4th Dec 2023


Three steps EU can take to halt Azerbaijan's mafia-style bullying

  • A truck with the slogan 'Karabakh is Azerbaijan' at the Baku Victory Parade on 10 December 2020 (Photo: Wikimedia)
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When I sat down with an Azerbaijani colleague at the German Bundestag a week ago, we had convened to discuss the role of Europe in stabilising the South Caucasus. Auspiciously, it was the International Day of Peace.

But the events of the week betrayed our mission. Two days earlier, on 19 September, Azerbaijan launched a military operation to take over Nagorno-Karabakh and enforce its political demands — something it had committed not to do under the terms of a 2020 ceasefire.

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  • The EU should not be calling Azerbaijan a 'reliable partner' in energy when it violates human rights to an unfathomable degree (Photo:

The consequences were devastating. After a nine-month blockade by Azerbaijan the population was already on the brink of starvation, with a dire lack of medical supplies. Eyewitnesses described civilian casualties, strikes on basic infrastructure and widespread electricity cuts.

Life in Nagorno-Karabakh became a hellscape.

If the blockade had been a way to soften the target, it worked. It took less than 24 hours from the start of the operation for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to accept Baku's aims.

Hungry, desperate and in shock, some 92,000 refugees crossed the border into Armenia in the days that followed. Two of Nagorno-Karabakh's prominent political leaders, Ruben Vardanyan and Davit Babayan, were arrested by Baku, with fears for the safety of others.

"Azerbaijan has a very strong commitment to coercive tactics," Laurence Boers, an associate fellow at Chatham House told me as the military offensive was underway. "It has been itching to do this for some time."

To others, however, the military assault was a disappointing surprise.

False assurances

Azerbaijan had assured its European partners it would not try to settle the issue by force. Yuri Kim, the US acting assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, testified before the US Senate on 14 September that Washington would not countenance "any action or effort to ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh," adding that "the use of force is not acceptable."

Five days later Baku began shelling the region.

The violence shattered the hope that there is a good-faith negotiating partner in Baku. For the time being, Azerbaijan's calculation is that it is best off waging war to get what it wants, then signing a ceasefire deal that codifies its gains. It is a strategy of constant escalation and it is working. What message does that send to other countries who have the power to overpower their neighbour?

What the EU does now matters. It is the only player in the South Caucasus that is advancing peace, without seeking its own narrow gains. More EU engagement will lead to a less dangerous situation in the South Caucasus. Less EU engagement will lead to a more dangerous situation in the South Caucasus.

The EU needs to have a strategy for its role in the South Caucasus, adapted to this new reality. After years of proclaiming its goal to stabilise and support the democratic development of its extended neighbourhood, the EU must now make a serious investment to live up to those words.

Three steps

First, it must give the International Committee of the Red Cross/Crescent, UN agencies and local Armenian actors the resources they are going to need to handle the humanitarian fallout.

Armenia does not have the means or the capacity to handle, with dignity and due provision, the conditions of at least 92,000 refugees who need to build a new life. This is not only a humane concern, it is a way to stabilise the extremely tense situation that has come from upheaval.

Second, the EU must use all means available to deter Azerbaijan from further military action against Armenia.

Give Armenia access to the European Peace Facility to bolster its capacity for self-defence. Put a more substantial presence in Armenia, extending the EU Civilian Monitoring Mission beyond 2025 and expanding its capacities along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Although its current deployment did not prevent the military assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, it significantly stabilised southern Armenia and created much more confidence among people in that region.

Third, expand support for civil society. Armenia is a democratic country that has made sincere efforts to make peace with Turkey and Azerbaijan. But the population is despondent and exhausted by three years of periodic military attacks.

Civil society organisations, universities and democratic reformers need more support to keep up the trajectory they have valiantly set since the 2018 Velvet Revolution.

EU projects like Resilient Syunik can be expanded to include investments in infrastructure and capacity-building around the country. They can be as simple as investments in roads, parks, water management, emergency response, or green energy. This will bring light and livelihood to the country, giving the people of Armenia a true partner for the future it wants to see.

Finally, as a rhetorical point the European Union should not be calling Azerbaijan a "reliable partner" in energy when it violates human rights to an unfathomable degree.

That's an embarrassment to Europe's deeply-held values; it also emboldens Azerbaijan and others to believe that those values don't matter. Also, that is not the kind of partner that proves advantageous in the long run. Europe should want a reasonable actor in Azerbaijan that follows international norms, respects human life and doesn't become a menace to its neighbours.

Armenians and Azerbaijanis should have a dynamic that is set by dialogue and genuine diplomacy — not the threat and use of force, with one party constantly threatening to eat the other for lunch.

As one Azerbaijani expert said to my colleague, "Armenia will sign the deal that we want, with or without a bloody nose." That is the definition of bullying. It is a mafia tactic—twisting the other party's arm as a negotiating strategy — and it puts the region on track for continued turmoil. There needs to be diplomatic and economic pushback against Azerbaijan for pressing its advantage by force, repeatedly and consistently.

We must close the escalating circle of violence and war. For that, all parties involved must see peace through genuine diplomatic engagement as the best option. The patterns of behaviour are not currently set in that direction. But with real commitment and direct action by Europe it will be much less likely to happen again.

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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