does not represent the EU. Calls on France to pass its co-chair seat to the EU have been repeatedly rejected by Paris, which is supported on this by a handful of other member states. Because of this the EU has no way of playing a direct role in the talks. These days the peace process is more or less driven by Moscow. While a recent meeting in Sochi between the two leaders and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev was presented as a success, in fact it amounted to little more than repeating agreements that were already made in Astrakhan in October 2010.

Civil society has an important role to play. It is consistently trying to create a common public sphere that could help future co-existance. But with little support for Civil Society Organizations, any relationships built-up between people can quickly break down again unless the official peace process taps into their potential.

It is high time for the EU to play a bigger role in improving the work of the Minsk Group, keeping in mind the need to combine hard security measures with long-term peacebuilding and confidence building measures. Unfortunately, until now the EU's disjointed approach shows that even after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the EU has no effective strategy for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict other than negotiating Association Agreements with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

By Roxana Cristescu, a project manager at the Crisis Management Initiative, and Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Centre

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