29th Nov 2022


Credibility of EU's Michel on line in Caucasus flare-up

  • It is a litmus test of whether the EU has any geopolitical weight and effective diplomacy in today's world order (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)
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When violence escalated this week in the South Caucasus, it was a slap in the face to efforts by the EU to build peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Less than two weeks ago, European Council president Charles Michel brought together heads of state from both countries, then issued a very detailed statement of just how well the meeting went.

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  • Fighting in Agorno in 2017 (Photo: nkrmil.am)

Not only was it "open and productive," he said, he also added that both sides "agreed to step up substantive work to advance a peace treaty…and meet within one month to work on draft texts."

That much progress, publicly touted, puts Michel's credibility on the line when it comes to forging a lasting Azeri-Armenian peace. Moreover, it is a test of the EU's capacity as a credible mediator, able to deconflict parties in its own backyard. If it succeeds, it would be a dramatic diplomatic win in the post-Soviet arena.

The hope of that faltered this week. Azerbaijan launched an offensive into Armenia proper, sparking a fight that left hundreds of people dead in three days and heightened animosity across the states of the South Caucasus.

What went wrong?

In terms of kinetic changes, Azerbaijan appeared to make a clear choice, using its superior military power to press its interests by force.

"Baku appears to be mounting major military operations to enforce its position," tweeted Laurence Broers, associate fellow at Chatham House, as this week's violence unfolded.

Some of Armenian demands in the negotiating process, such as special status for the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, ran afoul of Azerbaijan's sensibilities.

On top of that, Azerbaijan has wanted Armenia to grant a peculiar corridor cutting through Armenian territory: a road controlled by Baku, enabling traffic between Turkey and Azerbaijan with no customs clearance, security checks or access by the Armenian side.

Armenia has not agreed, offering at most to open its own roads to Turkey and Azerbaijan, with the normal oversight of a sovereign nation.

Armenia sees Azerbaijan's demands for a special corridor as a way to claim a swatch of land that separates northern and southern Armenia — a territorial vivisection.

Geopolitically, the conditions for a breakdown were ripe.

Turmoil over the war in Ukraine cast a fog over this smaller, long-simmering conflict — one that tends to erupt when the world is distracted elsewhere. Russia's power as a security guarantor with peacekeeping boots on the ground, has been at least partly eroded by its commitments and losses in Ukraine.

The EU's very public bid to purchase more oil and gas from Azerbaijan seems to have emboldened Baku by dampening possible economic consequences for military action.

Diplomatically, the situation gets more nuanced.

As a mediator, the EU is trying to succeed where the OSCE Minsk Group failed. That peace-building mechanism, co-chaired by the US, France and Russia, launched at the dawn of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 1992.

The lack of a breakthrough over years of talks, followed by an all-out war in 2020 between Armenians and Azeris, left the Minsk Group format largely defunct.

It also put Russia, the country most engaged in deconfliction talks during the 2020 war, firmly in a dominant position. Moscow brokered a ceasefire and sent fresh forces to Nagorno-Karabakh in a five year, renewable peacekeeping mandate.

This gave Russia a new sense of geopolitical ownership over the issue — a comfortable sensation, given its 70-year dominance of Armenia and Azerbaijan during their Soviet phase.

Putin 'as referee'

Since 2020 president Vladimir Putin has repeatedly convened leaders from Armenia and Azerbaijan, positioning himself as the referee holding cards to play with each side. But it had yet to settle the issues driving flare ups on the ground.

The more recent active engagement by Michel — his August 31 meeting with heads of state was the fourth in the series — served as a parallel, even rival diplomatic process to the one engineered by Moscow.

At least that is how it was perceived by Russia.

"One of the goals of the EU is to squeeze out Russia from the South Caucasus. That is why it is trying to interfere in the trilateral relations between Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia," Denis Gonchar, the department head for CIS countries at Russia's ministry of foreign affairs, said on 14 September.

As that rivalry plays out it doesn't help that Russia and the Western bloc are hardly on speaking terms.

Traditionally, maintaining and advancing peace in the South Caucasus was a goal that all powers could agree on. Now there are multiple negotiation tracks — EU, Russia and OSCE — taking on the same issue. It's yet unclear how any of them will make headway.

"We've got two mediators: Russia with a broken stick and no carrots, and the EU, which has carrots but no sticks. This is generating a security vacuum," said Broers to CivilNet TV.

If the EU wants to advance stability in the South Caucasus it will need to find a way to reconstruct these dynamics.

This means finding the sources of power — diplomatic, economic or otherwise -- to meet its ambitions as a global peace broker. It is a litmus test of whether the EU has any geopolitical weight and effective diplomacy in today's world order.

Author bio

Lara Setrakian is a journalist based in Yerevan. She is the Founding CEO of News Deeply and the acting president of APRI Armenia, a think tank focused on regional stability and sustainable prosperity in the Caucasus.

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